The Times nailed it with their article on Bay Area housing wars

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New homes with a view of the Alemany Projects in Bernal Heights

I’ve been waiting for a deeply reported article like today’s Times piece, “In Cramped and Costly Bay Area, Cries to Build, Baby, Build.”

No, not everyone who supports building lots of market-rate housing in San Francisco, asap, is a Reagonomics-spouting spoiled Libertarian who doesn’t understand the values of community and diversity.

And not everyone who opposes lots of market-rate development is a spoiled knee-jerk lefty who doesn’t understand the basics of economics.

Today, at least, the Times seems to get that, and I wish more people did. When I moved back to my native San Francisco a year ago I was a bit shocked to see, close-up, just how bitter the affordable housing debate had gotten. Wading into the argument online about Proposition I, the ultimately failed ballot measure that would have temporarily halted market-rate building in the Mission,* you had to steel yourself. If you said you thought it was a bad idea because it wouldn’t bring down rents, you were a 1% apologist who wanted to whitewash the Mission. If you calmly stated you supported a pause in development so that the community had a moment to strategically respond to the unprecedented pressure on housing costs — without losing its soul — you were an anti-progress oaf who feared change and trafficked in identity politics.

Yeesh.

The crazy fact is that while these warring sides apparently despise each other, when you talk about the kind of future they want, many on both sides are chasing the same thing. Practically everyone is disgusted that you have to be rich to move to San Francisco now, that the city has changed from being an outpost of diversity to an exception to the growing diversity in the state, and that the things that made the city so notable as a countercultural mecca are being overshadowed by ritzy eateries and billionaires’ pied-a-terres.

Take this essay by Zac Townsend . If you hate the pro-development crowd, see if you can just digest the vision he has before passing judgment on his proposed solutions. He wants an affordable and diverse city. Don’t most of us?

When  I read something like Townsend’s post, I initially find very little to really disagree with. My understanding of economics (and I think at this point in my “career,” such as it is, I can say I’ve got some kind of understanding of economics) is that supply and demand are real forces. They have no moral compass and should not be trusted with shaping society — FOH Ayn Rand — but they are real and you have to contend with them in any policy solution for a malfunctioning market. Low supply and/or high demand will put upward pressure on prices. San Francisco has both. There’s not much you can do about the demand — you can’t easily make people not want to live here. (The guys I saw this week sitting on some steps on Valencia and shouting insults at the people getting off one of the Google buses may disagree.) But you can increase the supply — whether luxury or not — to take some pressure off price. How much supply will reduce the price how much is up for debate, and the subject of plenty of studies.

So basically, I agree with the mechanics of what Townsend argues. You have got to build.

But, but. There are so many buts. And they are legitimate and cannot be written off as bad economics. It’s just not as simple as building more housing, of any kind. Townsend cites New York City as an inspiration. But that city is a great example of how increasing supply sometimes does not push down prices, because it changes the nature of the demand. As CityLab reported last year:

That such a large quantity of global capital is seeking real estate assets in cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami Beach, Chicago, Boston,Seattle, Washington D.C., Sydney, London, Singapore, and Dubai means that the “laws” of housing supply and demand are not functioning like the simple model presented in an introductory economics textbook. According to the prevailing theory, adding more housing supply at any price point should ease the upward pressure on rents across the board, and ultimately lower prices. But the overseas demand for such housing assets, for both investors and buyers, has of late been basically insatiable. In Manhattan, Billionaire’s Row is one very shiny example.

So there’s this vast global demand for pricey real estate, which will not be satisfied by 5,000 or 50,000 new luxury units. Or, adding such units might bring prices down, but only within the market for luxury apartments.

Another issue is that if you build luxury condos in a non-luxury area, it changes the kind of people who want to live there. This is the classic dance-movie trope wherein an evil developer wants to tear down a community center in the hood to drop a glass-and-steel yuppie hive on top and wipe the community off the map.

(No, I’m not suggesting that we can breakdance our way out of the housing crisis, as amazing as that sounds.)

