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Living in a Fool’s Paradise
July 6, 2014 11:15 AM   Subscribe

San Francisco must change. "...the current state of permitting regulations for building and the glacial pace of infrastructure projects in San Francisco benefit very few people and risk turning it into a caricature of its former self for tourists and residents rich enough to live in a fantasy, not a living city. If there was ever a time when San Francisco needed to embrace a dynamic, expansive policy for building housing, offices and transportation, it is now." (Previously: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)
posted by ambrosia (72 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
I lived in SF from 2006 until a few months ago, when I saw the writing on the wall and left before I was forced out. To oversimplify: every glittering vanilla megalopolis stands on top of what used to be a smaller city with character. This time it happened on top of San Francisco. That sucks for so many reasons- the displacement of the underprivileged and the erasure of lots of very important historical movements included. But the writing's on the wall. San Francisco is no longer the same city I used to love (and it won't be) but I will always remember what it used to mean for me. And there will be other cities to fill the spiritual void left behind.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 11:31 AM on July 6 [9 favorites]


Not to derail, but I feel the same way about the New York City I lived in for 22 years. I'd say it's in the nature of vibrant cities to change, and thus regularly impose loss and nostalgia. We who love our cities wouldn't want them to stagnate; they have to change and evolve if they are to endure -- but that doesn't mean it's easy to watch. I'd probably feel even worse about it if I were still there.

That said, back to SF. Could the state of California step in, to act as a central planning authority and ameliorate this war-of-all-against-all?
posted by GrammarMoses at 11:50 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]


This is an important thing to keep in mind when demanding that the city and county of San Francisco build housing at a pace that magically house everyone:
Google, for one, has proposed to build housing near its campus in Mountain View, but the city has rejected those plans. In fact, the city of Mountain View expressly forbade housing in its citywide general plan for the area around the company’s Bayshore campus.¹ Google’s plans would have put large numbers of its employees within walking distance of work, while also building a walkable neighborhood near a light rail station. The truth is that suburban municipalities don’t want to build more housing—there’s no undeveloped land to build on, and density is anathema to many residents in these communities.
Emphasis mine.

San Francisco also has a history of really shitty redevelopment projects - e.g., the destruction of what had been known as the Harlem of the West Coast. More here.

And? Interesting thing I didn't know until recently: The peak of San Francisco's population was in 1950, and it didn't approach that peak again until the first decade of this century.
posted by rtha at 12:06 PM on July 6 [21 favorites]


The zoning power of California cities is delegated by the state, so in theory the state could step in, but the state constitution is also made out of an unsteady pile of ballot measures, and look at how much resistance there is even to things like Plan Bay Area which is basically just a compilation of what everybody's local general plan already said.

My take is that San Francisco and New York suffer because nearly every US city spent the twentieth century destroying its walkable fabric. There are only a handful of walkable places left in the country, and it's legally next to impossible to build any more, so everyone who wants walkability feels obligated to move to one of these few places, even though we'd all be better off if we had more, smaller, local concentrations instead. It's the slow-motion consequence of mobility on many scales, playing out over the course of decades as populations spread and reconcentrate.
posted by enf at 12:11 PM on July 6 [25 favorites]


Color me an old fashioned capitalist but the well-to-do have always managed to change things to their liking. Name any city that is vibrant and growing with jobs and wealth and you will find urbanization, rents reading for the clouds, the middle and poor complaining about how nice the place "used to be."
posted by Postroad at 12:16 PM on July 6 [4 favorites]


I got into a nasty argument with someone over this very issue at a dinner party. There is a huge need for more housing in and around San Francisco and no one wants any of it near them. The result is hugely inflated prices for everyone. When I said I wanted to see more medium- and high-density development to relieve pricing pressure, the person I was talking with loudly asked, "You don't think more housing would lower prices do you?" Yes, you simpleton, that's how markets work. I understand that it isn't so simple, but all of these pissant little municipalities are broadly anti-development to the point that they're pricing their own citizens out of the market.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:19 PM on July 6 [8 favorites]


Here in the Keys, the State of Florida stepped in with rate-of-growth ordinances (ROGO) based on evacuations for hurricanes. This was done to limit out-of-control development in the 1990s.

Big money stepped in and purchased large multi-unit buildings used as apartments, and converted them to single family residences to reduce the number of existing housing units. This freed up ROGO permits for developers to build more big expensive single family residences that are occupied two months a year.

Never have there been so few apartments to rent, and we are now the third most expensive place to live in the US.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 12:19 PM on July 6 [3 favorites]


This article has some very interesting historical details about planning in SF. And it comes with some photos that capture SF places that have since changed, looking the way I remember them from the late 90s.

