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


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.


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.)


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.

Russell Brand is a mediocre spokesman for some important ideas


Of course I enjoyed watching this interview of Russell Brand, which Gawker says may spark a revolution.

Brand is right about a lot of things. He’s articulate and cutting and Paxman gets what he deserves. The questions aren’t very good, and Brand’s shtick is perfectly tuned to Paxman’s condescension. So it’s satisfying to see him practically jumping out of his chair and bringing the heat. And it’s satisfying to see him disrupt the staid and practiced drama of this kind of an interview.

But that being said, I’m really not that impressed. Brand is a celebrity calling for change in vague terms. I agree with many of his positions. Global and national inequality are huge issues. We are indeed destroying the environment at a horrifying pace. The political systems in the US and UK have deep, deep problems. Part of the solution involves looking inward. Good for Brand for pointing all this out, and using his celebrity to do so. But there are people working day and night to advance these same ideas in much more practical and specific ways. It might seem like they’re losing the battle, but can you imagine how much worse things would be if these people were not engaged? We might have a Koch brother as president. (Instead they’re just funding the opposition.)

None of this would be a big issue were it not for Brand’s exceptionally lazy and dangerous attitude about voting. There is absolutely no justification for this. It is a position I can only imagine someone holding if (a) they are so ensconced in privilege that they do not recognize how enormous their privilege is or (b) they are so at the margins of society that they’ve decided to check out completely. Brand is certainly the former, notwithstanding his working class background. Either way, not voting has zero validity as a political strategy. It’s true that our democratic systems have been disgustingly abused and rigged, but if you think, for example, that there is no difference between G.W. Bush and Obama, you must be very rich and comfortable indeed. Our system is not dysfunctional enough to boycott elections. If you think it is, you haven’t seen a dysfunctional system.

Oddly, voting is one of those things with a value that may be hard to appreciate until you don’t have it. Living in and visiting places where people are truly unable to vote or even express their opinions gives one a special appreciation for the privilege of these small but meaningful powers.  If you are in a country that has outright vote rigging, I can see the purpose of election boycotting. Brand is not in that position, and he’s lying to himself and everyone if he says so. It’s painful to hear him suggest that he is. People have laid down their lives again and again, in the United States and elsewhere, to obtain suffrage. It disrespects their legacies to shrug your shoulders and suggest that none of us should vote. Yeah, millionaire celebrity Russel Brand, of course you don’t think it matters. But don’t promote your ballot box passivity as a viable strategy for life. People in far more vulnerable positions than you will be the ones who suffer.

One thing I can’t abide is people who don’t acknowledge their privilege, or people who have privilege and refuse to try their best to use it for good. If you can vote in one of the most powerful countries in the world, do so! (But don’t stop there, either.)

PS I will say that that was one of the greatest smirks I’ve ever seen at the beginning of the interview.

My op-ed from the weekend on the globalization of protest

It was published last weekend, but I was too busy to post it! Here’s “The Global Imagination of Protest,” by me and Anya Schiffrin, my co-editor for From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring. Take a look:

NEW YORK – When graffiti appeared last spring on a wall near Tunisia’s interior ministry reading “Thank you, Facebook,” it was not just praise for a social-media company that had facilitated the country’s uprising. It was also a celebration of the sense of shared experience that defined the Tunisian revolution – and the many other historic protests and revolutions that erupted in 2011.

As we discovered collecting essays for our new book From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring, one of the defining characteristics of the new age of protest is the dovetailing of the desire and the ability to connect – across neighborhoods, cities, countries, and even continents. In every contributor’s country, a new awareness of shared destinies and of a global community permeated protest movements. Social-media technology was one tool that advanced it; but so was a reconceptualization of the meaning of public space, and the view that a plurality of ideas is superior to dogma – that the act of collaboration is as important as the outcome. Read more.

America’s 99% are rich by global standards. So what?

Photo: Paul Stein, used with a Creative Commons license. Click photo for info.

I’ll admit that it has crossed my mind: there is a small flaw in the “we are the 99%” slogan adopted by Occupy Wall Street. By global standards, most of us Americans are actually the Richie Riches of the world, even those of us living paycheck to paycheck — or unemployment check to unemployment check.

This has been the source of some criticism of the Occupy movement in the last few weeks. Some have even claimed that America’s 99% is the world’s 1%. Take, for instance, this reddit-style poster linked on The Daily Beast. Suzy Khimm of The Washington Post has tracked down some number-crunchers who showed that, accounting for purchasing power, the idea that the bottom 99% of Americans make up the world’s top 1% is not quite right, but that even the poorest Americans do occupy a privileged income decile vis-à-vis the world.

It’s an interesting and important observation. Global inequality is a serious issue, ultimately far more important to humanity than domestic American inequality. But to the extent that it’s being cited to implicitly discredit the protesters, it stinks like hamburger meat left unrefrigerated beneath a Zucotti Park tarp for a week.

For one, “we are the 99%” is a slogan for a domestic political movement, so it really shouldn’t be held to this global standard. It is a fact that the wealthiest 1% of Americans control 40% of the country’s wealth and the top 1% of income-earners take in more than 20% of the income. Those are horrendous figures (and are, in a sense, made more horrendous by the global picture — a tiny percentage of Americans control a vast amount of global wealth). Pointing out that OWS protesters would be big balling out of control if they moved to a developing country is not very useful — they live here.  It’s akin to criticizing a movement to stop air pollution in LA because Ulan Bator and Peshawar are X times worse. Does that mean Angelenos are spoiled for wanting clear air? Clearly not.

