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.

Glory days: a different perspective on neighborhood change in Harlem

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A few weeks ago an old-timer whom I’ll call Bill struck up a conversation with me on a bench outside a laundromat on 116th street. According to him, the neighborhood is “gone” and will never be the same.

It’s the type of comment you hear a lot these days in rapidly changing places like Harlem, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Oakland.

But Bill wasn’t talking about the new lux apartments and throngs of moneyed and increasingly white restaurant-goers on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. For Bill, the glory days ended definitively some 55 years ago.

In an exchange that began with some unsolicited advice on how to correctly hold my baby daughter, Bill revealed that he had spent the formative portion of his 73 years just a block from where we were sitting. The father of nine children, he had lived around the world as an adult and only recently returned to an apartment building on 116th. Continue reading

The significance of a small tour of the Mission’s gentrification

Buzzfeed ran a video following around Kai, one of the main characters in the pick-up soccer game flap that took on a kind of remarkable life of it’s own last year. Have a look:

I liked the clip. I’m not sure it lives up to the headline Buzzfeed gave it, but I relate to Kai’s sentiments. I’m also a San Francisco native, originally from Bernal Heights, which is a Mission satellite neighborhood. I too pine, oddly, for the days when I fell asleep listening to Hells Angels revving motors and, more sweetly, the sounds of gospel music from the now-defunct church catty-corner from my mother’s house.

But this clip may not do much to convince the unsympathetic about why anyone should care about the kind of change that has now all but taken over San Francisco’s once-working-class and and economically mixed neighborhoods. Let’s not beat around the bush: here’s a sampling of an uncharitable reaction to Kai from another soccer-playing native San Franciscan who was never fully convinced by the whole brouhaha over the pick-up pitch argument.

  • He romanticizes the loud motorcycle bar, give me a break

  • “The wealth is directly related to people’s displacement from their homes” Weak argument. The real issue is the eviction laws (specifically Ellis Act), not wealth/gentrification.

  • He says: “20th & Mission, um…not alot has changed” Hmmm, dude’s already weakened his position

  • “Dia de los Muertos street art juxtaposed with luxury restaurant + luxury condos on top.” Weak again.

  • Turf soccer field: “Not until it got nice did the permits start coming” No shit, no insight here.

  • On Natives vs Tech worker soccer incident: “Instead of deciding to play with us they decided to play on half the field… so there’s still this segregation of people”. No, weak assessment again. When you play pick up soccer you can generally include everyone. Though it’s not all that fun to play with kids so gotta draw a line somewhere. But more so those tech workers came that night to have a team practice. It wasn’t the time to switch to pick up and include everyone in some utopian gesture. So the solution of playing separately but sharing the overall field was a good solution. Not, as we are lead to believe, evidence of class segregation. Its more accurate to say it was evidence of team play vs. pick-up.

  • He says: “If you know something is wrong, you can’t just accept it for what it is. And if there’s a law in place that shouldn’t be in place, change it.”  Finally we get to something good and useful. I support this.

  • Dude has to tighten up his argument and get to the crux if he wants to be a community leader. Otherwise he just ends up railing against vague malevolent forces of change. Don’t get caught on the wrong side of change. Change is going to happen. Don’t resist it, learn how to harness and direct it.

To which I say, Damn, some of those are pretty good points. Most of them are arguable, at the least. There’s really no need to rehash what the soccer pitch row did and didn’t represent — much time spent on that already here and here and here . But there’s one thing I think my friend missed in this reaction: the validity and value of Kai’s memories of the way things were. Here’s what I would say if someone made a video of me standing on my corners pointing at the new high-end businesses (I’m accepting invitations btw):

Some people talk about all the new restaurants and bars and expensive property like it’s just a net gain for the neighborhood. Like things were blighted, and now they’re better. But you have to understand that the Mission wasn’t blighted. That could have been true of somewhere else, but not here. There were a lot of great mom and pop businesses here, and they’ve been replaced by things that cater solely to a luxury market. I’m not saying you can stop that kind of change, but showing the changes can maybe help people relate to the sense of loss we feel — those of us who grew up around here — and think twice before assuming that fancier is better. 

My memories are not fantasies, though the new money seems to mock them. The worst thing about the soccer pitch fight wasn’t who got to play at what time and where. It was that painful moment, when someone off camera throws a “who gives a shit about the neighborhood” into the mix. In that moment, all the weight of “progress” and the power and privilege of new money came down like a giant eraser on the stories, passions, triumphs, and pain of a neighborhood that thought it existed.

Turns out, you don’t matter at all, the new millionaires seem to tell us. Oh, but we’ll hang on to some Dia de los Muertos tchotchkes. That stuff looks kinda cool.

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.

SF’s techie communes: hippies minus the politics?

