SF Housing: resentment, math, techbus
I’ve been trying to figure out the real reason why long time SF residents are so resentful towards the tech companies for quite some time now. I mean sure, there is the obvious proximate reason for the resentment, that tech workers tend to be well-paid and can therefore afford(ish) the absolutely insane rental rates. But there is clearly something more deep-seated than money at play, and I’ve not been able to articulate it.
A comment in this followup article makes it much more clear to me now:
Imagine an island with 100 natives who earn $1/day. This island produces food enough for 100 people. Now imagine that a big company, Boogle, has a boat that dumps off 50 of its workers on this island each evening and picks them up in the morning. These “Booglers” earn $10/day. The island’s agriculture can only produce food for 100, and now suddenly there are 150 inhabitants. Since the newcomers have far more purchasing power, what happens is as predictable as water making wet… The newcomers use their superior purchasing power to buy as much food as they want, and the original 100 starve. Yes, it’s kind of like that. Dumping large numbers of (relatively wealthier) workers into an overheated housing market with limited supply is absolutely irresponsible. The tech companies will continue this irresponsible, community-wrecking practice until either: A) they are legally required to stop doing it B) they are embarrassed into stopping it In the 1800′s, many American companies built worker housing. It’s not rocket science. The big-rich-smart tech companies can easily afford to provide a housing option for their workers, and to do it so well that it would be an attractive option for those workers.
nutrisystem’s comment is the best articulation I’ve seen thus far of the ultimate cause of resentment here against tech: “they” were happily minding their own business until “we” invaded them with superior purchasing power and different value systems and started fucking everything up.
It certainly is instructive to learn why folks are disgruntled.
That said, the fatal flaw in nutrisystem’s analogy is that when producing food, natural environmental limits put an upper bound on how much food can be produced (soil quality, irrigation, climate, etc.). In contrast, the housing limitation in San Francisco is entirely self-imposed.
If anyone can articulate why doubling housing stock in San Francisco would not fix the rent issue, I’d love to hear that explanation. (For the sake of that discussion, ignore all the immense infrastructure and services upgrades that would be required; I just want to focus on the single variable of “rental price per square foot”.)
The Economist captures a bit of my own personal viewpoints about the SF housing debate, calling us the scapegoat capital of America.
And for more of the historical context of why we don’t build more in the city, please see this excellent primer in the San Francisco exodus.
But the city did not allow its housing supply to keep up with demand. San Francisco was down-zoned (that is, the density of housing or permitted expansion of construction was reduced) to protect the "character" that people loved. It created the most byzantine planning process of any major city in the country. Many outspoken citizens did—and continue to do—everything possible to fight new high-density development or, as they saw it, protecting the city from undesirable change.
Unfortunately, it worked: the city was largely "protected" from change. But in so doing, we put out fire with gasoline.
The comments moan about the physical size of SF being quite small (about 49 mi2). But they don’t talk at all about density.
It is the most densely settled large city (population greater than 200,000) in the state of California and the second-most densely populated major city in the United States after New York City.
I was surprised that SF is second in density. NYC is listed as 27,550 people/sq mi, and SF is listed as 17,620 people/sq mi. That’s quite a fast fall-off in that #2 in density is only 63% of #1.
Some grade school math suggests that an upper bound on SF population might be around 1.3M people, or 500K new residents.
Assuming we revert back to the mean of 1500 new housing units per year and also assuming each unit can house an average of 2 people, it will take 175 years to build all the housing required for the increased population.
I conclude that things will get much worse before they get better.
The best essay I’ve seen so far that captures the SF housing conflict in a way that I can relate to is entitled Which side are you on? by David Taylor.
I can’t say that I agree with Taylor 100% but I do acknowledge his points that many parts of a capitalist system are broken. I’ve been drifting leftward in my own political thinking for a few years now, and while I still think market-based economies do more net good than bad for the world, there are many contexts where they are simply inadequate to solve the problems at hand.