I don't agree with all of it, and in particular, I'm surprised at how quickly this article lets other jurisdictions off the hook. (On preview, what rtha is saying.) There are over 100 cities and towns in the Bay Area, and other places have a role to play, particularly those on the peninsula close to Silicon Valley job centers. While it would be great if San Francisco could accelerate construction (while still protecting what makes it great), I highly doubt it can build enough to solve an entire region's jobs-housing imbalance.

It also seems to broadly critique regulations without providing very much practical guidance about how to refine them, and at times sending mixed messages. For instance, it critiques delays caused by the California Environmental Quality Act, but rather than praise SF's use of neighborhood plans to streamline CEQA compliance for individual builders, the author calls this "particularly aggressive." (Given the rest of the article, I would've expected "laudably innovative.") Also, the author critiques certain quickly-built projects for being ugly or shoddy, but it's not clear how he would prevent that without the procedures (like design review) that he seems to be criticizing. The art of city planning is how to ensure that new construction is in the public interest (attractive, safe, affordable, environmental) with a minimum of red tape and delays, so it would have been nice to hear more clearly what the author's ideal balance would be. (The Eastern Neighborhoods Project?)

But these are quibbles. This is an interesting and nuanced article on an important topic. Thanks for the post.
posted by slidell at 12:29 PM on July 6 [3 favorites]


The counties and local municipalities of California have always been NIMBY-minded hindrances. BART could have been much greater in scale if San Mateo and other counties hadn't been obstructionist in the '60s.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:32 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


As I read more about this, I suspect SF (and Vancouver, Seattle, and other Pacific coast cities) won't see a meaningful decline until the Chinese property situation changes, and wealthy Chinese feel they can invest locally, or at least not in foreign real estate.
posted by pwnguin at 12:36 PM on July 6 [3 favorites]


It still seems completely walkable to me. I hate the feel of some of SoMa, with all the man poop and 6th street skeeve, but you know, I've only been back for 6 months.
posted by uraniumwilly at 12:36 PM on July 6


but all of these pissant little municipalities are broadly anti-development to the point that they're pricing their own citizens out of the market.

It's worse than that, because not only do you need more dense housing developments, and you need it yesterday, but if you want to do something for the people being displaced right now you need to get (at least some) developers to build for people below the top tier even though there's incredible demand at that top level still, and you need to convince existing stakeholders it's okay if some people with less money than them move in next door into those buildings. Both are hard problems. Building more without that isn't sufficient because of how distorted the current situation is - it'll come down eventually with building lots more alone, I think, but not on reasonable timescales that help anyone around right now. I don't know what the solution is.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:36 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


To be clear, building lots more is absolutely necessary, and nothing else is going to matter much without that.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:37 PM on July 6


Could the state of California step in, to act as a central planning authority and ameliorate this war-of-all-against-all?

That is not very likely. What the state does do is assign numerical "housing needs" to regions, to pass down to localities. Regional and state approaches and the incentives for local cities to comply are continually being refined. More here.
posted by slidell at 12:43 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


"You don't think more housing would lower prices do you?" Yes, you simpleton, that's how markets work.

Well, Seattle is going to have the answer to this in a couple years. There's currently more housing construction here than i've ever seen. It almost looks like the city is being built from scratch. Out any window, anywhere i go in my area it looks like this(actual photo i took). Some of the buildings are just finishing up now, and a few have just opened. And notably, they're nearly universally rentals and not condos, and all the buildings have a lot of units. Most projects i see are >100, some are up to 7 floors and double or triple that.

As of this moment, rents are rising and have risen in the past year a completely insane amount. A lot of people are beating the drum that more units will fix the market because free market lol, but i'm fairly convinced that something is going on here along the lines of that recent highway planning FPP, in which even if you added 10 more lanes the gridlock would stay the same.

What i'm getting at is, has anyone proved that there aren't just enough people working for the tech companies and such who can pay the ridiculous rents, that even if you built 100,000 new rental units they wouldn't just get quickly filled? Because it feels true, ala the highway thing, but i'd be willing to accept that it's totally specious. I'm hesitant to accept the "more units will solve the problem!" as not specious though.
posted by emptythought at 12:52 PM on July 6 [5 favorites]


I hate the feel of some of SoMa, with all the man poop and 6th street skeeve, but you know, I've only been back for 6 months.

Man... poop? Please to explain?
posted by Justinian at 1:03 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


SF is already over. Move to Oakland.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 1:07 PM on July 6 [4 favorites]


You don't think more housing would lower prices do you?" Yes, you simpleton, that's how markets work.

emptythought just said what I was about to say. By how much does demand exceed supply? Can that demand be met sufficiently to drive prices down? What happens when those homes fill up and those new residents turn out to be entrepreneurs who start new businesses that create more jobs, causing housing demand to rise even more quickly? What if everything built targets the luxury end of the market -- will that drive down prices for the average renter or just attract more wealthy international buyers who want a nice pied-à-terre? The situation seems a bit too complicated for me to believe that building as fast as possible means that prices will definitely fall.
posted by slidell at 1:09 PM on July 6 [3 favorites]


"You don't think more housing would lower prices do you?" Yes, you simpleton, that's how markets work.

