In Cramped and Costly Bay Area, Cries to Build, Baby, Build – The New York Times

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78 Responses

  1. Avatar Kazzy says:

    It seems like there should be data on this. While this situation probably includes considerations beyond, “What will new construction do for housing costs?” it seems like we should have a good sense of the answer to that particular question.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      More housing will increase supply. This will lower prices. Now the million dollar question which no one is really asking is whether you can build enough housing to make San Francisco really affordable. Chicago is a good city for renter’s because there is more housing than demand. Can the buy area build that much housing? Possibly not.

      This doesn’t mean we can’t build more. But there is probably not going to be a dramatic change in prices until the area builds a lot more and the tech market experiences a strong cool down.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        So if more housing increases affordability — even if never reaching “affordable” status — what is the opposition based on?Report

        • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

          From the article: The opposition wants to ” want to choke off growth to prevent further change”.

          It may be a bit uncharitable, but wanting to preserve the fabric of the city as is, really is a very large component of this.
          Also- “Many longtime San Franciscans view groups like BARF as yet another example of how the technology industry is robbing San Francisco of its San Francisco-ness. ”

          This was said without irony. I am old enough to remember when the Flower Children robbed San Francisco of its San Francisco-ness and changed the city forever.

          I want to be sympathetic to the councilman who prefers to build only more affordable housing, but cities don’t really grow that way. They need a rich mix of all different incomes and talents and activities.

          At the same time I usually am wary of people wanting to blame “regulation and environmental concerns” for lack of building- as often as not that’s just a mirror image of NIMBYism, self-interest cloaked in high minded rhetoric.

          But overall, a city as popular as SF needs to grow and change into something different. Trying to preserve it really only makes the change inevitable, and into something worse than the preservationists imagine.Report

          • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

            David Campos recently lost an election to State Assembly or Senate to another Board member. The winner was also named David. You could pick between the Harvard Lawyer named David or the Harvard Lawyer named David.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

          Partial self-interest in terms of their housing prices. You want high prices if you already own.

          Old school romanticism. The older residents want the Bay Area to remain the SF of City Lights Bookstore and the Summer of Love or the 1990 Anarcho anti Yuppie Front. They don’t want techies who talk about disruption. Older residents want the next Allen Ginsburg.Report

        • Avatar Autolukos says:

          In addition to the character arguments that Chip and Saul mention, and along similar lines, one finds arguments about the mix of development: simplistically, if affordable units are built as a small fraction of market-rate units, the neighborhood will cater to the market-rate residents, ultimately feeding displacement.

          This results in some questionable rankings of alternative development options, but even I think it identifies a worthy concern.Report

          • Avatar LeeEsq says:

            If you don’t build new upmarket housing for the wealthy than they will simply buy low or medium market housing and renovate it themselves like the original gentrifiers. What you can’t do, absent a communist government, is keep the wealthy out.Report

            • Avatar Autolukos says:

              True, but this is another place where agreement is not present in the Bay Area debate.

              That is, everyone agrees that rich people are doing exactly what you describe, but the anti-housing forces generally argue that building more market rate housing would not decrease this activity.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                They only argue that because their primary goal isn’t “protecting affordability” or “preserving the community” like they claim. Their primary goal is preserving their own position and/or freezing the city (or at least their neighborhood) in amber.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq says:

                They could also be very dumb or just hostile to capitalism and market forces. I suspect that trying to hide their self-interest behind a veneer of social justice is what drives most of them though.

                Seeing some of the pontification of this is like seeing double thought in action. One of the regular bloggers and more than a few of the commentators at LGM regular argues that both suburbinzation was racist because it led to people of color being stuck in poor communities with subpar services and gentrification is racist because it leads to people of color getting displaced from their communities by wealthy white people. This is what you would call wanting to have it both ways. You really can’t.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq says:

                They could also be very dumb or just hostile to capitalism and market forces. I suspect that trying to hide their self-interest behind a veneer of social justice is what drives most of them though.

