No to NIMBY, Yes to YIMBY

The housing issues of the Bay Area and other major cities has led to a new YIMBY movement:

The stubbornness of the NIMBYs has sparked a counter-YIMBY movement (“yes in my backyard”) among activists who believe the way out of the housing crisis is to build.

Trauss, the founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SF BARF), is one of the more visible members of the growing YIMBY movement in the city. She began her activism shortly after moving to the city from Philadelphia…

The severity of the housing crisis is swinging public policy in favor of the YIMBYs. In May, Trauss and housing activists from around the state went to Sacramento to walk the halls and meet with legislators in the capitol to lobby support of Governor Jerry Brown’s latest “as of right” proposal that would streamline the permitting process for new development that meets affordable housing requirements to prevent NIMBYs from stalling proposed residential projects…

The growing organization of the YIMBYs was evidenced at their first national conference in Boulder, Colorado last weekend. The gathering included representatives from Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, and several other cities, according to The Atlantic CityLab. An international conference is planned for August in Helsinki, Finland.

It will be fascinating to see if this group gets anywhere. How do you convince wealthier residents to voluntarily give up their locational privileges? It will take a lot of sustained political pressure to go against people who have resources and close connections to local officials and people involved in real estate.

If I had to guess, I would think the YIMBY groups are led by middle class people who say that cities should be affordable to college graduates and young families who are trying to start in life. It is a different conversation to push for truly affordable housing; when the average rent in San Francisco for a 1 bedroom is over $3,000, where is there actually room for lower income residents (let alone middle class residents)?

Can we have both protected open spaces and affordable housing?

Conservatives argue that the affordable housing issue is simple: stop protecting open space and let developers build more housing units.

But, beginning in the 1970s, housing prices in these communities skyrocketed to three or four times the national average.

Why? Because local government laws and policies severely restricted, or banned outright, the building of anything on vast areas of land. This is called preserving “open space,” and “open space” has become almost a cult obsession among self-righteous environmental activists, many of whom are sufficiently affluent that they don’t have to worry about housing prices.

Some others have bought the argument that there is just very little land left in coastal California, on which to build homes. But anyone who drives down Highway 280 for thirty miles or so from San Francisco to Palo Alto, will see mile after mile of vast areas of land with not a building or a house in sight…

Was it just a big coincidence that housing prices in coastal California began skyrocketing in the 1970s, when building bans spread like wildfire under the banner of “open space,” “saving farmland,” or whatever other slogans would impress the gullible?

When more than half the land in San Mateo County is legally off-limits to building, how surprised should we be that housing prices in the city of San Mateo are now so high that politically appointed task forces have to be formed to solve the “complex” question of how things got to be the way they are and what to do about it?

The argument goes that this is an example of supply and demand: open more space for development and housing prices will have to drive as supply increases. Is it really this simple? Here are at least a few other factors that matter in this equation:

  1. The actions of developers. Even if more housing units could be built, there is no guarantee they could build cheap or affordable housing. They want to make money and they argue the money is not in affordable housing.
  2. Is cheap suburban housing (what is typically promoted by conservatives in these scenarios – keep building further out) desirable in the long run? Opponents of sprawl might argue that having a cheap single-family home 30-50 miles out from the big city is worse in the long run than a smaller, more expensive unit close to city amenities and infrastructure.
  3. What exactly is the value of open space? Conservatives sometimes argue this is another sign of the religion of environmentalism but there are realistic limits to how much housing and development land can hold before you end up with major issues. (For example, see the regular flooding issues in the Chicago area.) If green or open space is simply about property values – keep my home values high by not building nearby housing – this is a different issue.
  4. There is a larger issue of social class. I’m guessing there are few Americans of any political persuasion that would choose to live near affordable housing. There is a stigma associated with it even if the housing is badly needed. Lots of people might argue affordable housing is needed but few communities want it in their boundaries and middle and upper class residents don’t want to be near it.
  5. Another option for affordable housing is to have denser urban areas. Think cities like Hong Kong where a lack of land and high demand have led to one of the highest population densities in the world. If a region wants to protect its open and green space, why not build up? Many city residents don’t want this – the single-family home urban neighborhood is a fixture in many American cities – and conservatives fear a government agenda pushing everyone into dense cities.