Well, that's how free markets work, yes. In California housing, though, both supply and price are being artificially controlled from outside the market by governmental regulation. There's all sorts of scenarios in which building more housing would not drop the price, at least not until some unknown threshold is passed.
posted by tyllwin at 1:09 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


Oakland itself is becoming too expensive to afford.
posted by blucevalo at 1:09 PM on July 6 [8 favorites]


A large percentage of my boho/artist/theater friends have simply thrown in the towel this year and left SF and Oakland(!). Most have headed to the east coast and Pacific Northwest. My next door neighbor went back to Newport, RI for 4 months for work and marvelled at how cheap everything seemed there. He and his (lawyer) wife have a toddler and he thinks maybe one way they can stay in the Bay Area long term is the "tiny house" route. Problem is, even bare land to build one on is very high.
posted by telstar at 1:11 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


San Francisco has already priced out middle class workers who are just starting out. I don't have a cite, but I read somewhere that the child-per-capita ratio in San Francisco is one of the lowest in the country (for major cities). If you are a beginning teacher, social worker, construction worker (union), cop, fireman, nurse, mid-level bureaucrat, etc. San Francisco is out of reach for you.

There is a furious - absolutely toxic - run on San Francisco real estate, with double-faced realtors ginning up price, buying up the front page of the Chron with real estate stories, etc.

Then, (mentioned above) you have nearby local municipalities filled with aging NIMBYs who now live in multimillion dollar homes that have appreciated 1000% over the last few decades because of the tech boom.

I'm pragmatic enough to know that large capital infusions and bought politicians are a part of this change, but in my lifetime I've never witnessed such a rapid turnover of municipal housing as I've seen in the Bay Area. It's a very toxic scene, with lots of cash flowing around, including foreign cash investors. The latter is very disturbing, because cities like Manhattan and San Francisco could put a clear cap on foreign real estate buys, but they don't.

I've been watching certain buildings in my neighborhood flip 2-3 times in the last 2 years - to real estate hedge funds, foreign investors, etc. Rents are absolutely out of sight. Just for kicks I called someone about a 3 bedroom flat in a fairly average neighborhood the other day - $4500.00. What middle class family can afford that? The landlady said it was perfect for a "sharing" scenario. More "sharing". In this economy "sharing" = "I can't afford anything else".

After many years in the Bay Area, I can unequivocally claim that San Francisco is "gone" as a middle class destination, and so are many local municipalities that used to be heavily middle class - e.g. Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Los Gatos, San Jose (rents rising fast); Burlingame, etc. Even Oakland is seeing double-digit increases because everything else is inflating at record speed. Never seen anything like it.

What's sad is that the *community* that was San Francisco is gone. Just gone. It's become (someone mentioned this, above) a kind of Disneyland, with San Francisco's breathtaking vistas surrounded by chic restaurants, and upper-middle-class bling shops, etc. San Francisco is very small, as cities go. I can imagine this city, within the next 2 decades, turning into the West Coast equivalent of NYC Upper East Side, withthe rest of the Bay Area as feeder communities.

Another thing: the unique combination of factors that permitted rapid growth of wealth and tech here, are being duplicated in other regions, worldwide. The barrier-to-entry to Bay Area "advantage" is not that high. Technology skills + access to capital + networked innovators. That is the "tech success" formula. [[Add a great university (Stanford) as an early talent feeder, but that is no longer a necessary ingredient, as intellectual capital is now officially "on the wire", far beyond local constraints]].

So, within a decade or two we will see the Bat Area seriously challenged as the "king of tech". I don't think that will make very much difference because the investors who are buying this place up are ultra-rich. San Francisco real estate is no longer a place for "homes"; it's a place to "invest in". It's hard to watch this happening to a great city.

Of course, San Francisco will always have it's great physical beauty, but the things that really made this city stand out are all but gone. San Francisco is now far more about becoming a monolithic, uper-middle and upper--class culture. That is San Francisco's new identity.

As for affordable housing, how long will it take to build that? By the time it is built - if it ever gets built in sufficient quantity (which I don't think will happen), it will be too late for the many 10's of thousands of persons who are now being displaced. San Francisco is about one thing these days - money, and profit, and bling - and it's going to get worse. That's the reality.
posted by Vibrissae at 1:12 PM on July 6 [15 favorites]


The weirdest thing about San Francisco, and I moved out here 3.5 years ago, is that most apartments are covered by a kind of rent stabilization scheme that means my rent only increases by about 1% a year. I am basically being paid to stay put, even as my income goes up by more than cost of living every year (like most young professionals).