An SFGate.com article from a couple of months ago, about communal living among techies in San Francisco, caught my eye recently. Have a look.

A quick reaction that is a bit too long for a tweet: I have to say I like the way these techies think about living spaces, and I like the echoes of San Francisco values in the arrangements they are pursuing. But I find it interesting that just about all their reasons for doing this — at least the quoted ones — involve them being better entrepreneurs, more “successful,” and more efficient. Political consciousness doesn’t seem to come into it, especially in any kind of more largely critical way about the economic and social status quo of America. I’m sure they all have perfectly liberal impulses on an issue-by-issue basis, but the political revolutionary impulse is missing. Technology is the ideology.

Which makes them very different from hippies indeed.

John Steinbeck’s lessons for a gentrifying San Francisco

Sidewalk graffiti on San Bruno Avenue, San Francisco. "SFC" stands for "Sucka Free City."

Sidewalk graffiti on San Bruno Avenue, San Francisco. “SFC” stands for “Sucka Free City.”

Writing about San Francisco’s changing neighborhoods — a gentrification crisis according to some, a renaissance according to others — has  become quite the fashion in recent months and weeks. I can only assume many of these journalists were inspired by my devastating analysis of census data earlier this month.

The subject has been especially popular of late, but change in San Francisco is nothing new. Even change from the tech boom(s), while reaching a fever pitch in the last couple of years, has been going on since the 1990s. And many of us who feel so pained by the loss and/or change of the City’s vibrant communities would do well to remember the variety of incarnations it has been through in the last century and a half, right up until recent decades. When my parents moved to Bernal Heights in the late 1970s, my dad remembers going to a community meeting at St. Kevin’s church on Cortland, in which some participants said they were uncomfortable that many of their new neighbors were gay. At the time, Bernal was a very ethnically mixed neighborhood, with an especially large number of Latinos. My dad reminded people at the meeting of the backlash many Latinos faced a generation before when they moved into the largely Irish Mission. The meeting took a different course at that point, he says.

Change is the only constant in San Francisco, to use an unavoidable cliché, and the City has distinguished itself by its ability to embrace it, while maintaining some sense of continuity.

Sara Brody has some interesting thoughts on this over at The Bold Italic, though I take small issue with the headline, “Don’t Let Gentrification Push You Out of SF,” since in many cases it is only the most privileged vestiges of San Francisco’s old communities that actually have a choice about “letting” gentrification push them out. Most who have moved, at least the renters, left not as a matter of taste because they couldn’t afford it any more. Involuntary movement is a tragedy, always.

That being said, though, Brody raises some excellent points, the most important one for me being the uselessness of bitterness. Bitterness about change is part of an essential paradox of San Francisco, a city more liberal and welcoming than almost any, but with a deep and almost conservative devotion to its history. This paradox is almost never resolved. I’ve met descendants of old-time Irish San Franciscans who moved out of the City in the 1960s and still lament how it will never be the same. On the other hand, there are others who stayed if they could, remained involved in the new communities, and maybe even started calling Eureka Valley the Castro. (For a good account of these diverging reactions, read The Mayor of Castro Street)

So, to get to the (damn) point of this post: I just read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the account of a 1960 cross-country trip the native northern Californian, then resident in New York, took around America with his dog. A significant section deals with his reflections on the Bay, noting what was still there, and reminiscing about what wasn’t any longer. Time and again, I found wisdom in Steinbeck’s observations that is deeply relevant — even enlightening — for considering our current times in San Francisco. He is a gentle curmudgeon, one who honors the past while accepting the inevitability of change, especially in our fast-paced times. I think he provides a model for how to relate to the changes in the City. Here are a few excerpts, mostly from his time in Northern California.

On change in mid-century America:

Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, the good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance. It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better. But it is true that we have exchanged corpulence for starvation, and either one will kill us. The lines of change are down. We, or at least I, can have no conception of human life and human thought in a hundred years or fifty years. Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain.

And on returning to northern California:

I find it difficult to write about my native place, northern California. It should be the easiest, because I knew that strip angled against the Pacific better than any place in the world. But I find it not one thing but many–one printed over another until the whole thing blurs. What it is is warped with memory of what it was and that with what happened there to me, the whole bundle wracked until objectiveness is nigh impossible. This four-lane concrete highway slashed with speeding cars I remember as a narrow twisting mountain road where the wood teams moved, drawn by steady mules. They signaled their coming with the high, sweet jangle of hame bells. This was a little little town, a general store under a tree and a blacksmith shop and a bench in front on which to sit and listen to the clang of hammer on anvil. Now little houses, each one like the next, particularly since they try to be different, spread for a mile in all directions. That was a woody hill with live oaks dark green against the parched grass where the coyotes sang on moonlit nights. The top is shaved off and a television relay station lunges at the sky and feeds a nervous picture to thousands of tiny houses clustered like aphids beside the roads.

