Awareness accomplished. Now let's actually do something about San Francisco's housing problem

By Sarah Lacy , written on January 8, 2014

From The News Desk

More than a year ago, Farhad Manjoo wrote a post titled "San Francisco can become a world capital. First it needs to get over itself." It couldn't have been more prescient.

In it, he discussed the growing anger between the tech workforce and non-tech workforce in San Francisco. That anger has since been shamelessly exploited by hypocritical news organizations and erupted into actual violence. Barrels of digital ink have been shed, and I've gotten in seemingly endless Twitter debates with people who think Twitter's employees are soulless forces for evil. (No one has yet to explain why using Twitter to make these claims is fine, but actually building Twitter makes you an asshole.)

It's a little like the WOMEN IN TECH! issue. There's very real and legitimate anger here, and many serious questions that can and should be debated publicly. But a lot of the expression of it does nothing to solve the underlying problem. We no longer a need to "raise awareness." We know there's income disparity in San Francisco and that people who've lived here for a long time can't pay higher rents. We know they are pissed. We got it.

Now, what are we going to do about it? 

I am seeing very few people from either side propose an actual solution. Part of that is because a lot of the root problems simply can't be fixed. For instance:

San Francisco is geographically tiny, just seven miles by seven miles. We are mostly bounded by water so we can't sprawl. Unless we are going to create more land, we can't change that. That will always create scarcity of places to live, tech boom or no tech boom.

Scarcity leads to rising prices. You can love free markets or hate them, but certain aspects of supply and demand are just fact. Unless San Francisco wants to abolish private property altogether, homeowners have the right to be able to decide if they rent something out or not and at what price. San Francisco already has incredibly aggressive tenants rights laws and making them stronger will  disincentivize people from renting out their homes to people who need them. Already a lot of San Francisco home owners put their rentals on Airbnb, because they can make more money and control the parameters. Driving more homeowners onto Airbnb makes a scarcity -- and exclusivity -- problem worse, not better. Meanwhile, we wrote earlier today about the trend of illegal fluxspaces. While fine for a 20-something start-up kid, paying cash rent for unpermited space is hardly an ideal solution for a family.

Job growth is going to continue. San Francisco may be the only city in the world that is furious about hosting a booming industry creating thousands of high-paying jobs. And that "problem" is only going to get worse. There's no sign that the epicenter of Silicon Valley is ever going to move, and we are not in some 1999-era public market bubble waiting to be popped. Sure, other tech hot beds like LA and New York are coming of age, and emerging markets are a huge story of high growth entrepreneurship. But that expansion doesn't seem to be coming at the expense of the Valley, the whole pie is just getting bigger. And, as Manjoo noted a year ago, tech jobs are only a quarter of all new job growth. A lot is booming in San Francisco beyond tech, which exacerbates the problem.

There is one thing that can be fixed, and it's exactly what Manjoo focused on in his original story in 2012: The city can change its zoning laws to allow and encourage more high density housing. From his piece:

San Francisco’s fundamental problem is that it’s a big city that likes to think of itself as a small one. The city proper is about 46 square miles in area. That’s 40 percent larger than Manhattan. But even with recent growth, there are only 812,000 people in San Francisco, which is half as many as Manhattan. San Francisco’s population density is about 17,000 people per square mile. Manhattan and Paris have more than 60,000 people per square mile.

How do those international capitals manage to house so many more people? Their skylines make it obvious: They’ve built large commercial and residential office buildings, and they’ve built public services — transportation systems, especially — to make density inhabitable. Now look at San Francisco. Other than a cluster of new buildings in the South of Market area, this city is defined by, and reveres, its famous Victorian houses. Those houses are very pretty. They’re also very inefficient. Collectively, they take up a lot of space, but don’t house very many people.

And that’s the basic explanation for San Francisco’s skyrocketing housing prices. The problem isn't that developers don't want to build more high-density housing. It's that the city doesn't want them to. The city's byzantine building permit process is riddled with height and density restrictions and citywide building caps that limit how many new buildings can be started every year.

It's time to make a choice. The same people who want to "keep San Francisco weird" by insisting high-rises should never replace Victorians are frequently the same people who talk about "real San Franciscans" getting driven out of the city because rents are too high. At some point, they need to pick a cause because the two are in opposition: Quaint Victorians or affordable rents for everyone -- tech workers, union workers, students, and artists alike.

I live in a San Francisco Victorian. And I love it. I wince, too, at the idea of a San Francisco riddled with high rises, where the quaint charm that brought me here is diminished. But I also hate that my team struggles to pay rent or even find a place to rent, because the vacancy rates are miniscule. Yep, even employees at decently-funded startups have a hard time finding housing they can afford in San Francisco. This isn't a tech versus non-tech issue. It's an issue of the city admitting to a very real problem: The downside of all these new jobs -- which many other cities would die for -- is that we need more places for workers to live. And because of geographic restrictions, we can only go up. Between protecting the city's diversity of income and vocations or hanging on to quaint Victorians, I'm picking the people over the houses.

People angry about rising rents have a legitimate beef. It's a real problem. But it's time to stop throwing rocks at people who are just as upset about it and put pressure on the one group that can actually change the reality: The city's leadership.

[Image Credit: Franco Folini on Flickr]