                Seeing some of the pontification of this is like seeing double thought in action. One of the regular bloggers and more than a few of the commentators at LGM regular argues that both suburbinzation was racist because it led to people of color being stuck in poor communities with subpar services and gentrification is racist because it leads to people of color getting displaced from their communities by wealthy white people. This is what you would call wanting to have it both ways. You really can’t.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                They’re both racist. seriously. You can have it both ways, because it amounts to “white people get good things, black people get jack shit.”

                And I can point to the lawsuits showing racist housing discrimination in subprime mortgages.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck says:

                ” I can point to the lawsuits showing racist housing discrimination in subprime mortgages.”

                The whole point of the government encouraging subprime mortgages was to get more black people (who, on average, have lower credit scores than white people) into houses. So it’s not really some Shocking Conspiracy Theory that there are more black people than white people with subprime mortgages.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                Successful lawsuits in multiple states show that for the EXACT SAME CREDIT SCORE blacks had higher mortgage rates, and that this was institutional policy.Report

              • Avatar Autolukos says:

                Boomerism is certainly the ideology motivating some, but it would be wrong to discount all on those grounds. Many sincerely want to improve the housing situation and are at least willing to listen to proposals to build more.

                And, in any case, motivations aren’t important where the rubber meets the road; the fact is that there is an anti-housing majority on the Board of Supervisors and unless pro-housing forces can convince people to consistently support pro-housing politicians and policies the current cycle will continue.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                Agreed on that. I do suspect, grimly, that it’ll continue. The most reliable voting segment is the NIMBY segment and California’s housing regulations offer a rich environment of levers they can pull to block development.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq says:

                Even if you get a pro-housing majority on the relevant elected bodies in the cities and counties of the Bay Area, NIMBYs can just so or whatever reason like environmental impact or something. NYC also has housing problems but the NIMBYs in the five boroughs have been less successful with restricting building. Partially because they can’t hide it under various social veneers as easily and also because New York States provides fewer levers for NIMBYs to use as breaks.

                New York City also has more renters than owners than San Francisco so fewer people have a financial interests in restricting development. Meanwhile, many people have a greater financial interest in building. It helps.Report

            • Avatar North says:

              What Lee said. In my own work I watch the New York and California properties come in across my desk in a steady stream. One, two, three, sometimes even four or five small condo units or former apartments *poof* turned into one couple million dollar housing unit. Takes some amendments to the projects legal governing docs and a permit from the building department*.

              The wealthy live where they want to live. If you strangle building high end housing and the area is desirable then they’ll just cannibalize your existing housing stock.

              *And it only requires those things if you’re trying to get a mortgage on it.Report

  2. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    In a city with geographical constraints on growth (like SF or Vancouver), it’s quite understanable that there would be conflict over who any additional housing goes to. Since the amount of housing is finite and demand is likely going to outstrip supply even if you build skyscrapers on every inch of the city, every building of luxury condos is reducing the possible supply of affordable housing. And by affordable, I don’t just mean “subsidized”, but affordable for anyone on a middle income.

    Chicago can be affordable because, although it’s got Lake Michigan on its west, it has unlimited room to expand in three other directions. San Francisco is on the end of a a peninsula.

    I don’t think that urban living in a big city should be something exclusive to people making $100k a year or more.

    As far as “regulations” go, there may be some wiggle room, but it’s worth keeping in mind that some of the major regulations in SF are going to be ones to prevent a skyscraper from crashing down in the event of an earthquake. Which I think are worthwhile regulations to have in place.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      @katherinemw

      The movement is going for the entire 11-county or so Bay Area and not just San Francisco, which is admittedly trapped into a small seven by seven square mile zone. You also have Alameda, Marin, Napa, Sonoma, Contra Costa, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties. Those counties and the communities in them can grow but they also adopted anti-growth policies.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      The city of San Francisco is the same size as Paris in terms of square miles and Paris manages to hold over two million people but is still recognized as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. San Francisco can be a lot more dense and hold more people if they will build that way.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Parisian suburbs, not so much…
        (And I sincerely doubt you’ll get the thrust of the argument that I’m making, so try reading it a second time).Report

