THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Steelmanning The NIMBYs

[Epistemic status: very unsure. I sympathize with many YIMBY ideas and might support them on net; this post is me exaggerating the NIMBY parts of my brain to a degree I’m not sure I honestly support. This focuses on San Francisco to make it easier, but other cities exist too. Thanks to Nintil for some of the bright-line argument in part four. Conflict of interest notice: I live in a lower-density part of Oakland]

Everyone I know is a YIMBY – ie “Yes In My Back Yard” – ie somebody who wants cities (usually San Francisco dominates the discussion) to build more and denser housing. This is a reasonable position, and is held by apparently-reasonable people – centrists, rationalists, economists, self-proclaimed neoliberals. Since everyone involved holds reason and civility as an important value, I would expect the discourse around housing to be unusually reasonable and civil.

I have a weird habit of encountering the best parts of some movements and the worst parts of other movements, in a way that doesn’t match other people’s experiences. And certainly I know many YIMBYs who are amazing people who I love. But as for the movement as a whole, I feel like apparently-reasonable people have dropped the ball on this one. Sorry for having to say this, but YIMBYism is one of the most tribal, most emotional, most closed-minded movements I have ever seen this side of a college campus. So much so that even though I agree with much of what it says, I cannot resist writing a 5,000 word steelman of their enemies just to piss them off.

So here are some YIMBY claims and why I cannot be entirely on board with them.

1. San Francisco is uniquely terrible at building new housing

San Francisco currently has just short of 400,000 houses.


(source)

Each year, it builds a few thousand new houses, for a long-term growth rate hovering a little above 0.5%.


(source)

How does this compare to other cities? I used data from Civic Dashboards to compare the housing stock growth rate of ten major US cities. They only had data from 2008 – 2015, so the analysis only includes those years. They find a higher SF growth rate than listed above, probably because growth has been increasing recently. Here’s what they got:

San Francisco is actually doing pretty okay. [EDIT: Commenter peopleneedaplacetogo points out a chart by metropolitan area rather than city, and using slightly different years, in which SF comes out looking quite a bit worse]

The problem isn’t that SF is building fewer houses than other cities in its league. It’s that demand keeps increasing so much that a normal amount of housing construction doesn’t help.

This might be an unfair objection, because the YIMBY argument might be that San Francisco is uniquely terrible at responding to demand for new housing, and this may be true. But it will important to get a sense for the range of levels of housing construction different cities are capable of, so we can better understand what scenarios are plausible in the next section.

2. Building more housing in San Francisco is an easy way to lower rents

Lowering rents in San Francisco is certainly important: a 1-bedroom apartment costs about $3500. At prices like these, city natives may have to move out because they can no longer afford rent. The lower- and middle- class citizens who work service jobs and maintain infrastructure either disappear or are faced with multiple-hour commutes from the nearest affordable area. Even tech workers with good salaries have to live in overcrowded apartments with multiple roommates to make ends meet. Facets of a good life that depend on having lots of space – like having social gatherings or raising a family – become almost impossible.

The laws of supply and demand suggest that if San Francisco built more housing, the price would go down. This is the foundation of YIMBYism, and it’s basically correct.

But how much would price go down? This requires some economic modeling, which has luckily been done for us.

The San Francisco Examiner follows a paper by Albouy, Ehrlich, and Liu that estimates a 2% increase in housing will cause a 3% decrease in rents. On the other hand, by the time San Francisco has finished building 2% more housing, the population and demand will have increased, meaning that a large portion of the gains will be expended just staying in the same place. They come up with a model that accounts for this, and set themselves a goal of decreasing the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment to “only” $2100 – at least we can’t accuse them of being too ambitious!

They find that this would require a 2.5% housing stock growth rate maintained over twenty years. Going back to the graph from before:

No large US city was able to attain this rate in the eight year period my data comes from, including cities experiencing tech booms during those years. Austin, Texas was able to come close. But at the time, Austin had a population density of 2,500/sqm. San Francisco has a density of 19,000/sqm. Building new houses is easy if all you have to do is clear away tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes – and Austin still only made it up to 2%. We’re expecting San Francisco to clear away existing neighborhoods and angry anti-development activists, and reach 2.5%? And maintain that rate for twenty years?

