Commodifying urban real estate hurts the culture of big cities

From the NYT's "London's Great Exodus"
Ryan Chapman

When urban real estate is turned into merely a commodity — or just another safe place for the wealthy to park their cash in uncertain economic times, while also providing pied-a-terres in which to crash a few times a year — it tears at the social fabric of big cities such as San Francisco, New York City, and London.

That’s been the message in some excellent, widely circulated articles in the last week or so — including David Byrne’s Guardian article about New York City and “London’s Great Exodus” in Sunday’s NY Times — and it’s one that San Franciscans should be thinking about as we work through current eviction and gentrification battles and vote on the 8 Washington project through Props. B&C in a few weeks.

It’s also something that we’ll be discussing at Housing for Whom?, a free community forum that the Guardian is sponsoring on Oct. 23 from 6-8pm at the LGBT Center, 1800 Market Street, featuring opponents and proponents of those measures along with other activists and experts.

While both London and New York City may be ahead of the curve in letting capitalists and the real estate market drive away creative types and destroy what once made those cities great, San Francisco isn’t far behind, particularly given its current housing and economic development policies.

Another striking article on the issue comes from San Francisco Urban Research Association Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf, who wrote an article published in The Atlantic on Monday. It repeats his previous calls for San Francisco to build 5,000 new housing units per year and opens with a line many of us have uttered: “My friends keep moving to Oakland.”

But Metcalf (who hasn’t yet returned my calls for comment) also takes this familiar observation and his promotion of market rate housing a step further, basically calling for San Francisco and Oakland to start acting as one city: Rich people in SF, cool people and workers in Oakland, ala Brooklyn and Manhattan.

“If we were one city, San Francisco could spend some of its incredible wealth on the things Oakland needs, like hiring more cops and teachers, not to mention more transit connections between the two cities,” Metcalf writes. “This is not an argument for annexation but a call to think about the answers to our problems from a regional perspective. We can’t solve affordable housing or transit access within the limits of any one city.”

Actually, I’d argue that we can and should solve these problems within our borders rather than just ceding San Francisco to the wealthy. Yes, regional planning is good, and yes, there are things that San Francisco can do for Oakland (perhaps starting with not poaching it professional basketball team).

But regionalism isn’t the same thing as plutocracy — and San Francisco is still worth fighting for rather than just letting it go to the highest bidders.



one of perception. If we view the entire Bay Area as one large city, in the same way that people look at similarly sized cities as London, NYC, LA, Houston and Chicago, then many of these very local issues and preoccupations go away.

So for instance SF just becomes an expensive neighborhood or borough within the Bay Area, just like Hampstead in London, Bel Air in LA, the upper East-Side in Manhattan, and so on,

People would not get nearly so worked up if they saw Oakland as being more like Brooklyn or Hoboken NJ. Are the burbs of the north, east and south bay that much different from the commuter areas of eastern NJ or western CT? Or Surrey in England?

The cities and counties of the Bay Area should be working together as part of the one urban area that they are, rather than playing beggar-thy-neighbor because of political fiefdoms and balkanization.

(NB: Rich people can be cool too, just so you know Steven. In fact the most interesting people I know are all successful. Being smart and interesting tends to have that effect.)

Posted by Guest on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

you are playing at geographic homogenization

not surprising considering that the "most interesting people" you know are rich

you see everything through one lens

Posted by racer x on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

That's mostly because we balkanized into nine different counties, and then there were various incorporations within them.

What matters more than a historical accident is whether it makes any sense now. And for some purposes the BA acts as one city. BART, for instance, is easily the most efficient form of transit and that has a lot to do with the fact that it is a BA-wide system.

The point Metcalf is making is that it is ineffective for each little fiefdom to have it's own housing issues when, if we merge strategies, everyone can find a place where they best fit.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

the fact that san francisco and oakland are each separately chartered happens to matter a great deal we can't just mush them together for analysis because they have radically different governance structures

and wait... BART?

you mean BART where the workers who make $60k a year are overpaid?

Posted by racer x on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

they compliment each other quite well, and so could profitably co-operate on a wider range of issues. They already co-operate on transport (ferries, bridges, BART etc.) and could similarly co-operate on housing issues.

Lots of urban areas span bodies of water with benefit to both sides of the water. SF has money but not enough space. Oakland has lots of space but no money. They could help each other out.