        • Avatar North says:

          Or you could say what you mean when you post instead of obliquely hinting at it?Report

          • Avatar LeeEsq says:

            What Kim might mean, and you really can never tell with her, is that Parisian suburbs are dense and affordable but are generally. Its not really worth wasting time with trying to decipher what Kim meant.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Tell me that again when someone airlifts your house out by chopper.
      [Someone actually did this in japan, and then put a different house in its place]Report

    • Avatar North says:

      I don’t think that urban living in a big city should be something exclusive to people making $100k a year or more.

      Sure, but we’re not talking about just any big city, we’re talking about the most desirable urban locales in the country (arguably the planet). I think everyone should be able to live on the beach with no neighbors. Space/time demurs.Report

  3. Avatar notme says:

    No, the best liberal answer is to say that folks that make $250k a year will get gov’t money for housing. It’s always easy to spend other folks’ money.

    http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2016/03/22/250k-per-year-salary-could-qualify-for-subsidized-housing-under-new-palo-alto-plan/Report

    • Avatar Roland Dodds says:

      Oddly enough, my wife and I put our names in for a housing lottery for “low income” individuals living in Marin. We make 90 grand a year mind you. Even though housing is expensive here, and we spend about 45% of our income on it, I still don’t think a small family making 90,000 should be considered “low-income.”Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

        I think a lot of people fall into the common trap of thinking “income” means “money left over after spending it on nice things” when those nice things include living in highly desirable places and sending your children to expensive schools. Yes, there’s a lot of common ground between budgeting for a low income and a high income lifestyle (paying for shelter as a high priority, for example), but I’m always surprised at the number of people who can heat a hearty meal and turn to a starving person and say, “Yup, my plate is empty too. We have a lot in common, my friend.”Report

        • Avatar Damon says:

          “I think a lot of people fall into the common trap of thinking “income” means “money left over after spending it on nice things” ”

          That’s because they have no financial knowledge. Income is the top line. What you describe would be more close to profit.Report

          • Avatar Troublesome Frog says:

            I wouldn’t even necessarily draw the analogy with profit. It’s not just that they’re spending the money on “expenses.” It’s that those expenses are partially core necessities but largely luxury consumption wrapped up in the necessities column of the ledger. It’s like owning a company and saying, “Sure, my company had $5M in revenue, but it’s only $25k in profit after I pay all of the expenses,” when $4.5M of the expenses were perks for yourself and your salary for being the CEO. I suppose it’s technically accurate, but it doesn’t paint an accurate picture of things.Report

  4. Avatar greginak says:

    It seems really unlikely SF could have enough new units, of all costs, to make a significant change in any short time frame. Don’t they need thousands of units? How does that happen in any anything but several years, 10-15, at the least. That creates another level of problem since no one can see a viable large scale solution in a time frame that will affect them.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      @greginak

      Right. This adds to the preniciousness of it all. There is no easy solution. You will still have displaced old-timers who are probably more likely to die sadly before the housing market cools down. The biggest thing that can help in the short term is not build, baby, build but a tech 2.0 crash. Which explains the anti-techie vibe partially.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        The anti-tech thing just seemed like high grade junior high tribalism.

        It’s been a while since i was in SF but Haight Ashbury seemed like the Epcot version of Hippiedom. Is that accurate?Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

          On the one hand, there is a Ben and Jerry’s and a Whole Foods.

          On the other hand, Haight Street is the only place I saw a literal street fight (one guy was getting the tar kicked out of him*) and there are tons of street kids constantly trying to sell you drugs and/or panhandle and they can be quite mean and aggressive if you tell them no.

