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City Places for City People
If You Build It, They Will Come

by Tim Redmond

If you build it, they will come...But does S.F. really need another 50,000 yuppies?

Back in 1985, when Ronald Reagan was beginning his second term and Democrats were beginning to swear off the l-word, James Fallows wrote a piece for the Atlantic Monthly that defined the new economic world order for the thinkers formerly known as liberals. In "America's Changing Economic Landscape," Fallows gently, with plenty of caveats and respect, made fun of the neighborhood activists who were trying to fight plant closures in Detroit. Those folks meant well, he wrote, but their cause was not only hopeless but counterproductive: The era of manufacturing had passed Detroit by. In fact, the era of Detroit might have passed altogether. Capitalism, Fallows argued, was a great force of destruction as well as a great force of productive energy: some industries (and indeed, some communities) would die; others (say, the Sunbelt) would bloom. The best thing the government could do, according to this argument, was to use its resources to provide relocation and retraining for the displaced workers. Teach them to make computer chips and loan them the money to move to San Jose.

Fallows was only giving voice to the sentiment that had come to dominate the mainstream of liberal economic thought. The liberals had abandoned a key progressive concept--that community mattered, maybe more than anything else --and embraced the fundamental right-wing notion that we are all slaves to the private sector-driven economy.

I thought about this when I read the fascinating article by Matt Smith in the SF Weekly. Smith argues that San Francisco neighborhood groups, by opposing increasing density and thus more housing in the city, are driving more and more residents to the far suburbs, creating sprawl and traffic problems.

He's right, of course. And like a growing number of environmentalists in the Bay Area, he argues (correctly) that urban infill--housing development in already dense areas-- will fight the heinous monster of sprawl.

His solution--to let developers build as many as 50,000 more housing units in the city, in high-rises along Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach--is becoming the neoliberal approach of choice in urban planning these days. It's perfectly sound logic. But as the legendary urban planner Sim Van der Ryn used to tell me, if you ask the wrong questions, you always get the wrong answers.

Some premises

Let me suggest two premises:

1. The people who are creating the housing and environmental problems in San Francisco are not, for the most part, coming here to escape poverty, repression, or war in Mexico, Central America, China, or Cambodia. They aren't even coming here to escape homophobia in Dallas or Des Moines. Those were previous waves of immigration, and their impact on the city was pretty much entirely positive. The immigrants who are driving up housing prices today are overwhelmingly white, college-educated people from other parts of this country who are here to take high-paying high-tech jobs in the region. Many of them work in Silicon Valley, but they want to live in San Francisco, which is known around the country as a hip city.

They are driving the other immigrants out, making the city less interesting and less diverse.

2. San Francisco is, and ought to be, more than just a hip city for young college graduates to play in. It's a place where a wide, diverse group of people make their homes and raise their families and try to live decent lives without lucrative stock options. High tech is a big part of the local economy these days, but the last thing the city needs is to lose its economic diversity. Monocrop economies, like monocrop ecosystems, don't tend to have a lot of staying power. If you look at some of the major existing areas of the local economy--the service sector, the tourist sector, the retail sector, even finance, insurance, and real estate--you realize pretty quickly that this city can't survive without a sizable workforce of working-class people. And if you care about a sustainable environment, you'll agree that those people should be able to live in San Francisco, near where they work.

But they can't live in any of the new housing that gets built by the private sector, because all of it is, and for the foreseeable future will be, far too expensive.

So you can't solve San Francisco's housing crisis by building more market-rate housing. As housing activist (and nonprofit housing developer) Calvin Welch likes to point out, supply and demand aren't relevant here, because demand is insatiable. It's not a coincidence that the official motto of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency is Omnes volunt habitare in urbe San Francisco--everyone wants to live in the city of San Francisco.

Fifty thousand (or even more) high-rise housing units by private developers will fill up with 50,000 (or more) young, high-income people almost as fast as you build them. In San Francisco, building that sort of housing to solve the housing problem is like building more freeways to solve traffic backups or building more prisons to fight crime.

