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Nobody Can Figure Out How to Fix San Francisco's Housing Crisis

Inside the heated war of words surrounding affordable housing in San Francisco.

Photos by the author.

For better or worse, San Francisco has come to embody the term "gentrification." Between the city's tech-fueled boom, astronomical increase in the cost of living, and struggles with the influx of tech workers, the tale of SF's skyrocketing housing prices has become the biggest continuing news story in the region so far this decade.

We're at a point where headlines about evictions of elderly and disabled people due to property owners desiring to cash in have become so commonplace that outrage has been replaced with malaise and existential dread that our community will never be the same again. We're way past fatigue and closely approaching new-normal status. "It saddens me that the Mission that I grew up in is no longer what I remember," Mission resident Julio Cesar told me. "The feeling of the culture that made the Mission famous for what it was is no longer there. It's all starting to blend into the same type of culture."

Housing policy and economics may not seem like the most rousing issue, but in a city besieged by an eviction epidemic and skyrocketing rents, the absurdity of the circumstances has emotions running high. The city's residents are being displaced at alarming rates. According to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, the number of no-fault evictions in San Francisco went from 664 in 2012 to 1432 in 2013—a 116 percent jump. For comparison, Los Angeles, a city with a population 4.5 times the size of San Francisco, had 376 such evictions. Regardless of whether its residents are being evicted or simply priced out, the Mission's demographics have drastically changed in recent years, with over 8,000 of its primarily Latino residents leaving and being replaced by mostly whites.

The average one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco goes for about $3,500 per month, up by almost $1000 from two years ago. And the market for buyers is just as capable of producing jaw-dropping numbers. In order to purchase a median price home ($743,000) in the Bay Area you need to earn just above $140,000. And to afford the median price of $1,045,000 for a home in San Francisco, you would need to earn $200,000, putting you in the 94th percentile of American income.

The causes and effects of this crisis have been established. Now, the focus is starting to shift to how we're going to fix our problems. The Bay Area gentrification wars have begun to enter their solutions phase.

At the beginning of this month, a heated debate took place within San Francisco's city hall centering on a piece of legislation up for vote. The legislation proposed would've enacted a 45-day moratorium on all market-rate housing and all housing not 100 percent subsidized below market rate in the Mission, one of the most affected neighborhoods by gentrification and the city's affordability crisis. The Mission Moratorium was put forth with the intent of endowing the city government with the power to buy 13 plots of lands in the neighborhood to build affordable housing upon.

This piece of legislation was submitted by San Francisco Board of Supervisors member and stalwart of the city's progressive scene David Campos, whose district includes the Mission. Campos says the moratoriums is "about land preservation."

The public comment before the moratorium vote was a seven-hour long, contentious affair fraught with numerous outbursts and raucous chants. Members of the community were allowed a couple minutes before the board to express themselves on the issue, almost all of whom supported the moratorium. Many citizens unleashed venomous anger at the hearing, including a Holocaust survivor who began his comment by saying America is the most fascist country in the world and told the board "you are like Gestapo fascists." Others expressed themselves in a more theatrical fashion, singing Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" and Lionel Ritchie's "All Night Long."

Despite the intense fervor in support of the moratorium, the legislation did not pass. Seven out of 11 supervisors voted in favor of it, but since the bill was considered emergency legislation, it required nine votes to win rather than the normal six. Supporters of the moratorium found solace in defeat. "Even though it did not pass, all of us see it as a victory for the community. We were able to get seven out of the 11 supervisors to side with the community," Campos told me over the phone a couple weeks after the vote.

Outside of city hall, one of the biggest anti-moratorium and pro development activists is Sonja Trauss, principal at San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation (SFBARF). "It was never going to pass; no moratorium is ever going to pass," she claimed. "It didn't pass in Emeryville, Walnut Creek, and Foster City. Moratoriums are very popular to propose because they allow a majority of electeds to vote for them, without any of them worrying that it will become law."

Trauss founded SFBARF, which has plans to eventually become a Political Action Committee, for the central purpose of promoting the rapid building of housing. "All the signs of shortage are all around us," she says, "but no one really seemed to be taking seriously that we need a massive influx of units." If a building can serve the basic purpose of housing someone, SFBARF is all for it.

Trauss has encountered a sizable amount of hate from the opposition and has faced accusations that SFBARF is actually a front secretly working on behalf of the developers. When I pressed Trauss on the details of her organization's operations and funding she willingly obliged. SFBARF spends its money on Trauss' income, transportation, food, a part-time assistant, and printing. She disclosed that donations to the organization include $5,000 from the San Francisco Moderates, a group that shares Trauss's philosophy on housing and runs counter to the city's progressives, $3,600 from an unnamed donor, and $10,000 from Jeremy Stoppelman, the co-founder and CEO of Yelp. Trauss is currently strapped for cash and looking to raise $82,000 which will go toward a variety of ends such as rallying for housing projects, pushing for certain housing legislation, and putting on events.

Photo via Flickr user FunGi_.

When I asked Campos why he would propose the moratorium if it was bound to fail, he pointed out that it provided political capital behind other affordable housing initiatives. "The movement we see in the allocation of more funding, in putting together a concrete strategy for how to identify properties, none of that would be happening without what happened at the community forum."

The proposed moratorium legislation was the first housing crisis solution that generated a level of attention on par with rent increase news. The legislation energized and amplified the long-running debate about whether or not building more housing will alleviate and possibly fix our situation. The pro-moratorium camp, mostly drawing from the city's progressive spectrum and led by Campos, believes we should only be building affordable housing. He says, "When there's a lack of affordable housing, the solution is to build more affordable housing."