Opening more land to development might help lead to cheaper housing but it would take a lot more to get to affordable housing that is within a reasonable distance from job and population centers.

Three tips for avoiding turning a $250 million bridge into a $13 billion one

A new book chronicling the long saga of the new Bay Bridge offers these lessons for avoiding massive cost changes/overruns:

Reference other projects. Frick points to a couple ideas for controlling mega-project costs. Scholar Bent Flyvbjerg, who has studied infrastructure cost overruns around the world—and who often boils them down to political deception—has promoted the idea of basing costs on a “reference class” of similar projects already completed. The fear with that is project leaders won’t bother to keep costs down if they know they can hit a certain number, but Frick says that possibility bothers her less than the uncertainty surrounding costs that goes on right now.

Widen early cost ranges. Giving a precise cost number out to multiple decimals, as the state legislature did with its $1.285 billion estimate in 1997, makes the figure seem more scientific and precise than it really is, and creates that much more public frustration when the costs keep rising in the future. “In the early planning stages, ranges in the projects would be really important to provide,” she says.

Track progress more closely. Frick also suggests that officials pay more attention to “transaction cost economics”—an approach that “analyzes project development over time,” she writes, in an effort to identify the precise “political and economic origins” of new costs. This fuller accounting also considers costs that often go overlooked, such as the time and energy that go into public participation. Without better cost estimates, projects will continue to suffer from the type of strategy described to Frick by one senior engineer:

“Basically at the onset of a project I think the higher ups prefer a dollar amount and schedule that doesn’t shock the public.”

Which, as the Bay Area knows, only makes the shock that much worse when it finally arrives.

The typical resident is going to look at this and ask how in the world this was allowed to happen. Large infrastructure projects have a lot of moving pieces but the change in price is still hard to understand. Of course, there may be a political penalty for adhering to this advice – a higher projected cost upfront is likely to limit support. Yet, going with an unreasonably low projection with no cost range borders on dishonesty.

You don’t want to win the McMansion award from protesters

Some antitech protestors recently handed out a McMansion award in San Francisco:

Wearing a pig mask and sequined suit jacket, Amy Gilgan stood outside of Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday night to accept the McMansion award at the second annual Crappys on behalf of Jack Halprin, a Google lawyer, landlord and frequent target of San Francisco’s antitech ire.

In sparkles and sneakers, technorati streamed past protesters and into the concert hall for the eighth annual Crunchies Awards, the supposed Oscars of Silicon Valley. Few turned their heads to witness the sidewalk satire. Investor Ron Conway, who last year stood on the Crunchies stage and offered his sympathy to the protesters, buzzed by a group of taxi drivers rallying against Uber. Evening news crews scaled back their coverage.

This year the pig masks were new, but the message was old. The verve of the antitech demonstrators felt diminished, and even they noted that the turnout was low.

McMansion sounds like an invasive species for the self-interested and wealthy. Some of the backstory:

Tirado said things started off  badly  as soon as Halprin bought and moved into the seven-unit building two years ago. First, Halprin forced one tenant out under owner move-in laws. Then another existing tenant was evicted,  again through the owner move-in process. Halprin told tenants that his domestic partner would be taking over the second unit. That partner, however, never materialized, according to Erin McElroy, an organizer with Eviction Free San Francisco. The affected tenant has since filed a wrongful eviction lawsuit against Halprin.

The remaining six tenants, which includes two teachers, a small child, an artist and a disabled senior, received Ellis Act eviction notifications in February of this year.