And isn’t this the typical complaint? I have never resisted change, even when it has been called progress, and yet I felt resentment toward the strangers swamping what I thought of as my country with noise and clutter and the inevitable rings of junk. And of course these new people will resent newer people. I remember how when I was a child we responded to the natural dislike of the stranger. We who were born here and our parents also felt a strange superiority over newcomers, barbarians, forestieri, and they, the foreigners, resented us…. And we were an outrage to the Spanish-Mexicans and they in their turn on the Indians. Could that be why the sequoias make folks nervous? Those natives were grown trees when a political execution took place on Golgotha. They were well toward middle age when Caesar destroyed the Roman republic in the process of saving it. To the sequoias everyone is a stranger, a barbarian.

And on returning to San Francisco:

When I was a child growing up in Salinas we called San Francisco “the City.” Of course it was the only city we knew, but I still think of it as the City, and so does everyone else who has ever associated with it. A strange and exclusive word is “city.” Besides San Francsico, only small sections of London and Rome stay in the mind as the City. New Yorkers say they are going to town. Paris has no title but Paris. Mexico City is the Capital.

Once I knew the City very well, spent my attic days there, while others were being a lost generation in Paris. I fledged in San Francisco, climbed its hills, slept in its parks, worked on its docks, marched and shouted in its revolts. In a way I felt I owned the City as much as it owned me.

San Francisco put on a show for me. I saw her across the bay from the great road that bypasses Sausalito and enters the Golden Gate Bridge. The afternoon sun painted her white and gold–rising on her hills like a noble city in a happy dream. A city on hills has it over flat-land places. New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which can never have existed. I stopped in a parking place to look at her and the necklace bridge over the entrance from the sea that led to her. Over the green higher hills to the south, the evening fog rolled like herds of sheep coming to cote in the golden city. I’ve never seen her more lovely. When I was a child and we were going to the City, I couldn’t sleep for several nights before, out of bursting excitement. She leaves a mark.

And my favorite of all, as we wrap our heads around a city that will be changing, no matter what:

It remained the City I remembered, so confident of its greatness that it can afford to be kind. It had been kind to me in the days of my poverty and it did not resent my temporary solvency.

Some troubling demographic facts about San Francisco

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From the beautiful murals that crowd the alleys of the Mission, to the talk show you just listened to on your way home on KPFA, to the jealousy with which it guards its counterculture iconography, San Francisco has a lot of emotional investment in a particular image of the city: caring, diverse, pro-worker, progressive, conscious, sustainable, committed to equality. (Trust me, I’ve spent most of my life in the midst of it.)

As I’ve frequently written on this blog, it feels like the city (the City, if you’re from the 415) is drifting away from these ideals—in the facts on the ground if not in the minds of its residents. So I decided to poke around on the Census website and see what the statistics could tell me. What I discovered was quite stunning: the image of a city behind the curve, with some near-criminal inequalities.

In no particular order, here are the first rounds of what I found. There’s lots of additional data out there, so I hope to expand on this in future posts. Unless otherwise linked, these numbers and images are from the (amazing!) Web site of the United States Census.

 

San Franciscans are richer than Manhattanites

The median household income in SF is $72,947 to Manhattan’s $67,204, about 8.5 percent higher.

 

San Francisco may be more unequal than Nigeria

San Francisco’s Gini coefficient (the most common measure of income inequality) was about .52 in 2012 – which, according to World Bank figures, is higher than Nigeria. Here, the city does less poorly compared to others, which I don’t find very comforting. Oakland is about the same, at .52, and Berkeley clocks in at .54. Los Angeles is nearly the same as San Francisco. New York is a bit higher, at .54. Of course, America’s Gini is the highest of the advanced economies, anyway (.476, according to the Census, though different data sources give very different numbers). What is particularly striking to me is income inequality in San Francisco mapped against race, which I describe later in this post.

 

Fewer kids than other big cities

Persons under 18 years old are 13.5 percent of the population in San Francisco. That compares to notoriously kid-free Manhattan with 14.9 percent. The figure is 15.4 percent in Seattle; 21.3 percent in Oakland; 21.4 percent in San Diego; 21.6 percent in all five boroughs of New York City; 23.1 percent in LA and Chicago; 25.9 percent in Houston.

 

Not so diverse as we think

“Discover the variety of sites, shops, and restaurants that reflect the City’s great ethnic and cultural diversity.” Thus the Web site of the city of San Francisco greets the city’s visitors. Many San Franciscans do cherish ethnic diversity as a principle, and think of their city as a flag-bearer for it. While that love of diversity is wonderful, in 2013 San Francisco is not looking like much of a flag-bearer, compared to other major cities—regionally and across the country.

