Podcast: Why SF Residents Fight Development

Dyan Ruiz | 12/03/2014
Two of San Francisco's Western neighborhoods, the Sunset and Richmond Districts with Golden Gate Park
Photo Credit
Joseph Smooke

[people. power. media] reporter Dyan Ruiz interviews longtime San Francisco housing activist Calvin Welch about why residents fight against development amidst the City's affordability crisis.


Click below listen to the full interview on SoundCloud or read the Q&A excerpts below.



People are always blaming the housing crisis in San Francisco on NIMBYs, people who say “Not in my backyard!” when a housing development is proposed in their neighborhood, shortened to the acronym NIMBY. 

The real estate development publication SF Curbed has entire collection of articles on NIMBYs. Another example is an article by San Francisco Public Press published on October 27, 2014 called “Housing Solution: Increase Density in Western Neighborhoods and Fix Transit.” It opens, “For nearly four decades, residents of the western half of San Francisco have succeeded in blocking any local zoning changes, saying that adding higher-density and affordable housing options would harm the neighborhoods’ residential character.”

Is that really what western neighborhood housing activists were fighting against and for?

[people. power. media] decided to interview longtime housing Calvin Welch about battles throughout San Francsico. Welch is the Co-founder of the Council of Community Housing Organizations (CCHO) and sits on the Board of the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC). He has been a leader in a number of citizen ballot initiatives since the 1970s, including the 1986 growth limitation measure, Proposition M. The interview was conducted on 19 November 2014.

Q. You’ve looked closely at the composition of voters over the years, and San Francisco is majority tenant voters. Why are tenants fighting against condo development and growth? People think of NIMBYs as homeowners protecting their property values, but in San Francisco they’re renters.

A. New development in a physically mature city inevitably means the displacement of an existing population for a future population. And that existing population, as you correctly point out, is overwhelming tenant in San Francisco. Rent control has been amended 30 to 40 times, not through the efforts of NIMBY homeowners, but through the efforts of tenants eager to create a situation in which themselves and other similarly situated people are not displaced by market rate development.

I guess you could argue that San Francisco has an international or intergalactic responsibility to house everyone who wants to live here and can pay enough money. I dont think so. I think that is a prescription for civic suicide to simply open yourself up to the highest bidder and call that sharing. It’s absurd.

Q. The Planning Department said that they could add 7,500 units in the Western neighborhoods if it was upzoned. But if you build out the Western neighborhoods under existing zoning, you could 5,500 units more than what exists. Why hasn’t the Western neighborhoods built up if you could add 5,500 units?

A. Overwhelmingly in the present day, with the absence of a federal and state role in balanced development that has left the development game totally and completely to market rate development. 

In San Francisco, market rate developers have decided that the market share that they’re going to aim at exclusively is the luxury housing market, especially high rise development. The western neighborhoods of San Francisco have basically a 30 to 40 feet height limit, and market rate developers cannot make the amount of profit that they can make in such low density zones and prefer to rezone other parts of the city. 

The big battle over the last decade was called the Eastern Neighborhoods rezoning, which were the formerly industrial areas of San Francisco. That’s where most market rate developers have chosen to develop because they can maximize their profits. I don’t understand why we have to penetrate the so-called “Western neighborhoods” with a housing type that is totally out of character and is inevitably going to place extraordinary burdens on the city infrastructure that the city has clearly no capacity to meet. The 38 Geary is the most heavily travelled trolley bus in California. To posit doubling or tripling the density that would feed the 38 Geary, without dramatically increasing the carrying capacity, basically means turning over western San Francisco to the automobile.

I guess you could argue that a big mistake happened when we opposed the freeway because if we had a freeway, everyone could drive their cars. Forgetting air quality and global warming. We’ll set that aside. The reality of the situation was to accommodate the Panhandle Freeway would have cost about 8,000 housing units- the demolition of about 8,000 housing units. And what is the projected net gain for this increased density in Western San Francisco? Seven thousand? That’s the kind of game that’s been played in San Francisco for the last 40 years. Trading one set of housing, usually demolishing more housing than you rebuild and calling that meeting future demand.

Housing in cities is a function of income. I think that’s a far more fruitful conversation to have- which is how to make economic development or economic incentive that would allow the existing population in San Francisco to afford the housing that exists in SF, instead of chasing this absolutely mystical goal of lowering housing costs by producing 100,000 more units that we can not environmentally or in terms of our civic infrastructure maintain.

Q. It’s a big election year next year. What would be top three things that you think the Mayor and Board of Supervisors should do about the affordability crisis in San Francisco?  

A. The first is I just said, take a “holistic view” of the housing in San Francisco and realize that is it is part and parcel of the income crisis- the inequality of income- in this nation, in this state and in this City. 

There is this high correlation between income inequality and an economy based on high technology. A study of the San Francisco economy by the University of California last year cited by the tech titans showing that for every technology job there are five service jobs created. Let me tell you, that those five service jobs do not generate the income of that one technology job. You really cannot live in San Francisco doing the laundry of tech workers. You have to move out to suburbs. You have to commute. So we need a mayor to take a look initially in a root and branch way that are a better fit for San Francisco’s population. 