The protests continued through December. This is a big issue right now in San Francisco: in a very expensive housing market, Silicon Valley employees and companies have been perceived by some as throwing their weight around regarding properties and sending buses for workers. While this could be thought of as a more localized issue in some cities – perhaps gentrification occurring in particular neighborhoods – it is bigger than that since prices are high all over the Bay Area.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. It is interesting that we don’t hear as much about protests on this issue in New York City even though Manhattan is similarly expensive and luxury construction is booming. Perhaps the land there is being redeveloped from non-residential uses and/or fewer people are being displaced?

2. Generally, I don’t think winning an award with McMansion in the title is intended as a compliment.

The house the Tanner family on Full House could really afford in the Bay Area

With rumors of a possible Full House remake, Trulia took a look at what the Tanner family could realistically afford:

Like the concept of home itself, the Full House house is largely placeless: Shots of the exterior come from the Lower Pac Heights Victorian at 1709 Broderick, the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square encourage all kinds of assumptions in the credits, and the address the characters use (1882 Girard) is actually wedged up against the 101 in Visitacion Valley. Still, it’s fairly obvious that the Tanner family of today could not so easily swing a Painted Lady, or its stand-in, in this market. Trulia actually ran the numbers and came up with the budget that a morning-show host, a musician, and a rock-paper-scissors champion would need to house the pre-mogul-phase Olsen twins and those other sisters. That number is $1.23M. And you know what? We found them a house!

First, the math:

Trulia used 1709 Broderick as the baseline. They say that the property sold last year for $2.865M. (Which is weird. Per the MLS, the last sale was in 2006, for $1.85M. Property Shark estimates the property’s current value at just over $2.05M—perhaps they were looking at that?) Gah, so much of this is theoretical, anyway: The real 1709 Broderick is only a three-bedroom, and according to these plans, they need at least four.) Anyway, the point is that the Bob Saget hair helmet and its costarring ‘dos need a lower mortgage payment. Here is what Trulia figured, assuming 20 percent down and a 30-year, 4.1 percent fixed-rate mortgage:

Let’s do the math: if Danny (played by Bob Saget) made close to $160,000 a year as the host of the local TV show, Wake Up, San Francisco, Joey made $30,000 doing stand-up gigs around the country, and Uncle Jesse raked in $48,000 as a musician, together, they could only afford a home around $1.23 million or about a $6,000-a-month mortgage.Of the homes around the $1.23M mark on the market right now, this four-bedroom Victorian in the Inner Richmond, just a block and a half from the park, is the only candidate that makes any kind of sense. It just squeezes in under budget at $1.15M, comes with a backyard large enough for a picnic table and the doling of woodwind-scored life lessons, and even has mint-sherbet-shingle synchronicity with this actual Painted Lady. There’s no garage, though, so Uncle Joey would need to live in the storage space.

Two thoughts:

1. This gives some quick insight into the superheated Bay Area housing market. The Tanners are not buying a cheap house with this estimated income yet they are clearly not living in the implied homes from the exterior shots because they could not afford it.

2. This is a common trend among family sitcoms on television: the “normal” family depicted often lives in a home that is realistically way beyond their means. I’ve been looking at some research regarding depictions of homes on TV and this dates back to the nuclear family sitcoms of the 1950s where families tended to live in pretty big houses for their time. Sociologist Juliet Schor argues that this increased level of consumption on television – the middle-class family living in bigger houses and having more stuff, seemingly without having to worry about finances – influenced American consumer patterns as their expectations of “normal” changed.

San Francisco the country’s “largest gated community” because of limits on development

San Francisco is an expensive place to live and as one writer argues, this is due to intentional housing policies:

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?

San Francisco street character, Bushman, dies

For years, Bushman could be found “interacting with” tourists in San Francisco:

For 30 years Gregory Jacobs spent his days at Fisherman’s Wharf hiding behind branches, often up against a trash can, silently waiting for unsuspecting tourists to come by.

When they did, and when they least expected it, he would push those branches towards them, often giving them a little growl. Almost always, without fail, they would jump scream and run.

It is one of those iconic San Francisco experiences. Few people can forget a run-in with the bushman.

