In the “Star Trek” movies, San Francisco serves as headquarters of Starfleet Command. This cracks me up to no end, as I cannot imagine the Board of Supervisors approving construction of Starfleet Academy or the oddly shaped high-rises you see in the background. And if City Hall somehow did approve the project, you know there’d be some ballot measure to kill the deal. The grounds could be endless: No photon torpedoes. Too many techies already. What about affordable housing?
In many ways, San Francisco is a museum. It’s a city that continually attracts new waves of people who are drawn to what the city has represented, and therefore they want to keep it a museum.
When Apple announced plans to build a Union Square store where Ruth Asawa’s San Francisco Fountain is perched, the all-powerful tech giant had to back off. Last year, after the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission approved condominiums at 8 Washington, voters passed a ballot measure that torpedoed the project. The same activists who killed 8 Washington are pushing a new ballot measure to establish a height limit on waterfront development. Despite his vow to oversee the construction of 30,000 new homes by 2020, Mayor Ed Lee dares not oppose Proposition B.
It’s also a city in which I cannot afford to live. When my husband and I moved here in 1992, we rented a flat in Noe Valley. But when it came time to buy, we moved to Oakland. We’ve been in the East Bay ever since. And guess what. It’s not Siberia. You still find good coffee, ample parklands, tony eateries and fun little stores — but with fewer panhandlers on the sidewalk and more parking spaces.
And that’s OK, because though I love the city, there is no right to live in San Francisco. Advocates argue that the city benefits when nurses, teachers, police and, yes, journalists own homes in the Special City. I don’t disagree. But San Francisco has been more accommodating to the affluent than it has the middle class since the gold rush, and I don’t think any enlightened policies are going to change that for the majority of would-be San Franciscans.
Middle-class workers who want to live in the city can make certain trade-offs — sparse square footage, lots of noise, living in the fog belt. Otherwise, about the only thing that can make San Francisco more affordable for working stiffs is an economic downturn.
Kim-Mai Cutler of TechCrunch wrote a provocative piece, “How Burrowing Owls Lead to Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained),” that chronicled how no-growth politics and demographic changes have pinched Ess Eff’s housing stock. Cutler smartly rips into the no-growth spirit that suggests, as “48 hills” blogger Tim Redmond put it, “We can’t build our way to affordability.” The law of supply and demand says otherwise.
Cutler also supports proposals to make it more expensive and difficult for owners to evict paying tenants. There’s a price for that approach. In a city with more renters than homeowners, do you want to be the chump who buys a duplex when City Hall can tell you what you can and cannot do with your own property? (Keep in mind that this City Hall won’t let retailers give away paper bags.)
Groups such as the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project stage protests to send this loser message: “The Yuppie dot-com lifestyle must be fought and eliminated, because if it is left unchecked, it will eventually ruin our neighborhoods, our cities, and our planet.” They ignore the fact that the Mission is happening now in part because of the influx of tech money.
Most working people want to live in a neighborhood where residents spruce up buildings and keep the streets clean. Who is likeliest to do that? Homeowners.
Let me posit that I don’t think a more market-minded approach to politics is likely to cheapen the cost of living in San Francisco — or at least by much. This is a perfectly situated city with its own special style, and people from all over the world want to live here, so rent will be pricey.
But I don’t think it would hurt for San Franciscans to reorient their thinking to make this town more livable for the middle class. Last week, I walked from City Hall down Market Street at dusk with a friend from out of town. It stank; the police had a couple of people in handcuffs; and the mood was downright eerie. Yet the left in this town thinks Twitter is bad for San Francisco.
People pay top dollar to live near what only can be called squalor. Those yuppies whom anarchists hate pay $700,000 for a condo in a neighborhood where they have to step around street people on their way to work. And the yuppies rarely complain until a neighbor wants to rent to out-of-towners through Airbnb. Then suddenly they are outraged, and their quality of life is threatened.
Sometimes I don’t understand this town.