[EDIT: Commenters point out that the time period my data covers is unusually bad for housing growth. Austin’s records show it was able to grow faster – 4.8% – until 2000, although during that time it was a very small city expanding into mostly empty space. Since 2000, growth has averaged about 2.8%, which is slightly faster than the SF scenario above.]

And even if it works – even if the city can do the impossible – that only lowers rents down to $2100 for a single-bedroom apartment.

Experimental Geography uses broadly the same model, but asks a different question: how much does San Francisco have to increase housing just to tread water and not have rents keep going up? You can read their reasoning at the link, but the answer is “1.5%”:

This seems potentially achievable, but still difficult. A paper by the Federal Reserve finds similarly grim results. I’m not aware of any models that have come to the opposite conclusion.

True, every little bit helps. But affordable housing advocates frequently say that complicated policies like public housing or subsidies are necessary to help poor people who want to stay in high-cost cities. I often hear YIMBYs push new construction as an alternative to these measures, saying that all we need is increased housing supply. But even in the best-case scenario, increased housing supply will take decades to do anything, and lower-income people are at risk of losing their houses now. And even in the best case scenario, increased housing supply will just make apartments slightly more affordable. It’s less likely they can let low-income people live comfortably in the city, or high-income people comfortably raise families there.

3. But at least building more housing will make things a little better, and it certainly can’t make them worse, right?

Devon Zuegel points out that we’re really not sure if that’s true. Why does Manhattan have higher land values than Kansas? Because people want to live where other people (and jobs) are. The denser you make a city, the more other people and jobs will be there, and the higher the land values will get.

Or to put it another way – suppose San Francisco dectupled its housing growth for decades, until it was packed border to border with skyscrapers, and was exactly as dense as Manhattan. In a simple supply-based model, the glut of supply should make rents crash to only a few hundred dollars a month or less. But in actual Manhattan, single-bedroom apartments cost $3800 a month – even more than in San Francisco! If your theory predicts that turning a city into Manhattan will make rents plummet, then consider that turning Manhattan into Manhattan made rents much worse, and so maybe your theory is wrong.

Devon points out that she cannot calculate the coefficients here, so she is not sure whether building more housing will make rents go down (because of supply and demand) or up (because of the Manhattan effect). But we might consider Austin a natural experiment. The model above found that if San Francisco grew housing at 2.5% per year for twenty years, rents would go down by a third. But Austin grew housing by 2.0% per year for about twenty years, and during that time, the average cost of a house doubled. I am not sure San Francisco, which starts from a much higher baseline density, would see the same trend. But at the very least, agglomeration effects suggest all of the terrible and pessimistic models above are still overly optimistic.

Tripling San Francisco’s housing rate until it’s higher than any existing American city, and maintaining it at this rate for an entire generation, might make one-bedroom apartments cost “only” $2100. Or it might do less, or nothing, or make things worse. Right now we don’t know.

4. Holdouts who oppose development are inexcusably selfish, or hate poor people, or are racist

If you want to see real loathing, don’t ask a communist about the rich, or a Trump voter about immigrants. Ask a YIMBY what they think of landowners in a nice quiet part of the Bay who don’t want San Francisco spreading to their area, or who don’t want the BART light rail line connecting their city to San Francisco.

And if you want to see great acting, don’t go to Hollywood or Broadway. Wait for a YIMBY to start monologuing their impression of what these people are like. The exact script differs from person to person, but always includes liberal use of phrases like “the poors”, “brown people”, and “I’ve got mine”.

But I sympathize with these landowners. San Francisco is easy to hate. Even a lot of the people who already live there hate it. They hate the streets piled with discarded needles and human waste. They hate the traffic (fifth worst in the world) and the crime (third most property crime in the US). They hate living five people to a three-bedroom apartment. They hate having aggressive people scream incomprehensible things at them on the sidewalk. They hate the various mutually hostile transit systems that interlock in a system I would call byzantine except that at least you could get around medieval Constantinople without checking whether the Muni and CalTrain were mysteriously failing to connect to each other today. They hate that everyone else in the city hates them, from visible KILL ALL TECHIES graffiti on their commute to work, to a subtle mood of seething resentment from everyone they meet. They hate the omnipresent billboards expecting them to have strong opinions on apps.

