A Primer on Housing

See the supervisors posture. See them learn. See them approve housing.

According to one manner of thinking, San Francisco awoke this week to find its housing crisis in full retreat.

The four-year battle against live-work loft projects -- unattractive buildings that slow-growth activists blamed for gentrifying blue-collar neighborhoods -- was over. Last Friday, Mayor Willie Brown declined to veto legislation imposing a moratorium on construction of the live-work buildings. The live-work boom had, for all intents and purposes, gone bust.

The dot-com boom, which activists had blamed for goosing housing prices and purging diversity from the city, had also quieted. By February's end, this silence had calmed the local housing market; the price of $1,400 studios near Union Square, for example, had dropped to $1,200. Local realtors said $1 million houses, which had been the subject of 30-offer bidding wars a year ago, were now drawing only three or four bids.

Hundreds of new apartment units, approved for construction, were expected to be completed during the next year just as an expanding national economic slowdown embraced the Bay Area. The likely result seemed almost surreal: a further and real softening of San Francisco's once-rigid housing market.

Meanwhile, the new S.F. Board of Supervisors -- independent, left-leaning, fresh-faced, and energetic -- was busy considering progressive housing measures such as expanding rent control, outlawing tenancy-in-common condominium-style apartment conversions, increasing low-income housing funding, and experimenting with housing cooperatives.

"A lot of longtime tenants are getting evicted and getting displaced, and San Francisco values the character and diversity of our neighborhoods," said Dis-trict 6 Supervisor Chris Daly, the lefty-ist of the new lefty board members. "I think we need to look at other avenues for dealing with the housing crisis."

After five years of drizzly, bone-chilling housing winter, during which the price of an average S.F. apartment more than doubled, bright, bone-warming spring sunshine seemed to pierce the clouds.


To experience how much better the housing situation has gotten, I decided last week to take a stroll around the heartland of the live-work boom with Marco, a genial laborer originally from northern Mexico, and Rolando, a rangy new arrival most recently of Memphis, both of whom had graciously agreed to serve as guides. We set off walking from the day-labor yard near Franklin Square Park, where the two workers had been waiting for possible jobs, and toured the North Potrero and SOMA neighborhoods where they live. According to Marco, who didn't want his real name used because of a quirk in his immigration status, these regions of the city had recently seen a miniature dwelling construction boom.

Or a construction boom of miniature dwellings, as the case may be.

"It's like a neighborhood," said Marco, describing the cluster of new homes recently established around the south end of 11th Street. Marco wasn't, of course, referencing apartments or condominiums or live-work lofts. He was talking about hobo villages tucked into alleys, under bridges, in bushy empty lots, inside makeshift tents -- wherever, it seems, the locals who live in this area stand a reasonably good chance of avoiding police hassles and the threat of freezing to death. Which is a real threat; a few hours earlier, Marco said, he watched the police survey a spot under I-80 where some laborer friends had discovered the body of a fiftysomething "neighbor" of theirs.

After a morning of poking through these new subdivisions, it became clear that, at least for the bottom rung of San Francisco, our city's housing crisis is anything but over. Balled-up sleeping bags covered in plastic, domed tents, shopping carts covered in sheeting, makeshift cabins made of cardboard and nylon tarps were home for hundreds, even thousands of people -- people who work, people who earn money, people who cannot possibly rent a place to stay, even occasionally, in San Francisco.

A room at a smelly, dangerous, skid-row hotel now goes for $45 a night. Sixth Street flophouses charge $190 a week. A typical day laborer earns $70 every third day.

Which brings me back to the good feelings associated with the live-work loft moratorium, the done-for dot-com boom, and San Francisco's housing thaw. The fact of the matter is, San Francisco still suffers a crippling housing shortage. The shortage strips the city of its diverse cultural life. It strips the city of families, of workers, of the kind of diversity that has made San Francisco an eclectic example for the world. When the price of tiny S.F. studio apartments drops from $1,400 to $1,200 a month, that means it's necessary to make $65,000, rather than $70,000, per year to afford some of the humblest housing imaginable.

For all the problems associated with live-work construction in the city, live-works represented half the new housing built here during the past two years. As such, they had a price-ameliorating effect. Much was said during the live-work debate about replacing live-work with more agreeable apartment buildings. But the fact remains that there are no proposals on the table for building the 70,000 or so new apartments the city now needs.

Events of the past few weeks suggest that, at the first hint of a break in San Francisco's housing winter, our new city fathers began charting a course that could worsen San Francisco's housing shortage dramatically. Just the same, there's a certain type of power associated with having one's heart in the right place, which I believe this Board of Supervisors does. With its strong moral compass, this board just might recover from early mistakes and chart a path to redemption from our housing disaster.

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