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NIMBYism in San Francisco Reaches New Heights With Shorter Buildings

Neighborhood residents demand a proposed affordable housing complex be five stories, not seven, to preserve "neighborhood character."

San Francisco homesTempestz/Dreamstime.comHigh-income tech workers, tenant advocates and city planners themselves agree that San Francisco needs more housing, in particular the affordable kind.

The city offered up just such a structure, a 65-foot-tall, 7-story, 90-unit development on a city-owned site currently occupied by a McDonalds in the city's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

The Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council thinks two fewer stories and as many as 25 fewer units would be just about right. The proposed development would be too high, and too large, creating "significant environmental impacts" and would "degrade the historic value" of the neighborhood, according to a letter on the Council's website address to the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development.

"HANC does support maximizing the amount of affordable housing constructed in our neighborhood," the letter said,"but only where this is appropriately balanced with preserving the neighborhood's character and environmental quality."

The council's rampant NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) has even the most stalwart progressives in the city rolling their eyes.

"What is 'neighborhood character'? And what does 10 additional feet do that destroys it," San Francisco planning commissioner Dennis Richards told the San Francisco Examiner. "They can't see how ridiculous it is."

Richards' criticism is welcome, but bizarre, given San Francisco's draconian permitting process—which Richards is intimately familiar with—allowing for ample opportunity for objections to on historic or neighborhood preservation grounds.

Dvelopers in the city must issue a neighborhood notification, giving locals up to 30 days to demand a discretionary review of any project should it, among other things, clash with the city's pre-determined Neighborhood Design Guidelines.

"A single building out of context with its surroundings can be disruptive to the neighborhood character," reads the official justification for these guidelines.

Richards has been happy to delay projects he finds out of step with neighborhood character. In February 2017 Richards was one of several commissioners to delay issuing permits to a proposed 12-unit residential/commercial development on San Francisco's Mission Street, saying the design was "a little aggressive." Fellow commissioner Myna Melgar said the development's large windows were a "a statement of class and privilege."

The project was finally approved in late September after the developer agreed to shrink the window size to be more in keeping with that "neighborhood character."

The preservation of neighborhood character is hardly the only conflicting goal in providing affordable housing in the city. Oppressive building codes get in the way, too.

Last year the city sued landlord Judy Wu for illegally subdividing single-family homes into multi-unit complexes to rent to low-income and homeless veterans. In July, the Planning Commission ordered Wu to remove the excess sinks and bedrooms she had installed for violating the city's building codes.

In a closed session this past November, the Planning Commission denied a request from one of Wu's tenants to preserve the units, putting many of her veteran tenants at risk of homelessness.

San Francisco residents and politicians have exploited a maze of building codes, zoning laws, and permitting requirements to halt, delay, or alter projects that would bring more homes to a city in the midst of a housing affordability crisis.

Over the past decade, San Francisco has added eight jobs for every new residential unit. Predictably, rents and home prices have shot up. An average one-bedroom apartment can cost $3,400 per month.

If the residents of Haight-Asbury, and all San Franciscans, want to make a serious dent in skyrocketing rental and home prices, they should begin by respecting the property rights of land owners. Even if the property owner is the city.

Check out Reason's coverage of some San Francisco residents working toward that goal.

Photo Credit: Tempestz/Dreamstime.com

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  • esteve7||

    Leftism: Let's make X more expensive by government force, then bitch about how 'affordable' X is, and demand government to make X more affordable

    California isn't so expensive because of the weather alone

  • ||

    In fairness, this kind of thing often comes from the communities themselves rather than from city councils.

    It happens all the time in SF and Oakland that some new apartment complex gets right on the verge of being built when crowds of protesters show up outraged that the units will be "market rate" when what we have is a crisis of affordable housing.

    They will seriously suggest that what "We" need is to build the affordable units first, and then once everyone has affordable housing, we can then build "luxury" market-rate units.

    Local city council members often facepalm at the horrific economic ignorance behind such ways of thinking, but the people doing the protesting think of economics as some sort of highly-suspect witchcraft/mind-control magic, and projects often wind up getting cancelled or re-tooled just because of the heckler's veto.

  • Brandybuck||

    Many local city council members, especially those in California, are the SAME people as those ignoramuses.

  • ||

    This is true. City Council meetings are often nasty arguments between the one or two rational people and four or five raving, blithering idiots.