All it needs is for the pols to cede a little sovereignty for the common good.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 6:27 am

Yes, I think the cities should cooperate more, but I don't think it's good policy for San Francisco to just become a city of the rich. We should share our wealth and not be so greedy here in The City. In addition to my example of not poaching the Warriors, San Francisco should end its tax breaks for tech companies and encourage some of them to set up shop in Oakland. It makes not sense to subsidize an industry that is thriving, particularly when we need to diversify our economy and be good neighbors. 

Posted by steven on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 10:52 am

encourage tech businesses in general but rather to encourage them to be in SF and, in particular, to invest in a very under-invested and grim part of the city.

I'd agree with you that there is am element of beggar-thy-neighbor involved. If SF and Brisbane were part of the same city, that would be less likely to happen, although we still might want to induce investment in some deprived part of the city over another more affluent part. Such enterprise zones are common around the world.

And yes, we could "encourage" firms like Twitter to move to Oakland. But don't be surprised if even a tax break wouldn't achieve that. High-paid tech workers are picky and want to be in a good area. Gritty and eclectic, like mid-Market, might be fine. The crappier parts of Oakland? Probably not at any price.

But the real issue here is housing not jobs. Drive (but don't walk, please) around West Oakland and you see very low densities, some nice old (but rundown Victorian houses, and easy access to freeways, BART, the Bay Bridge, buses and trains. You could add 50,000 people to the 94607 and 94608 zip codes and not even notice.

Thing is - people are doing that anyway without government intervention. It's that price thing again. Oakland as Brooklyn to our Manhattan is happening whether the City encourages it or ignores it.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 11:06 am

So why did the MTA hup to Twitter's demands and provide special bus service, dubbed the "Twitter Express" between CalTrain and 10th and Market if the Twitterati all wanted to live here?

Posted by marcos on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 11:41 am

But they are all taxed here if they work here regardless.

You have inadvertently exposed a big problem with SF's payroll structure. It taxes non-residents but totally lets off the hook all those SF residents who take the google bus down to MV.

And why are Google not in SF? Taxes, maybe?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 12:12 pm

Mother Nature now requires all cities build housing that generates 5X as much energy as it uses.
PG&E should pay $0.49 kwh for feeding surplus solar onto the grid.
That is how Germany shut down 9 nukes.
Germany will shut down all nukes by 2041.

Posted by Paul Kangas on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 8:24 am

Yes, SF should build 5,000 new solar powered homes each year.
Lancaster, Ca., just passed a law requiring each new home to be
100% solar powered.
If SF had a solar energy sharing policy, requiring each new home
to generate 5X as much energy from solar as it uses, and requiring
PG&E to pay $0.49 kwh for the energy fed onto the grid,
SF could be 100% solar powered by 2041.

Cloudy, rainy, foggy Germany just generated 50% of its power
from solar & wind, for one day in May.
Germany shut down 9 nukes using solar, by paying homeowners
$0.54 kwh for feeding solar onto the grid.
Solar has made the Germany economy the strongest in Europe.
Germany will shut down all its nukes by 2022.

Japan now pays homeowners $0.53 kwh for feeding solar onto the grid.
Naoto Kan, the former Prime Minister who passed this solar law,
announced in Boston last week, that Japan now generates enough solar
from roof top solar, to replace 3 of the
54 shutdown atomic reactors.
By building solar homes, Japan will achieve 100% solar by 2050.
By building solar homes that generate 5X the amount they use
California can shut down all nukes, all coal, all gas & oil.

Posted by Paul Kangas on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 8:18 am

You try and twist every topic into an energy topic.

And it's tedious.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 8:47 am

UK article about NYC, if only because the latter was clearly penned by some dewey-eyed guy who lived in NYC decades ago as a young man and now, returning there, finds it a pale shadow of its former state. Well yeah, places that were fun when you were 25 are often not so much when you are 65.

But NYC and London have always been expensive. With SF, perhaps that is a more recent thing. It was really Silicon Valley that saved SF which, otherwise, might have gone downhill quite badly.

In the end, nobody is forced to live in SF. If you like the changes, stay here and prosper. If you don't then leave, for Oakland or perhaps further afield. The important thing is to have a choice and, in America, we do have that freedom.

The flip side of all this affluence is, in a Chronicle piece from a week or so ago that you omitted to cite, is that thousands of SF'ers are becoming millionaires just from owing a fairly ordinary home, like say Tim Redmond and his bijou little home in Bernal Heights.

