San Francisco's Self-Defeating Housing Activists

Tech companies and workers are vilified while longtime homeowners who fight high-density growth continue to profit from rising rents and property values.

Noah Berger / Reuters

A recent This American Life episode, “Poetry of Propaganda,” describes a San Francisco after-school program that produced an original musical starring young children. “I don't know what I expected,” said the writer Jon Mooallem, whose daughter played a tiny part, “but it wasn't this. Act One opened on a sinister tech-executive meeting with a corrupt mayor and San Francisco's board of supervisors.”

At the time, his daughter was a 6-year-old kindergartner.

The ensuing plot featured a cartoonishly evil technology company that conspired to oust salt-of-the-earth tenants from a multicultural group house.

It was a commentary on gentrification in the city.

“The eviction song killed. Everything killed, which was strange, given something I haven't mentioned til now. Maybe half the parents in the auditorium worked in tech,” Mooallem wrote. “And now they were watching their own children spear them as cartoon villains, literally cackling and throwing money over flutes of champagne, as they plotted the eviction of all those nice people. No one in the audience booed, of course, or huffed or stamped out. But I can't imagine what it must have been like to keep smiling along as you suddenly realized that for weeks after school, your own son or daughter had been rehearsing songs that mocked both you and the job you were off working.”

The rest of his story is a thoughtful meditation on political art and having kids perform it.

My instinct is against propaganda, whether judged as aesthetics or pedagogy. But even if there were nothing objectionable about indoctrinating 6-year-olds in this way, the musical would have fallen short in much the same way that San Francisco has in grappling with the most significant reason for its affordability crisis: the widespread opposition of its left-leaning residents to lots more new building.

That isn’t the lone factor driving up rents. But if the musical sought to use dramatic license to get at a core truth, the antagonists shouldn’t have been evil tech executives—they should have been protectionist property owners gleefully watching their biggest assets skyrocket in value as they blocked high-density development.

Such homeowners see themselves as do-gooders protecting the character of their city. In my propaganda play, they’d be sympathetic to the plight of the working class, but a fair amount more concerned about preserving refurbished Victorians. And they’d prevail by tricking economically illiterate activists into allying with them after sneakily tearing the supply-and-demand chapters from their Econ 101 textbooks.

Of course, a plot of that sort would never be produced at a San Francisco after-school program, though it would be as earnestly aimed at making housing more affordable. “We do not attempt to answer questions with our art,” the director of the children’s musical declared, “but rather to ask questions.” Yet I suspect my made-up plot would do more to provoke and challenge audiences in leftist enclaves than yet another narrative casting willfully evil corporations as stock villains.

Like people, corporations sometimes do evil.

But on this issue, the main thing tech companies have done to fuel rising rents is to create lots of high-paying jobs and employ members of a generation more likely than their parents were to prefer living in cities. Plus, techies are not against affordable housing. In fact, cheaper housing in the Bay Area aligns with their interests.

As Gabriel Metcalf put it in CityLab:

By the early 1990s it was clear that San Francisco had a fateful choice: Reverse course on its development attitudes, or watch America’s rekindled desire for city life overwhelm the openness and diversity that had made the city so special. When San Francisco should have been building at least 5,000 new housing units a year to deal with the growing demand to live here, it averaged only about 1,500 a year over several decades. In a world where we have the ability to control the supply of housing locally, but people still have the freedom to move where they want, all of this has played out in predictable ways.

The city’s ideological progressives exacerbated the problem:

Instead of forming a pro-growth coalition with business and labor, most of the San Francisco Left made an enduring alliance with home-owning NIMBYs… Over the years, these anti-development sentiments were translated into restrictive zoning, the most cumbersome planning and building approval process in the country, and all kinds of laws and rules that make it uniquely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to add housing in San Francisco.  

In “SF’s Housing Crisis Explained,” Kim-Mai Cutler provides more useful context:

San Francisco has a roughly thirty-five percent homeownership rate. Then 172,000 units of the city’s 376,940 housing units are under rent control. (That’s about 75% of the city’s rental stock.) Homeowners have a strong economic incentive to restrict supply because it supports price appreciation of their own homes. It’s understandable. Many of them have put the bulk of their net worth into their homes and they don’t want to lose that.

So they engage in NIMBYism under the name of preservationism or environmentalism, even though denying in-fill development here creates pressures for sprawl elsewhere. They do this through hundreds of politically powerful neighborhood groups …Rent-controlled tenants care far more about eviction protections than increasing supply. That’s because their most vulnerable constituents are paying rents that are so far below market-rate, that only an ungodly amount of construction could possibly help them. Plus, that construction wouldn’t happen fast enough — especially for elderly tenants. So we’re looking at as much as 80 percent of the city that isn’t naturally oriented to add to the housing stock. Oh, and tech? The industry is about 8 percent of San Francisco’s workforce.

Yet tech remains the villain of the artistic left. Cutler goes on to point out that “the city’s height limits, its rent control and its formidable permitting process are all products of tenant, environmental and preservationist movements that have arisen and fallen over decades,” and that “the sophistication with which neighborhood groups wield San Francisco’s arcane land-use and zoning regulations for activist purposes is one of the very unique things about the city’s politics.”

The cost of housing in San Francisco is a burden to the working and middle classes. It is the product of choices fueled by the self-interest and even greed of the well-off at the expense of the less well-off. But many of the San Francisco activists most passionate about improving affordability in theory are pursuing that goal in economically dubious ways that are, as often as not, counterproductive. The city’s overworked, underpaid housing lawyers can protect a few incumbent tenants from being evicted by especially underhanded landlords who skirt the law. But theirs will be a losing battle until more high-density housing is built. Such housing is the only viable policy fix and ought to be the highest priority of reformers.

Alas, well-intentioned incumbent San Franciscans are ideologically prone to look for villains elsewhere. The city needn’t lose all its history to prosper. But it must grow and change, just as it did when the homes owned by its NIMBYs were built. I’ll be optimistic that the root of the problem is finally be addressed when the progressives of San Francisco stop singling out tech companies for opprobrium and begin to cast preservationist homeowners, the anti-density wing of the environmental movement, and other anti-growth forces as the villains of their morality plays.