  • Juice||

    I've noticed that the more idiotic someone is, the more tenacious they are. They're the one's who will never back down and just keep fighting for their terrible ideas.

  • TangoDelta||

    It's Dunning-Kruger sufferers in action when what we need is Dunning-Kruger sufferers' inaction.

  • Rhywun||

    I got very familiar with the attitude when I lived there of everyone wanting to pretend they lived in some small town.

  • ||

    That's a classic dynamic in CA - the biggest post-Gold Rush wave of migration from other states was in the 40s-50s when Midwesterners disgruntled by the urbanization and industrialization of the Midwest were sold on CA's "small town" feel. Both LA and San Jose are more enormous sprawling suburbs than they are "big cities" of the East Coast/Midwest variety.

  • Brandybuck||

    Yup. San Jose is now the second biggest city in the state, but it's nearly all suburbs. Then you get to some of the smaller cities in the LA basin, and they truly are 1950s era small town spots. Like Brea. But they're islands in the middle of mile after mile of burb.

  • ||

    Then you get to some of the smaller cities in the LA basin, and they truly are 1950s era small town spots. Like Brea. But they're islands in the middle of mile after mile of burb.

    Yeah - Orange, Santa Ana and Tustin, too. Miles and miles of 'burbs and then "oh, look - a 50s main street!"

    I once saw an interesting study comparing Santa Clara and Orange Counties, since their development histories are roughly parallel, but while Santa Clara County got largely absorbed by a really, really aggressive incorporation push by San Jose, Orange County is just a bunch of little 50s town that sprawled into one another.

  • Jimbo||

    And we're all middle class too! (in our million dollar homes)

  • Dan S.||

    Kind of ironic that there is a Haight-Asbury Neighborhood Council that wants to limit what can be built there in the name of preserving "neighborhood character". Wasn't that area supposed to be the epicenter of the "do your own thing" ethic?

  • ||

    Wasn't that area supposed to be the epicenter of the "do your own thing" ethic?

    50 years ago, yes.

  • Brandybuck||

    Do your own thing only if it has first been approved by the woke.

  • Rhywun||

    Now it's a bunch of gutter punks that curse at you when you step over them. What "character".

  • ||

    Yeah - I have that same issue with the techie hipsters who move into the Mission and then complain that its "character" has changed.

    It makes me think "you weren't here 25 years ago when the 'character' of the Mission District was heroin dealers, prostitutes, and rampant street crime. You just like the Day of the Dead parade."

  • paranoid android||

    Well, if they can't build up, that leaves only one option. My advice is to invest heavily in Vault-Tec stock.

  • ||

    Unfortunately, the bedrock in SF contains enough asbestos to be considered hazardous material. Excavation is not something to be undertaken lightly.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Oppressive building codes get in the way, too.

    Don't forget the Shadow Ordinance.

  • Johnny Hit n Run Paulene||

    There is unrest in the forest
    There is trouble with the trees
    For the maples want more sunlight
    And the oaks ignore their pleas

    The trouble with the maples
    And they're quite convinced they're right
    They say the oaks are just too lofty
    And they grab up all the light
    But the oaks can't help their feelings
    If they like the way they're made
    And they wonder why the maples
    Can't be happy in their shade?

    There is trouble in the forest
    And the creatures all have fled
    As the maples scream 'oppression!'
    And the oaks, just shake their heads

    So the maples formed a union
    And demanded equal rights
    'The oaks are just too greedy
    We will make them give us light'
    Now there's no more oak oppression
    For they passed a noble law
    And the trees are all kept equal
    By hatchet, axe and saw

  • RabbitHead||

    Peart. Nice.

  • The Real Jose||

    What a bunch of crap.


    If not wanting to spend half my life stuck in traffic is NIMBYism, then I'll wear the label with pride.


    The City has started deliberately removing parking spaces and making streets narrower for "traffic calming". That plus the fact that it's one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. is making it less and less livable by the day. What gives you the right to diminish my standard of living? To make me waste more time getting to and from work?


    Also, it's already 21st by population density, and the East Coast cities ahead of it don't have water supply problems. It's funny how there's no water for showers and flushing toilets, but there's plenty of water for packing more people in

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    I don't live out there myself so I don't know the details, but I have been wondering about the water supply issue. I'm under the impression that the southern part of CA is already well over its natural population capacity in regards to water usage. And it seems like the same people who want to put more people in the area are the same people who bitterly oppose any water project that might solve the problem.