          *It was street kid v. street kid vigilante justice. The guy getting his ass kicked allegedly sexually assaulted a female street kid.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

          Re: Techie tribalism. Sometimes I have gone down the street or been in bars and seemingly passed a trillion 25 year olds talking about their apps and disruption with absolute earnestness. I admit to finding this bizarre and alienating.Report

          • Avatar j r says:

            Finding 25 year olds bizarre and alienating is what happens when you get old. Welcome to the club!Report

          • Avatar greginak says:

            Oh i can imagine young people in hot industries with plenty of money being completely overbearing, loud mouth and full of themselves. Lord knows some of them come off that way just on the Internet. But then again i can imagine hippies coming off that way also.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      It takes several years to build anything major.
      But build enough of them, and you only need that several years, not 10-15.

      I’ve been through enough of SF to know that a lot of it is single family rowhomes, which could easily be upgraded to something higher density, if one had a decent wrecking ball.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain says:

        Of course, like Brooklyn, those single-family rowhouses provide much of the charm of the residential parts of the city.

        I haven’t spent enough time in SF to know the current answer to this question: how much of the city is “bad” neighborhoods? Say, areas where I would feel uncomfortable walking at night. Certainly one of the selling points of the suburbs for decades has been, in effect, “Your sixth-grader can walk six blocks to a classmate’s house to study together.”Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          In San Francisco? There’s like one neighborhood (The Tenderloin) which is a little rough.

          When you watch The Wire, do you find the single-family rowhouses “charming”? I certainly don’t find empty rowhomes charming in my city.

          Nowhere near Tenleytown in the 1990’s.Report

        • Avatar Autolukos says:

          There is a tradeoff between physical and social preservation in SF (and throughout the Bay Area): we can have a city of charming rowhouses, or we can have a city that doesn’t require a six-figure salary to afford.

          Sadly, the rowhouses are winning.Report

          • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

            @autolukos

            Do you think cities should use eminent domain and force row house owners to sell? What do you do with the displaced when the wrecking ball comes?Report

            • Avatar North says:

              No need. Allow the larger buildings to be built and the row house owners will fight each other tooth and nail to be the first to sell.Report

              • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

                @north

                I think you vastly underestimate the aesthetic preferences of homeowners. I will grant for landlords though. What do you do with displaced renters?Report

              • Avatar North says:

                I think you haven’t considered it through. You are in a neighborhood of row house owners. The regulatory barriers to up zoning are eased or removed and a high-rise can be legally built, all that is needed is the land for the footprint of the building. Over night every home owner is inundated by realtors; developers prowl the neighborhood with wheelbarrows full of money. You feel that cold sweat pricking on your spine for two reasons: first, those developers are offering you a LOT more money than you bought this place for and most importantly second if you don’t take this deal and one of your neighbors does then you’ll miss out on the profit AND be living next door to a high rise. No @saul-degraw your aesthetic principles wouldn’t hold you back or, if they did they sure as fish wouldn’t hold back your neighbors or one of your neighbors heirs.

                As to the displaced renters? I don’t know, rent them some of the hundred times as many housing units as were there before maybe?Report

              • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

                @north

                I am still not convinced. When I was in high school, my parents used to get cold calls from real estate agents and individuals all the time about selling their house and at a profit. They did not because selling would mean finding a new place to live and would it be in the same school district? Would the commute be worse? Etc.

                So you have people thinking about their commutes, their kids and school, where their parents are, etc. You are thinking like a childless nomadic dude.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                Developers are persistent Saul and if no one sells then they’ll offer more money; it only takes a few owners to break that solidarity blockade and leave the rest scrambling for the sell button. It is not like neighborhoods have a vast history of organically refusing to sell to developers. Quite to the contrary in fact which is why you worry about it.