Would building more lux condos in San Francisco just free up more housing and push the price down? Or would it change the market so much that you’d actually have a new “product” — newly luxury-ized neighborhoods — with prices even higher than before? In economics-speak, this would mean supply goes up but then the demand curve shifts to the right, making the effect on price ambiguous. Both outcomes are possible, actually. I often think that most of SF is so luxury-ized already that it can hardly get worse — the richest people in the world already want to live here. But maybe I’m wrong. A lot of the new buildings that will go up in the next five years are in the southeast of the city, which really hasn’t been luxury-ized that much (last time I use that word, I promise). Those neighborhoods will probably change as a result. I’ll bet that rents may even go up across the board in Bayview as shiny apartments on the water become a more prominent local feature than the Alice Griffith housing projects. That’s what has happened in some New York neighborhoods, where red-hot gentrification continues faster than ever as new lux condos pop up left and right.

Yet another stumbling block for the fast development argument is that San Franciscans in formerly working class neighborhoods are entirely justified in being suspicious of the Build lobby’s insistence that we must not stand in the way of progress. There is something predatory about the kind of change that is happening — has already happened — in the city. The people who might make some of the wealthy newcomers uncomfortable have been chased out. Some days, it feels like they are actually being assassinated. Some of the neighborhoods being unwillingly changed are communities that suffered through decades of official neglect, that years ago were rocked by the crack epidemic and then decimated by the war on drugs, where nonwhite people rented and bought houses with their hard-earned money because they were not allowed to live elsewhere. To acknowledge so little of that history and simply assert, over and over again, the laws of economics can feel like a slap in the face. I believe there may even be a sense  in some communities that, spiraling rent be damned, you won’t roll over for a group of people who have no respect for your struggles and sacrifices. (Such an extreme position is only tenable if you’re a home-owner or are lucky enough to have a rent-controlled apartment.)

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Finally, the issue of character and quality of life is not as precious and privileged as some of the more vocal YIMBYs would have you think. In fact, the whole NIMBY vs. YIMBY debate can be a total red herring — a lazy shorthand to avoid a drawn-out argument. Is there a time when you’re justified in being a NIMBY? Of course there is. When someone wants to dump toxic waste in your backyard or run a freeway through your local park, you do what you can to avoid that outcome. And San Franciscans have done that pretty successfully for a long time, succeeding in preserving our breathtaking open spaces and shutting down ridiculous mid-century freeway plans. It’s prudent to evaluate measures and projects on a case-by-case basis, rather than resorting to a slogan for making decisions.

It’s tough stuff, and the enmity makes it tougher. Further, the problem exists throughout the Bay Area. From this crucible of distrust has emerged a situation that is benefitting no one except the speculators. Maybe today’s Times article, which so deftly grasps the complexity of the issue and refuses to demonize any side, can be the start of a more fruitful dialogue.

I mean, that’s probably pathetically optimistic. But it’s given me some new energy to try bring the discussion forward.

 

*This is such a controversial issue that I won’t be surprised if a commentator takes issue with my summary description of this old-news ballot measure. Like discussing climate warming or Israel-Palestine, there’s no consensus on even some of the most basis facts.

San Francisco: the “threw it on the ground” city?

Nathan Heller has a New Yorker piece about dissatisfaction with the tech industry in San Francisco. I always watch my step around Heller’s work these days, because he’s so damn persuasive – he had me completely won over with the Bay Area tech industry booster article he wrote last October, despite my better instincts. (With some distance, I’m less swayed than I originally was.) And he’s produced another well written, satisfyingly reported piece. It stands out for being descriptive among a crop of prescriptive and polemical essays on the topic, even if one still feels that his sympathies are a bit more on the side of The City’s transformation.

There was one passage I particularly liked, a surprisingly poetic nibble at the conflict between the burgeoning “progress”-oriented culture in SF, and Northern California’s political heritage:

Does a society that regards efficiency and advancement as its civic goal have any true investment in the mechanisms of representative public life? The West Coast radicalism of the twentieth century arose from the revelation that, in moments of extreme frustration or injustice, power could be claimed and wrongs could be corrected by exiting the system.

