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---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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At 12:39 AM, Anonymous JI said...

I am a person of "means" and so are most of my friends. We all ride the bus. I own my condo here in SF and I dont even own a car.
Dont be so quick to know what people will do.

At 12:42 AM, Anonymous ji said...

So I am clear - the way to alleviating the housing unaffordability problem in SF is to NOT build any new housing?
You think all those evil "people of means" moving here will stop snapping up those homes meant for middle class san franciscans? You cant have it both ways

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Don't be so quick to turn your personal narrative into a meaningful guide to reality. It isn't a matter of anyone being "evil," a term I haven't used and which we should reserve for real evils, like the Holocaust. Nor should it be a matter of choosing between massive housing developments like Rincon Hill and building no housing at all. Since all these so-called "Better Neighborhoods" plans involve waiving height, density, and parking regulations in the city's housing code, why not instead encourage housing within existing zoning regulations? Several years ago, when the plan was hatched, was it really a choice between 3000+ luxury condos at Rincon Hills and no housing at all in that part of town? Two things bother me about the current housing building boom encouraged by the city: the sheer size of the proposals in relation to the targeted neighborhoods, and the reckless, frenetic haste with which these projects are being pushed by city government, with virtually no dissent from progressives. There may in fact be no possible housing policy that has any chance of making housing in SF genuinely affordable to most people. "Affordable" is a relative term that means little in the SF context. Still, projects like Rincon Hill, UC's proposal for its old extension site, and the Planning Dept.'s Market/Octavia Neighborhood Plan will do nothing but accelerate gentrification and, in the process, trash the neighborhoods targeted to be made "better." The least we can do is take the bull by the tail and look facts in the face: building as much market-rate housing as fast as we can will do nothing to make housing afforable in SF, with the potential of doing much harm to the city's neighborhoods. In the case of Rincon Hill, it will actually prevent a genuine neighborhood from evolving in that part of town. The We Need Housing movement in SF is an alliance between city government, developers, and progressives that has the potential to do irreversible harm to the city, while doing nothing to make housing affordable to working people.

At 10:55 AM, Anonymous ji said...

So what scale of development is appropriate for parking lots and former freeway rights of way mere blocks from 40 story buildings?
What could planning have proposed that would have allowed a "real neighborhood" to exist?

At 12:15 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Just about anything except thousands of luxury condos. Why not smaller---three-stories or less---apartment buildings like we have in other neighborhoods? The Planning Dept. is brimming with hubris about "building" and "improving" city neighborhoods, but I don't know of a single neighborhood where they've done that. Take the Market/Octavia Plan, wherein Planning advocates residential highrises for the South Van Ness/Market St. area. That's what they call creating a neighborhood. Ditto for their encouragement of thousands of new housing units in that area, which is already densely populated, not to mention the 900 units already in the pipeline for the old freeway parcels---or the 400-500 apartments UC wants to put on the old extension property. Instead of raffling the Rincon Hill area off to developers of luxury highrise condos, why didn't they get genuinely creative and get something built on a smaller scale? One answer---the city stands to gain millions in tax revenue from the highrise units, which will probably go for $1 million. But the Planning Dept. shouldn't be formulating housing policy for the city; that's the job of the BOS, a responsibility that pseudo-progressive body has completely botched. In a city that desperately needs affordable housing, the BOS---including Ross Mirkarimi---endorses more housing units for the well-off, a demographic that never faces a housing shortage.


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