More white people

San Francisco is a white-plurality city, with non-Hispanic whites composing 41.7 percent of the population in 2012. (Hereafter, I’ll just use “white” rather than “non-Hispanic white”.) Few would be surprised to hear that this is higher than, say, Oakland (which is 25.9 percent white). But San Francisco is also whiter than California as a whole, at 39.4 percent. San Francisco is less white than Manhattan (47.6 percent), but New York state is far whiter than California, and when we look at all five boroughs of New York, the white population comes down to just 33.3 percent of the total.

And it really gets interesting when you put it in historical perspective: California was 57.2 percent white in 1990[2]; San Francisco 46.6 percent. In other words, since 1990, California as a state has become less white 3.6 times faster than the city.

 

Still a strong Asian population

San Francisco continues to have a very large Asian population, at 34.2 percent of the total (up from 29.1 percent in 1990). Still, this increase has been slower than the increase in the proportion of Asians in California generally, from 9.6 percent in 1990 to 13.9 percent in 2012. I am sure this observation would be enriched with some data on incomes, which I hope to add in a future post.

 

Fewer Latinos

The percentage of San Francisco that is Latino (or in the terminology of the Census, Hispanic of any race) is, at 15.1 percent, little changed or even a slight increase in the last few decades. But the city is far less Latino as compared to the rest of the state than it was in 1990. In 1990, California was 25.8 percent Latino; today it is 37.6 percent. In context, San Francisco has become less Latino as compared to the state in general.

 

Dwindling number of African Americans

The shrinking of the city’s African American community in the last two decades is one of the most remarkable ethnic shifts in the city. African Americans are just 6.1 percent of San Francisco’s population of 825,863[3] – a 44 percent proportional decrease from 1990, and a 50 percent proportional decrease from 1980[4].

But this is only part of the story when it comes to the troubling status of black San Franciscans: on the whole, they are far poorer than other groups in the city. The median income of a black household, $30,840, is just 35 percent of the median non-Hispanic white household, $89,140.[5]

The African American community in San Francisco is singularly left behind.

African Americans across the state and across the country also lag behind in median income, but not by anywhere near as much. The median income of black households in California is 63 percent of white; in America in general it is 62 percent of the white median.

The gap in San Francisco is also much larger than it is in other parts of the Bay Area.

In Alameda county the ratio of median black to median white income is 49 percent; in Contra Costa 57 percent; San Joaquin, 69 percent; San Mateo, 55 percent; Santa Clara, 59 percent; Solano, 74 percent; the Bay Area in general (the Census’s San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, combined statistical area), 52 percent.

But in this comparison to Manhattan, at least, San Francisco can take some small, cold comfort: median black Manhattanites (18.4 percent of the population) make just 32 percent as much as median white Manhattanites. Throughout the five boroughs the ratio is 59 percent.

Let’s look at the income of San Francisco’s African Americans in another way, comparing it to other cities in the Bay Area. Darker green indicates a higher median black household income. (These are absolute levels, not proportions.) Starting clockwise from San Francisco, the cities are San Rafael, Vallejo, Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, Hayward, and San Jose.

Bay Area black income

Now compare this to the median white income for these cities.

Bay Area white income

Clearly there is something different going on in each of these cities. But San Francisco really stands out in that it has a very high median white income and an extremely low median black income.

This will not be a surprise for anyone who has spent 20 minutes on Potrero Hill (which is divided roughly 50-50 between gaudily painted restored Victorians and vast rows of housing projects, and whose ethnic and racial make-up is similarly divided).

 

Some conclusions

Many of the aspects of the narratives that San Franciscans tell themselves about their city are flawed at best, and sometimes simply false. The image of San Francisco as a paragon of diversity is no longer true. It is not that San Francisco is homogenous—not by any means—but rather that compared to many other major cities in the state and the country, it is wealthier and whiter.

This doesn’t mean that San Francisco is a racially intolerant city—far from it. I have no reason to think that in this case, income data would perfectly dovetail with biases and opportunity. (Indeed, I have plenty of personal anecdotes to the contrary.)

Most of these inequalities are probably related to the lack of a useful affordable housing plan, without explicit racial overtones (though San Francisco certainly has a history of that), and lack of regional coordination in urban planning.

And the economic barriers to living in San Francisco do not mean in and of themselves that it is a qualitatively bad place to live for poor people. Income is not the only measure of wellbeing. (Though when the median household income for a demographic slice of the population is $31,000, in a city where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is edging toward $3,000/mo, it is hard for me to see how qualitatively good this could be.)

Still, these statistics show that, when it comes to being progressive, talk is cheap. The numbers are out of whack with the rhetoric in San Francisco. Maybe it’s time to come to grips with the kind of city we really are: unequal with racial overtones, inaccessible to families, a follower rather than a leader in regional demographic trends of greater diversity.

Hm, maybe this could be related to the way we are seen elsewhere…