One implication of the article is that “exiting the system” may no longer be a viable means of claiming power. Which relates, I think, to a complaint I hear from people who visit these days that the city feels like a bubble. That observation may be on target, but at a point in time it was the right kind of bubble – a city that lived on its own terms, and was a true pioneer for counterculture and the rights of marginalized people. A paragon of “think global, act local.”

What people are complaining about when they call San Francisco a bubble these days is something a bit different. In some cases, their annoyance may still have the tinge of an old mainstream, reactionary prejudice against the city. However, I think it is also energized by a feeling that San Francisco is very much part of the system from which it would like to think it stands at a distance. Indeed, it has become something of a capital of that system in a way that—for all its bank towers and corporate law firms—it never fully was in the past. To those critics, it’s a city where aesthetes and other lovers of rare, fine things can enjoy themselves while feeling a bit morally superior.

It’s not really the city’s fault that this has happened. The system it once shunned has overtaken it: global American-style capitalism all but rules the world. What San Francisco has done wrong, however, is fail to recognize the size of the macro forces outside its control. It often still seems like the best-intentioned San Franciscans—those I would agree with on a huge variety of political issues—still believe that simply standing their ground will be enough to get the city through this storm, mostly unchanged. What they can’t seem to see is that they are quickly losing the fight. In failing to adapt, they are allowing the city’s defining values to slip away forever. They may lose their only chance to have the city change on their terms.

Will San Francisco shift from being an activists’ redoubt to being a “threw it on the ground” city? I refer, of course, to the pathetic character portrayed by fellow Bay Area native Andy Samberg:

The reason we don’t respect this hilarious character is not that he’s militant, but because, with his careful hip wardrobe and staid, middle class activities, he is obviously not separate at all from the system he is so angry with.

I hope that doesn’t become a good metaphor for San Francisco in 2014. I’m sure there are those who would argue it already has.

Gentrification: Same Story from Harlem to the Bay

When I was walking a friend home in Harlem near 118th and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in May, a mumbling, stumbling man crossed our path. I caught a few of his words.

“Back in the day, a white person would get robbed at this hour in Harlem,” he said, among other things. (I’m white; my friend is a black grad student; the man was black.)

I was annoyed on a personal level, but I did not feel surprised or wronged. I can hardly blame people in the neighborhood for feeling more than a little uneasy about the incredibly rapid changes that are happening in Harlem, especially south of 125th Street. Harlem has long been the capital of Black America and a beacon of culture in America’s most repressive times, even though it has also seen (so I read) its own ups and downs. And suddenly, it is becoming full of chain stores and upscale cafes full of outsiders.

I thought of the mumbling man when I read about “root shock” in Harlem in this article in the Times. One of the most startling things in this article is one longtime Harlem resident’s claim that he was happy that shootings happened in May, because it would at least scare off the newcomers.

I got to thinking: A big part of the problem is not only that the neighborhood is becoming more expensive or that new people are moving there, but also the insensitivity of some of the people who are gentrifying. (As a white grad student, I’m one of those people, whether I like it or not, though I am trying not to be so insensitive.)

Rather than adjusting to the neighborhood and accepting the existing stores and institutions, people want to bring what they are comfortable with to the new environment and keep Harlem’s African American culture as a sort of decoration on the top of their routine of wine-bar- and Starbucks-patronizing.

It’s like, if you move to Harlem, fine, but can you not walk your poodle while chatting on your cell phone and sipping Starbucks and throwing all the symbols of your white, outsider power and oblivion into everyone’s face?

I think sentiments like those of the guy who said he was happy there were shootings actually come, in part, from people living through Harlem’s most hopeless days, and knowing all the pain and struggles and strength it took to stay in the neighborhood when crack cocaine was at its peak, and then seeing that history erased and other people building their fantasies of cheaper good living on the ruins of that. (Here’s a great video clip on about the same subject.)

I’m not sure people who live through gentrification and hate it — and that includes me in my native Bernal Heights, San Francisco — really know what they want or how they can stop big changes, in the context of a capitalist society.

