When a newspaper columnist covers a piece that ran as part of a blog — albeit part of a very respected blog connected to a respected publication — that’s pretty huge. About a week ago C.W. Nevius wrote about a blog post by Gabriel Metcalf that ran on Atlantic Cities, part of the online universe of the Atlantic Monthly. Gabriel Metcalf is the executive director of SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research) aka people that think well planned built environments are a good thing.
It’s a really good article to think of in context to things that have been happening in Alameda regarding development and affordability of housing (aka people getting their rents raised by significant percentages). The piece is entitled “The San Francisco Exodus” so it’s good to think about in terms of how Alameda wants to plan moving forward with the large development projects on the West End and whether it wants to position itself as another Oakland. And in this context “another Oakland” mean a place where individuals and families flee to from San Francisco because of the cost of housing. From the original piece:
…San Francisco was a great place to live. Partly from historical inheritance and partly from the work of activists who chose to make the city the focus of their activism, the city remained a walkable, urban paradise compared to most of America.
A great quality of life and a lot of high-paying professional jobs meant that a lot of people wanted to live here. And they still do.
But the city did not allow its housing supply to keep up with demand. San Francisco was down-zoned (that is, the density of housing or permitted expansion of construction was reduced) to protect the “character” that people loved. It created the most byzantine planning process of any major city in the country. Many outspoken citizens did—and continue to do—everything possible to fight new high-density development or, as they saw it, protecting the city from undesirable change.
Whatever the merits of this strategy might be in terms of preserving the historic fabric of the city, it very clearly accelerated the rise in housing prices. As more people move to the Bay Area, the demand for housing continues to increase far faster than supply.
Railing against Google buses, fancy restaurants or new condos—the visible signs of gentrification—will do nothing to stop San Francisco from becoming more expensive. These are not causes of the rising rents; they are symptoms. The root cause is that many people have chosen to live in San Francisco, and we are now all competing with one another to bid up the rents. As long as this remains a desirable place to live in a region that is producing a lot of jobs — while at the same time we fail to produce enough housing to accommodate the demand — then housing prices will continue to rise.
And the thing about it is Gabriel Metcalf is not calling for the building of subsidized housing, no he’s talking about building more housing in general to relieve the pressure off the limited housing market so that prices can go down overall.
CW Nevius writes, and we’ve seen a bit of that with the two rent raising complaints in this year alone when in the past there had been relatively no cases that needed to go to the City Council to issue a letter to the landlord, what the constrained housing market does to renters:
Finding a rental unit has turned into a blood sport, people are paying to live in laundry rooms, and even if you find a place, you aren’t safe. The hot market is encouraging local landlords to invoke the Ellis Act, which allows them to evict all tenants and convert buildings to condominiums.
“Two-thirds of the town is renters,” he says. “And if you are renting, you are living in terror. If your unit gets Ellis’ed, you are going to have to leave town.”
In addition to San Francisco simply increasing the number of housing units it permits annual, in the end what Gabriel Metcalf calls for is for all cities in the region to do their part:
San Francisco can’t do it alone, but it needs to do its part. The three big cities of the region (San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland) have disproportionately more opportunity and more responsibility to absorb a major percentage of the region’s population growth for the simple reason that they have the room and they have the existing transit infrastructure. But smaller cities should be asked to do their part, too. If San Jose succeeded in becoming more urban, and if smaller cities such as Palo Alto and Berkeley were willing to grow more, some of the pressure would be relieved from San Francisco. We need our own “metropolitan” strategy that ties the region together in better ways, and creates walkable, diverse communities in more locations.
Speaking of affordability, someone sent me this family budget calculator developed by the Economic Policy Institute which tells you how much a family should make in a metro area in order to be able to cover the basic necessities for living. The expectation is that a single parent with one child would need to make at least $61K in order to afford to live in the Oakland-Fremont metro area.
I haven’t seen a lot of two-bedroom units in Alameda go for less than at least $1500 for rent so I guess the assumption is that the family is living in a one-bedroom unit or in a crappy neighborhood.