One man’s quest to solve San Francisco’s housing crisis

One man’s quest to solve San Francisco’s housing crisis

A passionate community meeting – is there more? – started. A developer has purchased a 1,200 square foot single-family home in a popular, transit-rich location and plans to turn it into a 19-unit apartment building. Dozens of neighbors have banded together in opposition. The building would turn “from day to night” with its shadows, they tell city officials, one person worried about the threat of seasonal affective disorder. This would be “discriminatory against families” because the units are so small. They call it a “dormitory”. Why not ask for four floors instead of six; why not six units instead of 19? “Please don’t beach this huge whale in our neighborhood,” begs a neighbor.

These types of municipal debates happen all the time in localities across the country and usually go unnoticed. But in San Francisco, someone is watching how the city is building, or not, and making sure people hear about it. He does it for his own edification. He is not paid. He’s just a guy with a computer and some free time. Over the past four years, Robert Fruchtman has monitored and live-tweeted dozens and dozens — and dozens and dozens — of community meetings, including this one, about a development project near Dolores Park. “People just have no idea what’s going on with these hearings, most of the time,” he told me. “You don’t hear about it, except for snippets that occasionally make the news.”

Not surprising. Not everyone enjoys watching neighbors bicker over the positioning of a bike lane or bureaucrats making sure a building has the right paperwork to add an annex. “No one is ever going to host a land use planning and transportation committee viewing party the way people host an Oscar viewing party,” Fruchtman said. But what happens in these kinds of meetings is important. San Francisco, like many cities in California, subjects many real estate development decisions to public debate. Builders, business owners and landlords generally do not have the right to do what they want with their properties; instead, they must ask municipal authorities and their neighbors to approve their plans. This policy ensures that residents of beautiful tree-lined buildings are not surprised by the razing of single-family homes and the construction of 19-unit buildings. It’s also how, brick by brick, block by block, San Francisco has built one of the worst housing crises on Earth: such citizen actions lead not only to the so-called preservation of the character of the neighborhood, but also to sky-high rents and mortgages, labor shortages, climate-destroying displacement, gentrification and suburbanization.

Fruchtman has for years documented this process in real time, making it easier for community activists, politicians and journalists to notice and engage. Can the city move forward with affordable housing at 730 Stanyan Street (delayed, but yes) or permanent supportive housing at 1800 Sutter Street (no)? How about a village of tiny houses at 33 Gough Street? (Finally opened last month.) Can a developer put houses up 1846 Grove Street? (Delayed for years.) Can a landlord build an honest-to-goodness mansion at 376 Hill Street? (Yes.)

“I look for cases where San Francisco’s progressive ideals don’t fit,” Fruchtman, a software engineer and volunteer with the local YIMBY group, told me. He once called a planning commission meeting to hear a debate about proposed changes to an apartment building in his neighborhood. “I guess I was lucky to log in a little earlier,” he said. An established ice cream shop, Garden Creamery, was trying to prevent a future ice cream shop, Matcha n’ More, from moving into the same block, using a provision of state law designed to protect against environmental degradation.

Following public comments! The first caller asked why the question of whether two dessert shops could operate on the same block was an issue for the planning commission in the first place. The 64th caller was more direct. “I support the new venture,” the person said, according to Fruchtman, whose tweet thread about the reunion went viral. “The whole process is stupid as shit.” Yet Matcha n’ More’s Jason Yu ended up spending $200,000 navigating San Francisco’s bureaucratic processes. After two years of procedural wrangling, he gave up.

This type of kudzu not only prevents the construction of new houses or the opening of new businesses; it also has a profound effect on the size and shape of the city and on the state’s carbon emissions. Regulatory bottlenecks increase the cost of construction and lengthen project timelines. What would cost $250,000 to build in rural Texas could cost $750,000 in San Francisco; what would take weeks to get approved in Idaho could take years here. Many reasonable projects never get built at all, driving up housing costs, pushing families into homelessness, undermining the city of new businesses and pushing Bay Area residents to outlying suburbs.

In San Francisco, “instead of clear rules, where a developer knows I have the right to build this here, everything is a negotiation and each project is on a case-by-case basis,” Jenny Schuetz, a housing economist at the Brookings Institution, told me. Small-D democratic citizen participation has led to profoundly regressive results.

This little-D democratic participation is not very democratic, for one thing. The types of people who have the time and energy to show up to community meetings are disproportionately white, disproportionately old, and disproportionately wealthy, as my colleague Jerusalem Demsas has noted. They also tend to be conservative, in the sense that they like things the way they are and don’t want to see 19-unit buildings in their neighborhood. “Even in highly diverse communities, development meetings are dominated by white people who oppose new housing, which could skew housing supply to their advantage,” a study found.

Meetings tend to be formal. But people’s participation tends to be, well, a little unmeasured, Fruchtman told me. “Hysteria,” he said. “There is often a sense of hysteria at these meetings that is not reflected in what you read in the press.” He recalled the time one person described his fight to stop the construction of a navigation center for homeless services as a kind of personal “Little Bighorn”. Or the time another person objected to converting a parking lot on the grounds that it would increase traffic. Such rhetoric is “intellectual malpractice,” Fruchtman added. And the intemperate rants of the people who show up matter, because city officials hear such impassioned claims, mostly from a privileged class trying to keep things the way they are.

The other side of the coin of so few participants is that everyone participates so little. Who can blame them? So Fruchtman introduces himself. Trying to rent here is what got him interested in YIMBY politics in the first place, he told me. “I had dropped out of college and got a job offer in Silicon Valley,” he said. “I was trying to line up an apartment before I got to town. And I realized how bad it was. Besides the sticker shock, it was the fact that every time I emailed or called someone about an apartment, every time they said it was taken. Trying to get an apartment for a month or even a week was impossible.

He found a place, in time. And part of his motivation for going or calling or watching so many public meetings is that he came to San Francisco to find himself and his community — and it pains him that others can’t. “One of the reasons I wanted to move to San Francisco in particular was because as a gay man it always stuck with me all my life as a place where I could be accepted,” I said. he said.

The NIMBY tide is finally beginning to recede in the state and city, thanks to the activism and rising power of elected YIMBYs. A wave of bills streamlined the permitting process and exempted more projects from discretionary review, while allowing landowners to build structures like casitas de droit. Yet the state is short by millions of housing units, and San Francisco’s thirst for apartments and homes seems unquenchable.

A pile of 19-unit apartment buildings is what the city needs, if not what its residents want. At this meeting, after filing their complaints, the builder responded that the proposed changes would make the project financially unfeasible. A city supervisor feared the tall building would “cut through” community objections. The board gave the developer a kind of green light to build. Now the project is tied to litigation. It may never come out of the ground.

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