  • The Real Jose||

    It turns out to be BS. The vast majority of the state's water is consumed by agriculture. Not flushing your toilet has no measurable effect.

    But I'm going to throw the supposed water shortage in the face of the urban planners every time they try to bullshit me about "we need moar housing".

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    And not just any agriculture -- rice and cotton. You couldn't pick more water-hungry crops, which of course made the subsidized water a natural.

  • ||

    And not just any agriculture -- rice and cotton. You couldn't pick more water-hungry crops

    Don't forget the fruit and nut orchards!

  • ||

    I'm under the impression that the southern part of CA is already well over its natural population capacity in regards to water usage.

    It is - the LA basin can "naturally" support maybe 50,000 people. But that was largely surmounted when a path was found to bring water from Mono Lake. Nowadays, So Cal has plenty of water, but that supply depends on some pretty massive infrastructure that traverses some major faults. So it is a little precarious, yes.

  • Rat on a train||

    Not entirely true. Orange County gets 60-70% of its water from the aquifer. The rest is imported from the Colorado or the Sierras.

  • Rat on a train||

    San Francisco imports water from the Sierras. It couldn't survive on rainfall.

  • I'm Not Sure||

    What percentage of the US population do you suppose lives in cities that survive on nothing but the rain that falls in the city limits?

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    What gives you the right to diminish my standard of living? To make me waste more time getting to and from work?

    My equal rights.

  • ||

    That plus the fact that it's one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. is making it less and less livable by the day.

    Yet, people are still falling over each other to get to live there, and are willing to pay thousands a month for a studio apartment in order to do so.

    What gives you the right to diminish my standard of living? To make me waste more time getting to and from work?

    What gave you the right to go live there and diminish the standard of living of those who were already there? Good thing they didn't share your attitude, huh?

    It's funny how there's no water for showers and flushing toilets, but there's plenty of water for packing more people in.

    That has exactly zero to do with population density in SF. Total water usage of the entire residential population of the state represents about 20% of state water usage. Most of the water goes to agriculture in the Valley. All the while you were being told not to flush your toilet, farmers in the Delta were literally pumping millions of gallons of water straight into the Bay in order to preserve their seniority rights.

    The traffic is bad in SF because the City Planners are both lazy and easily pressured by the anti-car crowd. Oakland has the same issues despite not being nearly as dense.

  • IceTrey||

    Is this supposed to be sarcasm?

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    Traffic calming is actually traffic frustrating.

  • IceTrey||

    Remember when liberals were all about fighting The Man? Now they are The Man. I guess the hippies finally turned into their parents.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    How conservative.

  • BYODB||

    Well, after San Francisco falls over next time I'm sure they'll do the right thing...right? After all, 'neighborhood character' won't mean diddly when it's all on fire or rubble from an earthquake. Needless to say, I have little faith that they have reinforced sufficiently for the SA fault line's maximum potential.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    San Francisco has an insularity problem. I lived there for nine years after I got out of the Navy, but was amazed at how free I felt once I moved out.

    If you want to get out of SF for a day, it's a major undertaking without a car -- bridges in two directions, and cemeteries / suburbia in the third. It literally adds an hour each way to go anywhere else, and people just won't do it. Cars? What a pain! It's probably 2-3 blocks away at least, and you don't remember where after so many times of parking at the first available spot. If you drive anywhere, you're going to have to sweat parking when you get there, and again when you get back.

    Within 5 minutes walk, you can find restaurants, grocery stores, movies, and there are always street fairs not far away.

    People end up isolated. You know that map of the world as seen from Manhattan? The San Francisco version is even worse. People don't even think of themselves as living in San Francisco, but only in their small neighborhood.

    I used to laugh at England and stories of people who hadn't been more than ten miles from home since they were born. It's ten *blocks* in San Francisco, and they are proud of it.

    I loved the climate, the geography -- nothing was better than riding the Hyde Street cable car down to the bay and walking across the Golden Gate bridge before breakfast. But I haven't had any urge to go back since moving out 30 years ago.

  • ||

    If you want to get out of SF for a day, it's a major undertaking without a car

    ^ This.

    There is SF, and then there is the rest of the Bay Area. Two different worlds.

    I've never lived in SF, but I lived in Oakland for 15 years and have lived just outside Richmond for 10. I theoretically have friends who live in SF, but getting them to visit the East Bay is pretty much exactly the same as getting them to visit France.