But Jacobs hadn’t been in his usual spot lately. He’s been in and out the hospital with heart problems. Last Sunday, his family told KTVU, his heart finally gave out and Jacobs passed away.

The article goes on to note that there are actually two Bushmen so there will still be one at these tourist sites.

Bushman might be considered one of Jane Jacob’s “public characters.” Sociologist Mitchell Duneier discusses this idea in the introduction to his classic ethnography Sidewalk.

Not long after we met, I asked Hakim how he saw his role.

“I’m a public character,” he told me.

“A what?” I asked.

“Have you ever read Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities?” he asked. “You’ll find it in there.”

I considered myself quite familiar with the book, a classic study of modern urban life published in 1961, and grounded in the author’s observations of her own neighborhood, Greenwich Village. But I didn’t recall the discussion of public characters. Nor did I realize that Hakim’s insight would figure in a central way in the manner in which I would come to see the sidewalk life of this neighborhood. When I got home, I looked it up:

The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters. A public character is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function—although he often does. He just needs to be present, and there need to be enough of his counterparts. His main qualification is that he is public, that he talks to lots of different people. In this way, news travels that is of sidewalk interest.

Jacobs had modeled her idea of the public character after the local shopkeepers with whom she and her Greenwich Village neighbors would leave their spare keys. These figures could be counted on to let her know if her children were getting out of hand on the street, or to call the police if a strange-looking person was hanging around for too long: “Storekeepers and other small businessmen are typically strong proponents of peace and order,” Jacobs explained. “They hate broken windows and holdups.” She also modeled the public character after persons like herself, who distributed petitions on local political issues to neighborhood stores, spreading local news in the process.

While Bushman didn’t necessarily provide needed services for local residents, being a fixture for so long and interacting with the tourists in a unique way helped make him a feature of Fisherman’s Wharf. I remember seeing him in action multiple times. The first time was surprising and yet it seemed to be the sort of thing that one could only find in a big city: a local man popping out of one of the more natural features along this stretch of the Embarcadero (yes, tearing the Embarcadero Freeway down was helpful but a lot of this road is still fairly ugly) and poking fun at the many tourists who bring lots of money into the city. This is quite different from other odd characters in American cities like the Naked Cowboy in Times Square or the various gold or silver-covered street performers on Michigan Avenue and elsewhere who perform and then ask for money. The key difference is that Bushman had a direct confrontation with tourists who were often quite frightened – until they realized that people were watching them and this was all “normal.”

New York MTA: don’t post signs showing subway passengers where it is best to board

A new underground group has been posting signs indicating where it is best to board a subway train but the MTA is not happy:

There is a body of knowledge that New Yorkers gradually accumulate through years of hardened subway travel. If a train car is mysteriously empty, don’t get in. Savor your cheese. Beware sharks. But the most prized wisdom is the understanding of where you need to board a train to make your transfer or exit most efficient. For example, when transferring to the L line from the A/C/E or F trains, some use the mnemonic “Down in Front,” meaning you want to be in the front of those downtown trains for the fastest transfer to the L. But what if you’re a novice who hasn’t yet acquired such deep insight? A group of rogue good Samaritans is here to help the newbs.

The Efficient Passenger Project is on a mission to put up signs throughout the subway system guiding commuters to the best spot to board a train in order to make the quickest exit or transfer. The anonymous participants have been placing “Efficient Passenger Project” stickers on and around the turnstiles in select subway stations, signaling the presence of a plaque on the platform that tells you exactly where to stand to make your commute most efficient.

So far the EPP has only rolled out the signage along the L line, but the website promises “more train lines in planning stages, proportional to demand.” The founder of the group tells Transportation Nation, “It’s a public, civic service. [The subways can be] a labyrinth of tunnels and transfers and stairways. The project is an attempt to kind of rationalize some of that environment, and just make a more enjoyable, faster commute.”