                As to the other considerations? If you’re the home owner the amount of dough the developer would be offering you would probably be easily enough to buy you one of the newly developed units in the same location with more floor space, private parking and still leave a good chunk of change to pay for rent during the transition and a bit piece of your retirement. That land is fishing valuable!Report

              • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

                You don’t want to be the first to sell. You want to be the last one holding out to complete the footprint of the new building.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

                Then hope he doesn’t call your bluff, and you end up with a tiny parcel too small to building much of anything on.
                The two most important rules of real estate development:

                1. Know when to hold ’em;
                2. Know when to fold ’em.Report

              • Avatar Autolukos says:

                On the plus side, your house could end up in one of those slidehows of holdouts surrounded by larger buildingsReport

              • Avatar North says:

                Sure, I’ll grant that, but you sure as fish don’t want to be the footprint’s neighbor.Report

            • Avatar Autolukos says:

              I think the city should make it easier for rowhouse owners to replace them with taller buildings designed for multi-family dwelling; ideally, eminent domain would be avoided entirely, particularly the sort that hands the land over to the best connected developer in the room. Zac Townsend’s proposals at the end of this post seem like a reasonable starting point.

              What happens to the displaced from the current rent spiral? Moves to ever-more-distant suburbs, from which many embark on epic commutes back to SF, seems to be the answer. Even moving to the East Bay is increasingly out of reach for many, as our rents are only a few years behind SF’s.Report

              • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

                A lot of the row houses have already bee converted to multi family housing including condos. You will see an old row house where each floor was turned into an apartment or two.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                And it’s not enough no? Earthquakes would allow much denser buildings than row houses.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

          @michael-cain

          I think the charm is a big issue. Very few people except Kim and some die hard libertarians and Matt Y would want to raze all of San Francisco and replace it with high-rises. This hurts prices though. You could take old Industrial buildings and ups zone them though.

          Crime can happen in any neighborhood. I think the suburban thing is quaint. Now the cops might get called fir letting kids out on their own.Report

    • Avatar notme says:

      Yes the longer they wait to build, the longer it will take to fix. In the mean time they should keep protesting the Google busesReport

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      greginak: Don’t they need thousands of units? How does that happen in any anything but several years, 10-15, at the least.

      Well, how long have they been protesting?Report

  5. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    In related news, Arnold Kling just gave the world the gift of this sentence:

    In my view, the way to look at public policy in food, health care, education, and housing is that it seeks to stimulate demand and restrict supply.Report

  6. Avatar Francis says:

    I may be the sole voice left crying in the wilderness on this point — but it would be really nice if the people commenting here would dig a little deeper into the impacts of a substantially increased population in San Francisco.

    Here’s one place to start: The General Plan.

    Now, it’s a busy Monday and I don’t have time to dig into it. But I’ve spent enough time doing development work to know that the impacts of population growth do not scale linearly.

    Is there enough water supply? Where do we put the sewage reclamation plant? How does increased density in a built-out community affect all the service lines in the street? How do we get people out of cars and into public transportation? Do we have enough cops / firefighters / schools / libraries / parks? If we don’t, where do we squeeze them in, and how do we allocate the costs equitably?Report

    • Avatar North says:

      Well if you increase the housing density then the answers are:
      -You’ll need more water, police etc.
      -You’ll have more people paying taxes.
      -So you use the extra dough to buy more water, police etc.

      But I have no doubt that San Francisco has a lot of significant regulatory and administrative barriers to doing such.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        To be fair, I don’t think you can deregulate yourself to more waterReport

        • Avatar Michael Cain says:

          Not in SF proper, but a lot of farmers in the Sacramento Valley use very large amounts of water to grow rice and alfalfa (a noticeable portion of which is exported to Asia). Adopt the Texas water model — all fresh water within the state belongs to the state — and then allocate it based on willingness to pay. SF can outbid those farmers. I suppose that’s “reregulate” rather than deregulate. During the last drought in Texas, Texas water authorities put a bunch of farmers out of business by guaranteeing the limited water went to power plants and other industry rather than irrigation.Report

        • Avatar North says:

          Cain beat me to it. California is afloat in water. Their specific legal ownership system is diverting a lot of it to growing grass in the desert. So a (big- pace Francis) regulatory change could provide all the water the cities need.Report

          • Avatar Autolukos says:

            Traditionally, the answer has been to screw someone over within the existing regulatory structure, but we may have passed that strategy’s sell-by date.Report

          • Avatar Burt Likko says:

            Certainly our legal system could be changed. It changes every year, in fact.

