Friday, January 20, 2006

Accelerating gentrification: The mayor's housing policy

I supported Gavin Newsom against Matt Gonzalez for mayor in 2003 only because of the homeless issue. Newsom's Care Not Cash, passed by city voters in 2002, and the way he promoted it, showed me that he gets it about homelessness in SF: It really was/is a disgrace when a prosperous, progressive city like San Francisco clings to a status quo that includes 100-200 homeless people dying on its streets every year. Gonzalez, on the other hand, was the perfect candidate for the smug, essentialy delusional political left in SF. Instead of providing a serious alternative to Care Not Cash, Gonzalez spoke airily of the "root causes" of homelessness, implying that Newsom's approach was superficial and merely dealt with symptoms.

The homeless issue is what got Newsom elected mayor, and he has had a lot of initial success in getting homeless people off city streets in a humane, cost-effective manner. When he decided to go with Care Not Cash, Newsom went against conventional wisdom on the homeless issue, which had baffled and defeated several previous mayors. Why touch the issue at all when it only alienated the city's left and, in any event, was virtually unsolvable? After all, Mayor Brown himself---a long-time progressive Democrat---had said in a state-of-the-city speech that one little city can't solve the homeless problem, because it's really a national problem and properly the province of the federal government, which has the resources to tackle it. (And he said this when the city had $100 million budget surpluses!)

But young Gavin Newsom is taking a completely conventional---and false---path on the housing issue. Unlike the homeless issue---where he can already cite numbers of people housed, people given bus tickets home, etc.---his failure on housing won't be evident until he's out of office in 2010 after his second term. Newsom's mistake: adopting what is essentially a Free Market approach to the city's chronic shortage of affordable housing---build as much housing as you can as quickly as possible and housing costs will go down. 

When he's asked about his housing policy, he recites a list of housing projects---Rincon Hill, the Transbay Redevelopment Plan, the Mid-Market Plan, and the Market/Octavia Plan. All of these plans involve large quantities of new market-rate housing, with the usual token "affordable" units thrown in to provide a fig-leaf of progressivism. And all of these plans involve waiving height, density, and parking requirements for the new housing units, thus degrading the quality of life for the targeted neighborhoods, all of which are on or near major "transit corridors." He refers to the "planners" in the SF Planning Dept. as if they provide objective, professional expertise on housing, as opposed to the unprofessional, political approach to development taken by his predecessor---get everyone together in his office and make a deal. But the people in the Planning Dept. are not reliable advisers on housing, since they are aggressively pro-development, especially in those dispensable neighborhoods unlucky enough to be located on "transit corridors."

What this approach will really do is accelerate gentrification in San Francisco, since only the well-off will be able to afford to live in all these new housing units. And, importantly, gentrification will only aggravate some of the other city problems: gentrification undermines Muni, because people of means don't ride the bus; gentrification undermines public schools, because the well-off send their kids to private schools. Muni is already dealing with a severe funding shortage, and the city has to close schools because families---especially working class families---are increasingly unable to afford housing in a gentrified San Francisco.

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