I’m not saying everyone in San Francisco hates it. There are people who like all sorts of things. Some people like being tied up, whipped, and electrocuted by strangers. And a disproportionate number of these people live in San Francisco. I am just saying this isn’t a coincidence.

And I sympathize with the people who don’t want BART stations near them. BART stations are also easy to hate. I have a friend who ended up needing stitches after ill-advisedly walking too close to a BART station late at night and getting robbed and beaten up. One of my patients is currently freaking out after their friend ended up in the hospital for the same reason. Some women avoid getting beaten up, but still have stories of getting groped or sexually harassed. BART stations tend to collect a penumbra of litter, drug use, weird people playing incredibly loud music at all hours of the night, weird people shouting at each other at all hours of the night, and the never-dissipating stench of marijuana mixed with urine. This stuff is usually just background noise, but it did make the news last year when forty to sixty teenage thieves took over a BART car in the station and robbed and beat up the passengers, and then again earlier this summer when there were three unrelated murders at BART stations in one week. These don’t seem to have been gang shootouts or anything – they were just people trying to get on their train and getting randomly murdered instead. I am very aware I could get murdered every time I get on a BART. Last time I got off one (three days ago), there was a guy standing in front of the door shouting “FUCK YOU KKK WHITE BITCH” at any woman (of any race) trying to enter or leave the station. Nobody found this surprising or unusual. It’s just what BARTs are like.

But tell a YIMBY that someone, somewhere, is against having a BART station in their neighborhood, and it’s like waving a red flag at a bull.

Maybe clear-cutting everything in the way of San Francisco’s expansion is the utilitarian correct thing to do. Maybe it would increase the US economy so much that we can’t afford not to do it. But Thomas Hobbes wrote that sovereigns may not demand someone go willingly to their death, because resisting death is such a natural human urge that people in the state of nature could not sign it away when forming a primordial state. And some European countries don’t count resisting arrest as a crime, because they consider freedom so fundamental that nobody can be blameworthy for trying to protect it. I believe some people need to have BART stations near their houses, just like some people need get arrested or be executed. But resisting each of these seems so natural and fundamental that I am unwilling to blame anyone for trying. I think neurotypical people usually underestimate how bad cities are for people with noise sensitivities, anxiety, purity intuitions, or just a need for nature and green things in their environment, and that the campaign against people who want to keep their suburbs suburban doesn’t take this into account.

I have heard YIMBYs counter that we don’t have to turn Marin County into San Francisco II, that there’s a balance between trying to preserve what’s good about a place and reflexively opposing all new development. But on slippery slopes where a coalition of people with slightly different preferences are trying to coordinate, drawing a bright line and refusing to cross it is the theoretically correct solution. This is especially true when each new development brings in new voters who may be less attached to the current nature of a place and more willing to vote in future development. Sometimes the only stable solution is just to not get on the slope.

And I have heard YIMBYs counter that if people don’t want to live in an urban environment, they shouldn’t have bought a house in a city. But they kind of didn’t. They bought a house in a medium-density suburb, then some other people came and said “No, this has to be a city”. If they give up, let San Francisco spread to their current home, and move to another medium-density suburb, what’s to prevent other people from trying to urbanize there too? Is our social technology just totally unable to deal with the problem of “how can we let people who want to live in a medium-density suburb live in a medium-density suburb?” Wasn’t the solution supposed to be “these people all gather together, start a community together built to their unique specifications, incorporate, and then pass laws about what their community can or can’t include”? What was wrong with that solution? Some people can’t tolerate the big city – what do you want them to do? Sell their house, leave all their friends and family, and try to start again somewhere else? You think that’s an exaggeration? If where I live became more like San Francisco, I would do that. Lots of people would!

I’m not saying there aren’t compelling reasons to urbanize less-dense areas. But I do feel like there’s a missing mood here that makes me really upset whenever I hear YIMBYs talk about this.

5. Even if building more housing doesn’t lower costs, it will at least allow the people who want to live in San Francisco to do so.

I don’t like the “even if” framing.

