Was this progressive city San Francisco? Of course not. When it comes to housing, San Francisco isn’t progressive at all.
This truly progressive city was Sacramento — a city that’s preparing for an influx of residents and businesses by, get this, building more housing. So people of all socioeconomic backgrounds can live there. Shocking, I know.
“Sacramento is a rapidly changing city, and we’re shedding our old image as just a government town,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg told me. “We are diversifying our economy where we’re attracting a lot of tech and life sciences and innovation and broadening our economic base.
“But it is not enough to just grow a modern economy,” he continued. “That growth needs to be coupled with an absolute commitment to inclusion. People should not only have the ability to play in Land Park, which is the crown jewel in our regional parks system, they should have the opportunity to live there as well.”
What if San Francisco mayors and supervisors had adopted that vision 20 years ago during the first dot-com boom? Or 10 years ago as we emerged from the Great Recession and saw an influx of tech companies and a huge spike in housing prices and rents? What if they’d called for our thriving economy to not leave anybody behind and demanded that people of all income levels be able to live near Golden Gate Park?
While some parts of San Francisco saw high-end residential towers built and a smattering of affordable housing was added, the city didn’t come close to adding enough units for low- and middle-income earners. And large swaths of the city, mostly on the west side, have remained frozen in time. An artist, teacher, waiter, custodian or nonprofit worker new to the city and lacking a trust fund or high-earning spouse has no chance of buying a home in the city. And little chance of affording rent. Living near Golden Gate Park? Not likely.
So if those people work in San Francisco, they often endure long car commutes, which is bad for the environment and one’s health and sanity. Progressive? Not at all.
Of all the land in San Francisco where homes are allowed to be built, 74% of it is slated for single-family homes, according to Matt Regan, senior vice president of public policy for the Bay Area Council, a business advocacy organization.
“It’s a suburb masquerading as a city, really,” Regan said. “There’s no difference between the west side of San Francisco and most of suburban San Mateo.”
“Socially, yes, San Francisco is the most progressive city in the country, but when it comes to land use and planning, it is absolutely one of the most conservative. We give divine rights to homeowners and existing residents at the expense of renters and future residents,” he continued. “It’s progressives against progress.”
For decades, some San Francisco progressives have argued that for some reason, the laws of supply and demand don’t apply to San Francisco’s housing market. But the pandemic — and the drop in rents here — proves that they do.
And Sacramento’s progress isn’t even the stuff of NIMBY nightmares. That city isn’t plopping high-rises in the middle of residential neighborhoods. It’s merely allowing up to four units to be built on one lot while ensuring size and design fit in with neighborhood character. Current height limitations would remain.
Under state law, most California homeowners including those in San Francisco can add up to two in-law units to their properties, but Regan said allowing fourplexes would professionalize the endeavor and add far more housing.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, who has tried and failed to dramatically alter California’s laws to get more housing built, said San Francisco’s policies “ensure that housing stays super expensive and perpetuates segregation.” He called Sacramento’s plan “fantastic.”
Assemblyman David Chiu called it “a bold move” that could work in San Francisco.
“I appreciate that people are attached to the status quo, but fourplexes are an incremental change that could go a long way in addressing our housing and homelessness crisis,” he said.
Mayor London Breed also supports adopting Sacramento’s plan. “She’s all for policies that make it easier to build housing throughout our entire city,” said Jeff Cretan, her spokesman.
So will San Francisco ever follow Sacramento’s smart path? Unlikely. Pinning the 11 supervisors down on this question was like trying to capture fog.
Supervisor Connie Chan, whose Richmond district includes a lot of single-family homes, said the city has enough market-rate housing, though nearly all economists and housing experts disagree. She supports only development that’s 100% affordable and pointed to teacher housing, but only one such complex is under development after more than 15 years of talking about the idea.
Supervisor Gordon Mar, whose Sunset district also includes a lot of single-family housing, texted that he grew up in Sacramento and “a modest density increase to single-family zoning is certainly worth considering.” He did not respond to requests for a phone interview for more clarification about whether he’d support fourplexes.
Supervisor Myrna Melgar, whose West of Twin Peaks district likewise includes a lot of single-family homes, is among the most straightforward supervisors. She said she likes the Sacramento plan, but doesn’t think it would have the votes here. She said she’d support it if the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency restores the bus and streetcar lines in her district that have been slashed during the pandemic.
“We can’t talk about more density until we have a working transportation system,” she said.
Supervisors Catherine Stefani and Ahsha Safaí — representing the Marina and Excelsior, respectively — also have single-family homes in their districts, but did not return requests for comment. Neither did Supervisor Dean Preston, who represents the Haight and seems to be one of the supervisors most opposed to building market-rate housing.
Supervisor Matt Haney doesn’t have single-family homes in his district — the Tenderloin and South of Market — but supports Sacramento’s plan and said, “it makes sense to allow apartments anywhere.”
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro and Noe Valley, said following Sacramento’s lead is “the right thing to do.” He added that his constituents tend to oppose giant homes built for one wealthy family, but would support them if they were for three or four families.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents North Beach and Chinatown, said he supports “density equity,” but didn’t go into specifics about Sacramento’s plan.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents the Mission, said she supports requiring all new homes built in the city to include at least two units.
“It’s all about balance. San Francisco is beautiful and desirable because of the years we’ve fought to preserve the character of our now world-famous neighborhoods,” she said. “But we are not a museum, and we definitely need housing that San Franciscans can afford.”
Supervisor Shamann Walton was the only supervisor to flat-out oppose adopting Sacramento’s plan.
“Policies like this would speed up the gentrification in areas like Bayview,” he said. “Of course I want affordability and opportunities to provide increased housing, but this policy is bad for San Francisco.”
Housing advocates argue the opposite is true — that gentrification has been worse in San Francisco than elsewhere in part because it’s built so little housing while creating so many jobs. The city’s current policies contribute to high housing costs, which drives people out to places like, yes, Sacramento. That city has seen rents rise because of an influx of Bay Area residents.
“Sacramento doesn’t feel like it has the luxury to throw its head into the sand about the housing crisis,” said Louis Mirante, legislative director for California Yimby, a pro-housing group. “Your Board of Supervisors is seemingly unable to consider the impact their policies have on other people. When it comes to land use, San Francisco could learn a lot of lessons from Sacramento.”
James Corless is the executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which includes 28 local governments from Davis to Lake Tahoe and the delta to Yuba City, and he’s a big fan of Sacramento’s move.
“We want to be a region that’s one of the most creative, thoughtful and forward-thinking regions in California, and this is the type of policy that does just that,” he said. “We have to open ourselves up to be more flexible and invite developers and affordable housing providers in so we can build the city of tomorrow.”
He didn’t say this directly, but there was one implication: San Francisco is the city of yesterday.