Editor’s notes

Pub date December 13, 2011
WriterTim Redmond
SectionEditors Notes


Twenty years ago, if you mapped income distribution in San Francisco on a standard graph, you’d see what the economist call a bell curve: At one end were a small number of very poor families, at the other a small number of very rich, and in between the bulk of the city was somewhere roughly close to what you could call middle class.

Take the 2012 census data and make that graph today and you get the opposite — it’s becoming a U-shape, with more people in poverty and more gross wealth and not as much in the center.

You could see that on stark display at City Hall Dec 12.

At 10 a.m., the City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee heard several hours of testimony on the alarming rise in the number of homeless families. In the end, the Mayor’s Office agreed to find $3 million to help out.

At 1 p.m., the Land Use and Economic Development Committee heard testimony on a plan to build more housing — on the waterfront, for the top one quarter of the top one percent of the richest people in America, people who will need more than $3 million just for the downpayment on their new digs.

The plan calls for 145 of what Port of San Francisco officials call “high end” or “luxury” condominiums, along with 400 underground parking spaces. “It’s going to be tight on three levels,” a Port official testified. “Most of it will be valet parking.” The developer wants to raise the height limit along the waterfront for the first time in half a century.

The Port, which controls some of the land, will get a cut of all the condo sales, maybe as much as $500,000 a year; that money will go to rebuild old piers and fund a long list of Port projects — including the America’s Cup. (Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union was sitting next to me at the hearing, and he shook his head at that bit of news. “Condos for rich people to pay for boats for rich people,” he said.)

A long list of people, including former City Planning Director Alan Jacobs and former City Attorney Louise Renne — spoke against the project. Jacobs and Renne both explained that this was single-site spot zoning that would change the half-century consensus that the city should “decrease height toward the waterfront so the people can see and enjoy the meeting of land and water,” as Jacobs put it.

Jacobs gave the committee members his one “absolute truth” about city planning: “If a developer accepts and knows that a rule can’t be broken, then it will be economical to build within it. If he or she think it can be changed, then suddenly it will not be economical. It’s called greed.”

In other words, Simon Snellgrove, the developer of 8 Washington, could make money with a lower-scale project that conforms to existing height limits. But he can make more money if the city gives him a big honkin favor.

But it’s not all about height limits for me. It’s not even about the fact that the project will chop up a tennis and swimming club that serves about 2,000 more-or-less middle-class people in an effort to make life nicer for about 145 very rich people.

It’s about what kind of housing we’re building in San Francisco. “Every study that we’ve seen shows that we’ve vastly overbuilt housing for the wealthy,” Gullicksen testified.

And we’re not just talking the ordinary wealthy here. The most compelling testimony came from Frederick Allardyce, a real-estate broker from Sotheby’s who said he had been involved in the sale of about 70 percent of all luxury condos sold from Washington St. to the waterfront. He gave us a glimpse of who would be living — sort of — at 8 Washington.

The cheapest condos would require an income of $469,000, a downpayment of $625,000, and another $493,000 of liquid reserves. Monthly payment: $13,699. The higher-end units would require an annual income of $1.029 million and a downpayment of $6.5 million.

“That’s not the one percent,” he said. “It’s the top one quarter of the top one percent.”

And, Allardyce explained, most of the people who buy that level of property are so rich that they don’t actually live there. It’s a second or third or fourth home, a place to stay a few weeks out of the year. And since the project involves chopping up a tennis and swim club used by some 2,000 people (who are nowhere near that rich), “you’re eliminating the use of that land by the general public” in favor of a tiny elite.

The developer says that the city will get money to build 33 below-market-rate units. That’s nice; by that standard, 80 percent of the new housing goes to the richest people in the world, and 20 percent for everyone else. That percentage ought to be reversed — and until it is (or at least, until we have a plan to build enough affordable housing for the people who really need a place to live in San Francisco) I can’t imagine why we’d want to be doing favors to feed the greed of developers.

What we’re doing in this city is making life harder for low-income people who are increasingly living on the streets and doing big favors for the spectacularly wealthy. There’s no sanity in our housing policy — except to turn San Francisco even more into a city of the rich.