Editorial: The flight from San Francisco


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.




How the SFBG can write this editorial AND oppose pretty much every single new housing development in SF is pretty beyond me.

It really indicates a profound lack of understanding on the big picture. If you artificially constrict housing production, you directly effect the flight of all those precious cool people.

Posted by Mirrorman on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

Who pray tell is going to pay for the subsidized housing you so desperately desire if the city doesn't attract the rich and successful? The "creative people" you hope to attract are attracted to SF not just for the good weather, and scenic vistas, but because there is a monied class that can afford them the ability to explore their artistic impulses. That may mean they can sell their art/music/whatever or it may mean that non-skilled service jobs are relatively abundant to allow them the freedom to pursue their calling.

And it's not like Oakland is outer Siberia. Oakland is a great city and if the "creative people" need to move there for financial reasons, then so be it. It's just a quick BART ride away and if someone has to move it is not a great hardship and may even help to improve Oakland to some degree.

Cities are dynamic and ever evolving. It's what created the SF we have today which is why it is "still a great urban center".

Posted by Guest666 on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

Stay out of the rain.


San Francisco Bay Area milk sample has highest amount of Cesium-137 since last June — Almost double EPA’s maximum contaminant level

Posted by Guest on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

The problem with San Francisco and other cities. 1. People of higher incomes wanting to buy or rent housing in the city. 2. All others see number 1 and see who gets in. 3. Doesn't matter what race, gay or straight or education class, money talks and walks. Build more types of housing for all incomes, types of building to house offices, lofts, warehouses, etc or watch the city became one big enclave of money with their workers.

Posted by garrett on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

Build more housing. It's really as complex as we make it.
Nimbys will say the laws of supply and demand dont apply here and building housing here will detract from the enjoyment of the existing residents
Build more housing, of all levels.

Posted by Mirrorman on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

So first- without tax incentives etc. and with high business taxes, companies will leave SF. Do you think Twitter and Zynigia would have stayed for the weather? Without them we loose tax revenue- from everything that they do pay, to what their workers spend during the day and more on the weekends etc. for those that do live in the City. Without their income, we have no money to spend on low to middle income housing.

Second- do we really need more restriction on development and tenants rights? Seriously we have some of the biggest hurdles for developers to jump through already. We make it tougher, they will just say screw it and go elsewhere. AS for tenants, it already takes an act of Congress to evict someone, do we really need to get a UN mandate as well now?

3rd- The BG thinks we need to spend more on housing- great- what programs would you propose cutting since we are already in the hole for this FY.

Posted by DNative on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

SF already has strict limits on the amount of office construction (Prop. M), and already has rent control, with stringent controls to prevent evictions and to limit rent increases. SF can't enact rent control on vacant apartments (by state law), so it has limited ability to restrain increases in rents on vacancies. And SF doesn't have the money to build enough subsidized housing so that everyone can afford to live here.

SF should allow more high density market rate housing, with more inclusionary affordable housing paid by developers. It's not a perfect answer, but it is one we can afford.

And BART should run late on Friday and Saturday nights, if not every night, to lessen the divide between SF and the East Bay.

Posted by Dan on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

And who pray-tell dictates market rate? The overnight IPO millionares? The 100k a year and up tech workers? The 50-60k a year workers? Service industry people? Blue collar workers? Studios are going for 2k a month in the Tenderloin... Is that market rate?

This city desperately wants to live in a bubble, the rental market is desperate, speculative, and predatory, and there's nothing you can do about it. It doesn't care about you.

Posted by parvo on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 6:09 pm

But the money generated by new market rate housing pays for more affordable housing, which houses more people who can't afford market rate.

Posted by Dan on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

Trickle-down real estate economics, huh? Oh please, Mr. Facebook IPO millionaire, please pay $3000 a month for a one-bedroom so I can maybe at some point afford a studio! Think of the little people!

Posted by Parvo on Apr. 11, 2012 @ 11:32 am

cannot afford to live in Hawaii or Bermuda.


Posted by Guest on Apr. 11, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

You need to bring back a viable middle class in San Francisco. Until and unless you have enough good paying jobs,,,you're only going to have the wealthy,,,and the commuters from East Bay that serve the wealthy,,,the latter unable to afford the rent in the city proper. Housing is nothing without enough good jobs.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

is trying to tell us all what makes SF "cool."