There are only three things I can think of that will actually make housing more affordable for the working people of San Francisco: A nice earthquake (maybe 6.5 Richter, not strong enough to destroy the existing housing stock but strong enough to scare some of the speculators and Silicon Implants out of town). A serious, long-term collapse of the high-tech economy (not likely). Or an entirely different approach to housing construction. Which is the only real alternative. I say that the only way new housing is going to alleviate the housing shortage is if it's taken entirely out of the private sector--and if it's designed to meet the needs of the diverse population we have today, and want to keep, and not just the needs of a rich, homogenous population that the developers want to attract.

This is not such a radical idea, really. Here's the basic concept:

The city puts up the money to fund construction of a wide range of housing types--some small studios, some three-bedroom houses, some in between. When the units are built, they're sold--some to individual buyers who become home owners, some to community-based nonprofits, which rent the units out. The city holds the mortgage, and for low-income buyers and nonprofits there's no (or just a token) down payment. The mortgage money goes to repay the city's investment in construction.

Occupants and nonprofit landlords have all the rights of traditional owners--except the right to sell for a profit. You buy one of these properties and you can live there as long as you live, let your kids live there after you, paint it, add a hot tub, whatever--but when you leave, you get back only the equity you have paid in and whatever improvements you've made.

Your home becomes a place where you live, not something you invest in to make money. There is no speculation. Prices are stable.

The city gives first preference for this housing to longtime residents of the city who are being evicted. The remaining housing is distributed through a lottery--weighted by seniority. Young, single people who have just hit town go to the end of the line. Senior citizens who have lived here their entire lives and working-class families who have been a part of the community for a long time, get to take advantage of the opportunity to stay here.

If the city had seized the Mission Bay land by eminent domain in 1985, when it had the chance, there'd be room for maybe 20,000 of these new units in that area alone. As it is, there's not a lot of open space in this town, so the new housing will have to be spread around (and frankly, it's going to be somewhat limited).

But the model isn't limited to new construction. In fact, it works just as well, maybe even better, with existing housing. The city, for example, could float revenue bonds and try to buy up every piece of private residential real estate that goes on the market, then resell the houses to buyers who agree to accept a limited-equity deal: in exchange for a low down payment and a low-rate city mortgage, you agree to give up the right ever to sell for a profit. This would make it easier for working-class people to buy homes ­ at no cost to the taxpayers. The city can borrow money cheaper than private individuals and pass those savings on, but the mortgage payments would ultimately cover the city's costs.

Neighborhood StreetThink of the message that would send: San Francisco wants to build community before profits. This is a city that cares about diversity in its residents-- and a city that wants to encourage long-term residence. For the first time since the gold rush, we would be taking a stand against the California tradition of mine-the-place-for-its-riches-and-split economics.

Here's what we'd be saying: If you want to buy a house in San Francisco and live here and be part of the community, the city will help you. If you want to speculate in real estate as an investment, go somewhere else.

Added Advantage

There's a big added advantage to the city buying up existing residential property and taking it out of the private market. We can create new affordable housing without a huge increase in density.

This is a tricky issue. Density is the hottest thing in urban environmentalism, the mantra of the sustainable city movement. The premise is entirely sound: in an urbanized region like the Bay Area, most of the people need to live fairly close together, along transit corridors or near where they work. Public transit doesn't work well in the suburbs, because there aren't enough people per square mile to support it. The suburbs don't have corner stores and cafés and street life; everyone drives everywhere. But let's remember: San Francisco is already--right now--the second densest major city in the United States, after New York. San Francisco doesn't need more density to support transit or to create street life. There are, indeed, neighborhoods in San Francisco that are less dense than others, and some of them are primarily single-family houses with backyards--but I'm going to say something crazy: I think that's OK.

I don't think cities should be suburbs, but I don't think every part of San Francisco should be as dense as the Haight, either. I think cities should have neighborhoods that are full of people and energy, small apartments and busy sidewalks--but also neighborhoods where everything isn't as crowded and the streets are a little more quiet and there are places where kids and dogs can play in the grass.

