Real Estate

It’s no accident

The not-so-pretty history of our housing crisis

The project seemed simple enough. I set out to examine San Francisco housing — what the city envisioned in the 1970s and ’80s, what it envisions today, and what it may envision in 20 years.

Having worked in San Francisco real estate for 15 years as a marketing executive — promoting brokerages, agents, and properties — I have tracked, predicted, and written about our local real estate trends for well over a decade.

And yet, as it turns out, I was completely unprepared for what I discovered.


San Francisco’s housing situation is extremely complicated. I had always heard that was the case, but until now, I had never understood why.

According to a number of sources, racism and class issues have been a big part of the city’s housing policies right from its earliest days. According to Hunter Oatman-Stanford, writing for Collectors Weekly, in 1870, during a time of rampant real-estate speculation in a boomtown renowned for its lawlessness, a new law required boarding houses to offer a minimum amount of space per tenant.

Oatman-Stanford says, “Officials claimed this would promote safer housing and improve residents’ quality of life, a noble cause for government intervention. But the law’s true purpose — to criminalize Chinese renters and landlords so their jobs and living space could be reclaimed for San Francisco’s white residents — set an ominous precedent.”

More than 100 years ago, San Francisco was one of the first cities in the nation to introduce the idea of “local control” via land use zoning.

I’ve always been a fan of zoning — on the surface it seems to make sense. For example, in the early days, zoning helped push slaughterhouses and industry well south of Market Street, away from San Francisco’s residential and business districts.


Zoning however, is not as simple as it would appear.

“In theory, zoning was designed to protect the interests of all citizens by limiting land speculation and congestion,” Kenneth T. Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier. “In actuality, zoning was a device to keep poor people and obnoxious industries out of affluent areas. And in time, it also became a cudgel used by suburban areas to whack the central city.” Jackson points out that the most strident advocates of stronger land-use restrictions lived in suburban districts on the city’s fringe, a tradition that continues to this day. “They sought minimum lot and setback requirements [regulations that drive up the cost of housing] to ensure that only members of acceptable social classes could settle in their privileged sanctuaries.”

And so it goes. Year after year, decade after decade. Redevelopment programs, some perhaps well intentioned and others deeply rooted in structural racism, are initiated and implemented and often result in the displacement of residents and significant unforeseen consequences.

Space in the city is limited, and so supply and demand will always play an important part in the price of San Francisco properties. Owners love the fact that their homes go up in value, and buyers take comfort in thinking that their investment will likewise gain value over the years.

The thing is, as we have all seen, this kind of hyper-appreciation in the price of real estate can be detrimental to communities. Workers flee for more affordable locales. Restaurants and shops close. Businesses relocate to other cities.


What’s to be done?

A number of government leaders believe requiring cities and counties to change local zoning laws to allow for new, denser housing near job centers and public transportation is the answer. Yet State Senator Scott Wiener’s polarizing housing bill SB 50, which would have done just that, failed to pass in the state senate in late January.

After the vote, Senator Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said, “Housing policy is not neat or clean.” She was referring to historic racism and class issues baked into policies. “The issue of gentrification is a core fear,” she said, adding that she was heeding her constituents’ wishes.

So what does the future hold? San Francisco’s elite and poorest residents seem (ironically) to share a dislike for potential redevelopment in their respective neighborhoods. Everyone agrees something needs to be done, just not where they live.

San Francisco is gorgeous. The neighborhoods are distinct, one from the next, each with its own special appeal. In my experience, on a micro level, every time a house is put up for sale it is revitalized and becomes even more beautiful than it was. In this way, house by house, block by block, the city is new again.

But in terms of a vision for San Francisco housing now and in the next 20 years, it appears there is no consensus, and I for one don’t have a clue as to where it’s headed.

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