EDITOR’S NOTES Everybody’s talking about the new data on the price of housing in San Francisco, which is in part because everybody talks about the price of housing in San Francisco anyway and in part because the figures are just so alarming. The figures show that the median rent in San Francisco is $3,100 a month — and while it’s hard to know exactly what that means, since some three-bedroom and larger units are in the mix, most San Francisco rentals are smaller, and I’m hearing tell of people paying more than $2,000 for a studio.
Insane. This hurts everyone, particularly small businesses. The much-reviled payroll tax doesn’t really affect the bottom lines of most businesses, but the cost of housing absolutely does, since it drives up the cost of employing people. High rents are way worse for business than high taxes. I don’t get why all the downtown types refuse to see that.
At any rate, I was listening to KQED’s Forum this morning, and the guests, including an economist from Trulia, the real-estate analysis outfit, kept talking about the “healthy” housing market. Again: Insane. This housing market is about as unhealthy as any capitalist market anywhere in the country. It’s increasing the wealth gap, impoverishing thousands, forcing vast amounts of displacement and making the city less diverse. In what economic universe is that “healthy?”
When I write about this sort of stuff, my beloved trolls all say that’s just how markets work and that any form of regulation (say, rent controls on vacant apartments) just makes things worse. (Not true — see Berkeley in the 1980s.) But it all raises a fun question, and gives me a chance to make a very immodest proposal that is no more outrageous than the existing situation for people who want to live in San Francisco.
Maybe we should take housing in this city out of the private market entirely, regulate it like a public utility — and assign it by seniority.
Remember the college housing lottery? First year, you got stuck with a small dorm room, just like everyone else. You lived with it, and with the roommates they assigned you; rich student, poor student, we all lived in the same place under the same conditions.
Sophomores had a little more choice, and by senior year you could pick the best housing on campus. Nobody complained about unfairness; that’s just how the deal worked.
So imagine if everyone who first arrives in San Francisco (or graduates here and enters the job market) had to live in a small SRO or mini-studio. Twitter executive, nonprofit worker, unemployed person — all of us start out with the same housing conditions.
After you’ve stuck around a while, demonstrating a commitment to the community, you move up — say, after five years you get a one-bedroom apartment, after ten you get a flat, and after 20 years you get a house of your own. People who start families would get more space, but on the same type of schedule. Everyone pays the same monthly rent for the same size place, and eventually, after time, vests into home equity.
What should cities encourage? Stability, community involvement, respect for elders … all of those things fit into this plan. People who might otherwise never meet each other would be thrown into living in the same places; high-paid professionals would learn what life was like for working stiffs (and vice versa).
It’s an eminently fair way of allocating a scarce resource. Anyone have a better idea?