A Case Study of How the City’s Utopian Activists Became Deformed into Tools for Profit

As usual, it has to do with Old White Guys with Beards

This is a story about how it became too expensive for anyone interesting to live in San Francisco.

Richard Brautigan strolling with a friend in 1970’s San Francisco (

40 years ago, San Francisco was a groovy place to live, and cheap too. But many people who benefited from this became concerned about the social upheaval going on around them.

“Redevelopment” of the Fillmore

They were afraid that urban renewal, downtown development, and freeways were making it harder for working people to stay here, especially poor people and people of color. They understood that housing is not a mere commodity; that it’s infrastructure, and that whether we rent or own, we all pay a continuing price for where we live.

They organized, and became activists, like Calvin Welch. They fought the freeways and protected neighborhoods. You might say they also attempted to transform San Francisco’s housing market into a sort of ”leaseholders’ state”, rather like the socialist idea of the workers’ state. By the 1970s, they also succeeded in changing the politics of the city, making it into a Democratic stronghold.

But then, things started to go wrong.

Activist demands for local control in BART board elections ensured that stations would be surrounded by parking lots, reinforcing sprawl development policies

The first problem was that the activists made strategic mistakes. By slowing growth and imposing height limits on buildings, they actually made housing more expensive. And by demanding local control in the elections for the governing board of the new Bay Area Rapid Transit system, they ensured that suburban development would stay that way.

Prop M never worked — startups don’t want Class A space anyway

Then they tried to fix that by trying to limit jobs coming into the city. They passed a ballot measure that limited construction of high-rise office space. But industries San Francisco attracted, were, like now, knowledge-based, and flexible. They didn’t need Class A space, so jobs kept coming. And without new housing for the new jobs, what housing there was became even more expensive.

The second, more pernicious problem was that the activists grew old and self-serving. When the founding generation of leaseholders achieved power they became a bureaucratic caste. Thus the vision of a leaseholders’ state became deformed or degenerated. Just as Trotsky regarded the Soviet Union under Stalin as a degenerated workers state, San Francisco’s regime of land and housing regulation became what could be regarded as a Degenerated Leaseholders’ State.

And so the activists became NIMBYs. They now argued that San Francisco was full, like a parking lot on Friday night, or a lifeboat on the Titanic. Arguments like these ended up dovetailing with those from the big money interests the activists originally organized to fight. Together they supported candidates like Aaron Peskin, who as supervisor claimed to support affordable housing, but instead enacted policies to block it. As board president, Peskin presided over the defunding of Mission Housing Development Corporation, ensuring that no affordable housing would be built in the Mission District for over 10 years.

Now Peskin is running for Supervisor again with the support of the activists. But he’s also being supported by political insiders representing big money and landlords, like the real estate lobbyist Jack Davis, Clint Reilly, the former campaign consultant and property mogul, and Sam Singer, who manages the reputation of PG&E and other big corporations (in an ironic twist, Singer’s mother, Margaret Singer, invented the concept of brainwashing).

And that’s how San Francisco became hopelessly unaffordable for the very people we need to keep the city groovy. Whether it stays that way is up to you.