Strangest Thing: Some Agreement in SF Housing Debate
By Joel P. Engardio
In the simple version of San Francisco’s housing crisis, two giant generations are fighting over limited space in a peninsula city that isn’t configured to fit both.
Baby Boomers bought up scarce housing decades ago, created their own piece of paradise and worked to preserve low-density neighborhoods by resisting new development. Now there’s no room for Millennials, who want to reshape San Francisco into a denser and less car-centric city.
The Boomers won’t yield quietly.
“Neighborhood character is the hill I will die on,” said George Wooding, 61, president of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods. “As more height and density becomes the norm, we’ll start to look like the row houses of St. Petersburg, Russia. There is a beauty to San Francisco worth saving.”
But Millennials see preservation as a losing prospect.
“There aren’t enough roofs for all the people who want to live in San Francisco,” said Christine Johnson, 35, who directs the local office of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) and also serves as a planning commissioner at City Hall. “Unless we make dramatic changes to how we think about and produce housing, we risk losing everything that makes our city special.”
Wooding and Johnson lead very different constituencies in the debate over what San Francisco should look like and who should live here. Yet their personal views are less simplistic than their public roles suggest.
There is more complexity to our housing crisis than an intractable battle between Boomer preservationists and Millennial housing activists. That’s why I invited Wooding and Johnson to sit at the same table. For nearly three hours, they vigorously defended their positions and discovered common ground.
They even sounded like each other on some issues. For example, Wooding likes the Mission Bay housing development and Johnson wants the planning commission to have less discretionary power so it can be more consistent.
“We want the same thing — a city that’s livable and comfortable — but we have different ways to get there,” Wooding said. “I might want to go by car and she wants to go by…”
“Hyperloop,” Johnson said.
The contention between neighborhood preservationists and urbanists goes back 50 years when the SPUR acronym didn’t spell “Urban Research.” It stood for “Urban Renewal,” which embodied terrible ideas like a freeway through Golden Gate Park and the destruction of the Fillmore neighborhood.
This history makes longtime residents wary of anything SPUR champions. Johnson said the fear has become unfounded.
“I wouldn’t be here if SPUR was the same organization it was in the 1960s because I’m a black woman with experience working in communities impacted by urban renewal,” she said. “SPUR is over 100 years old. It has changed its people and its ideas.”
Then she quickly added: “I’m sure 50 years from now people will question today’s biases. But we are realists striving to bring all stakeholders along.”
Wooding disagreed with that point.
“The impression is that donors dictate the policy at SPUR. You can see the names of developers on their wall,” he said. “If neighborhoods donated millions of dollars to SPUR, its plans would change significantly.”
Wooding also said SPUR alienates residents by touting the numbers of structures built. He wants to know the human story of how many families SPUR helped stay in San Francisco.
Johnson took that advice to heart.
“We live in a world where private actors build things, so that’s where we’ve focused our communications,” she said. “But we need to better highlight the community benefits of building for actual people.”
One Million People
Wooding remembers how much easier it was to drive, park and find housing in 1980 when San Francisco’s population was only 678,000. Today it’s at 870,000 and headed to one million.
Many in Wooding’s generation feel San Francisco is beyond capacity. They’re also anxious about newcomers changing neighborhood character and turning the city into a more expensive and less diverse place.
I asked Wooding how it would be possible to keep newcomers out.
“Easy,” he said. “Just stop adding homes so a studio costs $10,000 a month and no one can afford to live here.”
Then he paused and revealed how he really felt: “But then we would only have an aging population and what good is that? We need to be a thriving city.”
Johnson nodded in agreement as Wooding explained further.
“I don’t love the idea of a million people, but they’re coming. We need to accept the growth,” Wooding said. “That means more height is inevitable. We’ll have to build 500-unit buildings downtown and at the shipyards on the Eastern side of the city. They’ll be tiny, cheaply constructed condos. But it won’t be the end of the world. I just hope they’ll be affordable.”
He was also OK with extra units in the garages of existing homes, because they won’t alter the look of a neighborhood. Yet Wooding, who lives on the Westside, remained firmly opposed to new construction that encroached on single-family homes.
“We can’t just not have new housing on the Westside,” Johnson said. “The numbers won’t work without the entire city doing its part.”
She said we could make huge strides in alleviating the housing crisis by maximizing current zoning and diffusing growth over many neighborhoods.
Wooding is a fan of the vast Mission Bay development, where Johnson lives, because it was planned with new transit infrastructure. But he is skeptical that 17 acres of open space at Balboa Reservoir can become a mini-Mission Bay on the Westside.
There is a plan for 1,100 new homes at the site. Johnson would like to see 2,000 units. Wooding said 500 should be the limit.
“What good is 2,000 houses if it takes 40 minutes to get on a train?” Wooding asked. “I like the idea of transit villages, but transportation has to come first. I hate it when we build things half-assed and then end up chasing mistakes.”
Johnson believes a nearby BART station and extended MUNI lines can serve more housing at Balboa Reservoir. She also said the added density would generate more amenities residents could walk to, reducing demand for cars. But she agreed with Wooding’s larger point.
“Beyond downtown, transportation is not seamless and there are totally disconnected neighborhoods. That’s problematic,” Johnson said. “It shouldn’t take 20 years after building housing to provide a way for getting around.”
Carrots or Sticks?
San Francisco has an unknown number of vacant units that add to the housing crunch. Some people fear renting out empty space in their homes. Strict tenant protections can make it difficult to reclaim the unit when the owner needs it for an aging parent or adult child.
Wooding supports giving skittish homeowners an incentive to rent to longer-term tenants and not just Airbnb tourists.
“I believe in rent control, and we can create a new option just for those empty units: a three-year contract with an escape clause at the end,” Wooding said. “There is great potential in older people sharing their larger homes.”
Johnson said a tax abatement program would be the right carrot to encourage people to open their homes to renters. She also backs a stick approach that would tax vacant units.
A Not-So-Odd Couple
Generational and outward differences aside, Wooding and Johnson are quite similar. They both arrived in San Francisco in their early 20s, drawn by the city’s vibrancy. They became parents by their mid 30s. They value diversity. They embrace pragmatism over politics.
“We shockingly don’t disagree on much,” Johnson said.
“Common sense and lack of ideology can always unite people,” Wooding said. “I like to think the next generation will love San Francisco as much as I do and have every opportunity I had.”