The big housing lie

Pub date March 27, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL San Francisco’s official housing policy is pretty clear: the city is supposed to encourage the construction of new homes for local families who are getting priced out of the local market, for the local workforce, and for people who live here but are homeless or in marginal housing situations. And a full 64 percent of the new housing built in the city is supposed to be below market rate.

Nowhere in any policy document or political pronouncement by any city official is there a claim that San Francisco needs to build more housing that will attract very wealthy people who live somewhere else.

Yet that is exactly what our current policy is doing, new evidence collected by activist Marc Salomon suggests.

Salomon did something that city planners should have done a long time ago: he performed a detailed analysis, based on public records, of every new residential construction project during the past 10 years in District 6 (where most of the new high-end housing has gone). He cross-checked all the addresses with the Department of Elections’ voter files to see how many of the residents of those pricey condos had lived in San Francisco previously. His data is posted on; it shows that of 2,390 registered voters who were in 3,675 new units in 2006, 790 had been registered in San Francisco as of March 2002 and 1,590 had not.

That means that a full two-thirds — 66.81 percent — of those residents came here from somewhere else. Put another way, only one-third of the new housing that was built in District 6 went to San Franciscans.

"These numbers," Salomon writes, "indicate that the city is pursuing the exact opposite priorities and policies of what the Housing Element of the General Plan calls for in planning for new residential construction."

Or as housing activist Rene Cazenave told us, "Not only are we failing to meet the requirement that 64 percent of new housing be affordable, we’re not even helping existing San Franciscans."

Yes, there have always been and will always be new arrivals to San Francisco; this is a town of immigrants, and those people need places to live. But only a tiny fraction of the people who have moved here during the past half century could ever afford this sort of luxury housing. It’s a different population the developers are attracting — and this deserves a serious policy debate.

San Francisco is losing some of its most valuable population by the day. Families are fleeing in droves; first-time home buyers who want to settle here for the long term are driven away. San Francisco’s workforce — service-industry employees, public-sector workers, small-business people, and the vast majority of wage earners whose incomes are inadequate to buy a million-dollar condo — is finding it impossible to live here.

That’s a major civic problem. And the housing that’s getting built is doing little to solve it.

Salomon freely admits his figures aren’t perfect and may be off by a few points. But even if he’s off by 25 percent or more, the results are still alarming. And the city needs to follow this up right away.

The city Planning Department needs to immediately undertake a comprehensive study of who is buying the new housing built in San Francisco — a study that looks at demographics, migration patterns, and employment. That can be compared to the well-documented housing needs in the city. And not another market-rate condo project should be approved until that study is complete.

In fact, if the city drags its feet here, housing activists should start talking about a ballot initiative that would bar the construction of any new housing that doesn’t meet the criteria and needs established by current city planning policy. San Francisco doesn’t need to give up valuable land to create high-rise havens for rich retirees, speculators, and the owners of corporate pieds-à-terre. *