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How to save San Francisco
It goes much deeper than “build more housing”
The affordability crisis is suffocating San Francisco. Without a six figure salary, rent control, a trust fund, or a willingness to embrace poverty, you’re out of luck if you want to live here.
The people who fail to arrive are the friends, neighbors, colleagues, and lovers who could change our lives, but who we’ll never meet. We’re becoming a stale, homogeneous city — and also a hypocritical city, increasingly out of touch with our own values of diversity and integration.
Something is broken. Why don’t we fix it?
Cities are expensive, especially nice ones. And not everyone can live exactly where they want. But communities are a reflection of their values; the systems and policies we enact translate our values into the realities we see day-to-day.
In San Francisco, we say we value diversity and integration, yet we pursue policies that are at best ineffective — and at worst, deleterious — to manifesting our ideals. The solutions we talk about — rent control, affordable housing, regulating Airbnb — are bandaids. They may help certain groups in certain situations, but they don’t solve root issues around supply and demand.
And it shows: as the cost of living skyrockets, diversity of all types is declining in San Francisco. It’s self-evident in our neighborhoods, on our streets, and on our corporate campuses.
The “real” solution is more housing supply, of course. San Francisco is experiencing an economic boom, and we need to absorb new people. But we’re surrounded by water, and much of our existing land is covered in low rises and Victorians.
Increasing density can only take us so far — building high rises in the Inner Sunset is not only infeasible in the near-term, but it also wouldn’t necessarily foster affordability. Manhattan is denser than San Francisco, but it’s not more affordable.
And we probably don’t want skyscrapers on the edge of Golden Gate Park. San Francisco isn’t New York.
But we could learn from New York.
New York City has faced similar problems — economic booms, affordability crises, and bodies of water. And while nobody would say New York has solved all of its problems, it has done better in a key area: diversity. In fact, it may be getting more diverse.
Teachers, fire-fighters, artists, and people in different income brackets can find housing in New York. They may not be in Soho, but they are accessible to the urban core. This is the key difference between San Francisco and New York: New York has a broader range of housing that is integrated.
It’s not just about affordability, it’s about integration.
Take a look at the maps below. Both New York and San Francisco have expensive cores, with one bedroom units fetching rents of $3k+. But both also have less expensive areas, mostly across bodies of water. In New York, you can find a one bedroom in Bushwick for $1k per month. In the Bay Area, you can find similar deals in parts of the East Bay and pockets of the Peninsula.
But in New York, if you live in Bushwick, you are still in New York. If you live in the East Bay or even in Daly City, you aren’t in San Francisco.
The next maps show places you can reach using public transportation within 45 minutes. If you live in Bushwick, you can access a large swathe of Manhattan and Brooklyn. In the Bay Area, you’re unlikely to have easy access to San Francisco at all if you’re not in San Francisco proper.
It’s true that the San Francisco Bay is bigger than the East River. And Brooklyn is denser, with more rental units, than many Bay Area cities. And, crucially, that “San Francisco” isn’t the only urban core in the Bay Area (Oakland and San Jose are also urban cores).
But the simple fact is that in New York you have the option of moving to a less expensive “fringe,” still accessible to your friends, work, and community. In San Francisco, you have the option of moving to a different city — a different community, entirely. And that’s not an option at all.
Options don’t exist because the Bay Area is not integrated. BART, the entity that should connect us, doesn’t. It doesn’t go to San Jose or North Bay. It’s very expensive and doesn’t offer a monthly pass. It barely runs at night. We’re talking about building bullet trains and hyper-loops to Los Angeles, but there is no easy way to get from Oakland to Palo Alto. Or most of San Francisco to San Jose. Or North Bay to anywhere. Even commuting from Oakland to most of San Francisco is difficult and expensive. In fact, according to SPUR, no new transportation capacity has been added across the Bay since BART’s transbay tube opened in 1972.
Transit has gotten so bad that tech companies are contracting private bus fleets. This is the opposite of openness and integration.
It seems absurd, but this is the choice that we’ve made. Expanding and improving regional transportation to better integrate the Bay Area isn’t rocket science— it simply requires cash, commitment, and political will.
The Bay Area has cash. It’s the second two pieces that are missing. But it’s not necessarily intentional; it’s a function how we’re governed.