I keep toying with finding a nicer place, but at this point my apartment is about $1,000/month under market (and that gap increases every year like clockwork). The upshot is, instead of paying a little more to upgrade my apartment as would happen in a normal market, I'd have to pay a lot more for even a minor upgrade (easily $1,500/month for a "noticeable" improvement). It's a huge distortion of the rental market.

So, thanks city of San Francisco, for subsidizing the apartment of a couple recent transplants in the tech and financial industries. Probably the exact opposite of the desired outcome.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:20 PM on July 6


(and I feel terrible for confessing this here)
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:25 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


This is a really good explainer on the unique circumstances around SF's housing crisis -- which goes back decades.
posted by blucevalo at 1:29 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


(and I feel terrible for confessing this here)

You shouldn't. The fact that the difference between your rent and the market value of your apartment keeps going up isn't on you -- If SF could build up enough new housing that wouldn't be true any more, and it isn't you that stops new housing being built.
posted by tyllwin at 1:33 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


There was a longtime artists collective near our house that got kicked out by their landlord so that a startup willing to pay six times the amount of rent could move in....and go out of business a year later, owing back rent. Lawsuits are flying.

I read recently that Oakland rents are going to faster now than rents in SF.

Good luck to us all. We're going to need it.
posted by rtha at 1:38 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


Man... poop? Please to explain?

No please don't. I really don't want to know.
posted by octothorpe at 1:42 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


Man... poop? Please to explain?

Today’s SOMA Sidewalk Poop Index: High

San Francisco’s Poop Problem Is Serious

Pooplets: Coming To A Sidewalk Near You
posted by migurski at 1:55 PM on July 6 [4 favorites]


I want to clarify that I understand that unusual market pressures, bizarre regulations, and long timescales all serve to distort the straightforward supply-and-demand balance. But perverse zoning and planning policies operate to restrict supply beyond all reason. There may be a huge body of property speculators and top-income home purchasers ready to jump on any new development, but I can't believe that supply is infinite, and here's a place where government could help foster better markets if it could remove its head from its posterior.
posted by 1adam12 at 2:10 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


A number of people are expressing skepticism that more units would make the price drop, but they don't say why.

Turn it around: what story can you tell such that limiting the number of residences makes prices fall? Quite the opposite: when demand is rising, a limited market will drive prices higher.

From TFA: "By 2011 the city’s economy was roaring back from recession and added over 36,000 jobs. All those people needed places to live, yet less than 300 units were added to the market."

There's your problem right there: supply is two orders of magnitude below where it should be. No wonder prices are insane.
posted by zompist at 2:28 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


It's a very toxic scene, with lots of cash flowing around

Honest question: how different is the Bay Area from other regions in this respect? Because about once a year, I say "this is crazy, let's move to [Indianapolis / Denver / etc.]." I seem to find that homes there cost about 80% of Oakland prices, while salaries in my field are more like 60% of Bay Area wages, if I could even find a similar job.
posted by slidell at 2:32 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


BART closed all the downtown and Mission stations' restrooms after 9/11. Those 16 or so toilets handled a lot of homeless pooping that suddenly had to go somewhere else.
posted by telstar at 2:36 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


That's really stupid. Because if terrorists can't put bombs in bathrooms they'll just give up and go home.
posted by Justinian at 2:50 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


Campus.
posted by GrammarMoses at 2:54 PM on July 6


I can't say anything about Denver, but real estate in Indianapolis is insanely cheap by Bay Area standards. Yes, you can spend $500,000 if you really try, on a very nice house on a very nice street. But there also are tons of perfectly respectable houses available for $150,000, and you can't find *anything* for that in the Bay Area. But Indianapolis also doesn't have many of the salaries that can pay for the $500,000 house.
posted by enf at 2:57 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


rtha: Valleywag just did a piece on that sorry situation.

Also, I blame the Mountain View fiasco on Google just as much as the city - if I was in their shoes, I would be looking to relocate the Googleplex upon the refusal to expand the housing stock.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:10 PM on July 6 [3 favorites]


zompist: I am not an economics student but I think the problem with the simple mantra of "more housing, lower prices" is that the cheapest housing is the one that is going to be demolished first in order to make room for newer, pricier housing. So low-income people are displaced and there's such a huge demand (as you noted) that nothing short of a gigantic amount of construction could impact the city-wide price. Raw market demands are going to encourage building luxury units, not housing for people who are having trouble with rent as it is.
posted by smasuch at 3:22 PM on July 6


I can't help but think about a couple of articles I saw recently. One was kind of about all the illegal rental units in San Francisco. The other was about Air BnB's impact on San Francisco.

I think those tidbits add some dimension to the actual situation. It is not a simple thing to sort out. I also wish that the SF Bay Area would find a way towards more effective regional planning. The rail plan for Solano county was kind of botched. They invited representatives of various cities to basically come divide up the pie. The Air Force base had no representation (never mind that if they run it off, they lose the single biggest employer in the county at over a billion dollars a year) and after the political pie was divided, then they hired some outside firm to do some "planning". Of course, the outside firm was basically asked to pick sites for the cities who had already been awarded stations. They had no real power to say "this just sucks and is a terrible way to do this." They needed to get paid.

