My Takeaways from a Panel Discussion on Affordable Housing in SF

Sean McBride

This past Tuesday (Sept 17, 2019), I attended a panel discussion on affordable housing in San Francisco. Afterwards, I wrote and edited a quick summary of my main takeaways from the panel and shared it on Instagram. Several friends commented that it was helpful to them, so I’m sharing it here on Medium in a more permanent location.


The panel was hosted by Impact SF, a new chapter of an NYC organization which describes itself as “a non-profit and non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding today’s most pressing social and political issues and promoting viable actions for positive change”. It was also co-hosted by Yimby Action, a CA organization focused on lobbying to bring down the cost of housing.

The panel was moderated by Kay Fernandez Smith of the San Francisco Foundation, and featured Daniel Adams (Acting Director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development), Emily Hamilton (Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University), Paula Tuffin (General Counsel & Chief Compliance Officer at, Scott Wiener (California State Senator for the 11th District), and Tony Roshan Samara (Program Director of Housing for Urban Habitat).


Decades of exclusionary housing policy at the federal, state, and local levels — with origins in racism, as these policies started appearing just after race-based zoning was ruled unconstitutional — have resulted in a combo of exclusionary zoning (single-family-only on most of CA’s developable land), poor protections for renters, and de-funded public housing.

In turn, those policies have resulted in steadily rising housing costs as a percentage of area median income. People are paying a higher percentage of each paycheck on a place to live. This trend produces a steady stream of people who fall off the bottom of the economy, losing the ability to afford housing of any kind. They turn to living in their car or on the street.

The solution is threefold:

  1. Protections for people experiencing homeless and people at risk of it (addressing the short-term symptoms of our housing deficit)
  2. Preserving our existing supply of affordable housing (stop the problem from getting even worse)
  3. Producing a lot of new housing (the long-term solution)

The main blocker to progress on the production front seems to be that most people are reflexively conservative about their immediate built environment — we enjoy the familiar things in our neighborhoods and want them to stay the same. So, we tend to resist new development or increased density in our own neighborhoods.

The problem, of course, is that we can legislate to prevent change to our built environment — and we have done so extensively for decades — but we can’t prevent other types of change. A near-fixed supply of housing—along with increasing demand from a rising population and a successful local economy—has lead to steadily rising prices, so although the buildings may look the same, the people living in them are getting priced out and leaving.

Things are now getting so bad that people who may originally have benefitted from these exclusionary policies are now being affected by them — their children, friends, teachers, etc. are being priced out. And sadly, that seems to be a big part of why the problem is finally getting more attention.

What can we do about it?

  • Have conversations on a small, personal scale to change the hearts and minds of those around us. Clarify the impact that conservatism towards the built environment has on our communities over time.
  • Advocate to remove money from having such an outsize effect on political policy (campaign finance reform at the state and local level).
  • Support state and local policies that contribute to one or more of the 3 P’s (Protection, Preservation, and Production). I found this helpful list of legislation on California Yimby’s website.

Thanks to Steven Cary

Sean McBride

Written by

Now: @RangeLabs! Previously: @Intercom, @Typekit (@Adobe), @Google, @OlinCollege. Frequently: web, design, code, cocktails, wine, skiing. Married to @sjcary!

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