If you're going to have a city not just for young and hip newcomers (many of whom may be gone as fast as they came), you need a mix of housing. You need to look at the long-term, at how people are going to live here if they put down roots and stay a while.

I've lived in San Francisco for 18 years, first in a shared flat in the Western Addition, then in a little one-bedroom apartment on Fillmore and Hayes, then in a 900-square-foot carriage house in the Mission with a cramped outdoor concrete common space we shared with three other couples ... and now I have a rented single-family house in Bernal Heights--with a tiny little patch of a backyard. I can sit out there in the sun with my little boy, and when he's a slightly bigger boy (if we haven't been evicted), he can have his own sandbox. My dog can chase flies and bark at birds without going to the park on a leash.

I don't think this is an outlandishly bourgeois privilege.

If my neighborhood were upzoned, and the density increased significantly, there would be a lot more people trying to use the little branch library, and there wouldn't be enough room for the senior citizens to sit and read the newspaper. Rents would go up on the somewhat fragile commercial strip, and local merchants would be replaced with Walgreens and Burger King. Lots of amazing, irreplaceable houses that were built more than 100 years ago, when they built things differently, would be razed for bigger, modern structures. My favorite old bars would be evicted and replaced with places that could handle more volume, more people, and make more money, faster. I'm not sure the 19th-century water and sewer system could handle the strain, and the narrow streets certainly couldn't.

This is not unique to my neighborhood. San Francisco's infrastructure is straining right now to handle the existing population--and upgrading it for higher density would be a huge expense. The new infrastructure alone is costing $3 billion for the 6,000 units at Mission Bay, and that's being built at the density of the Marina.

Here's what I think:

San Francisco in 1999 is becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. The commute south, out of the city, on 280 is now busier than the commute north, into the city, according to Caltrans. That's not sustainable or ecologically sound at all--and increased density here won't help.

The place to increase density is the spread-out, suburban areas of the peninsula, along (say) the Caltrain corridor, and closer to where the jobs are. Build the hip neighborhood and market-rate high-rises aimed at 26-year-old professionals in Sunnyvale and Mountain View. Create street life and effective transit corridors where they actually make sense (and where they don't exist now). Turn parts of the existing suburbs, where there's nothing much of historic value to preserve, into cities more like San Francisco, instead of turning San Francisco into Manhattan.

Because I don't want to live in Manhattan. I've been there, and I want to live here.

Larger issue

There's a larger issue in all of this. The people who say we need to build dense housing in San Francisco to accommodate growth are accepting without challenge that idea that growth is good--and that we have no choice over our economic destiny.

I never voted to turn the Bay Area into the high-tech capital of the world. If I'd had the chance, I might have wanted to put the brakes on new commercial office and industrial development in the South Bay and the East Bay suburbs until we all had a chance to decide whether the benefits of living in the shadow of Silicon Valley were worth the costs. I might have wanted to look at the environmental impacts of chip manufacturing and the housing impacts of all the new jobs and the traffic impacts of all the new cars and the infrastructure costs and weighed them against the economic benefits of the electronics boom.

I might have wanted to preserve the prune orchards instead.

Or maybe not--but I never had that choice, in part because there is no forum for it, no regional government that has the mandate to ask these questions and try to find answers.

That doesn't mean there was no urban or economic planning: since the end of World War II, the growth and development of the Bay Area has been carefully planned--by big business interests who never told the rest of us what they were doing. And now it's 1999, and a lot of political economists have declared the end of history, and nobody really stops to ask whether the uncontrolled private sector-driven economy we've created is still doing what it's supposed to do--making our lives better. See, the economy is our tool, not our master. It works for us--and if it's not doing its job, we can tell it to do something different. If you forget that, you give up on places like Detroit. And you wind up losing places like San Francisco.

This article originally appeared in the San Fancisco Bay Guardian.