Can community conversations solve San Francisco’s housing crisis?

It’s a psuedo ambition of mine to take unflattering pictures of Jimmy, especially mid-chew.

On a drizzly Tuesday evening, Jimmy Chion and I huddled up with more than a dozen residents to talk about one of the most important issues in the Bay Area: housing. Thanks to Renaissance Journalism, we had an opportunity to host our first On The Table meal in March. We were curious to see how our dinner would go.

Housing affordability, especially in San Francisco, is an emotionally-charged issue. Fissures naturally form in any conversation: How can this place be home if locals can’t afford to live in the city? Who deserves to live in SF? Is building enough housing for everyone a liberal dream or an addressable crisis?

The perspectives around the dinner table ranged from diehard YIMBY’s (Yes In My Backyard), native NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard), homeless residents living in the Tenderloin, guilt-ridden tech professionals, a Libertarian, and a couple of journalists who were eager to hear everyone’s stories. We printed a dozen questions and placed them in a jar. Every once in awhile, someone would pick a question and reset the conversation:

  • When was the last time you felt proud to live in this city?
  • How do you think the success of the tech industry has helped the city?
  • Would you be willing to pay 30% of your annual salary in taxes to make SF more affordable to others?
  • If the only way to make SF a more affordable place to live is by making it as dense as Tokyo, should we make that happen? Why or why not?

When it comes to a heated topic like housing, we realized people had a tendency to launch into passionate diatribes. The question jar helped guide our group’s discussion. It also gave everyone a way to share their own questions and concerns:

  • What does it mean to be rich?
  • Would you consider living next to a homeless shelter? Why or why not?
  • How can I make a difference?

Two hours whipped by as we shared our personal stories. We went down a couple of rabbit holes about the role of capitalism and whether it was even possible to solve the housing crisis. (Our conclusion: Probably not, but we should keep trying). We parted ways without developing a grand plan for addressing housing affordability in SF, but of course that was never the point.

For a brief evening, we sat next to strangers and shared our greatest fears. We talked about our families, our failures, our livelihoods, our future. Despite our divergent backgrounds and experiences, everyone took the first step of showing up, even for a meal. We articulated our opinions knowing that the goal wasn’t to win an argument, but to listen. We reminded ourselves that housing affordability was ours to tackle, not theirs.

And for us, that was enough.

Thanks to Shelter Tech for co-hosting By The Bay’s first On The Table event, and Renaissance Journalism for sponsoring our meal. Learn more about our work at By The Bay.