Hey, if you can't beat them, join them.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

that little tidbit of yours at the end of your screed (the one about rising home values)

plus 2 bucks

will buy the homeowner a cup of diner coffee

what would really improve the value of homes is to deck them out with solar panels, etc, to help reverse the climate crisis

Posted by racer x on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

I've lived in at least 30 different houses in my life, and have generally moved every 3-5 years. This keeps me interested, sharp and involved. Squatting in one place for a lifetime would feel like a prison sentence to me.

A modern economy requires a mobile populace.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

So you'd force your choices onto everyone else via public policy?

Posted by marcos on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:21 pm
Posted by Guest on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

who wants to stay in the same home should be able to do so

Posted by racer x on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:52 pm

That's soooo un-American. Everyone knows that in America, the free market gives you the freedom to be evicted and displaced. Not to mention the freedom to lose your job at your boss's will, the freedom to die without healthcare, the freedom to let 20% of our children go without proper nutrition, and the freedom to eat catfood if you don't have a million bucks to retire on. We need to cherish these freedoms, for America is an exceptional place. What other nation offers people such freedom?

Also, I can't afford Aspen, so why would I live there? ...or something like that.

Posted by Greg on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 7:45 pm

Every other industrialized nation takes care of its seniors, disabled and ill.

America is exceptional because we're the only ones don't.

That's the kind of exceptional people Americans are, it is in the water, it is in our DNA.

Posted by anon on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

I thought that was kinda the point.

Other nations have a nanny state that looks after you cradle to grave, along with the taxes and alck of opportunity that goes with that. In America, the rewards and probability of becoming wealthy are far greater, but so is the risk of falling by the wayside.

That's the inherent trade-off of capitalism - more reward along with more risk.

You can argue that is better or worse. But I do not see how you can argue that having a choice between the two systems is worse than having no choice.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 6:32 am

this is simply a barricade against trolls

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into repetitive reactionary hyperbole, and/or petty, mean spirited personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by jamorama on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 6:51 am

Not everyone who wants to be in SF either can afford to be here. Nor perhaps is it in the greater good of the majority that they remain here if, for instance, they consume disproportionate resources and/or prevent others from being here whom the city needs.

Every home that is occupied is a home denied to someone else who wants to be in SF. Given that you probably moved here from somewhere else yourself, what you are really saying is that "You've got yours, but others cannot have theirs".

Posted by Guest on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 6:30 am

this is simply a barricade against trolls

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into repetitive reactionary hyperbole, and/or petty, mean spirited personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by jamola on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 6:50 am

The only reason there's a housing crisis in SF and the Bay Area is because there is a complete mismatch of high-paying jobs and the housing units to go with those jobs. The SF BOS and Mayor Lee understand this fact, which is why the "jobs, jobs, jobs" mantra is so effective since it will cause evictions of lower income SF residents by higher income new company employees. More higher income residents leads to higher tax revenues, which means more money for local government to spend. Who doesn't like more money to spend, especially if you're a politician and it's other people's money you're spending? What's a few hundred forcible tenant displacements every year if it leads to more government tax revenue in the process?

Any solution to the housing crisis has to involve the companies that are hiring these new employees. Local companies must be held accountable for the evictions their new hires are causing. Companies with more than 100 employees must adopt housing plans to build new housing units for at least 65% of their employees to live within 5 miles of their jobs so the employees can walk, bike or take a jitney to work. And if there is less than a 5% vacancy rate in the city where they want to add jobs, the new hires should be postponed until new housing units are built for them.

Complex problems require getting to the root of the issue. In the case of the SF and Bay Area housing crisis, the root leads to the large companies that are hiring people without housing units to accomodate them. This is what is causing the displacement, high rents and high housing prices.

It's the cities of Palo Alto, Cupertino, Foster City, Mountain View, Sunnyvale and San Jose where many of these jobs are located. These are the places that each need to add tens of thousands of housing units, along with SF.

Political boundaries are irrelevant when it comes to economic issues such as jobs and housing. All cities in the Bay Area that have substantial numbers of employees working within their borders need to supply at least 80% of the housing units for the employees rather than force displacement and high housing costs into adjacent communities.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 7:11 am

It's naive to think they would build worker camps (sounds so Soviet somehow). it's even more naive to think that people making 150K a year would want to live in a worker colony like that.

I do agree with you, however, that political boundaries here are not helping, and some more co-operation between different cities and counties could help ensure that people have more housing choices.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 7:29 am

Regionalism works so well at the MTC and BART.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

Muni or any of the other transit systems that are restricted to just one city.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:10 pm


BART sucks

except when you are debating about something else

and then it's great

Posted by racer x on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 7:06 pm

And this is how you bait the trolls.