The MTA, however, has vowed to remove the unauthorized signs. “These signs have the potential to cause crowding conditions in certain platform areas and will create uneven loading in that some train cars will be overcrowded while others will be under-utilized,” says MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. “And yes, regular customers don’t need these signs to know which car they should enter.”

The tone of this story as well as many of the commentors is that this sort of prized information shouldn’t be given away. Instead, it is insider information that should be hoarded by those who regularly use the system and can use it to their advantage over others, particularly tourists who just get in the way.

Contrast this approach with the approach in San Francisco. I remember seeing this for the first time and being shocked: people line up for the BART at particular markings on the platform. The train car doors open consistently at those spots and people file in. This is quite different from most cities where it is a mad dash to the open doors.

Perhaps all of this does indicate that urban culture in New York City in indeed more dog-eats-dog…

The of effects tech company shuttle buses from San Francisco to Silicon Valley

A number of Silicon Valley workers live in San Francisco and a number of the biggest tech companies offer private shuttle buses for employees. This has led to changes in a number of San Francisco neighborhoods:

Take the public transportation provided by corporate shuttle buses from the likes of Apple, Google, Facebook, and others. It’s not news that these shuttles, and the big digital tech companies that run them, are changing the fabric of San Francisco as we’ve known it. What feels new is that it’s not enough to say that change is coming soon. It’s already, very much here

On one hand, some have called the shuttles “a vivid emblem of the tech boom’s stratifying effect in the Bay Area” because they allow the “techy progeny” of Silicon Valley to be “launched into SF proper.” That the shuttles are “alienating everyone who isn’t in technology” — or that there’s simply too much tech for one city to take.

Others are of the mind that it’s simply time to get over it and recognize a new reality; cities change, neighborhoods rise and fall. That in fact a paradox of Silicon Valley is in its “distributing meaningful equity” to ordinary people who wouldn’t otherwise access such wealth. (And then there’s the logic that wonders whether public transportation is yet another bit of infrastructure that should be upended by the Valley’s “meritocratic“ spirit.)…

What we’re talking about isn’t simply the replacement of presumably authentic recent immigrants by their presumably younger, whiter, or better educated new neighbors. What we’re talking about is the replacement of an entire system of urban inter-relationships, built up over generations and stratified in ways that make sense within an urban context — now short-circuited by the inexorable demands of the (suburban) digital technology landscape.

This is a reminder of a few things:

1. The arrival of “the creative class” is not just a positive occurrence. This is a group many big cities would love to have for their wealth (think of the tax money!) as well as their innovative and creative spirits. Yet, as the term gentrification describes, this group can at the least change the character of places and more problematically push out existing residents.

2. This hints at the interdependence within metropolitan regions. Tech workers may like their jobs in Silicon Valley but San Francisco offers a more exciting, urban, and cultured place to live. And, San Francisco benefits from its business connections to Silicon Valley. It would also be interesting to consider the role of San Jose which offers a bigger city closer to Silicon Valley but one that has less of a reputation for social life.

With these changes, it puts officials in San Francisco in an interesting position. Existing urban residents tend to resist major changes to their neighborhoods. But, as noted above, cities have a hard time turning down new money.

Eleven years to complete Bay Bridge, 4 minutes to watch time-lapse video of its construction

The Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland is a key traffic artery. The bridge opened recently and you can watch a time-lapse video of its long and expensive construction here. Quick thoughts:

1. This is an impressive undertaking. San Francisco Bay is a large body of water with lots of shipping. But, I’m usually impressed by big infrastructure projects.

2. This illustrates the problems that arise when so much traffic is dependent on one bridge. While there are other bridge options to get over the bay, they are out of the way to the north or the south for reaching much of San Francisco.

3. The new span is much better aesthetically. The old bridge was a truss structure that didn’t look very impressive. The new bridge has cable towers and the more minimalistic look is good. I look forward to seeing it from the waterside on my next trip to San Francisco.

3. The music on this official time-lapse video could be better. As an official video, it is likely that the music is licensed from some provider. However, it is rather bland rather than inspirational.