By Joel P. Engardio
Can San Francisco hold a million people?
Our population peaked at 775,000 in the 1950s before suburban flight left us with 678,000 in the 1980s. Longtime residents remember how easy it was to get around and find affordable housing then.
But the 1990s tech boom brought us back to 775,000 and we’ve only had growing pains since.
At 870,000 today, San Francisco feels way beyond capacity. We’re suffering from a lack of housing, insane prices, too much traffic and not enough public transportation. Yet our population trajectory is headed toward a million.
What’s a little seven-by-seven mile peninsula city to do?
We could deny entry to people moving here — if not for the Constitution.
We could ban new housing construction to give newcomers nowhere to live — if the law of supply and demand didn’t let the wealthiest move in anyway and price us out.
We could wish for an economic collapse to scare people off — if our retirement plans were immune.
Or, we could accept the inevitability of population growth and plan for it. But that would require building lots more housing at all price points and investing in the transportation infrastructure to support a million residents.
Politically, it’s a hard sell.
Consider Marjan Philhour, a forward-looking candidate who called for more housing density to give her three young children a chance to have a future in San Francisco. She lost a close race for supervisor in the Richmond district last fall.
But Philhour hasn’t given up. She recently became the new executive director of the Community Alliance for Jobs and Housing — a business, labor and community coalition that embraces growth to keep middle-income families like hers in San Francisco.
Philhour’s parents immigrated here as students from Iran and the Philippines. Philhour grew up in the Bay Area, worked in state government and then ran a political consulting business. Her husband is a high school physics teacher.
“I’m building a coalition for San Franciscans who believe our best days are ahead of us,” Philhour said. “We don’t subscribe to the culture of ‘no.’ We’ll never root for an economic downturn or promote ‘keep out’ signs.”
Philhour is not starting from scratch. She is reorganizing and rebranding an existing entity called the San Francisco Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth.
The biggest change is that Philhour will add neighborhood groups, merchant associations and democratic clubs to the board of directors so everyday San Franciscans can have a voice.
The Alliance was mainly limited to Chamber of Commerce businesses and building trade unions. It also skewed “old San Francisco” with little tech engagement.
Philhour, 42, wants to expand the Alliance so it includes tech companies and a broader range of labor, including private sector unions. Rise SF, a pro-housing and transportation coalition of business, labor and tech has already merged with Philhour’s new Alliance.
She also wants to recruit political candidates from neighborhood associations and build a bench of future leaders from the millennial generation.
The original Alliance was created in 2010 and led by union organizer Vince Courtney Sr., who retired. He welcomes Philhour’s new ideas and energy.
“I’m 75 years old and elated to pass the baton,” Courtney said. “Marjan has a lot of enthusiasm, skills and experience to take things to the next level.”
Courtney said his only advice to Philhour is to “be patient” because getting labor and business to come together wasn’t easy. A focus on middle-income housing should help.
“Our union members, teachers, firefighters and tech workers have a lot more in common than you think,” Courtney said. “They’re falling through the cracks because they need more middle-income housing options.”
Philhour said it’s possible to adopt housing policies that help middle-income families stay in San Francisco without sacrificing the needs of our lower income residents.
The power of the Alliance has always been its ability to raise money as a political action committee for the candidates and ballot measures it endorses. But success will depend on more than just cultivating big donors.
Community outreach will be key for the housing issue, especially since it’s still easier for politicians to win votes by championing low density.
There’s a convincing case for more housing — even in San Francisco’s least-dense western neighborhoods. For example, we can preserve areas of single-family homes while building five stories of housing on the streets served by Muni trains.
This will create much-needed family housing while revitalizing business districts. The additional foot traffic will let local entrepreneurs offer the kinds of stores and amenities westsiders want more of.
Philhour is busy laying the groundwork.
“I’m talking to plenty of seniors who want housing so their kids and grandkids can live here,” Philhour said. “There will be a million people in San Francisco one day. We can’t bury our heads in the sand. We must all band together now to plan for it.”