Heading East: The flight from San Francisco

Pub date April 10, 2012

EDITORIAL There is no simple free-market solution to gentrification and displacement. There’s no way a crowded city like San Francisco can simply rely on the forces of supply and demand to protect vulnerable populations. And there’s no way the city’s flawed housing policy can prevent the loss of thousands of San Franciscans — particularly young, creative people who help keep a city lively — from fleeing to a town where they can actually afford the rent.

Richard Florida, the famous social and economic theorist who coined the term “creative class” argues that artists and writers and geeks and musicians are the forces that drive modern economies. His pioneering 2002 essay in the Washington Monthly was titled “Why cities without gays and rock bands are losing the economic development race.”

Florida’s something of an elitist and he ignores the contributions that tens of thousands of others (including retired people, union members and nonprofit workers) make a community. He idolizes tech culture and often ignores issues like class and race.

But he’s got a point: Nobody who’s doing anything cool wants to live in a city where everyone is rich and everything is clean and boring. And that’s the danger San Francisco faces.

Just go over to Oakland for a few days and talk to all the people who were once part of this city’s cultural scene. They’ll tell you what anyone with any sense knows: You don’t attract creative people to a city by giving out tax breaks for corporations and building fancy office space. The rock bands that Florida talks about aren’t going to stay in a city because it has high-end jobs for people with advanced degrees. Artists need a place where they can afford the rent.

San Francisco is still a great urban center, by any possible standard, and has all the qualities of diversity, openness, energy, politics and fun that have made generations of immigrants from all over the world want to make it their home. But at a certain point, housing becomes more important than all of the other development issues that local government can address.

Take Andy Duvall, a musician we interviewed who was part of San Francisco for 15 years before he was literally priced out of town. For half of what he was paying in the Mission, Duvall has more than twice the space in Oakland — and the situation is just getting worse. While most of the country is still mired in a deep housing slump (and parts of San Francisco are facing a foreclosure crisis), rents in this town are soaring, beyond the affordability of almost anyone who currently lives here. According to the city’s own statistics, only about 10 percent of San Franciscans can afford the rent on a median market-rate apartment. That means if they’re evicted or lose their homes, they have to leave town.

The supervisors held a hearing April 9 on affordable housing, and the message was profound: “Affordable housing preserves the neighborhood in more ways than one; residents are the foundation on which the economy is built. From any angle, if we can’t afford to live here, there is no city,” observed Val Sinckler, a Western Addition resident.

But while the mayor is working to attract companies that will pay high-end salaries to people who can afford to pay far more rent than the average San Franciscan, he’s a long way from coming up with the money to even begin to mitigate the problem.

An effective policy to preserve San Francisco requires strict regulation (to prevent evictions and displacement), a mandate that commercial developers build housing for their workforce and that residential developers meet the needs of low- and moderate-income residents — and a large investment of public money in affordable housing. If Lee isn’t willing to talk serious about those three crucial elements, then he’s presiding over the decline of one of the world’s coolest cities.