Affordable Housing

Will Anyone Ever Be Able To Build Again in San Francisco?

How did California's housing shortage happen and why is it so intractable?


Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America, by Conor Dougherty, Penguin Press, 288 pages, $28

How did the richest state in the country end up with its worst housing crisis? And is there any politically practical way out of its mess?

Those are the two questions running through Conor Dougherty's Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America. The book takes a deep dive into the struggle people undergo to find shelter in ultra-expensive California—specifically, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Zoning policy is about as sexy as a four-hour municipal land-use hearing, so it's no mean feat that Dougherty is able to transmute regulatory minutiae into a breezy, character-driven narrative that illustrates the central reason so many cities are so damn expensive: "a dire shortage of available housing in places where people and companies want to live." Golden Gates pays attention to academic research—particularly the work of the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser—but the book isn't a tangle of numbers and white-paper citations. Instead, it tells its story through the eyes of a set of characters: an East Coast transplant who manages to kickstart a pro-development revolution, a Catholic nun who leverages tech-industry donations to keep gentrification at bay, a city manager who'd rather resign than sign off on a shrunken housing project, and so on.

Dougherty is far from a libertarian ideologue—he's an economics reporter at The New York Times—but his supply-and-demand story will have pro-market readers mostly nodding along in agreement. "Because U.S. cities don't accommodate new people or housing nearly as well or as eagerly as they used to," he explains, growth in these cities "has caused new residents and speculators to bid up the prices of the not-enough housing that already exists." And the chief reason the region can't accommodate that new housing is over-regulation.

The fact that California has a housing shortage doesn't require a ton of proof. Much of Golden Gates is therefore devoted to explaining how that shortage occurred and why it's so intractable.

The crux of the book's argument is that the rapid growth of such industries as tech and finance has produced an intense demand for homes and offices in a handful of large metro areas. Meanwhile, those same metros—whose politics are dominated by a mix of exclusionary suburbanites, urban anti-development activists, and environmentalists—have spent the past five decades erecting planning codes that are unfriendly to the needs of a growing local economy.

In the wake of World War II, America managed to provide cheap and abundant housing in ever-expanding suburbs. Dougherty argues this is no longer feasible for a litany of reasons: many high-growth industries require dense clusters of firms and employees, commute times from the urban fringe to downtown can only grow so long, and the climate can't handle more auto-centric development.

That means new housing has to go where people already live, producing the intense, often ridiculous backlashes that have made California development spats famous.

It's a broadly compelling story, but it occasionally runs off the rails. California's various movements to cut taxes, reduce public spending, and contract out government services come in for criticism, with Dougherty arguing that localities largely achieved those results by zoning out poorer residents who pay little in taxes but demand a lot in services. There is some truth to this, but it's hard to square Dougherty's story with California's centralized state government and its high per-capita levels of taxation and spending.

The book's coverage of the present day focuses on two groups who have been particularly ill-served by the state's dysfunctional housing market: longtime working-class residents of the Bay Area, and newly arrived upwardly mobile professionals.

The first group has produced a grassroots tenant movement dedicated to fighting unpayable rent increases and eviction notices on a building-by-building level. The second group forms the core of the Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) movement, which wants to repeal the limits on development that produce those unpayable rent increases and eviction notices in the first place.

It's an uphill battle. The costs of repealing existing regulations would fall on a small number of privileged activists and zealots who have the time and ability to organize against reform, while the benefits of liberalization would be spread out over thousands, if not millions, of unconnected people who find it hard to form a coherent coalition. Homeowners and landlords—eager to preserve their views and their property values—are the only ones with any real say over development; the potential renters who might move to town one day don't get to vote at all.

Dougherty quotes Sonja Trauss, a math teacher turned YIMBY activist, making that point to the City Council of Lafayette, a wealthy (and rabidly anti-development) suburb of San Francisco. With an issue like a sales tax, Trauss says, "both sides have an opportunity to show up and say whether they're for or against it." But the renters who would move into a development if more building were allowed "don't know who they are yet. Some of them are not even born."

The book's YIMBYs are frequently at pains to dissociate themselves and their message from anything that smacks too much of free markets. One activist declares that he doesn't want the movement to be dominated by "libertarian fuckboys." Some YIMBY groups stick their proposals for more housing development into policy platforms that are heavy on increased transit funding and demands for rent control.

Through a mix of clever activism, strategic lawsuits, and tech industry support, these YIMBYs have been able to score some local policy wins, get a few of their allies elected to office, and even pass some state-level housing reforms. But by the time Golden Gates wraps up in late 2018, the YIMBY star was starting to wane. Trauss got annihilated in her run for a San Francisco Board of Supervisors seat, the state legislature rejected ambitious housing reforms, and factional disputes about personality and policy started to cleave the YIMBY movement.

As compelling as its "build, build, build" message is, the YIMBY movement is much too small to get its policies enacted all on its own. It needs allies. But who?

The answer preferred by many YIMBYs (and perhaps by Dougherty, though he's not too bullish on its prospects) is a coalition with tenant activists. The resulting alliance would mix demands for less regulation on development with more funding for affordable housing and stiffer protections for tenants.

"More housing generally, more subsidies for those who needed them: that two-sided equation constituted the median view of good housing policy," Dougherty writes, arguing the real obstacle to this unifying platform is bad politics, not mutually exclusive visions. He criticizes Trauss and others for bombastic rhetoric that alienates possible allies, arguing that when someone, say, compares anti-gentrification activists to nativist Trump supporters, it turns off tenant advocates who "regard YIMBYs as suspicious at best and the enemy at worst." Yet it's hard to see how a movement that wants more development can have more than a temporary alliance with the figures who currently dominate the tenants' rights movement.

Events that have transpired since the book's conclusion make that clear. Golden Gates closes with an anecdote about a 2018 national YIMBY conference, YIMBYtown, in Boston, where a lecture about building alliances between YIMBYs and "equity groups" was interrupted by protestors from said equity groups demanding that the assembled YIMBYs follow their lead on housing policy. Since then, the same Boston-area equity groups have filed federal housing complaints targeting the proposed redevelopment of a dilapidated racetrack into 10,000 new units of housing.

In 2019, YIMBY groups and YIMBY-aligned legislators joined tenant activists in throwing their support behind a statewide rent control bill in California, even though the law is likely to decrease investments in new housing. Come 2020, those tenant groups largely sat on the sidelines or actively opposed a failed YIMBY-backed bill to allow more housing construction near transit and job centers.

There is no easy answer here. California's housing shortage was decades in the making. Fixing it may take even longer.