The most powerful quote from Taylor’s piece is something that I’ve never really considered before:
Is a city’s housing stock a public good that provides members of a community a place to live or is it a financial instrument used to store and expand wealth?
I’ll be thinking about this question for quite some time.
A new day, a new #techbus protest. This time it’s larger, more organized, and less theatrical.
I have to admit, as silly as it sounds for activists to disrupt the buses to make their larger point, I actually admire their reasoning and their methods. I agree with the activists that annoying individual employees, keeping the issue in the forefront of their minds, and preventing them from continuing to live in their privileged bubbles is a desirable end goal in and of itself.
[To be crystal clear, I don’t place any blame on the individual employees themselves. There are far larger structural issues at play and in the end, they are also pawns. (Well, maybe more like rooks considering their enhanced power…)]
The risk, of course, is alienating people you want on your side. But the upside of this strategy is that tech nerds tend to be quite reasonable once confronted with facts, and it’s not altogether inconceivable that they/we would adopt at least parts of the activists' platform, either as individuals or adding to some of the internal debate that’s surely occurring inside the tech companies.
“It’s an invitation for them to be part of the solution,” said organizer Fred Sherburn-Zimmer. Sherburn-Zimmer and her collective want to see big tech companies like Google get involved in overthrowing the state’s Ellis Act – which allows a landlord to go out the rental business and evict all the tenants, usually before or after the sale of the property. Or to somehow help restrict the rise of rents near shuttle stops. Paying for the use of the stops, of donating to the city or to housing rights organizations would also be a step in the right direction, she said.
Speaking of adopting planks in a platform, I can state that at this point in my evolution of thinking about the problem…
- I can easily agree with the idea of companies donating to housing rights organizations
- I’m less convinced of paying the city to use the public stops but could change my mind given good examples of prior art
- The idea of somehow restricting rents near shuttle stops is ludicrous and should be dropped immediately to maintain any sort of credibility when engaging the tech companies
- And I am not yet sure how I feel about the Ellis act…
The things about Ellis that conflict in my mind…
- It seems to be designed to allow property owners to do what they want with their own property, and the theory is that owners would use it to live in houses they themselves own. I’m ok with that theory.
- In practice, it seems that landlords use it to evict poor tenants, convert rental units to condos, and then re-rent them to richer tenants. I’m very much not ok with that abuse of people without power.
- In theory, “landlords have the unconditional right to evict tenants to go out of business”
- In practice, “many buildings Ellised will come back as re-rentals—at higher rents”.
That sounds like a pretty fucked up law that needs to be fixed.
A somewhat discordant sentence from the above cited page says:
The first rule of an Ellis is not to panic but to become resolved to fight for your home.
My biggest issue in all of this debate revolves around the concept of “yours”. Whose home is it, anyway? As a recovering former libertarian, that the answer is no longer black and white to me.
One of the better explanations I’ve read about the history of how San Francisco ended up where it is comes from Matt Yglesias’s Slate article: Build More San Francisco.
There's zero possibility for sprawl inside the city of San Francisco (it's all built out), so you either build up or you just don't build. And the preference, apparently, is to not build. That way you preserve the existing physical plant and handle "affordability" as a question of allocating an increasingly scarce resource.
Understanding that entrenched power players controlling San Francisco’s public policy view the low density as a positive thing, and that supply simply needs to be allocated properly to the right people is the key to understanding why we don’t have tall buildings and why we have crazy rent control laws and strong renter’s rights.
Agree with that philosophy or not, it’s clear to all that the approach isn’t working, else we’d not be seeing pawns protesting against rooks sitting on white buses.
And in a final note, this Utah policy for fixing homelessness is amazing. The most interesting part to me is that
housing is not contingent on participation in supportive treatment programs or an expectation of abstention from drugs or alcohol, but on the basics of good tenancy. Residents are guaranteed stable housing as long they are good stewards of their personal and shared housing areas and maintain good relations with other tenants, case managers, and property managers.
Let’s get away from pointless moralizing and just focus on fixing the damn problems.