If you have been pushing a claim for years, and it turns out you were wrong, then you owe it to the people you have been disagreeing with to say “oops” and take a moment to worry about whether you should lower your smugness level in general. I try to do this when I remember, though I am not always good about it and of course I am limited by my ability to catch and correct my own mistakes.

(I have sometimes been guilty of pushing the “all we need is more housing claim”, so, uh, oops, sorry, upon doing more research I see I was wrong)

The opposite of this is saying “Even if that’s not true, this other thing supports my point”, without explicitly conceding anything at all.

5b. Okay, sorry. Oops, I was wrong about the housing prices. Now that I’ve said that, don’t you also think that building more housing would at least allow the people who want to live in San Francisco to do so?

This is a good and important point, and I think the strongest one in the YIMBY arsenal. I am not really against it, but I can think of two qualms I have with it.

The first is that the argument for ignoring the costs of new construction to existing communities have always relied on the humanitarian necessity of lowering rents for the disadvantaged. If all we’re trying to do is be able to pack a few more people who can pay $3500 a month in, the humanitarian necessity seems less pressing.

But second, bringing more people in helps trap the economy in the same dynamics that caused this problem in the first place.

Some people really enjoy living in dense cities like San Francisco. Other people, for the reasons listed above, really prefer not to. Many of the people who prefer not to are in San Francisco anyway. I signed up to work in the suburbs, but just before I started, my group begged me to work a few days a week in San Francisco because that was where they needed more doctors. I grudgingly agreed. During my time there, I treated depressed San Francisco residents. One refrain I heard again and again was that they hated living in San Francisco, but had come anyway because their company pressured them, or because their companies would pay them extra, or because that was where all the best jobs in their industry were. These people’s long-term plan was to use San Francisco as a springboard to gain enough money or career capital to be able to achieve their dream of leaving San Francisco.

Alon Levy describes the same thing his In The Mines, where he compares the outlook of people moving to San Francisco to that of people working in mines or oil rigs. Nobody likes working in a mine or oil rig. They go there because it pays really well, and if they grin and bear it for long enough, they can pay off their debts or save for the future or do something that allows them to live in a place that isn’t a mine or oil rig:

. People who work on oil rigs, which as a rule are placed in remote locations, get paid premiums. Remote locations with oil have high incomes and high costs in North America, but even the Soviet Union paid people who freely migrated to Siberia or the far north extra. The high wages in this industry are especially remarkable given that the workers are typically not university-educated or (in the US) unionized; they cover for poor living conditions, and a hostile environment especially for families.

I bring up this background because of conditions that I’ve heard second-hand in San Francisco. When I first heard of university-educated adults living several to a bedroom, I assumed that it was a result of extremely high rents and insufficient incomes. But no: I am told a reasonably transit-accessible two-bedroom in San Francisco proper is $5,500 a month at market rate, which is affordable to a mid-level programmer at a large tech firm living alone or to entry-level programmers (or non-tech professionals) living one to a bedroom.

And yet, I’ve heard of Google programmers living two to three to a bedroom in Bernal Heights, not even that close to BART. I’ve also heard a story of people near the Ashby BART stop in Berkeley renting out their front porch; the person sleeping the porch was not a coder, but some of the people living inside the house were.

I have not talked to the people in these situations, only to friends in Boston who live one person (or one couple) to a bedroom, even though they too can afford more. As I understand it, they treat the Bay Area as like working in the mines. They earn a multiple of the income they would in other industries with their education and skills, and have no particular ties to the region. (Some East Coasters have taken to use the expression “drain to the Bay,” complaining that friends in tech often end up leaving Boston for San Francisco.) The plan is to save money and then retire in their 30s, or take a lower-paying job in a lower-cost city and start a family there.

But people have to grudgingly endure poor conditions aboard oil rigs because they’re the only place you can pump oil. Why do they need to grudgingly endure poor conditions in San Francisco?

My understanding is that some industries like technology benefit from centralization. The more programmers are in a city, the easier it is to run a tech company there. The more tech companies are in a city, the easier the job search is for programmers. The more entrepreneurs are in a city, the easier it is to be a venture capitalist there. The more venture capitalists are in a city, the better it is to be an entrepreneur. Add useful infrastructure like Y Combinator and Triplebyte and maybe everyone in tech benefits from being in the same place.