I don't know how regional planning works. I know it goes on in other places. The SF Bay Area just doesn't seem to be doing it well. (IF at all.)
posted by Michele in California at 3:23 PM on July 6


A number of people are expressing skepticism that more units would make the price drop, but they don't say why.

Well, building more units is sort of a fixed cost regardless of whether they're luxury or normal-price, so therefore almost all of the construction is going to be aimed at the luxury market, with a few bones tossed to lower-income residents. The thought is that by flooding the market with luxury units, normal-price units will become available, but my understanding is that this super-high-end market is not as easy to saturate as you might think, because demand is just so stupidly high and there's so much money flowing around in the tech sector. Honestly I think the only thing that's likely to bring lasting relief is for the tech bubble to finally burst, but that's going to have a lot of collateral damage.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:34 PM on July 6 [3 favorites]


zompist: "A number of people are expressing skepticism that more units would make the price drop, but they don't say why.

Turn it around: what story can you tell such that limiting the number of residences makes prices fall? Quite the opposite: when demand is rising, a limited market will drive prices higher.

From TFA: "By 2011 the city’s economy was roaring back from recession and added over 36,000 jobs. All those people needed places to live, yet less than 300 units were added to the market."

There's your problem right there: supply is two orders of magnitude below where it should be. No wonder prices are insane.
"

I tend to fall on the 'add more supply' part of the spectrum, but the best explanation for why additional supply may not lead to lower prices is that real estate rental markets price themselves on a number of axii: location, square footage, bedrooms, and year of construction. For any additional building, you can choose between apartments with a lot of extra space per bedroom or try to maximize occupants per square foot. You can tear down existing inventory to build something taller in the same location. But no matter how hard you try, you can't build brand new old apartments.

And there's a lot of pent up demand, as you point out. If you tear down 10 townhouses to make a 100 unit highrise, the first effects may be the wealthier slices of the populace divorcing their roommates. And then by newly arrived immigrants from other parts of the country. Plus you probably tore down the cheapest (oldest) units to build it. Which were rent controlled, because everything before 1973 or so is rent controlled, so the occupants had been shielded from the skyrocketing prices.

I don't think these two forces completely cancel each other out, but the negative effects of construction will be most strongly noticed by the most vulnerable segments, and it will take a long while for any trickle down effects to take hold.
posted by pwnguin at 3:36 PM on July 6


There are seven golf courses in San Francisco. Seven.

San Francisco has a land mass only 49 square miles. It's a tiny, tightly-packed metropolis. It's smaller, much smaller, than Milwaukee, or Des Moines, or Toledo.

And yet there are seven golf courses within the city limits. Seven.

There's a total of 25,555 yards of fairway - 14.5 miles worth of fairway. That's not including parkland associated with the golf courses, that's just the game. All of that land could be easily redeveloped into housing.

People often complain that San Francisco is fully developed, that there's nowhere to go but up. People complain that NIMBY's or foreign investors or the homeless or the techies or the conservative businesspeople or the regulation-mad liberals are ruining the city, steering it in the wrong direction. But strangely, nobody ever questions why it's worthwhile to have so much space dedicated for a single, limited, primarily bourgeois recreational pastime.

Don't be fooled. There's plenty of space here. We just, as a society, inexplicably prioritize golf.
posted by eschatfische at 3:42 PM on July 6 [8 favorites]


what story can you tell such that limiting the number of residences makes prices fall? 

Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't hear anyone saying "let's limit the number of residences as a strategy to bring down prices." I just hear people pointing out that it isn't as simple as it sounds.
posted by slidell at 3:47 PM on July 6


it's "axes" /pedantry

If you tear down 10 townhouses to make a 100 unit highrise, the first effects may be the wealthier slices of the populace divorcing their roommates. And then by newly arrived immigrants from other parts of the country.

You don't even have to get that far out: my sense is that a lot of young but rich families would move back from the Peninsula to SF if they could only afford just a little more space for their Baby Bjorns, or whatever the stroller status symbol is these days.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:55 PM on July 6


I'm one of the skeptical-sounding ones. To be clear: I'm sure the prices would fall if enough new housing was built. I just think "enough" is likely past anyone's rosiest dreams of what SF might allow.
posted by tyllwin at 3:56 PM on July 6


Live in San Jose, work in Palo Alto.

