Housing in Pogoland: Part 3, Refusal to acknowledge

March 30, 2016 | Affordability, Apartments, Homeownership, Housing, NIMBY, Overhousing, Rent control, Rental, San Francisco, US News, Zoning

By: David A. Smith

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]


In Pogoland-by-the-Bay, the high price of market housing means the city ought to be consumed with a burning political desire to build more housing and a zeal to slice away any laws or regulations that obstruct affordable housing production – but, as Conor Friedersdorf discovered (The Atlantic: December 29, 2015) to his evident surprise, those who most profess passion for housing affordability are oblivious to the reasons why their advocated causes yield the diametrically opposite effect.

In a quote Mr. Friedersdorf cited, Gabriel Metcalf, President and CEO of SPUR, San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, distills the paradox of American urbanization down to a single sentence so brilliantly epigrammatic I will quote it evermore:

“In a world where we have the ability to control the supply of housing locally, but people still have the freedom to move where they want, all of this has played out in predictable ways.

And here’s another moral paradox:

Think globally, act locally is a mantra for spatial exclusion.


Opine globally, oppose locally

The city’s ideological progressives have exacerbated the problem:

“Instead of forming a pro-growth coalition with business and labor, most of the San Francisco Left made an enduring alliance with home-owning NIMBYs.”

Again Mr. Metcalf is spot-on, and this time with the paradox of values versus positions.  Because San Francisco’s liberals dislike the values they impute to business leaders and entrepreneurs, they are oblivious to the commonality of positions; instead they make alliances based on affinities (homeowners are ‘authentic San Francisco’) and thus made blind to the inconsistency of homeowners’ positions versus their stated values.


No inconsistency here

In San Francisco, NIMBYism is the bigotry that dare not speak its name, so as I’ve written elsewhere it’s always cloaked in something else: green space, historic buildings, traffic and parking, neighborhood character, or goodness knows what else.

They do this through hundreds of politically powerful neighborhood groups throughout San Francisco like the Telegraph Hill Dwellers.  

Sounds like a tribe from The Warriors.


A modern rendition of Xenophon and the Ten Thousand

Then the rent-controlled tenants care far more about eviction protections than increasing supply.

The rent-controlled tenants don’t think about supply, they assume all housing has existed before and will exist again.

That’s because their most vulnerable constituents are paying rents that are so far below market-rate, that only an ungodly amount of construction could possibly help them.  

Though I’ve never written this before, I believe that living in rent-controlled property warps your moral sense and ruins your ability to analyze.


Everything on the straight and narrow

Plus, that construction wouldn’t happen fast enough — especially for elderly tenants.

Oh, and tech? The industry is about 8% of San Francisco’s workforce.

Tech is easy to demonize because those in it, though the same hoodie-wearing casual Millenials as the rest of us, are somehow hoodie-wearing casual billionaires, and that’s – just – not – fair. 

Yet it remains the villain of the artistic left.

The Techsters are rich, they’re new, they don’t have the housing problems you do. 

Cutler goes on to point out that –

The city’s height limits, its rent control and its formidable permitting process are all products of tenant, environmental and preservationist movements that have arisen and fallen over decades,”


This all makes sense …or so they say

– and that –

the sophistication with which neighborhood groups wield San Francisco’s arcane land-use and zoning regulations for activist purposes is one of the very unique things about the city’s politics.”

Aside from ‘unique’ being a word that admits of no qualifiers (cf. Strunk and White), New York and Boston compete in the same league of denial.


I’ve chosen this to emphasize my minimalist lifestyle

4. When you’re in a deep hole, stop digging

Development that hits high-density targets is the only viable policy fix and ought to be the highest priority of affordability proponents.

Whatever their motives, the defenders of San Francisco’s status quo offer no alternatives; they just want the rich people to go away (presumably leaving their jobs behind). 

The city’s overworked, underpaid housing lawyers can protect a few incumbent tenants from being evicted by especially underhanded landlords who skirt laws that hurt their bottom line. But theirs will be a losing battle until a great deal more high-density housing is built.

Though protecting a sitting tenant makes for great headlines, the tenant’s departure doesn’t make the housing situation worse, because someone else moves in to the apartment from which the tenant moved out. 