Posted by anon on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 7:55 pm

its workers are overpaid. Muni's workers are overpaid and the service is crap so clearlu overpaying workers does not guarantee success.

BART works better because is was better designed with better engineering and infrastructure. Mostly because it was planned regionally rather than each city doing its own thing. It was designed to serve all of the Bay Area, does that well, which is why it is continually being expanded.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 6:34 am

can you explain that to me?

Posted by racer x on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 6:53 am

If you mean it's not a lot to live off in the Bay Area, then I'd agree.

If you mean it is more than others would do that job for with the same skill level, then not.

Anyway, the main beef with the BART workers, as I understand it, isn't so much the base pay but rather their insane benefit package.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 7:27 am

Citing New York and London as examples of what will happen to us if let the "real estate market drive away creative types and destroy what once made those cities great" probably wasn't the best way to make your point. Those two cities are as strong and as culturally powerful as ever.

I had never even heard anyone else say that they were no longer great cities.

You should try something else next time.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 5:44 pm

New York and London are no longer the grass roots cultural crucibles that they'd been for decades. They've both gone sterile due to spatial decentralization.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 5:53 pm

If you had, that it is right now probably the most innovative and inventive city on the planet.

NYC probably isn't quite so good, but then there are competing cities in the US, like DC, Washington, LA and SF, which dilute it.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

I've been to London many times, the first time 31 years ago to see the Clash in Brixton perform at the legendary shows at the Fairdeal. I stayed in a nice cozy squat in South London. The gay scene these days makes NYC and SF look provincial. But outside of drinking and fucking, there's not much there day to day. This was not always the case.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

you've got to be kidding

London was just voted worst UK city (in Crap Town poll)

Posted by racer x on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:33 pm
Posted by Guest on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 6:35 am

Decades ago, I went to Dead Kennedys shows at the Fab Mab.

I don't do that sort of thing anymore.

This shows that San Francisco has gotten less interesting.

Posted by The Real LOL Barrier! on Oct. 17, 2013 @ 7:49 am

I hear Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, and Sydney have similar problems!

Again, given the geography of the Bay Area (of which SF is only a small part), it is like saying that it is a crisis that artists can't afford to live in mid-town Manhattan, the City of London, or the 16th arrondissement.

'Taint so.

Posted by LOL Barrier! on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:11 pm

because the area is too balkanized.

A single BayArea-wide administration would be much more moderate, with none of the extremes of left and right that we currently see.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

why don't we get back to a discussion about reality

and London as shangri-lah doesn't count as reality

Posted by racer x on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

joint committees in some areas of common concern. In fact, that happens already, for example in transit with the MTC, and so could also apply for housing and cross-financing.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 18, 2013 @ 7:36 am

Or perhaps minister of foreign affairs since she spends so much time outside Oakland gallivanting around the globe.

No thanks.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

and only scraped in because of the eccentricities of ranked choice ballots.

With so many cities in the Bay Area, politics becomes polarized and extreme.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:19 pm

First you want to throw poor elderly Chinese people on the streets, and now you throw in a gratuitous swipe at an Asian mayor who wasn't even mentioned in the article. Do you now have something against Asians as well as Blacks, Hispanics, and gays?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 7:24 pm

(I had read the other two).

Metcalf makes some compelling points:

1) BMR new build will only ever be a marginal contributor

2) Demand will always overwhelm demand and it is the fact that we all want to move here, live here and stay here that keeps SF housing prices sky high

3) For all the criticism, market-rate new build helps keep housing more affordable

4) The ultimate solutions have to be based on the Bay Area as a more integrated megalopolis.

I hope you can get Metcalf to come to your meeting as he has some innovative ideas.

Posted by anon on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:38 pm

would be to dramatically raise taxes on the rich locally

which would make san francisco less attractive to many of them and preserve lower priced housing

a major tax disincentive to rich people moving in would both solve the popularity problem and also discourage market rate and high end condo construction

and before you get into this "it is illegal to raise taxes" crap

there are lots of ways to tax and fee rich people

and you all know it

(now by all means proceed to freak out about how stupid taxes are for the next two or three days)

Posted by racer x on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 6:59 pm

Just thought I'd make a pre-emptive talking point strike before the trolls do.

Posted by Greg on Oct. 16, 2013 @ 7:40 pm

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