How Urban Farming Is Making San Francisco's Housing Crisis Worse

Turning vacant lots into vegetable patches makes no sense for a city with soaring rent.
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SAN FRANCISCO—There have been harder times to be a renter in this city of 826,000. Room rates shot up during the 1850s and again following the 1906 earthquake and fire. But talk to tech workers, low-income families, or housing lawyers, and they'll all agree on this much: There aren't enough affordable places to live, and as a result, the city's renters are pinched more than at any time in living memory. 

The housing shortage is no secret.

Local politics is rife with talk of gentrification, displacement, and affordability. Costs have sent young people on a great migration to Oakland, Berkeley, and farther afield in search of cheaper digs. That's why a Monday article in the San Francisco Chronicle, headlined in the print edition as "Tax Breaks for Urban Farming Kick In," is so stunning. "A new law taking effect next week will mark another innovation for San Francisco: The city will be the first in the country to offer a financial incentive for urban farming," the newspaper reports. "Owners of empty lots could save thousands of dollars a year in property taxes in exchange for allowing their land to be used for agriculture for five years or more."

Successful urban centers are constantly changing, and those changes raise complicated issues. A growing city's dynamism is core to what makes it attractive and useful. At the same time, cities aren't just concrete and glass: They're where people live. There's a cost to pricing out families and disrupting longstanding communities. Settling on the most fair or desirable housing policies can seem impossible. 

But subsidies for urban farming in one of the most dense, geographically constrained, pricey U.S. cities? That's insanity. "It's part of the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act, a state law spearheaded by local sustainable land-use advocates and state Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco," the article explains. "The law encourages would-be urban farmers to turn trash-covered empty parcels into gardens with the assurance they won't be forced out after putting in a lot of time and money."

That would make sensein Detroit. Insofar as there are blighted, empty lots in San Francisco, the policy failure is building restrictions that make it too difficult to add dwelling units. As Matthew Yglesias once put it, "San Franciscans seem taken with the fact that the city, as it exists, is already the 'second-densest' large city in America. Which is true. But also a bit misleading... Brooklyn is actually twice as dense as San Francisco. San Francisco, in fact, is less densely populated than Queens. For San Francisco to be as dense as Manhattan, it would have to house 3.2 million people instead of 805,000... It's obviously not 'politically realistic' to imagine San Francisco rezoning to allow that kind of density. But uniquely among American cities, I completely believe that 3.2 million people would want to live in a hypothetical much-more-crowded version of the city if they were allowed to."

San Francisco residents tend to self-describe as cosmopolitan liberals. But as a friend in the Bay Area once put it to me, they're often reactionary conservatives when it comes to development. I am not unsympathetic to their desire to preserve such a fantastic city. But they aren't doing any favors for those who can't make rent.

The empty lot featured later in the article perfectly illustrates why this policy is ill-conceived:

To qualify, a lot must be at least one-tenth of an acre with no permanent dwellings. The property would be reassessed at the average price for irrigated farmland, currently $12,500 per acre. For a comparison, the double lot that houses the 18th and Rhode Island Garden has been valued at around $2 million - although its current assessed value is lower since Aaron Roland has owned it for 17 years. Still, after he applies for the tax reduction, his annual $6,000 tax bill will drop significantly.

Roland offered use of the property to permaculture gardeners Kevin Bayuk and David Cody in 2008, who turned it into a demonstration garden that offers permaculture certification courses and hosts school groups. The garden's pathways and benches are open to the public, and volunteers harvest whatever food it produces for low-income residents. Roland gets constant requests to sell the property, which has a view of downtown, but he wants to hold on to it partly in case his children want to build a house there one day.

"I also like what's going on now with it. It's this marvelous garden in the middle of the city that's growing food," he said. "Hopefully there are other people like me that eventually might want to do some development on their land but aren't in a big rush, and meanwhile want to let it be used for this kind of public purpose."

If Roland wants to hold an empty lot amid a real-estate boom and housing crisis, all to preserve the hypothetical ability of his children to build a future house, that's his right. He owns the land, after all. But subsidizing this choice is nutty. Talk of urban gardens has aesthetic appeal to the typical San Franciscan, who associates it with community gardening, "locavore" dining, and sustainability.  Those things are appealing to me too, but sound environmental policy calls for adding density to urban cores, not changing land-use restrictions to discourage building. And sound economics counsels abandoning this subsidy entirely. 

Want urban farms? Me too. Put them on the roofs of eight-story buildings, not where a dozen of families could live instead.

The most vexing aspect of the newspaper article about the "tax break for urban farming" isn't that its author or the sources reached a different judgment about this tradeoff. 

It is, rather, that the tradeoff goes unacknowledged. You'd never know from reading the article that San Francisco rents are skyrocketing, that many people who work or live in the city are getting priced out, that East Bay rents are rising too, that folks who'd like to move here can't afford it, that living costs are rising in markets as far away as Santa Rosa, or that putting vacant lots to non-housing use exacerbates all these problems.

There is no awareness that an urban farming tax break is part of San Francisco's housing story. In fact, the only quote pertaining to real estate prices, offered at the end of the article, states that urban farms are "a way to beautify the neighborhood and stabilize real estate values." How can a blind spot so big possibly exist?

The demand for housing is San Francisco is huge. Due to geography and policy choices, the supply is practically fixed. Urban-farming credits are an additional incentive against new construction, which makes the city's wealthy property owners better off, but cuts against the interests of renters from all income groups who'd like to live there. 

The urban-farm subsidies are too damn high.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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