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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

In 1962 and 1963, neighborhood associations began forming to complain about large apartment buildings being built under the 1960 rules, so planners went to their drawing board again, halving densities allowed in residential districts. In the early 1970s, neighborhood groups in the Inner Sunset and the Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods began petitioning for lower-density restrictions on housing development there. The political winds clearly favored a clampdown on new housing.

The Planning Department responded to increased neighborhood complaints with a new set of zoning codes, dramatically cutting once again the amount of housing that could be built in the city. The legal density in the Richmond District, for instance, was cut by half.

During the early 1990s, San Francisco neighborhood groups agitated against the construction of smallish apartment buildings in the city's western residential districts. The buildings, dubbed "Richmond Specials," were denounced as tacky, out of character with the neighborhoods they were built in, and, most important, adding undesired population density to these neighborhoods. Once again, the Planning Department began to consider drafting a new general plan in response.

But by then the number of neighborhood groups, and the corresponding number of narrow interests, had grown so great that creating a new general plan to please them all had become a gargantuan task. Thousands of employee hours were spent on the project, but it was eventually abandoned in favor of a seemingly minor change in the city code favoring increased citizen participation in the planning process. Given the unassuming name "Code Section 311," the provision requires that neighbors be advised of any zoning or permit applications impacting their neighborhood, then given a chance to appeal them. While not as dramatic on paper as the earlier downzonings, the provision has had the effect of further paralyzing housing construction, developers and planners say. As part of this neighbor-friendly planning ethic, the Planning Department three years ago organized itself into "Neighborhood Planning Teams" to replace the previous organizational structure, where individual planners were responsible for particular types of zoning problems. Planners are now assigned to specialize in an individual neighborhood, rather than a type of code classifications.

Today, the neighborhood agitation is over live-work lofts, which under current zoning could provide 20,000 housing units. A moratorium against further construction of this type of housing will likely pass soon, and the aftermath of such a measure is hard to predict.

What is predictable is the role neighborhood groups will continue to have in the planning process. "The political structure is overly sensitive to neighbors and people who don't want housing. We have to reorient the political structure to be more friendly to housing," says UC Berkeley Professor John Landis. "We have neighborhood groups that profess to have ownership of the approval process, and City Hall buys into that."

The area's housing crisis is not limited to San Francisco, of course, a fact illustrated by the maddeningly difficult task of calculating San Francisco's real housing demand. You can count the number of new jobs created in the city, the number of employees living in every household, and the number of new housing units built in a given year. And you can compare these numbers with 1990, a year when San Francisco's housing demand was more or less satisfied, with a 6.2 percent vacancy rate.

But those figures don't necessarily mean anything, because the Bay Area's housing market must be viewed as a whole. "Figuring demand is really a crazy game," says Allan Jacobs, a UC Berkeley planning professor who was San Francisco's director of planning during the 1960s. "There's really too much involved."

Demographics, economics, and culture pay no mind to political boundaries such as counties and towns. "The market is like water," says Paul Silvern, a partner with Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, a policy consulting firm in Los Angeles and New York. "It looks for the path of least resistance."

Events in the recent history of the Bay Area have created massive resistance everywhere.

Patrick Kennedy, an outspoken veteran of East Bay housing wars, is particularly familiar with this fact. Like anyone who's lived there, developer Kennedy enjoys a love-hate relationship with the city of Berkeley. He's won approval for a multistory apartment complex in downtown Berkeley. He's advocated for an environmentally friendly, European-style downtown with smaller apartment units, taller buildings, and reduced parking. He has been an outspoken proponent of a new general plan for Berkeley, which will allow taller apartments to be built in the downtown area. He's been the city's leading campaigner to "decriminalize housing," according to one local environmental group. In doing these things, he has earned the wrath of his fellow Berkeleyites. He's capitalist developer scum, they say, and he ought to be run out of town.

"Berkeley is a perfect example of cognitive dissonance," says Kennedy. "They talk and talk about affordable housing, then trash the general plan. Berkeley's the only city in the Bay Area that's lost housing in the last 20 years."

During the past 10 years, Berkeley has torn down 800 more housing units than it has built. And the remaining units accommodate fewer people: Since 1970, the city has lost 5,182 people, according to U.S. Census and California Department of Finance data.

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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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