Palo Alto is literally the weirdest place. It's where tons and tons of startups have settled (the ones that don't end up in SoMa in the city, basically), but the city has been utterly resistant to development. So you have the weirdness of having Palantir ($900M in funding) and MongoDB ($230M in funding) taking over buildings on the outskirts of sleepy downtown Palo Alto which is otherwise exactly what you would picture as a quintessential college-town downtown.
posted by TypographicalError at 4:05 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


the cheapest housing is the one that is going to be demolished first in order to make room for newer, pricier housing. So low-income people are displaced and there's such a huge demand (as you noted) that nothing short of a gigantic amount of construction could impact the city-wide price. Raw market demands are going to encourage building luxury units, not housing for people who are having trouble with rent as it is.

Especially when, in a city like SF, the developers are serving a market that views "real estate" as an investment, rather than as housing. The price is almost totally independent of what people who actually live there can afford to pay. It's reflected in the way the buildings are designed and marketed. Cram a high-rise full of 450-sq-ft "1 bedroom" apartments, build as cheaply as possible, slap "luxury" on the promotional materials and lots of pictures of expensive appliances in the kitchen / cars in the garage. The reason building more units won't bring the price down is because the units are meant to be stores of value that can be flipped at a profit, not homes.
posted by junco at 4:09 PM on July 6


NoxAeternum: "if I was in their shoes, I would be looking to relocate the Googleplex upon the refusal to expand the housing stock."

That's a potentially company killing relocation.
posted by Mitheral at 4:15 PM on July 6


That's a potentially company killing relocation.

They probably would not even have to make it. Just talking about moving and looking at real estate elsewhere might get them what they wanted. (I know of a situation like that elsewhere -- though perhaps Google does not have the same local pull that company had.)
posted by Michele in California at 4:17 PM on July 6


Another problem: rigged foreclosure auctions.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 4:20 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


"if I was in their shoes, I would be looking to relocate the Googleplex upon the refusal to expand the housing stock."

I serve on Menlo Park's Transportation Commission. When Facebook was looking to move into Menlo Park, they had to get the city's approval to roughly triple the number of employees located on the site of the old Sun Microsystems campus. This required an EIR and all kinds of studies. The Traffic Impacts and other studies came before the Transportation Commission for us to review and provide our comments to city council.

One of my fellow commissioners was reading her copy of the EIR (it was about three inches thick) while traveling, and the woman sitting next to her on the plane asked her about it. So she explained that Facebook was looking to move into Menlo Park, and the EIR was addressing a number of concerns about different ways the city might be impacted by bringing so many new employees into town, and what Facebook would offer in exchange for getting to move to Menlo Park.

"Oh," the woman commented, "I'm from Memphis, where Fedex is headquartered, and what Fedex wants, Fedex gets. Isn't it the same there?"

"No," my colleague replied, "it doesn't work that way in the Silicon Valley."
posted by ambrosia at 4:46 PM on July 6 [8 favorites]


eschatfische: "All of that land could be easily redeveloped into housing."

The dirty, unspoken secret of golf courses in the US is that they're frequently built on top of landfills. You probably don't want to build a highrise on top of that.
posted by pwnguin at 5:27 PM on July 6 [6 favorites]


Yep. Or located on parkland. And/or located next to wetlands where you don't want a bunch of development.

The answer really is building higher density housing, not sprawl.
posted by Justinian at 5:51 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


You probably don't want to build a highrise on top of that.

I'm pretty sure you could. There would be cleanup and so forth, sure. But the return on investment would be pretty significant. Put down a cap, import clean soil, and you could even have gardens.

(Although you might want to consider a methane-powered plant in the basement...)

The real barrier to developing that land is that it's either privately owned, or it's city park. No country club is going to sell their golf course to be developed into housing unless they were provided equivalent value elsewhere, which seems unlikely.

And the city is by golly NOT going to sell off public land designed to provide public recreation, to be developed into housing.
posted by suelac at 5:53 PM on July 6


There's also the fact that paving over all your green is a plain-ol bad idea.
posted by Justinian at 5:59 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


I feel like I'm becoming a cranky old man about this topic (and yes, like many San Franciscans I'm sick and tired of The Housing Issue being the big story, and yet I keep participating in the conversation) but this article is bullshit from the first sentence.

Yes, in 2003 you could get a place pretty damn easily. It was 2003 when San Francisco was at the tail end of a serious crash. People were negotiating their leases down significantly (and with rent control, negotiating down a lease is a big deal). There was a famous article about how you couldn't get a uhaul in the city because they had all been used by people fleeing the dot com bust. So comparing the very bottom of a boom and bust city to, well, the very top, is just plain bullshit. (I am aware that the writer says a little something about the dotcoms but he's still trying to gloss over that fact.)

And San Francisco IS a boom and bust town. Has been since day one. Right now it's at the very top of a boom and people are using that as an excuse to tear down the old, semi-affordable rental stock and replace it with condos. If we let that happen that's going to destroy the city much worse than the current crisis.

