Or consider San Francisco, one of the least-affordable major cities in the United States. San Francisco’s population is about 825,000. If it had the same population density as my hometown, New York City, it would instead have a population of 1.2 million. Note that I’m referring to the population density of all five boroughs of New York City, including suburban Staten Island and the low-rise outer reaches of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. A San Francisco of 1.2 million would not be a Blade Runner–style dystopia in which mole people were forced to live cheek-by-jowl in blighted tenements. San Francisco at 1.2 million people would still be only half as dense as Paris, a city that is hardly a Dickensian nightmare.
One of the many benefits of allowing for more housing in a city like San Francisco is that it would likely lead to sharp reductions in carbon emissions. San Francisco is among the greenest cities in the United States, thanks largely to its superb climate. The same goes for San Diego, San Jose, and Los Angeles. The economists Edward Glaeser and Matthew Kahn have estimated that a San Francisco household spends one-fourth as much on electricity as a comparable household in Houston, as coastal Californians have far less need for air conditioning. To be sure, California does face serious environmental challenges. For example, that California’s water resources are stretched thin. But redirecting water resources from agricultural to residential uses would make an enormous difference, as would pricing water resources more intelligently. The environmental upside of supersizing San Francisco and other coastal California cities far outweighs the downside.
So what exactly is the problem? Well, the idea of a much denser San Francisco strikes many residents as appalling, not least because they fear that new development would threaten the city’s distinctive architectural character and the gorgeous views afforded by its stringent land-use regulations. While I love quirky Victorian houses as much as the next bobo, aesthetic considerations can’t justify the fact that San Francisco has become an oversize gated community. Rents in San Francisco are three times the national average, and they are rising at a fearsome clip. The housing crisis is even more severe in booming Silicon Valley, where the housing stock has barely increased over the last decade, despite the fact that the region has become a magnet for tech professionals from around the world. When skyrocketing demand meets stagnant supply, the predictable consequence is that housing costs soar and low- and middle-income families find themselves displaced…
In The Gated City, Ryan Avent observed that high housing costs in America’s most productive cities had forced large numbers of middle- and low-income households to either accept long, costly commutes, which eat into the ability of families to work and save, or to move to low-cost, low-productivity regions. Over time, this greatly impairs the ability of working- and middle-class Americans to climb the economic ladder. Moreover, when you move large numbers of people from high-productivity, high-wage regions to low-productivity, low-wage regions, you lower the productivity of the entire country. In other words, the rich homeowners who are fighting development in San Francisco and throughout coastal California are actually making America poorer. That’s not cool.
Thus, a gated community with economic gates rather than physical structures intended to keep people out. This is a similar story to that of many suburbs where exclusionary zoning practices intentionally limit development and push up prices to guarantee only certain kind of people can live there. Nothing is done explicitly in the name of class or race but an ongoing set of policies ensures housing availability only for some people.
The irony here is that this is notable in San Francisco, a city many might think would be attuned to these issues. This is also lurking behind the recent animosity between the buses sent by tech companies to take their employees to work and local residents. Yet, these concerns plague many important cities whether labeled with the terms gentrification or affordable housing or right to the city: how to balance or adjudicate the interests of powerful corporations, residents, and politicians versus those of average residents who are just trying to get by?