When Gabriel Metcalf suggested at a forum on affordable housing that cities should be penalized by the state for failing to build enough housing, he drew gasps from fellow panelists.
It’s not that the other panelists disagreed with Metcalf, who as president and CEO of Spur, is one of the Bay Area’s better-known housing advocates. It’s just that no one else had been willing to make the suggestion.
We talked to Metcalf to discuss the region’s housing crisis and some strategies that might fix it. As the head of SPUR — the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association — Metcalf is in the thick of the housing conversation. That makes sense: Over the decades, SPUR — which has offices in San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland — has helped catalyze some of the region’s critical policy moves, from the founding of BART to the preservation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q The housing crisis rises from a thicket of seemingly intractable problems. How do you stay motivated?
A The good news is that we have the power to make the Bay Area much more affordable than it is. It might not be something where we ever feel like it’s fully solved, but it could be much better than it is now. And so in that sense, it’s different than some other problems, like cutting carbon emissions where only action at the global scale can address the problem, or even income inequality where really a lot of the biggest solutions are at the national level.
The housing market in the Bay Area is broken because of local decisions, and that means it can be fixed through different local decisions. We need a group of Bay Area cities to decide to open up the housing market. We need a “coalition of the willing.” Cities need to change their zoning and their planning processes to make it really easy and quick to add housing.
Q But I’m guessing you want to guard against incoherent or environmentally damaging development.
A The good news here is that high-density settlement patterns are the most environmentally efficient way for humans to live. The “greenest” city in the United States is New York, if you care about the per-person carbon footprint — because people in great cities can walk and take transit for most trips. So it turns out that building compact, walkable neighborhoods focused around transit stations is good for quality of life and housing costs and the environment.
Q Mountain View has several thousand new units planned or underway. San Jose’s General Plan commits the city to building 120,000 new units by 2040. That’s something. Are any cities doing enough in terms of redressing the imbalance between job growth and new housing?
A We see small glimmers of hope, but it is not yet happening at the scale necessary to change overall housing costs at this point.
The three largest cities in the region – San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland – probably have the capacity to make a difference, just because of their scale and because of how much transit they have. I would add that any cities that have a BART or a Caltrain station also have the opportunity to make a difference by adding large amounts of housing around those transit hubs.
Q What are a couple of initiatives that you’d like to see happen at the state level?
A One would be to change the state’s environmental review law to have an assumption that in-fill development — as opposed to sprawl — is good for the environment. Another idea is to require that cities meet their housing production targets in order to maintain local land-use authority. In other words, if a city isn’t hitting its targets for housing, then the state could issue permits to build housing there.
Q You’re saying that the state might preempt local land-use authority; I saw you suggest this at a housing forum a few months ago. So, as it stands now, decisions about land use are made at the local level, where new housing proposals often get quashed?
A Yes. California has turned over land-use authority to cities — even if cities refuse to build more housing and essentially turn themselves into gated enclaves of wealth and exclusivity.
Q Facebook has pledged to spend about $20 million on affordable housing, and Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, met over the summer with a number of housing experts — which made some people wonder if he and his wife might launch an initiative via their foundation. Do you think Silicon Valley will finally do something to solve the housing crisis?
A I’m really encouraged by the focus that tech leadership has on housing. If a group of leaders from tech decides to go big on solving these problems, we could go far.
Q You’ve espoused a “wave of experiments” to increase the stock of middle-class housing. What might that entail?
A This is one of the issues we have not yet solved. My belief is that we can’t help middle-class people afford housing through local subsidies; we’re going to have to actually fix the broader housing market. But within that context, we need to try a bunch of things to see if we can bring down the cost of market-rate housing. Ideas might include ramping up prefabricated and modular housing construction, which in theory could reduce the hard costs of construction by a lot… There’s also room to do a lot more with unit design — to make our units more like what you typically see in New York or Paris: well-designed, hopefully, but smaller.
Fully embracing car-free living is another way to reduce housing costs. If people aren’t using cars, that eliminates the cost of building garages under new apartment complexes. And if you look at the typical household budget, car use is expensive. So if we can put housing in the right places, so people don’t have to own cars, we can put more money in people’s pockets.
Born: June 21, 1970 in Madison, Wisconsin
Place of Residence: San Francisco
Jobs: President CEO of SPUR, (2005-present); Deputy Director (2002-2005), Policy Director (1999-2002)
Education: Antioch College, Ohio, BA in political theory, 1993; U.C. Berkeley, Masters in City and Regional Planning, 1999
Family: Partner, Elizabeth, a psychotherapist; two sons, aged 9 and 13
5 Facts About Gabriel Metcalf
1. He comes from a background of social involvement. His father, an economist, worked in economic development for the state of Colorado. His mother, a lawyer, worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
2. His book “Democratic by Design: How Carsharing, Co-ops, and Community Land Trusts Are Reinventing America” (2015, St. Martin’s Press) is a history of alternative institutions within progressive social movements.
3. He teaches a class in U.C. Berkeley’s department of city and regional planning on the intersection between political theory and regional planning.
4. Before working for SPUR, he helped found City CarShare, one of the first car-sharing programs in North America.
5. His chosen mode of commuting: bicycle.