And San Francisco is growing. Places have been building like mad recently and more are on the way. Part of the problem was just a few years ago there was a serious housing crisis in this country and even though the city recovered quickly almost all in planning developments stopped long enough that starting back up again required a whole new set of planning. So yes, there were 3 years or so of practically no new homes, while at the same time the city boomed like mad. Trying to extrapolate from that is silly.

And there's absolutely no mention of BART anywhere in that article. With BART to Mission and further south completely changed the dynamics of those neighborhoods. There were handwringing articles about gentrification in The Mission long before the dotcoms, and there's a reason that those few blocks of Glenn Park near BART have that weird little neighborhood. BART came in, and within a generation (which is pretty fast as these things go) the areas have changed drastically. Noone tut-tuts about the crazy gentrification of Excelsior or Crocker-Amazon for instance.

He does mention that other cities near San Francisco need to step up and allow some growth and that is true, but it needs to be said louder and clearer. But those cities, much more than SF have zero incentive to grow. Most of the peninsula is crazy expensive, incredibly low density and has barely any industry. There's no political will to change, so somehow it becomes SF's responsibility to destroy itself in order to fit some imagined super city.

(Oh and the bit about different airports in three different jurisdictions? Do you think that's so different than many metro areas? And San Jose, which I assume is the third, is actually pretty far away and as far as I know still a second string airport.)


TL;DR : The tech industry bubble is going to pop sometime in the next few years, and when it does this kind of article is going to sound quaint. The solution is not to tear down everything that's even remotely affordable and replace it with condos.
posted by aspo at 6:28 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


There's also the fact that paving over all your green is a plain-ol bad idea.

Oh, yes. Those green spaces, as manicured as they may look, provide a lot of environmental benefits.
posted by suelac at 6:42 PM on July 6


Of the golf courses in San Francisco

One is in the Presido. Which can't be built on.

One is in Golden Gate Park. You aren't building there either.

One is near Land's End by the Legion of Honor. Sorry, you are never going to build there.

There's three by Lake Merced/SFSU/Fort Funston. I think that area is protected wetlands but I'm not 100% sure.

Then there's a small course in John McLaren Park. Once again, noone is going to get away with developing the land there.
posted by aspo at 7:09 PM on July 6 [7 favorites]


Love the golf derail. Really it's just demographics - golfing is loosing a massive number of players, now up to about 1/2 million a year, and growing, mostly because folks are getting old, and partially because it's a very expensive hobby. On top of that current players play far fewer holes than they did just a few years ago. I would speculate that we will continue to see courses close, a trend that started in 2006, and last year saw over 150 closures. I think the rate of closure has been a bit too slow at around 1 or 2% because I expect a return to pre-boomer levels. That would mean is about a 40% reduction in the number of golf courses, and most of those remaining will be concentrating on where the remaining players are, not in places full of young people.

In terms of environmental benefits most golf courses are essentially a pit of herbicides and pesticides that people pour money and water into, and the only thing they provide is a scenic background ambiance for those that can afford to amble around for an afternoon, not a "natural environment"
posted by zenon at 7:36 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure you could. There would be cleanup and so forth, sure.

Way easier said than done. There was a story recently (in the last few days) about ground squirrels/gophers doing damage somewhere in an East Bay (El Cerrito? Albany?) green space/landfill such that they were puncturing the membrane used over the layer that keep the hazardous crap from filtering up to where people live and work and walk their dogs and so on. There's a ton (way more than that, really) of space here that used to be military that is toxic as shit for housing purposes, and incredibly expensive to make not-toxic for housing purpose. Treasure Island has had residential housing on it forever, and still has to periodically - and recently! - move people out of their spots be because poisonous dirt! Cleaning this up is not just a cheap handwave away.
posted by rtha at 7:49 PM on July 6


Oh, I'd like to see a lot of golf courses converted into something else, just "something else" should be other forms of green space rather than housing.
posted by Justinian at 8:04 PM on July 6 [1 favorite]


In terms of environmental benefits most golf courses are essentially a pit of herbicides and pesticides that people pour money and water into, and the only thing they provide is a scenic background ambiance for those that can afford to amble around for an afternoon, not a "natural environment"

There are a few golf courses that are used to filter and consume municipal waste water, but those are the minority. As noted, golf players are turning into geezers and not being replaced, so look for more course closures soon -- though also as noted, quite a few golf courses are on land that can't be used for housing.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:06 PM on July 6


Oh, I'd like to see a lot of golf courses converted into something else, just "something else" should be other forms of green space rather than housing.

Then talk to the Feds. Mostly this isn't San Francisco city/county jurisdiction: this is federal. If it isn't, it may not be eligible to be land for housing for seismic reasons, or because it's built on landfill that's toxic enough (or not seismically stable enough) to not be okay for housing, schools, or playgrounds.
posted by rtha at 10:06 PM on July 6


"Oh," the woman commented, "I'm from Memphis, where Fedex is headquartered, and what Fedex wants, Fedex gets. Isn't it the same there?"