But I am sure that if the neighborhood was being changed in a way that respected what was already there and had some continuity with the past, the anxiety people felt would not be so acute.

So Turns Out I Still Love the 415

Mission lowrider

Carnaval in San Francisco always means 65 degrees in the Mission District, sunshine and seabreeze, pepper trees and pupusas, low-riders and samba dancers.

I went to Carnaval last weekend in the hope of being taken back to childhood memories of Carnaval in the late ’80s and early ’90s — a time I’ve idealized as the last years of a San Francisco dream of diversity, low-cost living and creativity. What I found was that, despite all the changes — demographic shifts and rising costs — San Francisco still has a lot of soul.

Back in the days of my reminiscence, as everyone knows, the Mission was a bit different. Fewer of the Victorians were renovated. The Valencia Street Gardens housing projects were there and gave Valencia a different character (it wasn’t the epitome of post-dot-com Mission trendiness it is today). There were a lot of down-and-outs on Valencia Street — I remember that my brother and I loved to go eat there because the ramblings of the crazy people were as good as any street theater. It was thrilling.

The Soviet-style Army Street projects loomed ominously above Harrison and Army. I remember them as massive towers, and I still see the graffiti murals on their sides in my mind’s eye.

Now, the Valencia Gardens are being rebuilt (to the City’s credit they will include even more units than they originally did). The Army Street projects were demolished and replaced with affordable housing of a smaller scale.

Dolores Park was run by drug dealers who slanged their wares on the J tracks. (Now hippies do it semi-legally as they walk amongst the hipsters in the park).

It’s all neither here nor there, really. Good changes have, I suppose, come with the bad. But it is often jarring to see how many things have changed, and to see how much the street and community life has been affected. Carle Nolte accurately summed up the changes in a January Chronicle column on the changing San Francisco in which he described it as a “boutique city”.

So even as I searched for memories of my childhood Carnavals last Sunday, I walked to the Mission from Bernal Heights with a sense of apprehension. Would anything of the old neighborhood be left?

Indeed, plenty remained. Twenty-fourth Street is still covered with murals and lined with local business. Reasonably-priced taquerias, corner stores, football games (on an improved field in Garfield Park), sunbleached Victorians — they are all still there, in the midst of the Priuses, dogs, yoga centers and remodeled houses of some of the newer residents.

The colors were impossibly vivid. The families were all out in full force. Jeans were sagging. The “SF” emblem was everywhere — ball caps, t-shirts, customized sneakers, tattoos. Pullovers read “Giants”, “Gigantes” and “Tha Sco” above a throwback Warriors motif. Hairstyles were long braids, ponytails and slicked back hair.

There were also the ubiquitous red garments and conversations about gangbangin’. That’s been part of the Mission for a long time. Even though gangs are undoubtedly a negative influence on the community, so help me God, I felt that old thrill at seeing that element. Gangs are a reflection of an illness in a working-class community, but at least they point to the existence of a community at the same time: You can’t get cancer if you’re dead. If only that energy could be channeled into a more positive kind of unity.

The performers were as great as ever. I only caught the tail end of the parade, but the street fair was an overwhelming mix of different cultures. A highlight was the samba band on 20th and Harrison: beleza! Further down a man walked by and handed a half-smoked, still smoking joint to some women in a booth. They laughed and thanked him. A 25-person drum circle in a tent was spontaneous and listenable — and the axé (spirit) was in full effect.

Seeing it all, I felt that these streets remember everything that have happened on them, and that they are ready for — and can accommodate — more and changing memories. San Francisco moves on. It’s up to us — the people who happen to live there now (or have roots there) — to decide in which directions.

I’ll tell you one thing:

If I ruled the world and everything in it/Sky’s the limit

I’d move all the families back to San Francisco that were once here, and we would all run this city with community-based institutions and locally owned businesses, and send our kids to college, and live by principles more noble than turfs and dollars.

But we don’t get to do history over. Luckily we have something great to work with, even if it is drastically different from the city we once knew. So the question is, where do we go from here?