This raises the possibility of a classic inadequate equilibrium, a situation that nobody likes but everyone is stuck in. For example, even if people don’t like Facebook’s privacy policy, interface, or anything else about Facebook, they mostly stick with Facebook because that’s where all their friends are and they’re not coordinated enough to move at the same time. Even if neither passengers nor drivers like Uber, they might use it anyway, because the passengers know that’s where they’ll get a driver soonest, and the drivers know that’s where they’ll get a passenger soonest, and nobody acting alone can break out of the trap.

But if centralization really increases productivity, hasn’t the market decided this is the best solution? I see two ways this might be false. First, it could be that centralization happened in the wrong place – that, if anyone had been able to centrally coordinate, the tech industry should have ended up in Austin or somewhere else that’s well-planned and has lots of geographical room to expand into. Second, it could be that centralization is just a game of keeping up with the Joneses. If there were no San Francisco, then some company would still end up employing the best programmer. But given that there is a San Francisco your company might have to move to San Francisco or have no chance of luring them away from all the companies that have.

Imagine that rising sea levels or something force the evacuation of the Bay Area. Google moves to San Diego, Facebook moves to Santa Barbara, and Twitter moves to San Rafael. Five years later, when Google programmers are sipping daiquiris on the beach in San Diego outside their affordable four-bedroom homes, are they thinking “Man, I wish I was in a crowded unliveable city with multiple inconsistently-connected transit networks right now”? Or are they happy that the option of not living in San Francisco suddenly opened up for them?

The other reason I often hear why people move to San Francisco even though they hate it is because everyone in their subculture is there. Lots of subcultures – queers, hippies, rationalists, etc – seem to be centering in San Francisco. But this might have similar dynamics to the tech situation. Suppose you’re a hippie living in St. Louis, and you’ll be happy as long as there are at least fifty other hippies to form a thriving hippie scene. All the other hippies in St. Louis have some number of other hippies they need to be happy. We can imagine a domino effect where one hippie leaves St. Louis, that causes another hippie to go beneath their threshold and leave St. Louis, that causes more hippies to go beneath their threshold, and so on, until there are no hippies in St. Louis anymore and you have to move to San Francisco or remain tragically un-hip. In this case, the best-case scenario for most St. Louis hippies is that the outflow to San Francisco is limited, so that St. Louis isn’t depleted of its hippie population as quickly. This is also good for hippiedom in general, since there might be proto-hippies in St. Louis who would join the scene if it existed, but who will never convert if all the St. Louis hippies are gone to SF.

(if it sounds like I’ve been thinking about this a lot, that’s because exactly these dynamics have been shaping rationalist communities in cities around the world for the past 5-10 years).

The hyperbolic worst case scenario is that centralization dynamics are too strong, and as more and more people move to San Francisco, life becomes harder and harder for the few remaining stragglers, until finally they give in. San Francisco becomes more and more crowded. Rents increase (through the process mentioned in part 3), number of people per bedroom increases, traffic increases, crime increases. Finally everyone lives in San Francisco, everyone hates it, and nobody can move out – unless they want to give up any chance of working in tech, and spend their entire life talking about cars and football with people named Bud. “San Francisco is unliveable, but at least we’ve made sure lots of people can live there!”

So the counterargument to “Every new housing unit built lets one more person move to San Francisco” is “Every new housing unit prevented saves one person from having to live in San Francisco”.

6. There are no alternatives

I’m not sure this one is wrong.

The argument in Part 5 seems much weaker than the other arguments – so weak that we should probably keep our usual policy of erring on the side of letting people live where they want.

And even if we didn’t want that – even if we thought centralization was a big problem that has to be fought against – it seems weird to leave the fight to crotchety old homeowners worried about noise pollution, and to hope that their self-interest coincidentally creates the world that is best for everybody.

I know there are a lot of urbanists who hate suburbs. I don’t. I grew up in a suburb consistently included in those Most Liveable Towns In The US ranking. It was really nice, and I often remember of it fondly when dealing with the stresses of living in slightly-more-urban Oakland due to me being a dirty rotten defector and participating in the centralization dynamics above. I wish for a world where everyone who wants has a chance to grow up in a nice suburb like that, and I don’t want anyone to have to live in a place like San Francisco unless they’re genuinely into that kind of thing.