    And I fucking hate having to go into SF for any reason. Fucking hate it, and will bend over backwards to avoid it if at all possible, for all of the reasons you mention.

  • Rhywun||

    Then your friends were lazy. I never had any difficulty using BART to visit friends in Oakland.

  • ||

    Lazy and elitist.

    I could occasionally tempt them into Oakland, as I lived about a mile from MacArthur BART, and Oakland counts as a sort of embarrassing younger brother to SF as far as urbanity goes.

    Now that I live closer to Vallejo than SF, I may as well live in Congo.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    If the residents of Haight-Asbury, and all San Franciscans, want to make a serious dent in skyrocketing rental and home prices, they should begin by respecting the property rights of land owners.

    Remember, this is the city that would send letters to random hotel owners telling them that 1/3rd of their rooms were now *poof* low income housing.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

  • Brandybuck||

    San Fransisco is stuck at the tip of a narrow peninsula. There is no more room to grow out, therefore they need to grow up. Stupid SF progressives cant' understand that. They want their urban cake and eat their surburban character too. Worried about paving over the world? BUILD UP! Worried about the polluting effects of traffic? More density! BUILD UP! (You get less traffic because of shorter trips and more efficient mass traffic).

    These idiots demand change at the same time they demand everything remain just like it was during their childhood.

    Damn, I really have grown up to be that grumpy old man. Sigh.

  • IceTrey||

    Is it possible to build up considering the geology and earthquakes?

  • colorblindkid||

    Absolutely. While super talls would be difficult, we can easily build 40-50 story towers that are perfectly safe to withstand major earthquakes even with that geology. All of the historic 2 to 4 story masonry and brick buildings in that city, on the otherhand, are death traps.

  • ||

    Worried about the polluting effects of traffic?

    Then double down on your irrational demand that no freeways traverse your city, duh! It's like you don't even San Francisco!

  • Sevo||

    "Then double down on your irrational demand that no freeways traverse your city, duh!"
    And cut the available lanes in half to accommodate all 500 people who ride bikes! When it's not raining...

  • ||

    And cut the available lanes in half to accommodate all 500 people who ride bikes!

    Oakland has been doing this, too. Except few are stupid enough to ride around Oakland on bikes, and none that do pay any attention whatsoever to striping, cars, pedestrians, or really anything at all except whatever they're listening to on their headphones.

    Meanwhile, the cars squeeze into the potholed spaces between the pristinely paved and striped extra-wide bike lanes.

    But at least we have a bike lane on the Bay Bridge!

  • JoeB||

    Liberal San Franciscans reject housing-friendly project in their precious historical neighborhood! Stop the presses!!

  • vek||

    I'm originally from the Bay Area burbs, and live in Seattle now... The bottom line is both areas would have been better off if people had stopped moving to them 20-30 years ago. Both have lost most of the things that actually made them nice in the first place, and are at the point of just turning into bigger and bigger shit holes by the day.

    The reason people don't want development is because things WERE NICER the way they used to be, or the way they are now as the case may be. A new 7 story building WILL ruin the character of the neighborhood! My neighborhood in Seattle went from being fucking amazing, to being total shit in about 10 years. I sorely miss my old school, slightly divey, but not too shitty, Ballard. But it's gone forever now :(

    The problem is that as long as idiots from other places keep moving to these places, not realizing they missed the boat and that it basically sucks balls to live here now, more housing will need to be made. So housing must be made whatever the cost I suppose, including ruining the city. That said the best solution is to go somewhere else that isn't as overloaded IMO.

  • vek||

    Personally I think more smallish big cities need to "come up" and spread the people around better. There seems to be a magic sweet spot between about 1 mil and 3 mil metro area. Big enough to have lots of sweet stuff, but not big enough to have all the "big city" problems really dense metros have.

    It's like a new awesome large city needs to spring up north of the bay area in Eureka, or south in San Luis Obispo or something, and quit trying to cram everybody into SF. Or in Washington Olympia and Bellingham need to become cities of 1 million+. With the randomness of the market such things may never happen, but I'm quite sure if an awesome city were built out in those spots people would love to live there. It's really all about where the jobs are placed really.

    I'm looking into moving to some areas in the 500K-1 millon metro range myself. I could never stand the socialist crap in Seattle, but now that every other aspect sucks balls too there's just no reason to put up with it all anymore.

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