Let's Get Organized and Fix Housing Affordability in San Francisco

My recent thoughts on housing policy (Broken Promises: The Housing Market in San Francisco (And Ten Ideas to Fix It)) have gotten a big response — positive and negative — on Reddit, Hacker News, Twitter, and my email box.

This post comes from the frequent question: "what can be done, if anything?"

The political situation can be changed. Below I outlined how I believe there is a political majority for change, the three policies necessary to actually move the affordability needle, what to do in the next few months — vote in the June 7th primary for pro-housing candidates! — and what I think needs to be done to build a more permanent, structural change. That change likely starts with an in-person organizing meeting, sign up here or at the bottom this post to get more info in the future. 

The Unorganized Majority Wants To Address Affordability Through More Housing

Some have criticized me for being disconnected from the politics of San Francisco. I do not agree. Though you would be forgiven for disbelief after watching the Trump circus these many months, there are still some of us that believe politics should be about real policy. That isn’t to discount messaging, media, and all of that, but the fight is supposed to be about ideas.

There are many San Franciscans who want to solve the housing affordability problem, and create a more fair and functioning city. This problem has known, quantifiable solutions. I didn’t invent the solutions — they are composed of common sense approaches that have worked in other big cities. Some people, those that have been sucked into the San Francisco political dynamic as it exists today, consider these solutions politically unfeasible.[0]

I believe these people are wrong. This is a classic story in politics: of an entrenched, vocal, well-organized, and self-interested minority defeating an unorganized majority. Who is opposing this housing? Many activists opposing new housing are the very landowners that benefit from the resulting scarcity. These "housing activists" oppose housing, because they focus on affordability and neighborhood character so much that they curtail supply. It is difficult to overstate this. There is also an entire cadre of land use attorneys that specialize in opposition to housing projects of all shapes and sizes, dating back 20-30 years and even penetrating the ranks of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Rich homeowners are making San Francisco a gated community, some intentionally and some accidentally. The majority needs to take back San Francisco and make it affordable again.

And it is an unorganized majority: I’ve seen polling that 60% of adults in San Francisco would agree with a “Manhattanization” of the city if it meant solving the affordability crisis. The problem is that we aren’t voting: the number drops to the 40s amongst voters in the most recent election. The solution is simple: let’s get organized, let’s get out the vote, and let’s take San Francisco back from those that would continue down the road of an unequal and unjust city.

The Three Policies To Create Housing Affordability

There needs to be a concerted effort to pass at least three housing policies and those ideas need to be presented as a single, holistic package that is big and bold enough to solve the affordability problem. Of the ten ideas from my last post, these three get the most bang for the buck. 

One of the things I learned when working with city governments early in my career was that sometimes bigger policy ideas are easier to get done than smaller ones. It's just easier to sell the bigger dream that’s right than the smaller, incremental one. This fact is because big ideas can plausibly solve big problems.[1] So, I try think about the truly desired world and figure out how to fight for that.

The three easy-to-explain ideas that together are significant enough to largely end the housing affordability problem[2]:

  1. As-of-right zoning. We've spent dozens of years and millions of dollars formulating community zoning plans throughout the city, with intense outreach and engagement efforts, only to have those very plans challenged and re-opened when finally approved and/or enacted. Let’s end that process and allow people to build when it complies with the zoning already in effect.

  2. Build a taller city by upzoning for more height.

  3. Allow for the creation of more units by lowering or eliminating density limits. This is not about unlimited expansion of the building envelope but rather about encouraging more smaller units. (Sometimes called form-based zoning).

Near Term: Vote For Housing June 6th

When I talk to my friends, who live across the ethnic and socio-demographic profile of the City, they are disengaged and discouraged. “Things are screwed up” they say, or “politics is broken”. These people actually do care, want a diverse and affordable city, but don’t know what to do.

I want to change that.

Let’s start by voting in this June's SF election. Click here to see who to vote for. Tell a friend who agrees with you to vote.

Also, there are many organizations investing and fighting for big and small policy changes in housing — SPUR, SFHAC, SFYIMBY, GrowSF and SFBARF are amazing. I’d suggest joining at least one of them. 

Long Term: Creating Structural Change

A repeated, proactive, planned narrative, will animate voters clearly. It would be a single campaign with a clear message: make housing affordable.

The BMR debate, the density bonus, inclusionary targets, etc, none of it means anything to a normal person and none of it is going to move the affordability needle. Worse still, pro-housing advocates always seems to be responding rather than pushing policies forward.

We need to integrate the short-term, small stuff into a larger singular movement toward a big change. Above there are three big (simple) ideas that can actually solve the massive housing problems facing San Francisco. We need to start fighting for the big things we believe in rather than playing defense against anti-housing, anti-affordability forces. 

I’ve begun some of these conversations and am starting to clearly see the political and campaign path forward.[3] I’d like your help in putting together a plan, organizing around one narrative, one campaign, one moment, one set of things to remember that we believe is big enough to solve the affordability problem — that’s the only way to make others people believe it too.

So let’s get organized. Let's raise money. Let's knock on doors. Let's change things for the better in San Francisco. 

Who’s in?

I’m serious, shoot me an email or sign-up here.


[0] The political machine makes them unfeasible. The real, underlying story here, is that the "Moderate" forces in the city are shockingly unorganized. Self-admittedly so. The "Progressives" really do meet in dark rooms, conspire, get organized, make plans, and stay on collective message. The "Progressives" are a real machine, corrupted toward their own goals over the needs or desires of the city-at-large and they even have the villainous Boss Peskin, and his well-known intimidation tactics.  

[1] We need a lot of housing. Even if Mayor Lee's policies got us his 30,000 (wait, some of that is refurbished, right?), that's a big number, but it is not big enough. Mayor Lee's efforts, although admirable, always seem to have a shoulder shrugging: “it's as big as we can get. It will help. But this is beyond anyone’s capacity to solve (politically).”

[2] There are a range of other problems and ideas too. There is everything I wrote about in my last post and more. Some ideas apply to just San Francisco, my current focus, other apply to the entire Bay Area or to all of California. For example, local and state regs (CEQA and others) that actually enable virtually endless challenges and expansive definitions of "environmental impact", affecting privately and publicly funded projects. There is prop 13, as some commentary on HN pointed out. But, despite the multitude of problems and potential solutions, I believe these three policies would get us very far in San Francisco.

[3] Perhaps for obvious reasons, I don’t think sharing all the details publicly is wise. It requires people and money, though, so I could use your help.