Sarah Wilson is a first year MPP candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.
While walking through a San Francisco BART station recently, I was struck by a novel sight: an advertisement was printed directly onto the walls and floor of the station. “Why be caught in the same outfit twice?” it asked. On top of the ad, adjacent to this inquiry, a man was curled up, asleep on a makeshift bed of filthy odds and ends. It was a powerful answer to the advertisement’s question.
It was also one of the greatest contradictions of the storied city made flesh. San Francisco is one of the most progressive communities in the United States, but it’s also the city with the most dramatically increasing income inequality and the second highest gap between the average incomes of its poorest and wealthiest residents, according to a report released by the Brookings Institution.
It’s also become the city with the highest rents in the United States and the city with the smallest number of homes within the economic reach of middle-class families, according to report by the chief economist at Trulia, a real estate focused firm. Oscar Wilde once said, “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.” While many still find the city delightful, and many still flock to it, it’s become difficult to afford to live in it. With another year that saw protests aimed at the booming tech industry and its perceived effects on the housing market drawing to a close, and another election that saw several housing and development related measures in the rear view mirror, now is a good time to think about the issue.
Late last year, Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of SPUR, a Bay Area non-profit organization focused on a number of issues including housing and planning, wrote a piece for the Atlantic’s City Lab, detailing how the city got to where it is. He contrasts San Francisco with Seattle. Where San Francisco has added only 1,500 new rental units per year in the last two decades, Seattle has added 3,000 units within its existing urban area. As demand for the units that do exist has boomed, supply has remained relatively fixed. Consequently, price has gone up.
The fact that buildings themselves can’t go up may be part of the problem. An article that appeared on Business Insider earlier this year pointed out that while much of the furor over rising rents has been directed at tech firms and the effect their employees have had on demand (busses transporting Apple, Google and Yahoo employees from city centers to their Silicon Valley offices were surrounded, picketed and, in one instance, pointedly vomited on by protestors in San Francisco and Oakland), the city has a less obvious, but equally serious, supply side problem. The Business Insider article pointed out that while the city, packed onto a peninsula and bridled by ocean and hills, has nowhere to grow but up, many current zoning regulations forbid the kind of tall buildings that could create much needed housing. Meanwhile, the city’s 19th century warehouses and factories, short structures spread wide, are blocking the construction of buildings with more space for tenants.
"While San Francisco is struggling to stay affordable amid the economic boom, less fortunate communities across the country might call this a good kind of problem. In cities where declining industrial sectors have not been replaced by..."
While San Francisco real estate remains in almost too high demand, other American cities face a very different problem. These cities are mainly the smaller ones with declining industrial bases that have not been replaced by new, tech-based businesses and that the interstate highway system has bypassed. Communities across the country have seen their downtown areas sputter and fail, turning into wastelands of empty shop fronts and deserted streets. These communities face a different kind of planning conundrum: should they focus on downtown revitalization or refocus their efforts on attracting big box stores and other large-scale commercial development to open spaces on their outskirts?
In an excerpt from the book Happy City featured on the website Salon, the work of Joseph Minicozzi and the firm Public Interest Projects is described. In an effort to spur interest in reviving the downtown area of Asheville, N.C., the firm looked at the amount of property and sales tax revenues the community stood to gain from a repurposed downtown building and a big box store on the edge of town. What they were trying to get at was how much bang per acre these two types of commercial development could generate. The numbers indicated that the downtown building would pump as much as seven times the money into community coffers as the sprawling new development. The same held true when they looked at the number of new jobs created per acre.
It’s worth thinking about as communities across the country strive to improve the lives of their residents.
As GSPP students begin the search for summer internships and jobs, those with an interests in planning, housing and economic development have a lot of avenues to explore.
Inspired? Confused? Outraged to your very core? Feel free to leave a (respectful) comment below or to submit your own post to either Paula.Wilhelm or BChristopher (at) Berkeley.edu