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Everybody disagrees on how to solve San Francisco’s affordable housing crisis

flickr user Jeremy Brooks
San Francisco's housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Micah Weinberg, of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, says that over the past seven years, "we have built less than half of the housing in this region that the state estimates we need."


In one of America's most expensive cities, there's a fringe political party whose name sums up their concerns: The Rent is Too Damn High. That city is New York – but in San Francisco rents are even higher. And while no party around here has been quite so blunt about it, organizations are taking action.

The Bay Area Council Economic Institute hosted a housing forum earlier this year, and the conversation showed there are many ways to look at the problem – and many ways to disagree on how to solve it.

But first, let’s be honest. This was a forum on housing policy, so it’s not the most riveting stuff. Except for one thing – the peopleat the forum didn’t seem to like each other much. Like Chris Thornberg, who took a swipe at one of his fellow panelists, San Francisco Supervisor David Campos:

“As an economist, I am not used to dealing with politicians. And they have a certain way of..." he paused, setting up a list of questionable tactics. "First, demonize your opponent. Second, distort what he just said. And then, third, make your case as passionately as humanly possible, hoping that everybody fails to notice the complete lack of logic in what you just said.”

It was a burn that had the crowd both laughing and wincing at once. And one that highlighted how much that days’ speakers would butt heads.

But the panelists that day, which also included former Clayton mayor Julie Pierce, weren’t just there to jab at each other: They were looking for solutions to the housing crisis.

“The big picture is that over the course of the past seven years, we have built less than half of the housing in this region that the state estimates that we need based on population growth,” said Micah Weinberg, president of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.

Weinberg says in the last four years, if adjusted for inflation, Bay Area median rents have gone up by 25 percent and housing prices up by 60.

Chris Thornberg – the punchy economist – offered some context. “The kind of issues we’re talking about today," he said, "we’re talking about something that is not very specific to the Bay Area or San Francisco. It’s across our entire state.”

He said if you look at the numbers, the high rental prices in the Bay Area make sense. People here are generally making more money:In 2013, median household incomes in the metro area topped $79,000 a year. That’s up from $62,000 in the year 2000.

Thornberg thinks we need more homes to house wealthier people. “If gentrification is the concern, the answer is not so much what I would say to stand in the way of progress,” he said, “and more about building the high-end units that these high-income people want to live in.”

Now, Thornberg is aware that if you’re not one of those wealthier people, you might not like that idea. But, he said, if you don’t build for the rich, they’ll go into middle-class neighborhoods and take the affordable housing options.

Thornberg’s solution? “Expand supply!” he said. “If you want home prices to come down, if you want to make it more affordable, we simply need more supply.

“And that means, yeah, at some level, a lot of Californians and a lot of neighborhoods are going to have to accept the fact that their world is going to change,” he added. “There’s going to be densification, there’s going to more units. Probably more traffic, and more need for public transport. But if we want the state to grow, that’s how you have to do it.”

After Chris Thornberg had his say, it was Supervisor David Campos' turn, and he slammed those ideassaying they’re a housing version of Reagonomics: Make favors for the wealthy and hope it trickles down to the middle and lower classes.

“Didn’t work in the 1980s, it’s not going to work today,” he said.

Supervisor Campos represents San Francisco’s Mission District – ground zero for gentrification. In the past, the San Francisco Business Times reported that he might propose a moratorium to stop building market rate housing in the Mission district.

But in reality, Campos wants to prioritize building for lower income residents. Because to him, the solution is clear: “To the extent that the issue is that we need to build more affordable housing,” he said, “the solution should be to actually build more affordable housing.”

Campos said if we don’t, we’ll lose a lot more than just affordable units. “We are going to lose San Francisco as we know it.

“Because the thing is this: that in a presentation, those are numbers. Populations change," he said, "but what’s unique about San Francisco is the diversity of the people we’ve had. And it is that diversity and that character that is being lost.”

According to the San Francisco Association of Realtors, the average household income in the Mission District is now $110,946 – that’s up 41 percent since 2000.

And it looks different, racially, too: Mission Local found that from 2000-2010, the Latino population went down from 50% of the population to 39%.  

The last speaker, Julie Pierce, offered a diplomatic entrance. “I think I can safely say I agree with everything that’s been said so far,” she said to laughter. “To some extent.”

Pierce is the president of the Association of Bay Area Governments and former mayor of Clayton, a small town in Contra Costa County. She pointed to a bureaucratic culprit that keeps enough housing from being built: CEQA, or, the California Environmental Quality Act.

It’s meant to protect the environment, but Pierce said it “takes too long. It’s too cumbersome. It is too demanding.”

She says developers can lose funding while waiting for CEQA approval.

“It’s there for the right reasons, but it can just take all the money out of a project doing the environmental work,” she said. “And then you can’t build the project.”

Ultimately, Pierce maintained the current policies aren’t working well for too many people. “Not everybody wants to live in downtown S.F., not everybody wants to live in the boonies. We all pick that mix,” she said. “But our kids should be able to live there too. Right now, we’re driving them out of the state.”

That’s the bottom line. According to Zumper’s national rent report, the median San Francisco one-bedroom apartment rents for around $3,400 in Oakland and San Jose, it’s nearly $2,000. But if you look out-of-state, the price for a one-bedroom in Portland, Oregon, is $1,300. Austin, Texas? Just over $1,000. And in Jacksonville, Florida: $800 a month.

Everyone at the panel agreed that the Bay Area needs to build. The question is: how? The City of San Francisco is working on it: According to its latest Pipeline Report of scheduled projects, more than 50,000 housing units are in the works.