            But I resist the notion that we are awash in water and it’s simply a matter of better allocating it. Take a look at our mountains. Not a lot of snow there.

            I also resist the notion that too much water is being allocated to lawn watering in desert communities. The majority of our water is used for agriculture. Urban, household, and industrial use is somewhere between one-quarter and one-fifth of the statewide allocation.

            I’m not saying we can’t do better. We can. But the myth of thousands of selfish Los Angeles homeowners washing their cars daily next to acres of verdant manicured lawns, while Central Valley farmers lose their crops and homes to drought, is not hugely accurate. Crops are growing. Lawns are withering.Report

            • Avatar North says:

              When you use more water growing grass in the desert to pack into shipping containers going to Asia than you do in your cities then you’re awash in water. My point is that California has tons of water for high margin activities like urban living but the existing structures are channeling it to lower margin activities like desert farming.Report

          • Avatar Francis says:

            Yes, Californians can rewrite their Constitution and change the entire water rights system.

            It’s absolutely worth doing, but the process of doing so would be an absolute bloodbath: North vs. South, ag vs. urban, San Diego vs. LA, and on and on. It’s no surprise to me that Jerry Brown has no interest in starting that fight. The current system is extremely creaky, but blowing it up and starting over would be just chaotic.Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko says:

              You’d know better than me, @francis, but my impression is that as particular areas move into basin-wide adjudication, the court winds up adopting particular rules suitable for each drainage basin anyway on a case-by-case basis. So the Water Code gives us a set of default rules and from there the various stakeholders and the court work out what makes sense. So ultimately a system that makes sense for surface water rights in the Eel River is not necessarily going to make sense for the American River; groundwater in Napa has different sorts of pressures on it than groundwater in the Antelope Valley so while we might see the same sorts of overarching rules, the details are going to be worked out on a case-by-case basis.Report

              • Avatar Francis says:

                That’s pretty much correct. As groundwater basins go through adjudication, the parties involved will be forced, finally, to link their surface water uses to their groundwater uses and develop an integrated water plan.

                This is also precisely what I mean by a creaky system. We could have voted into place a constitutional amendment to change the entire water rights system. But the Governor and the smarter folks in the legislature figured out that going that route would be a bloodbath. Much better to impose yet another overlay of rights and responsibilities.

                (Tracking water rights is already arcane. With groundwater adjudications layered in, it may be time to create a water rights court beyond the State Water Board that is empowered to resolve disputes.)Report

            • Avatar North says:

              Absolutely, no one wants to mess with it because it would inarguably be a shit storm. The drought has eased, I hear, so that reduces the pressure for change as well. That still, however, doesn’t mean the water isn’t there. The water is going to the rural areas, the votes are all in the urban areas, either the system will be adjusted to face that fact or, some day, the voters will get sick of it and blow the existing system up.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      How do you propose getting people to STOP moving to the Bay Area?Report

      • Avatar North says:

        Nuke it from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Price them out with more taxes! Gentrify, gentrify, gentrify! I want the area known as the “tenderloin” to be called that because that’s the best cut that the millionaires in the area can afford and still make their mortgage payments!Report

      • Avatar Francis says:

        Me personally? I don’t have any idea. But the larger point is that land use decisions are and should be local.

        If the residents of the City and County of San Francisco want a pro-growth board, then they can go elect one. If the residents of the State of California are tired of the powers granted to project opponents under various state laws, including the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), then they can elect representatives who will limit those powers.

        The idea that it is somehow more democratic for land use decisions to be made at a higher level is just absurd. If a developer can’t get people to a planning meeting to argue in favor of his project, that’s his own fault, not the fault of the system.Report