In New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, communities are tied together under central leadership. Powerful mayors can address systematic issues broadly and holistically. And citizens have someone they can hold accountable.
In the Bay Area, we have a collection of fiefdoms. Villages are parading as cities, addressing problems myopically. For example, Brisbane (a city of 5,000 people between San Francisco and SFO) is currently blocking a large housing development for local reasons. It’s NIMBY-ism on a broad scale – a regional tragedy of the commons.
Decentralized decision-making and local governance are important, but a complete lack of high level vision and executive authority is hurting all Bay Area cities (including Brisbane). All Bay Area cities are struggling with housing and affordability. All Bay Area cities are worried about fraying community, rising inequality, and how to manage change.
We’re facing regional problems, but we don’t have regional leadership or an effective regional plan for fixing them. San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose can only do so much on their own. We need a commitment and a strategy that encompasses the entire neighborhood.
The way to save San Francisco is to stop talking about San Francisco — and start talking about the Bay Area. San Francisco has 850,000 residents, about half of Manhattan’s 1.6 million and barely registering on the list of America’s biggest cities. The Bay Area, on the other hand, has almost 9 million residents, making it the fifth largest combined statistical area (CSA) in the United States. A CSA is defined as as adjacent areas with significant social and economic ties.
We need to make those ties much stronger, and we need to make them physical. We need radical, transformative infrastructure investments to integrate our region and create a broader array of housing options. Not more high-rise micro-units in Hayes Valley, but integrated neighborhoods that are less expensive but still accessible to jobs, recreation, and friends.
Because the truth is, we are one city.
The map below shows groups of people who commute into San Francisco, based on data from the American Community Survey. Data for Santa Clara and Alameda counties looks similar. Hundreds of thousands of people are already passing between Bay Area counties each day.
These dots are zooming around in spite of our lack of regional integration, and most of these commuters are spending long hours sitting in their cars.
We need more dots. And to do this, we need better mass transit providing people fast, cheap, and reliable access to our urban cores, whether they are going to work in the morning or returning from a night on the town at 2am. The urban cores are not going to get more affordable, no matter how many high rises we build. Affordable housing within neighborhoods is also important, of course, but it’s not a systemic solution. Diversity-by-lottery only takes us so far.
Ultimately, we need more neighborhoods that appeal to people who want to be connected to San Francisco (and Oakland, and San Jose) but can’t afford to live in the urban center. We need neighborhoods like Bushwick — neighborhoods for the young, the old, people with different occupations, aspirations, and bank balances. We need places for the misfits and weirdos that used to flock to Northern California. These are the people who make the Bay Area dynamic and keep it real.
And these neighborhoods must be integrated with our urban cores, culturally and physically. Specifically, we need a monthly pass that gives us unlimited access, 24/7, to high-frequency, wide-ranging rapid transit. A community that values diversity and inclusion commits to integration.
Where is the Bay Area’s commitment?
To make the commitment, we need to do something radical.
A regional problem demands a regional plan. And a regional plan requires regional leadership and authority.
We should re-organize the political boundaries of the Bay Area and create a central office to align our efforts, and a central person we hold accountable. We need a visible, elected leader of the Bay Area, and this person needs to spearhead a plan to integrate and connect our region, unlocking new places for people to live.
We need to become a city, not a collection of villages.
Redrawing the map and electing a Bay Area mayor sounds ludicrous — much harder than “build more housing.” But the fact that teachers can’t afford homes here is also ludicrous. The fact that BART doesn’t go beyond SFO is ludicrous. The status quo is ludicrous.
Slowly yet surely, the affordability crisis is destroying the Bay Area; it’s driving out (and, just as importantly, blocking entry) to the people who make this place special.
It’s cutting off our lifeblood.
The way we address the crisis will define our community for decades. Do we want to be a white-washed Disneyland for software developers, or do we want to be a vibrant, diverse, integrated (and bigger) city? If it’s the second, it’s time try something new. We don’t just need more housing and transit— we need urban planning and leadership at a metropolitan level.
Ultimately, this is the best shot we have at saving the individual communities— and the greater Bay Area community— that so many of us love.
Check out my follow-up post, Where I was wrong on housing.