"No," my colleague replied, "it doesn't work that way in the Silicon Valley."


I'd bet that this is in part a side effect of Prop. 13. In most localities, expansion of a major employer also means expansion of the local tax base, so local communities have a significant financial incentive to encourage expansion. But in CA, such expansion no longer has that sort of benefit to the municipality (especially when corporations use legal shell games to acquire land without triggering reassessment.) So, the cities don't have the incentive to work with companies anymore. This is both good (localities forcing companies to do impact assessments) and bad (localities not making needed zoning changes for self-serving reasons.)
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:53 AM on July 7


RE: I'd bet that this is in part a side effect of Prop. 13.

There is also this: One of my fellow commissioners was reading her copy of the EIR (it was about three inches thick)

EIR (Environmental Impact Report) is unique to California. EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) is a federal thing and, iirc, applies to a smaller subset of projects than EIR.

California has been leading the policy fight in terms of environmentalism since at least the 1960's and has more stringent laws and policies than any other state. A lot of our federal laws were inspired by what happened first in California.
posted by Michele in California at 11:30 AM on July 7


That's part of the reason why I feel like the Bay Area is a bit of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type place. On one hand we don't have enough housing to make it affordable, on the other it tries to lead the charge on the environment or services. It's an expensive town but has a large transient population. I'm sure it's all intertwined and related but sometimes the dichotomy can catch me off guard. Having just moved back to the Bay Area after 7 years in Chicago, I'm still surprised by how easy it is for me to get to something close to 'wild-life' in on of the biggest metro areas.
posted by Carillon at 1:09 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


pwnguin: "The dirty, unspoken secret of golf courses in the US is that they're frequently built on top of landfills. You probably don't want to build a highrise on top of that."

rtha: "Way easier said than done. "

High rises with all their hard surface and strictly decorative soft landscaping are better choices than single family housing in this regard. They are building a new set of towers over an old land fill here and except for the massive piles they had to drive it was pretty straight forward. Caveat: our constantly dry condition and non acidic sandy soil are very land fill friendly.

zenon: "In terms of environmental benefits most golf courses are essentially a pit of herbicides and pesticides that people pour money and water into, and the only thing they provide is a scenic background ambiance for those that can afford to amble around for an afternoon, not a "natural environment""

Someone mentioned it rare that golf courses recyc municipal waste water. It does happen though. All the waste water my town produces ends up on the grass of the local golf and country club after treatment. My understanding is this a net win because all the nitrogen that would otherwise get dumped into the water goes to grow grass.
posted by Mitheral at 6:49 PM on July 7


San Francisco also has a history of really shitty redevelopment projects

You know, this isn't wrong, but the truth is that San Francisco's shitty redevelopment projects barely hold a candle to other cities' shitty redevelopment projects. Maybe the difference is that San Francisco left enough for people to realize what they'd lost, while in other cities the destruction was total.

Re: golf. It's hard to imagine any of SF's golf courses being turned into anything but parkland. At the same time, though, consider the former reservoir on Russian Hill. There's a concerted effort to turn that into a new park. It'll probably be successful. There are some people arguing for housing + big revenues for the city, but I doubt they'll win. Obviously, this will be very nice for the neighbors, and will presumably help drive housing costs from the unbelievable to the ludicrous.

For all the noise about affordable housing, the people calling the shots are the people who already have theirs, and they are not interested in lowering housing costs at all. Public policy reflects this. Just about every "affordable housing" initiative--eg the 20% requirement for new developments--involves a token number of apartments, to be distributed by lottery or by political decree, while making sure that the cost for a random individual looking for a place to live keeps going higher and higher.
posted by alexei at 11:02 PM on July 7


San Francisco did plenty of building on landfill. Now that liquefaction is better understood, I doubt very much that high-rise anything will be built on landfill in SF. People remember what happened in the Marina during Loma Prieta.
posted by ambrosia at 7:38 AM on July 8


I don't know if it's a good idea, but Mission Bay is all fill, and there are high rises being built there now. In theory their steel frames anchored to bedrock ought to do better in liquefaction than soft-story wood-framed buildings like the ones that collapsed in the Marina.
posted by enf at 3:27 PM on July 8


San Francisco landlord uses loophole to evict 98-year-old who paid rent on time for 50 years
posted by Evilspork at 4:15 PM on July 10


I'm talking about landfill as in a huge, collassal, waterproof trashbag. As long as you don't poke holes in it, the contents slowly decompose. But it seems I was mistaken about the number of golf courses built over landfills. Brownfield golf courses are a thing, but is not nearly as popular as I assumed from a comment in the blue I recall about catching fraud in a municipal golf course.

Catchment and drainage areas though, seem to be popular locations locally. I guess it makes sense, you need a lot of water, they have it. And the risk of floods deter other forms of development.
posted by pwnguin at 5:29 PM on July 10


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