AHI blog posts on San Francisco’s self-inflicted housing shortages

July 26, 2010: No such thing as free subsidy, 2 parts, on inclusionary zoning mandates

June 14, 2011: Going the way of Cairo and Mumbai?, 2 parts, about the city’s supply neck-tourniquet

September 19, 2011: Rent control nullification, 2 parts, about the shadow markets

July 16, 2012: Entrepreneurial barracks, 2 parts on private techster dormitories

January 25, 2013: Free parkletting?, about street-side ‘captured spaces’

July 26, 2013: Better off vacant?, 2 parts, on the (un)economics of rent control

October 11, 2013: Invisible private infrastructure, 2 parts, Google buses (before they became targets of hipster rage)

May 5, 2014: San Francisco’s sunset scarcity, 2 parts, down-zoning’s artificial scarcity

February 11, 2015: Antidote to majoritarianism, 2 parts, relocation-payment law struck down

In fact, the current tenant may in fact be overhoused, which is endemic to rent-regulated housing..

In my propaganda play, they’d:

[Numbering added for emphasis – Ed.]

1. Be sympathetic with the plight of the working class, but

2. Not value them nearly as much as living amidst refurbished Victorians, and

3. Prevail by tricking economically illiterate activists into allying with them

4. After sneakily tearing the supply-and-demand chapters from their econ textbooks.

Of course, a plot of that sort would never be produced at a San Francisco after-school program, though it would be as earnestly aimed at making housing more affordable.

As Tom Lehrer sang half a century ago, in National Brotherhood Week:

It’s fun to eulogize
The people you despise,
As long as you don’t let ’em in your school.

Though Tom Lehrer’s alive, I doubt the college campuses who welcomed him in the Mid-Sixties would like the modern-day songs that younger Tom Lehrer would write.


Is it too late to join the Grateful Dead?

San Francisco has now created a symbiosis between two groups of free riders on the economy:

1.     Rent control tenants, who whose affordability is guaranteed by law and who are anti-landlord in their bones.

2.     Incumbent homeowners (who love seeing their property rise in value, even as they will not pay higher real estate taxes because of Proposition 13’s statewide property-tax cap.

Two groups of embedded voters who won’t move, and who pay no cost of their respective affordability or appreciation.  The ultimate unholy anti-development majoritarian dictatorship.


It’s the most natural thing in the world

Homeowners have a strong economic incentive to restrict supply because it supports price appreciation of their own homes.

While Ms. Cutler invites the inference that homeowners are aware they’re acting out of self-interest, that inference isn’t necessary to the finding.  But having their own lucky perches, they may naturally be more interested in protecting their own than creating more for others:

So we’re looking at as much as 80% of the city that isn’t naturally oriented to add to the housing stock.  


Great laws often come in threes

Moreover, that strong coalition of the do-nothing’s has a grip on the city council and the mayor, all of whom can do the political arithmetic:

“But the city’s political leadership doesn’t want to change it, because it fears backlash from powerful neighborhood groups, which actually deliver votes.”

Exactly: the elected officials have become the political hostage of the anti-development cabal.

The cost of housing in San Francisco is a burden to the working and middle classes. It is the product of choices fueled by the self-interest and even greed of the well-off at the expense of the less well-off.  

Personally, I don’t impute motives until all other possibilities have been eliminated.  Ignorance and thick-headedness can be defenses.

But many of the San Francisco activists most passionate about improving affordability in theory are pursuing that goal in economically dubious ways that are, as often as not, counterproductive.

Living all my adult life in a college town, I’ve become used to the presumption, common in such locales, that there’s something immoral about being a landlord.


Though I’ve never delved into it, the imputation of immorality seems to arise out of the combination of charging rent to others (property is a crime, man) and being rich enough to own property in the first place (with its whiffs of class privilege, like you inherited it). 

Well-intentioned incumbent San Franciscans are ideologically prone to look for villains elsewhere, and averse to any major changes to the aesthetic of the city they love.

Memory is nostalgic; the past lacked the present’s amenities, but our minds retcon them.

The city needn’t lose all its history or its charm to prosper. But it must grow and change a lot, just as it did when the homes owned by its NIMBYs were built.

Yes, but back then today’s NIMBY’s were newcomers, and the situation was completely different.

I’ll be optimistic that the root of the problem is finally be addressed only if and when the progressives of San Francisco—and low-density peninsula municipalities south of it—stop singling out tech companies for opprobrium and begin to cast preservationist homeowners, the anti-density wing of the environmental movement, and other anti-growth forces as the villains of their morality plays.