I wish for a world with perfect coordination, where half the population of San Francisco decides to move to Helena, Montana at the same time. Half the number of tech companies in San Francisco ought to be enough tech companies for anybody, and the wide sky and endless plains would be a nice change of scenery. I wish for a world where hippies collectively choose Augusta, Maine as the new hippie capital, and so all of the hippies can move there and have great hippie culture and not have to fight with techies for the last $3000 apartment in the Mission.

I’ve heard some people say the federal government should take an active interest in decentralizing tech, since right now one well-placed tsunami could wipe out the United States’ entire technological advantage. I don’t know if this would be a good idea. I’ve heard other people say maybe we can just use virtual reality offices and VR teleconferencing to avoid the need for living anywhere in particular at all. I don’t know if this would be a good idea either.

Since none of those things will ever happen, I don’t know how to get to any of the worlds I want. If there are processes that favor centralization, I don’t know how to fight those processes. I don’t know if there’s some affordable housing policy that would really work. I don’t know if there’s something that balances the interests of every demographic. But I do think that just building more houses won’t, on its own, be a solution to the problem.

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572 Responses to Steelmanning The NIMBYs

  1. Peter Shenkin says:

    It was not my impression that SF YIMBYs wish housing construction be made easier only in San Francisco. I thought their goal was to make it easier to build new housing across the entire Bay area. Based on your text and captions, most of your data (housing growth rates, population densities) appears to apply only to San Francisco proper. It seems to me that comparison should really be made across the metropolitan areas associated with the cities you list.

    I believe that if you did this, you would find growth rates considerably higher than those you list. There is then some possibility that the Bay area would in fact prove to be unique. But here I am on the opposite coast, and I would certainly not bet on it.

    • Matt M says:

      Agree that this point is significant.

      It also probably greatly affects the statistics as displayed in the first few graphs, comparing cities across the US. I can’t speak for all of them, but I live in Houston which is infamous for the geographic bounds of the city of Houston extending quite far, with a whole lot of the “suburbs” still being counted as Houston and having Houston addresses.

      I’m not intimately familiar with the Bay Area, but I’ve traveled there for work a few times, and as far as I can tell, this is not the case in SF. There are no “suburbs” as such in SF proper. So it seems like an Apples/Oranges comparison.

      • moridinamael says:

        The comparison to Houston brings up a point that seems so obvious to me that it’s either too obvious to mention, or I must be making some fundamental mistake.

        Houston and Denver are two cities which are currently or have been recently experiencing booms. Yet they remain generally good places to live*. They are both cities with downtown centers placed very distant from any geographic barrier. Thus the cities are able to grow radially. Houston is organized in something like concentric rings of communities. Denver has a somewhat more north-south orientation but also exhibits a lot of radial spread.

        San Francisco and New York of both cities with downtown areas smashed against geographic barriers. The land area that can feed into these downtown metropolises is, roughly, half of what it would be if the cities were placed in sensible locations, i.e. not squashed against the ocean. Both cities have public transit systems that are unusually complex and expensive due to the need to traverse bodies of water. The distorted geometry/geography of these coastal cities negatively impacts housing and traffic flow.

        I think locating the primary rationalist hub in the Bay Area has been the single greatest failure of the rationalist movement. I feel that living in the Bay Area is a genuine failure of instrumental rationality given almost any reasonable human goal. I’m not really saying this from a high horse either – I lived there for a few years, and had the rare opportunity to live in Oakland, Emeryville, Berkeley and El Cerrito, all within a short timespan. I had moved there for a lot of the same reasons that most people move there. I left because living there sucked much more than I had anticipated, to the extent that I couldn’t even enjoy the things about it that are good. I suspect that many people’s continued residence in the city is due to a failure to seriously sit down with pen and paper and compare all the pros and cons of living there versus living somewhere else. There is likely some population of people for whom the increased pay offered in the Bay actually does offset all the other factors, but I don’t think this population is necessarily very large if you attempt to account for the less-easily-quantifiable downsides.

