Housing: the urbanist approach

Pub date November 28, 2007
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION We’re in a tough spot as a city when it comes to housing costs. As the price of living here goes ever higher, we lose everything special about the culture of San Francisco.

Here’s the dilemma: more people want to live here than we are creating places for.

Why do people want to live here? Cultural tolerance. Economic opportunity. To be part of a community that doesn’t feel like the rest of the United States. The same mix of reasons that caused most of us to come here.

But we are barely adding to the supply of housing. On average over the past two decades, we have produced around 1,500 units per year. The city would need to produce between 3,000 and 5,000 units per year to keep housing costs from going up. If we added 5,000 units a year, after 70 years we would have the same density as Paris.

We already know what happens when people in a city faced with high housing demand decide they like their community the way it is and do not allow new construction. You get Carmel and Colorado’s Aspen and Boulder. You get an ultraritzy resort town.

San Francisco is on the way to becoming the largest city to go down this path.

The easy answer is to blame gentrification on the high-rise condos for rich people. But the only thing that would gentrify the city faster than building those condos is not building them.

People are moving here. If they are not allowed to be stacked in little concrete boxes on top of other little concrete boxes, those with more money will displace those with less money, through the simple process of being willing to pay more for the Victorians and all the rest of the building stock. That’s why older housing units don’t sell for less than new housing units.

What do we need to do? Increase housing at all levels, but in a smart way:

Concentrate the housing in places with excellent transit and within walking distance of stores.

Add as much to the supply of affordable housing as possible. This costs about $200,000 per unit in subsidy. So if we want to help 10,000 families, we need $2 billion; if we want to help 25,000 families, we need $5 billion.

Carefully convert some of the historically industrial areas into new, mixed-use neighborhoods.

Stop requiring developers to build extra parking. Developers should never, ever be required by the government to build extra parking, since each space costs $40,000 to $75,000.

Require excellent design of new buildings. If people felt confident that most new construction was going to contribute as much to the city, in the long run, as the old buildings do, we would be halfway to solving the problem.

All of this, of course, happens to be the same strategy we need to embrace to fight sprawl and its attendant outcome, global warming. Not one more inch of farmland in California would need to be developed if we were just willing to put growth inside existing cities. But this requires fundamental changes in the way we have been planning our cities for a long, long time.

Gabriel Metcalf

Gabriel Metcalf is executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.