Though it is tempting to imagine San Francisco and its surroundings as mere victims of a recent influx of tech millionaires, it is not so. (Disclaimer: fuck tech millionaires, though, in general.) The Washington Post points to a new analysis of San Francisco rents stretching back more than half century that finds that rents in the city have been rising on a remarkably steady line the entire time: “[In] the early 1960s, rents in San Francisco were rising by an average of about 6.6 percent each year. As it turns out, that’s the same annual rate they would later rise in the 1970s, and in the late 1990s, and in the mid-2000s. It’s the rate they’re rising today.”
So it is not as if nobody could see today’s sky-high rents coming, or as if they were the product of an unforeseen tech boom that no one could have predicted. They have been building steadily for generations. The reason they have not been curbed is that San Francisco has failed to build enough housing to keep up with demand during that time. Other than a disaster that causes San Francisco to lose all of its prosperity, adding more housing is the only way forward. The study cited above, by Eric Fischer, estimates that returning San Francisco rents to early 1980s levels of affordability would require more than a 50% increase in the housing supply—200,000 new units of housing.
If you are a Bay Area resident who can comfortably afford housing, your only rational positions are:
- “I hope there is a major earthquake/ recession that wipes out demand for living in the Bay Area, by devastating it.”
- “I do not believe that anyone who is not relatively wealthy should be able to live in the Bay Area.” Or,
- “We need to build a lot more housing in the Bay Area.”
Of course, the idea of building great amounts of new housing in San Francisco is extremely controversial, and disliked by many people who already have housing in San Francisco. Local opposition to new construction is one reason that the city’s housing pipeline does not come close to keeping up with demand. Now, California governor Jerry Brown is proposing a major new statewide law that would essentially block local reviews of new housing projects as long as they contain a certain amount of affordable housing. This would allow developers to, for example, build a project in San Francisco with 20% affordable units, and in return skip the maze of local political opposition. It is a fast track to building. And, to be honest, a pretty blunt tool that could indeed err on the side of too little oversight of developers.
But San Francisco as a municipality has proven itself to be unwilling or incompetent at building enough housing to prevent the entire city from becoming unaffordable for the middle and lower classes. Those fortunate enough to have nice places to live in San Francisco (and the rest of the Bay Area) have had decades to get this right. And they haven’t. Drastic measures are in order.