        * Both Houston and Denver have bad areas and good areas. People tend to complain about the heat and humidity of Houston, but I never really minded it, and really that’s a completely contingent fact. What I mean is that Houston is a good place to live if you disregard the facts about Houston that can’t be changed.

        • Matt M says:

          FWIW, I moved to Houston two years ago and never intend to leave. At first I lived very near downtown and loved it. Literally brand new 2 bedroom apartment with a great view of downtown for $2300 a month. Just recently bought a house and moved out to the suburbs. 4 bedrooms, nearly 3000 square feet, also literally brand new, for under $300k.

          I think Houston has also been a lot better/more intentional about trying not to concentrate its economic activity to help with commute times. Yeah traffic in the loop sucks, but a lot of big companies are conspicuously not downtown. They’re in the Galleria or the Medical Center or the Energy Corridor or Katy or Spring. I know that “Silicon Valley” is sort of an attempt at this, but that is also constrained by geographic barriers, so yeah…

        • stucchio says:

          Tokyo is also a city with the downtown area smashed up against the Tokyo Bay. Has earthquakes just like SF.

          Strangely, they’ve still managed to build housing faster than population growth.

          • sourcreamus says:

            The way they did it was to nationalize zoning. Instead of Tokyo deciding on zoning and putting up barriers they national legislature handles zoning for the whole country.

          • AnarchyDice says:

            Japan also does zoning very differently from the US. They have a much more gradient-like system than the rigidly codified system generally typical to the US. A post that does a good job explaining the differences. It makes for much nicer cities and suburbs because having restaurants, shops, and businesses is the norm rather than the exception. One of my host parents when I did an exchange year there ran their dental clinic out of the first floor of their three story home.

        • naj says:

          And it is not just the ocean. Houston and Denver have a lot of flat land in every direction and all of that land was privately owned. Look at the Bay area on google maps in satellite mode and you can see that there is only really a ring of development around the Bay. There are huge open space areas North and South of SF that are as big as the whole built up area of the bay. Plus east of San Jose is another area just as big of rolling hills. Empty. In the East Bay there is a huge undeveloped area between the east bay and Walnut Creek/Pleasanton. These are kept empty by a combination of watershed reserves, very hilly terrain, the California costal commission, and the fact that, as a CalTrans head once said,” The era of road building is over”.

          • Matt M says:

            Yeah, I did this yesterday as well, looked at a zoomed-out Houston on Google Maps, then looked at SF.

            The water and hills are what they are, but SF is surrounded by a whole lot of green-shaded spots on the map, which I assume means “government has declared this to be a place where you are not allowed to build.”

            Houston has virtually zero such places all around it.

        • dark orchid says:

          > if the cities were placed in sensible locations, i.e. not squashed against the ocean

          Until we’d invented the railways, “near a big body of water, suitable for trade ships” was just about the only sensible place to build a city.

          • moridinamael says:

            I was being tongue in cheek, but on reflection recognize that this didn’t really come across.

            Still, though.

  2. mdv1959 says:

    Another issue I wonder about… even if the housing units could be expanded enough to accommodate demand, would the city/county really be able to expand the infrastructure enough to meet the demands of an ever expanding population? SF traffic is pretty horrendous now and I assume there are limits to the current water, sewage and electrical capacity. I would think the cost of adding infrastructure would be considerable.

    • Big Jay says:

      It might not just be a question of infrastructure. California has lots of droughts, and there may not be enough fresh water available to support much population growth. As I’m neither Californian nor well versed in the subject, perhaps someone more knowledgeable might speak up?

      • jefftk says:

        Desalination can easily handle this, if SF can handle the environmental politics

      • Lambert says:

        Scott’s posted about this before. Lots of California’s water is going into growing cattle fodder.

      • Tenacious D says:

        Municipal water use is only a portion of the total, so I don’t think drought will limit population growth as long as its drivers are still in place. Industry and agriculture are also significant users. Companies might decide it makes more sense to move water-intensive activities like semi-conductor fabrication and server farms to other states (availability of fresh water or other means of cooling has become a big factor in siting new server farms, I believe) before they give up on the network effects of having their talent clustered in the Bay Area.
        Then as jefftk says, desalination is an option (and so is water reuse).