Posted by Troll II on Apr. 10, 2012 @ 10:40 pm

There's a lot of complaining about who's going to "pay" for affordable housing. This is how investments work. The city makes an investment in housing, usually through a bond, which it eventually recoups in property taxes or the sale of assets/operations. The alternative is a city that becomes ever richer, whiter, and more boring.

One commenter mentioned tax breaks for twitter and other companies keep the city running, but how many jobs have they created workers can afford the astronomical rents here? How many facebook millionaires will live in the city and contribute to its tax base when then can have mansions on the peninsula?

On a personal note, my wife and I, who have lived in SF for a combined 10 years, have seen our wages declined, our rents increase, and the cost of food and energy soar over the past year. This is with an apartment that is below market rate thanks to the cluelessness of our landlord. The high rents and bad jobs, combined with the terrible schools, poor public transportation (in the western half), complete lack of open space (in the eastern half), and lack of affordable entertainment mean that we've stopped looking for new jobs in the Bay Area and will be moving to Portland. It saddens us to leave, but we need a city that has all the things SF used to have before the wealthy started driving everyone else out. Housing reform alone won't solve all these land management issues, but it would be a good first step.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 11, 2012 @ 9:51 am

It rains all the time and it has a higher unemployment rate than San Francisco.

And it's also 90 miles inward - like Sacramento.


Posted by Troll II on Apr. 11, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

People who have an expectation of open space in the most densely populated city on the west coast would do well to move to portland.

Posted by Bob on Apr. 11, 2012 @ 10:48 am

Cool, dude. Have fun with the 1% technocrati when all the working people with pretty normal expectations have left. I've heard there's some great $4500-a-month 2 bedrooms being developed for the next round of "affordable" housing.

Posted by Parvo on Apr. 11, 2012 @ 11:30 am

His comment was about open space. Yours was the same tired, baseless line of bullshit about how terrible, rich computer people with lots of money are taking over.

Posted by Longtime Lurker on Apr. 11, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

Why seek to micro-manage the demographics here?

It's not like SF needs more bad artists, musicians and writers. You can't spit in the street without hitting one.

Desirable places cost more. Changing that is like peeing into the wind. You get wet, smelly and it's futile.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 11, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

We have multiple intractable problems: 1) lack of affordable housing which electeds have seen as an "issue" since I moved here but have failed to actually do anything about, systemically or strategically 2) a failed local mass transit system that electeds have seen as an "issue" since I moved here but have failed to actually do anything about, systemically or strategically, and 3) a failing park system which electeds have seen as an "issue" since I moved here but have failed to actually do anything about, systemically or strategically. These important components of a quality city life do not magically improve themselves, yet timidity at the Executive and Legislative levels of city government prevents us from even talking about basic and strategic revenue planning and the need for taxes. We are a City fixated on cutting budgets - a wholly unprofessional, unsustainable and deadly way to run a City. I urge our City leaders to buck up; hire in some proven, high performance talent to help San Francisco get on the path to long term, productive fiscal health. I believe that most citizens would welcome a robust, mature, adult, dialogue about what needs to be done to help us get where we need to go.

Posted by Guest observer on Apr. 11, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

High crime, a lousy economy, collapsing home prices and the city is nearly bankrupt with an incompetent mayor and city council.

Over my dead body.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 12, 2012 @ 6:25 am

Hi Bruce,
You sure stirred up a pack of hornets with your logical editorial. A city that draws millions of tourists per year, due to it's history and reputation, can lose it's soul when it gets too expensive to keep them and the next generation of artists. Further, most homeless studies show that the majority are natives who can't afford to live in the city in which they were born.

The real-estate speculators and landlords are like soul-suckers, who ride the attraction and despoil the fermentation process.

Most boards in the city only meet once a week, or less often, but the Assessment Appeals Board meets twice a day, five days a week, giving out tax breaks to millionaires.

Check out the daily agendas and count how many millions are depreciated by these crocodiles.

Posted by Guest David Grace on Apr. 13, 2012 @ 4:43 am

"On Tuesday, the San Francisco Business Times’ J.K. Dineen broke the story that Brugmann and Dibble are selling the Guardian’s office building for $6.5 million, an interesting development given Brugmann’s historic aversion to the corporate world, developers and speculative real estate."


Posted by m5w on Apr. 30, 2012 @ 12:35 pm