What’s Gone Terribly Wrong in San Francisco

10.29.2013 | So your city is constantly listed as among the most expensive in the country, if not the most expensive. What are you going to do about it?

Gabriel Metcalf of SPUR, a Bay Area planning think tank, created a kerfuffule with his article earlier this month at Atlantic Cities on gentrification and housing prices in San Francisco, noting that his friends are moving to Oakland because San Francisco is becoming unaffordable to all but the very rich. “Their move signals that something has gone terribly wrong in this most progressive of American cities,” he begins.

In a nutshell, San Francisco is expensive for myriad reasons—some positive, like the city’s successful transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy and its walkability; others negative, like the NIMBYism that leads to fights over high-density development every step of the way:

Unfortunately, it worked: the city was largely “protected” from change. But in so doing, we put out fire with gasoline. Over the past two decades, San Francisco has produced an average of 1,500 new housing units per year. Compare this with Seattle (another 19th century industrial city that now has a tech economy), which has produced about 3,000 units per year over the same time period (and remember it’s starting from a smaller overall population base). While Seattle decided to embrace infill development as a way to save open space at the edge of its region and put more people in neighborhoods where they could walk, San Francisco decided to push regional population growth somewhere else.

That too many people are chasing and competing for too few housing units drives the cost of living that threatens the city. Private “Google buses” and other company shuttles operating alongside public transit and new development are symptoms of the underlying problem,. For more listen to this great series on the tech bus problem that ran on the local Public Radio station KALW (97.1 FM in San Francisco). You can listen here, here, here, and here.

Metcalf says the only solution is to add more housing:

There is room for San Francisco to grow for many more decades. Our estimate is that if we could produce 5,000 units a year for a sustained period of time, that would be enough to make a real impact on affordability. This kind of infill development—if it is well-designed and well-located—would be good not just for housing costs, but also for moving us toward a society that drives less.

While transit-oriented development, micro-units and so-called “in-law” units may help—especially now that the latest BART strike is settled—Metcalf says a regional perspective is also required:

If we were one city, San Francisco could spend some of its incredible wealth on the things Oakland needs, like hiring more cops and teachers, not to mention more transit connections between the two cities. This is not an argument for annexation but a call to think about the answers to our problems from a regional perspective. We can’t solve affordable housing or transit access within the limits of any one city.

He concludes: “We need our own “metropolitan” strategy that ties the region together in better ways, and creates walkable, diverse communities in more locations.” That includes smaller cities like Berkeley and Palo Alto, by the way.

One such example is Calthorpe AssociatesEnvision Bay Area, created at the behest of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which seeks to leverage the Valley’s philanthropists “to strengthen the common good.” Linked to the Bay Area’s Sustainable Communities Strategy, which is mandated by California law, the plan is considered a leading example of regional planning. Its YouChoose Bay Area link is probably a major reason for that. It’s one of the best interactive planning sites I’ve ever seen. Other regions should take note.

Photo / Digital Freak

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