Politics as Usual

A NIMBY intervention: We’re really just beginning

Perhaps if you sell a bunch of those Google shares you’ve been sitting on, take out a loan against your 401K,  and put off that major dental surgery you promised your dentist you’ll get, you’ll be able to scrounge up a total of $9,469. Now imagine you have to do that every single month to be able to afford your family’s apartment in Manhattan, because that’s the average rental price of a three-bedroom apartment there. And that $9,469 is an increase of nearly $2,000 a month from June 2021, according to the June 2022 Elliman Report. 

“[T]he supply of Manhattan apartments available for rent, which ballooned during the pandemic, is now near record lows,” adds CNBC’s Robert Frank. “The vacancy rate at the end of June was just 1.9 percent, . . .  down 46 percent from last year.”

Why should we care? After all, New York — state and city — like California and San Francisco lost lots of people during the pandemic, as people moved to cheaper, possibly safer, certainly more boring cities. “That migration out of many NYC neighborhoods has reversed,” Sarah Holder wrote for Bloomberg. “[M]ore households are moving into Manhattan now than were moving in before the pandemic in 2019.”


Our population will wax and wane, but the people touting the death of big cities have been wrong for decades, and their track record isn’t getting any better just because someone can now get broadband Internet in American Fork, Utah (it’s a real city, trust me). So everyone who has fought any attempts to address San Francisco’s chronic housing shortage can’t rely on a temporary drop in population to take care of the problem. 

When it comes to meeting our housing obligations, especially for affordable housing, San Francisco is treated as a joke by the state. That’s because we are like the worst comic on open-mic night in a pizza joint’s party room. We complain about high housing prices, we complain about homelessness, but when it comes to actually doing something, we — voters and our very funny Board of Supervisors — always come up with reasons not to build housing. We don’t like the developer. The building will cast a shadow over a small part of a park one day each year. We don’t want to look like Manhattan. My district is already too dense. And so prices continue to rise and people are still unable to find an affordable house or condo. Ha-ha.

It looked like the supervisors were going to get serious by passing a bill in June that would allow fourplex apartment buildings on any lot and sixplexes on corner lots. Housing bonanza, right? But supervisors made poison-pill changes to the bill before approving it, including requiring that an owner own the property for five years before making a fourplex, and adding rent control to some of the new units. As the “NIMBY Patrol” tweeted, “We might need to develop a math curriculum for NIMBYs. If you add rent control to two out of four units but then you build zero units, how many units are rent controlled? That’s right Judith! Anything multiplied by zero is always zero, you get a [star].”

But Mayor London Breed got the joke and was not laughing. She vetoed the bill, saying the board had riddled it with amendments that “instead of cutting bureaucracy and reducing project costs,
. . . imposed new financial barriers that will make it even less likely for new housing to be built under the ordinance’s provisions,” she wrote in her veto letter to the board. “It is fair to say that this ordinance, as amended, will set back housing production.”

She also cites the challenge of meeting our state-mandated Housing Element, which requires San Francisco to produce 82,069 more housing units by 2031. 




In March, the California Housing Partnership issued its “Affordable Housing Needs Report 2022,” and it’s full of great news, if by “great news” you mean “horrible news and proof of destructive hypocrisy.”

CHP found that in 2021 the Greater Bay Area funded only 22 percent of its affordable home production levels. This area might be filled with people pretending to worry about affordable housing, but the Bay Area did even worse than the already-awful statewide achievement of only 35 percent of its goals. 

So relying on the outflow of population to fix our housing problems isn’t the solution. Seventy-eight percent of the Bay Area’s population has not moved out of state to American Fork or Smackover, Ark., (also a real city), so that 22 percent of affordable housing funding goals is as unimpressive as it looks. 

Back in 2015 in these pages, I interviewed Dr. Peter Linneman, economist and real estate professor, about San Francisco’s love-hate relationship with real estate (“Something’s gotta give: Dr. Peter Linneman on taking the mystery out of our housing crisis,” May 2015). He talked about his formula for dealing with city populations: You can stack them up, spread them out, or kill them. “But if they’re coming, they’re coming,” he said. “You’ve got this notion of San Francisco saying we don’t want people to build, even as people complain that they can’t afford to live there. . . . I’ve never really understood the political dynamics of it. There are people who make fortunes out of it. They bought in 1975 — nothing special, anywhere else in the country it’s $300,000 [now], but there it’s $1.2 million. They have an incentive to [restrict new buildings].”

Seems to me he understands the political dynamics of it perfectly well.

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