Another important point is that income, even adjusted for purchasing power, is not the sole or even most important indicator of well-being. This discussion has been gathering steam lately, as more economists point out the inadequacy of GDP (analytically similar to income) as a holistic data point. Bhutan has famously pioneered a different measure with its Gross National Happiness.

A more detailed comparison of the average American’s well-being to the world will have to wait for when I have way more time on my hands. But let me explore this anecdotally. I’ve been to a grim locale or two in my day — places that recently emerged from civil war, and some of the poorest countries in the world. But in the contest for grimness, the depressed corners of America are right up there with the shantytowns of developing countries. If you’re a poor American with a service job, you might be able to buy a used car, which is an unimaginable luxury for much of the world. That is little consolation when you live in, say, an American housing project where the threat of violence is ever near, unemployment is rampant, education options unsatisfactory, and — perhaps most importantly — the possibility of upward mobility is very small. This may be an extreme example, but I think it illustrates that subjective factors matter, as do indicators other than income.

Then there is the matter of the burden of poverty in a rich country, which is not a new subject. W.E.B. Dubois put it so succinctly in The Souls of Black Folk that I don’t think I need to elaborate: “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”

So the 99% slogan works as a domestic statistic, and it also works as a shorthand for the experience of most Americans, who may be in the world’s top deciles of income earners, but are not necessarily among its happiest — whether you consider happiness as a nebulous term or as a collection of a bigger basket of statistics.

I don’t think most people pointing out the flaw — from a global perspective — in the 99% slogan are doing so to discredit the Occupy protesters as a bunch of whiners. But I can see the observation being marshaled for that argument. And that would be a shame, not only for the domestic movement, but for the push for greater global equality. Whatever you think of Americans, the 99% or the 1%, those protesting for greater equality here are almost surely the most likely to participate in a similar international agenda.

HT Dayo Olopade, without whose tweets and posts today I would have been unaware that this discussion had evolved so much, or read the WaPo post linked above.

Asserting citizenship as a Muslim

The founding fathers said it: "President George Washington, who, in a letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, declared that the United States, 'gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.'" - from MoJo piece by Matteen Mokalla.

Make sure you read Matteen Mokalla’s piece from Mother Jones today about the absurdity of the “Ground Zero Mosque” debate and how it shows just how far our attitudes toward Muslims have pulled this country away from many of its ideals. You may remember Mr. Mokalla from past posts on this blog, where he answered questions about Iran’s election, articulated the ridiculousness of not translating “Allah” in news reports, and where I described riding shotty with him as we campaigned  for Obama in southern Ohio.

Which is, incidentally, where the key vignette in his post appears. Continue reading

Referendum Kenya

The big vote is tomorrow. (Pretty good article (I think) by Gettleman.)

In addition to the news, here’s what I’m watching: anti-apathy clips from Kuweni Serious :

(Browse through their stuff for some others featuring Makmende, like this one where dude is complaining about government efforts to encourage birth control.)

(HT to LL.)

7 great quotes from Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom

Bust of Mandela. Photo by RMLondon. / CC BY 2.0

Everyone should read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography! In fact, you probably already have. But I’m a little late to the game and just did it, finally. Long Walk to Freedom is deeply inspiring. It’s the story of an unbelievably strong man who remained a freedom fighter in every aspect of his life, whether he was free or jailed, whether he was trying to dismantle apartheid or simply trying to get Robben Island’s prisoners access to reading materials. More than that, though, the book is a wonderful model for anyone fighting for a just cause against overwhelming odds. Mandela is a master at balancing long- and short-term goals, making smart compromises, and not letting emotion supersede tactics. Perhaps the most moving part of the whole book is Mandela’s willingness, in the end, to partner — in the service of the greater good — with the same people who stole almost everything of personal meaning from his life.

For these reasons, Mandela’s book has lessons far beyond the anti-apartheid movement. I can think of applications from the United States to the Middle East to China and Tibet. Luckily for us, he offers up many quotable passages that provide food for thought. Here are my seven favorite, with a note or two on how I think they have broader applications. Continue reading

A Marshall Plan for Africa? Hmm…

I am feenin’ for my podcasts lately, but expensive bandwidth means I rarely get to download to my heart’s content. I took advantage of a recent Safaricom promo to get updated on all the old episodes of NPR’s Planet Money, one of my favorites. On that recent 18-hour drive from Nairobi to Dar, I had more than enough time to catch up on them.

The episode called A Marshall Plan for Africa had me intrigued. It is a criticism of Jeffrey Sachs’s approach to poverty alleviation (big amounts of planned aid) that is quite different, as far as I can see, from Sachs’s arch-critic William Easterly’s position. In the podcast, Glenn Hubbard, a former economic adviser to the Bush administration, describes his vision for lifting Africa out of poverty. Basically, he wants a Marshall Plan-style lending program to fund Africa’s middle class. (He argues that the Marshall Plan was a lending program, not an aid package.) Continue reading

More on Mwalimu

There’s been some interesting debate on the relevance of Julius Nyerere in the comments field of my blog (thanks to the input of the great TZ blog louder than swahili). On the subject, this week’s East African had a nice column about the ambiguity of Nyerere’s life and contributions, check it out. It’s hard to sum up Nyerere’s real contribution to Tanzania, but I remain impressed by his vision, which almost singularly among leaders of his era transcended tribe and the other constraints that colonialism foisted on the continent. I got more convinced of that after watching the documentary “Mwalimu: The Legacy of Kabarage Nyerere” at the Kenya Film Festival last week. (This film has almost no presence on the internet, which is unfortunately not too big of a surprise for something coming out of TZ.)