And I want to mention that one of the best keep secrets in San Francisco, the principal employer in San Francisco is neither high technology nor tourists. It’s government and health care. There’s over 120,000 workers in the hospital and healthcare industry in San Francisco, an industry that is heavily unionized, that is heavily made up of existing residents of San Francisco. And if you took a look at it in terms of its demography is much more representative of the San Francisco residential population than high technology. The same is true with government. The government is a highly unionized economic activity. 

The favoring of the Lee administration of this totally unrepresentative- in terms of its workforce- relatively small sector being showered with extraordinary benefits from the the public sector for virtually no benefit to unemployed San Franciscans, to people of moderate means, and middle income people in San Francisco. And with what we know about the dynamic forces of that sector to create concentration of wealth in very small numbers of people– is a reality that I think the next mayor has to address. I think that’s how you address in a fundamental way the housing crisis in San Francisco– begin to address people’s ability to earn a meaningful income.

The second real challenge to the City is how do we deal with what is generally conceded to be the irreversible effects of global warming. We are a peninsula. There is a physical reality that I don’t think we can ignore anymore. It is exceedingly odd to me that the City has put all of its future economic growth in those portions of the City that are most vulnerable to sea level rise. If the Bay rises two and half feet, which everybody is predicting will happen in 2050, you’ll need an aqualung to play center field for the Giants. The ballpark will be under water, certainly the infield will be under water. Most of the luxury housing sites in Eastern SF will be inundated. Unfortunately, that’s still the light industrial heartland for the City and MUNI car barns, Sunset Scavenger, our garbage collector entity, UPS. We have a fundamental and basic challenge as a City that for far too long people in City Hall have hummed their way through, or pretend doesn’t exist. When is the last time we had a citywide simulation of an emergency response? It’s bad for business. 

Finally I think we have to have to look at employment, and if you will, environmentally conscious sustainable infrastructure. We have to look at the growing animosity between populations in San Francisco. By clearly challenging employment and environmental issues, infrastructure, that gives us an opportunity to begin a conversation about what kind of city we are, what kind of future we want for all of us. It’s really not enough anymore to pat our back on human diversity as defined by basically foodie cuisine. When you don’t care that a disproportionate amount of homeless people in this town are people of color. If you don’t care and never want to acknowledge that overwhelming majority of people unemployed are people of color, and you want to continually sweep those under the rug, and announce this mythical sense of San Francisco being this incredibly diverse city, as I say, principally defined by restaurants, and I think those days are over and we need to address them. 

If we take a look and truly embrace the economic diversity that is this town and make it the center of economic development instead of this endless desire of attracting some nonexistent population to save us, entice some handsome fellow in a new car to drive up and give us money, instead of maximizing who we are and how we maximize what our skills and abilities are and how we employ one another in addressing our future infrastructural needs, I think we’ll be city in search of its own soul.

Q. One of the things I wanted to bring up is regional issues. We’ve talked to people that represent the tech sector that say there isn’t anywhere that they can live as renters, let’s say, near the places where they work in Menlo Park and other places in Silicon Valley. What’s happening regionally by the current Board of Supervisors and the Mayor? What can they do better?  

A. The irony of what is happening regionally for San Francisco is that all of the arguments about increased density and economies of scale flowing from increased densities are only applied to the most expensive real estate areas of the region. San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco, i.e. the already urbanized areas of the region. Where increased density makes sense is Menlo Park. Where increased density makes sense is the suburbs. 

Of course the challenge is first political. Regional political bodies, [Association of Bay Area Governments] ABAG, [Metropolitan Transportation Commission] MTC are rigged. They’re like the US Senate. These regional bodies basically represent counties not people. Since the nine Bay Area counties does not have an equally distributed population, it tremendously underrepresents urban areas.

In order to address greenhouse gases, according to Plan Bay Area, do a better job increasing residential densities along existing transit corridors. Well, what about new transit corridors? New transit corridors to the suburbs?  The suburbs don’t want that development. You talk about NIMBYism. It’s at the regional level that it is the most significant, not at the municipal level in the City of San Francisco. We are the second most dense in the United States. 

So to argue as some do that we need to continue to increase density in San Francisco is to continue this maldistribution of both jobs and housing to the detriment of the objectives of “smart growth”. It’s a dumb way to do smart growth because you cannot increase residential density in the most expensive real estate areas of the region without resulting in that housing being far too expensive for the workforce that you want to commute by transit. 

In Plan Bay Area, they adopted a plan that calls for dramatic increases in density in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose by moving into neighborhoods that are essentially inhabited by low or moderate income populations. Displacement that population to the suburbs, building market rate condos in those neighborhoods, for people who drive their BMWs to Silicon Valley, don’t take public transit. And the people who live there now who are taking public transit currently being kicked out to the suburbs where there is no public transit. 

In fact, the Plan Bay Area that they adopted creates more greenhouse gases than an [Environmental Impact Report] EIR alternative that they rejected which was greater residential development and density in suburban Bay Area counties. We’re not talking about 300 ft high rises, we’re talking about 50 ft, four-storey development in suburban areas, i.e. the kind of development that exists and are told is too little in the Richmond District or in the Sunset District. Levels of density that are relatively easily accomplished in those suburban areas but are politically, totally and completely unacceptable. The NIMBY argument applied to urban San Francisco is absurd, especially in the face that it is never applied to the suburban Bay Areas, which are really, the NIMBY areas.

*The Q&A has been shortened and edited from the original transcripts