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How shortsighted neighborhood activism fuels the city's housing crisis, and pushes the best of San Francisco deeper and deeper into the suburbs

There's a rub hidden in this simple formula for disaster, though, one that doesn't get bandied about much here: San Francisco has the room to build the housing the city needs, to slow spiraling rents and sales prices, to forestall manic sprawl, to restore sanity to a market wholly out of kilter.

But it won't.

If the mayor, supervisors, and citizens of San Francisco were to wake up one day and decide they wanted to confront the housing crisis, they could do so with relative ease. It would require nothing more than building the housing already permitted under existing laws and zoning plans, creating enough homes and apartments to house tens of thousands of people. According to the Planning Department, the city could build around 80,000 units -- or nine Brentwoods -- without changing current zoning laws one bit. And that's assuming most of the new housing would be built on vacant land.

If the city were merely to build part of this capacity, and produce enough housing to satisfy demand -- 25,000 units, according to some estimates; twice or thrice that, according to others -- housing prices would likely stabilize.

Fully satisfying San Francisco's housing demand would over time cause a cascading price-stabilizing effect at all levels. Over a span of years, such a satiation of demand could result in an adjusted-for-inflation lowering of prices, as happened during the early '90s, following a brief construction boom.

Among economists, environmentalists, academic urban studies researchers, and professional urban planners, this is not a controversial idea. It is simply the way housing markets work. It's an acknowledgment of an inescapable reality -- more people require more housing.

From 1995 to 2000, the number of jobs in San Francisco will have grown by 52,340. The number of households, meanwhile, will only have grown by 8,350 homes. Cities grow, but San Francisco refuses to. So while in other metropolitan areas the suburbs bloom as wealthier white urban dwellers flee the downtown area, in San Francisco people are pushed to the hinterlands by a local populace that doesn't want any more neighbors.

San Francisco's drum-tight housing market is not the result of a newfound NIMBY attitude, the sort of adolescent suburban fussiness that comes from waiting too long at a stop sign. It's the end product of a unique -- and chronically shortsighted -- political culture 50 years in the making that is now part of the city's genetic structure.

What would seem to be the most urbane city in the western United States was born, grew up, and survives with a deeply conflicted sense of its own urbanity. To this day, the city's most pitched civic battles are fought over seemingly suburban issues such as maintaining parking, preserving yard space, avoiding shadows, and maintaining, at all costs, unfettered bay views.

The tale of how San Francisco began transforming itself into an exclusive enclave for the wealthy -- and subdivision fertilizer for the Brentwood plains -- is also the tale of this city's dramatically declining expectations. During the years just after World War II, San Francisco fancied itself one of the world's great social, economic, and political capitals. It would be the greatest city of the west, its early dreamers imagined. The city was zoned to become a grand urban metropolis, with tightly packed apartment housing along Ocean Beach, along the Panhandle, around Golden Gate Park, on Potrero Hill. A modern transit line would connect BART to Ocean Beach, and be flanked by densely packed apartment buildings to its terminus. But in the years that ensued, San Francisco's dreams of urbanity dispersed into a much more modest proposal: San Francisco simply would be kept a nice place to live.

In wave after wave of downzoning, successive San Francisco governments shut out ever more housing, until today, the most densely zoned parts of the city are sparser than the areas that during the 1950s were zoned lowest-density. San Francisco's total population, meanwhile, decreased from 830,000 during the years after World War II to 780,000 now.

This change of vision evolved during decades-long political battles over redevelopment, private housing construction, parking, and transit. But more important, it was the result of thousands of tiny individual and collective choices about how San Franciscans wished to live their civic lives.

In 1999, every acre of the city is wired tight with neighborhood improvement associations, some decades old, some months old, many born of planning battles long past. Today, every inch of San Francisco is subject to the claims of some neighborhood group that assumes the right to control planning decisions there. The Planning Department lists 400 neighborhood associations and related groups -- or about eight per square mile -- that it must consider, inform, and appease as part of every move it makes.

Much about this is good: San Francisco enjoys one of the more vibrant grass-roots participatory democracies of any city, largely as the result of housing battles. Neighborhood associations have kept the city from being smothered by freeways, have halted ill-conceived projects, and have forced the improvement of some development that was, at conception, badly designed.

But at century's end, something has gotten lost in this process, something that is important to the way San Franciscans imagine themselves. As we push thousands more people out toward Brentwood, we become the engine of unprecedented environmental destruction, and globally unmatched energy consumption. We become complicit in the construction of far-flung cityscapes hostile to walking, to bicycling, to public life, and the resultant mingling of social and racial groups that such public life engenders. And by squeezing out successively higher rungs of the lower and middle classes, our city's own public life loses flesh. By allowing unmet demand to cascade downward through the price levels, we force the downtrodden to choose the street, rather than $25-a-night tenement rooms.

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Cynthia McGarvie
Cynthia McGarvie

I left SF in January of that year with a deeply heavy heart. I knew I would never be able to afford to live there for the rest of my life. If things stay the same, it's going to end up as a ghost town.

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