The City is currently perched in a precarious position in the national spotlight as a city whose residents are suffering from their town’s own economic success. But that storyline, one that has been seized upon by the national media, vastly oversimplifies what San Francisco is and what our leaders and community are able to do when working together.
At the same time, city leaders, many of whom are tirelessly working on solutions, have failed to clearly communicate their message about how The City is reacting to the economic and affordability issues. Instead, the continual drum of news stories about the problem, not the solution, have too many feeling as though they are marching toward a cliff — or fleeing to avoid it.
For many longtime residents, and those who know The City well, San Francisco has always been one of the more expensive places to live. But there is a new feeling in The City, backed by recent surveys, that San Francisco is more expensive now than it used to be.
And people are correct, in many ways, in feeling this way.
Housing prices have surged in the past few years with a meteoric recovery from the housing slump. In addition, The City’s rapid economic recovery from the Great Recession has brought back jobs quickly — so much so that the forces on the rental market are driving up prices on those units not under rent control.
The housing prices are also leading landlords to use evictions and buyouts to oust renters from units that can then be sold at market rate in the hot market.
City officials’ response to the affordability crisis has not kept up with the increasing fear felt by San Franciscans, who can be heard at coffee shops and lunch spots talking about economics and market forces. It would be hard to blame any lawmaker for taking time to pivot. Just a few years ago, they were doing everything they could to stimulate the economy. The City has rapidly gone from having double-digit unemployment to now hovering around the 5 percent mark — a striking change.
The jobs growth is across the board, but one rapidly growing sector has now undeservedly caught flak for many of the problems. The tech sector is the fastest growing in San Francisco, outpacing other sectors in new hires.
The tech sector growth alone is contentious. The wages, on average, are higher than in many other industries, allowing the new workers to pay more for living space.
But the tech sector is still just about 8 percent of the total workforce in The City, and studies have shown that up to five other jobs are created with each tech position — a multiplier that is supporting jobs that include the service industry.
The easy storyline is that the tech boom alone is driving up the cost of living and forcing out low-income earners from their rent-controlled apartments. Yes, this is happening. But blaming tech alone fails to acknowledge the many larger issues at play in The City.
There are decades of fighting about how much to build and where in The City. Every project here is discretionary, meaning that people in many instances have a right to weigh in on the items at public meetings, potentially stalling or killing them. The names of neighbors weighing in on projects range from protectionist NIMBYism to community planning — depending on which side one falls.
The result of the planning process that exists is that San Francisco is one of the hardest places to get a project approved, including a long timeline for the approval, planning, hearings and possible appeals.
Many argue that one way to end and prevent another affordability crisis is to build. The City is in the midst of a construction boom that will bring many housing units, including below-market-rate units, to the market in the near future. But that may not be enough to vent the pressure and stabilize the prices.
On the flip side is the worry that a push to build units will result in a land Gold Rush, with developers exploiting the crisis in order to construct high-end units, further driving up the cost of living here.
The solutions to the problem are not simple. It is not a build vs. don’t build argument, and anyone categorizing it that way also is exploiting the current affordability situation. Many nuanced approaches are in the works, and collectively they should go some of the way toward fixing the problem.
But there also needs to be a long-term land-use development strategy. Part of this is the message, as evidenced by a closed-door meeting at SPUR last week that was attended by many developers and city officials. Merely pushing a “build, build, build” message could result in an anti-development backlash that only will mire The City in affordability issues for decades to come.
The saying is, “If you build it, they will come.” But that does not work for San Francisco. They have come, so we must build it. San Francisco needs responsible growth that builds this city to include and build upon the dynamic cultures so they can all continue to exist and thrive.