One of the most cited academic voices in this debate is UC Berkeley Urban and Labor Economics professor and author of The New Geography of Jobs, Enrico Moretti. In a phone interview with me, he says the points put forth by the pro-moratorium camp are false. "There's a growing and homogenous body of academic research that points exactly to the opposite. If you allow market-rate housing in a city you experience lower increases in rent."

Campos's counterpart on the anti-moratorium side is Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose district covers areas like the Castro and mostly white and wealthy enclaves like Noe Valley and Glen Park. Known as a "moderate" by San Francisco standards—on a national spectrum he is more or less a typical liberal democrat—Wiener certainly hasn't been moderate on the issue of housing, nor with his opposition to the moratorium. "This moratorium will not stop a single eviction and will not bring down the cost of rent," he told me.

Photo via Flickr user rick.

In a Medium post following the announcement, Wiener came out swinging, writing "A moratorium is likely to have precisely the opposite effect by increasing the housing pressure cooker that's triggering displacement and reducing the resources available to build affordable housing." He also heavily criticized the pro-moratorium camp's reasoning: "Proponents spin the moratorium as a mere 'pause on luxury housing,' but it's much more than that. It will stop pretty much all housing production, including projects with a significant percentage of affordable units, group housing, single room occupancy buildings (SROs), and student housing."

Still, the possibility of a moratorium is not completely dead. It could come to fruition in November via ballot measure, a frequent strategy for political activists in San Francisco. According to local real estate blog SocketSite the proposed measure, which has not yet garnered the requisite number of signatures to receive approval status from the city's Department of Elections, would institute a year-and-a-half-long ban on building, destroying, or changing any building with five or more housing units. Buildings with 100 percent below market-rate housing would be exempt.

The measure still needs 15,000 signatures by July 6 in order to be approved for the November elections. The groups in charge of getting signatures have started to ramp up their operations and are making a huge push. Scott Weaver, the proponent of the moratorium ballot, told me he expects the proposed measure to achieve its goal.

Having a robust discourse and ongoing conversations addressing the housing crisis at large and the many aspects of it forms the foundation of solving the problem afflicting the region. But could the acerbic side of these discussions stifle and hinder potential progress?

When I spoke with Supervisor Wiener, he accused Supervisor Campos of cynically conflating his points about supply and demand with supply-side economics. Wiener's main point, he says, is that we need more housing supply to meet the huge demand, and claims Campos is misrepresenting his words as a way to make it seem like Wiener is pro-rich.

In the next four months one of the biggest stories of the San Francisco housing crisis will be the $300 million affordable housing bond ballot measure in November. Due to its crossover support and the absence of public opposition as of this writing, the bond, which is the largest in San Francisco history, has a good chance of passing despite needing to overcome a two-thirds threshold. Both Wiener and Campos endorse the measure. The bond was originally proposed to be $250 million, but the Mayor's office tacked on another $50 million to be specifically used in The Mission after political pressure and action, which Campos credits to the moratorium vote and input from the pro-moratorium community.

Mayor Ed Lee says, "The bond will provide the resources we need to speed up the construction of housing for low and middle income families." His office plans to commit a total of $2.7 billion towards making San Francisco more affordable and has set a goal of 30,000 new and refurbished housing units by 2020.

When I reached out to Tim Colen, Executive Director of the San Francisco Housing Coalition, his take was ardently pro-bond. "Pass the damn bond, it's the right thing to do. It's gets the money fastest to where it's needed. All of these things are not rocket science."

What does $300 million buy you? Not enough to have widespread effects.

According to Colen it costs about $500,000 to produce one unit of housing, affordable or market-rate. So best-case scenario we'd end up with 600 units. According to recent census data, the average number of residents in a San Francisco County household is 2.31. If that math holds true, these units would accommodate a mere 1,386 residents. When you factor in the cost of buying land on some of the most expensive real estate in the country and the number of years before residents will be able to move into those units, that age-old phrase "too little, too late" comes to mind.

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Supervisor Campos, while a fan of the measure, thinks it doesn't go far enough and isn't the only solution. "We're happy about the bond being increased, even though it's an important step, it's not enough. I'm supporting a countermeasure that Supervisor John Avalos has been working on to introduce $500 million. We probably need about $600 million in the mission alone." says Campos. "We need a marshall plan for the Mission, we need a marshall plan for San Francisco around housing."

When I asked Corey Cook, Professor of American Politics at the University of San Francisco, about what the future holds for San Francisco, he told me, "Absent substantial public investment in affordable housing at the federal, state, and local level (much of which will not be forthcoming), changes in state law to protect tenants (which it appears the legislature will not enact), and regional cooperation to build affordable and moderate income housing particularly on the peninsula, I think the best we can hope for is some mitigation of the most extreme social dislocations in the city—using the limited policy tools to prevent evictions, utilize public resources to build affordable housing, support residents in public and subsidized housing with high quality integrated social services, and maintain strong inclusionary zoning policies and hope to wait out this cycle."

It's very possible that San Francisco will never be the same again. The city has been overrun by young tech workers, raised on the liberal ideals of their boomer parents and buoyed by the promise of cashing in on the tech boom. It's not like San Francisco transplants are inherently bad people; surely, many probably would tell you they sympathize with the people they're driving out. But hey, everybody needs a place to sleep. And supply and demand dictates that he with the most bitcoin wins.

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