Here’s What San Francisco Looks Like As An Affordable City

But, we need ideas on how to build it.

Greg Ferenstein


Credit: Steelblue.

(Ferenstein Wire) - San Franciscans may have radically underestimated both the number of apartments the city needs to build and the percent of residents who support transforming the city into a tall metropolis.

I attained a simulation of what San Francisco could look like with enough high-rises to potentially be affordable to residents of all income levels and found surprising support from elected officials, long-time residents, and citizens in a local opinion poll.

But, finding a solution isn’t simple: no one quite knows how to build it, even if the city had the political will to pass whatever law is necessary.

To that end influential local politicians, including Mission Supervisor David Campos, are crowdsourcing potential solutions to the problem in op-eds written for the Ferenstein Wire on Medium today. Readers are encouraged to add their ideas on how to fix the housing crisis.

First, a bit of background.

Fear Is Guiding San Francisco’s Policy

For at least the past 30 years, the home of Silicon Valley has had an approach to housing that is shockingly ignorant of mathematical reality. San Francisco’s sky-high housing prices are already unaffordable to 86% of residents. The city adds roughly 10,000 more people per year than units constructed (12,000 per year population growth vs. 2,100 new units).

At the moment, affordable housing groups and developers are fighting over how to allocate the Mayor’s “ambitious” goal of 30,000 more units by 2020 — a plan that probably won’t even accommodate population growth and will, at best, slow down price increases.

Amidst crippling fears that powerful anti-development hawks will vote down any project perceived as the “Manhattanization” of the city’s quaint Victorian skyline, not a single housing agency or organization I contacted could tell me how many subsidized or market-rate units the city actually needs to build in order to house either low-income residents or the majority of San Franciscans.

In the depths of this overwhelming pessimism, well-intentioned government agencies and housing groups have all been clawing for incremental victories — one condo at a time — with little idea of whether there was ever a path to San Francisco being affordable to residents of all income brackets.

These hardworking activists and experts all do great work, but what if they underestimated both the needs and political will of the city?

An Experiment In Honesty

As an experiment, I decided to see how the conversation around housing would change if San Franciscans were given the option to solve the affordability crisis through supply. An econometrician from Moody’s (the parent company of one of the big three credit agencies), along with a team of conceptual architects helped me simulate an affordable San Francisco.

The city probably needs somewhere north of 150,000 more units: most high-rises would be concentrated in the Eastern, Downtown, and mid-market areas, while every block in the entire city would need at least one 7-story building. Essentially, San Francisco would be Manhattan downtown and Paris everywhere else.

(For the sake of brevity, details about this theoretical housing model and its serious limitations are posted in a separate methods section here under “Chapter 3”. The basics of the model forecast that a 1% increase in total housing units above population growth decreases prices by 10%. My simulation is for a 5% increase in housing stock to cut prices by 50% — or for a market-rate unit to be affordable to families making around the median income of 70K/year).

San Francisco, color coded by height. Credit: Alfred Twu

Street level view of the Mission District. Credit: Alfred Twu

Reactions and Reasoning

When I initially showed this simulation to established city leaders, I was told that very few citizens would ever support such a massive overhaul of the San Francisco skyline. I was told that a taller San Francisco was a “fantasy”.

But, the reactions I got from local politicians, long-time residents, and a public opinion poll suggested otherwise.

“All options need to be on the table. If a taller, denser San Francisco will make the city more affordable, then it’s time we study how to make that happen,” Mission Supervisor David Campos told me, after seeing the simulations.

Campos has been stereotyped as the city’s premier anti-development politician, especially after his high-profile battle to restrict the use of Airbnbs in the city. But, Campos’s recent op-ed calling for “taller, denser” development reveals something interesting about how we may have misjudged San Francisco: many residents will support affordability by almost any means necessary.

It appears that we’ve conflated the idea that anyone who opposes an incremental partial solution to the housing crisis necessarily opposes something much bolder.

Indeed, when I presented these simulations to long-time residents in San Francisco, I found a similar reaction.

“I like vibrant culture, I like diversity. If it means preserving old buildings and making rents exorbitantly high as opposed to building buildings that are taller and allow families who have lived here to stay here, I support it [taller buildings],” said an immigrant and muralist in the Mission’s famous Clarion Alley.

I also conducted a small zip-code targeted survey and found that a (statistically insignificant) majority of residents actually supported Manhattan-style landscapes, if it meant more affordability.

The upshot is clear: we may have radically underestimated San Francisco’s willingness to solve the housing crisis.

We need ideas

There are a lot of questions that remain, even if San Francisco had the political will to tackle the housing problem. How much government assistance would be necessary for below market rate units? How many units would need to be built and does the city have the construction capacity? Can San Francisco alone solve the problem or do surrounding areas need to participate?

If the city doesn’t build more housing, what are other options, especially since the suburbs aren’t likely to allow tens-of-thousands of tech workers to relocate there?

The Ferenstein Wire doesn’t have the answer to these questions. But, it does want to spark an honest and informed conversation about how to solve the city’s problems. Here’s two things you can do:

  1. Share your ideas below on how to make an affordable San Francisco a reality
  2. Host an event, provide a visual simulation, or some other technical work which will allow residents to understand and support the best ideas. Email the Ferenstein Wire editor at greg at greg ferenstein dot com.

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Greg Ferenstein
Editor for

Writer. Researcher. Educator. Policy Wonk. Optimist.