Why SF Housing Slips Like Sand Through Our Fingers
By Joel P. Engardio
What do Groundhog Day, the boogeyman, Whack-a-Mole and the phrase “like sand slipping through your fingers” have in common?
They illustrate San Francisco’s perpetual housing crisis.
Groundhog Day: HBO played homage to Bill Murray’s classic movie about life in a time warp with its recent documentary San Francisco 2.0. I thought HBO might say something unexpected and truth-telling about decades of failed housing policy and San Francisco’s refusal to build for the future. But the film was a rehash of the typical NIMBY narrative: A city under siege by tech workers who drive up housing prices, push out deserving residents and destroy neighborhood character. It felt like a remake of the 1978 KQED documentary Pushed Out For Profit. The only difference was the 1978 film waxed nostalgic for 1950s San Francisco while HBO’s 2015 version idealized the 1970s. When will we stop lamenting a lost past and start building the housing and transportation infrastructure our kids and grandchildren need?
Boogeyman: A proposed 10-story development above a BART station dubbed the “Monster in the Mission” includes affordable housing and only displaces a Burger King. But it will attract more boogeyman tech workers, who in reality are humans capable of compassion and an interesting personality (I married one). Some are even artists. In the 1970s, hippies and gays were the outside invaders blamed for ruining San Francisco. We can’t keep newcomers out, so we should plan for their arrival instead of attacking them for a housing crisis of our own making. Yet voters are being asked to pass Proposition I for a moratorium on new housing in the Mission. Why do we keep pursuing “solutions” that ignore economic principles and exacerbate the problem?
Proposition F chases another boogeyman. Did Airbnb cause property owners to prefer tourists to rent-controlled tenants? Or are landlords reacting to the policies that distorted the housing market long before Airbnb existed? If we want more landlords to rent to full time residents, we need to address the underlying reasons why they aren’t. As for the legitimate concern of too many single-family homes becoming hotels, Airbnb should be regulated legislatively – not with a proposition that can’t be amended for evolving needs.
Whack-a-Mole: For every market distortion we try to club with increased restrictions, something worse pops up. We have to be honest about the role of rent control in our housing crisis, especially when politicians want to expand it to cover every property (not just what was built before 1979). To be clear, we must keep our current version of rent control because too many people rely on it as a lifeline. An abrupt ending would be inhumane. Yet it’s a mistake to think more rent control is better, given the unintended consequences that have befallen us since 1979. Plus, it only benefits people who already have housing. We can’t change the rules on people in rent-controlled units today. But each natural vacancy moving forward needs reforms like means testing, subsidies or contracts that expire after a set number of years to allow for a reasonable renegotiation of rent.
Like sand slipping through our fingers: We keep tightening the grip on property owners – forcing landlords to let tenants add more roommates is the latest example. But that only causes us to lose housing units like sand slipping through our fingers. Beleaguered landlords refuse to rent at all, adding to the thousands of “ghost units” in San Francisco. Given how expensive it is to build new housing, shouldn’t we first give landlords incentives to rent their empty units?
Housing is also lost through our penchant for height restrictions in the name of neighborhood character. Supervisor Katy Tang wants to incentivize development along westside transit corridors to produce more middle-income housing with a mixture of added density and potential for some height increases. It’s great news for the average family, long ignored in San Francisco.
We must ask where will today’s elementary school students live as adults? What about millennials starting to marry and have kids? If we don’t honestly talk about the housing crisis – and change our mindset -- we risk denying our children and grandchildren a future in San Francisco.
That is the price for a city preserved in amber.