    • Brad says:

      Bay Area governments have more money than they know what to do with at this point. If they have even barely reasonable cost structures for construction (i.e. not five times worse than London) then they should be able expand infrastructure no problem.

      If.

      • mnov says:

        SF municipality projected a $300M deficit for FY 2018-2019: https://sfmayor.org/sites/default/files/CSF_Budget_Book_2017_Final_CMYK_LowRes.pdf

      • Plumber says:

        “Bay Area governments have more money than they know what to do with at this point…”

        @Brad,

        Where is this money? 

        The maintenance staff for the San Francisco Hall of Justice (where I do most of my work) is less than half of what it used to be when the building was less wore out and needing repairs, the Department of Public Works has less carpenters, electricians, and Plumbers (I don’t know about other trades) than we used to have when the city had less people, the amount of replacement parts we may order each year is less, each years new hires (when they are some) can’t get as much of a pension that those hired before them can get, and every city worker hired after 2009 is paid less than those doing the same job that were hired before 2009, and every year we’re told to “do more with less”.

        It’s duct tape and bailing wire and we’re low on duct tape. 

        Tell me more about this money? 

        • Brad says:

          San Francisco is a city with less than 900,000 people. The federal and state governments provide extensive services to the people that live there.

          Estonia is a full blown nation, with a military and population of 1.3 million people. It provides its people with universal healthcare.

          They have about the same size budgets. If San Francisco can’t make ends meet it has a very very serious spending effectiveness problem. Not a lack of revenue problem.

        • Matt M says:

          Don’t ask Brad where the money is – take it up with your elected officials. SF has a whole lot of rich people and among the highest tax rates in the nation.

          If I had to guess though, I’d guess that a whole lot of it is paying the salaries (and pensions) of public employees like yourself and your colleagues.

        • Anthony says:

          I left my last job to my current job for a >20% raise.

          If I’d gotten a job in San Francisco Public Works at about two job-title steps below what I was doing at my last job, the raise would have been nearly 20%, too.

          I am not in IT – Public Works would be the best department for me to work in.

          • Plumber says:

            Switching to first the Port of San Francisco and then to the Department of Public Works was an hourly pay cut for me, but I’d been a construction plumber in Santa Clara county and the commute was much greater to get down there, so I was glad to have a job closer to home.

            I would’ve taken an even bigger cut to work even closer to home and be a plumber at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs had the interview panned out.

            Anyway as to why San Francisco has perpetual budget issues, some of it I imagine is State of California laws limiting San Francisco’s abilities to tax (Prop 13, et cetera), but some of it is ironically what’s done to cut expenses.

            They try to spend less on parts and tools so we can’t order as much and when the inevitable repair emergencies come up there’s overtime worked to overcome this lack (time spent searching abandoned areas to cannibalize parts, et cetera), and they try to save money on medical expenses so OSHA rules are more likely to be followed than was the case in private industry, and they make me attend numerous classes, and meetings about safety and harassment,  et cetera. 

            Today I posted while waiting to get the annual tuberculosis test they have me do, and tommorow I’m scheduled to go to the same mandatory lead and asbestos class that I’ve taken at least six times before. 

            There’s also an immense amount of folks that sit at desks for their jobs (“compliance managers”, et cetera), as the City seems to have an extraordinary ability to understaffed positions that actually do needed physical work, and hire many paper pushers instead, but I’ve seen that at bigger private companies as well.

            I spent too many Hellish decades working for private industries to be a Libertarian, but working for The City has given me a lesson on why central planning fails, and coincidentally or not, the big boilers at The Hall of Justice have so many stationary engineers who grew up in the Soviet Union (where they learned about large steam plants) that I’ve come to call the boiler room “the Russian Empire”.

            I’d describe it as a bit like working for a part of the U.S.S.R. which is somehow surrounded by a strange mix of Victorian London and 1990’s Hong Kong, but with American accents.

        • Brad says:

          @Matt M

          This is kind of scary.

    • vaniver says:

      would the city/county really be able to expand the infrastructure enough to meet the demands of an ever expanding population?

      Why wouldn’t they be? What fundamental limits would we be running up against? We could just build more bridges, more pipes, more power plants and wires. It’s not obvious that density makes these more expensive: it seems cheaper to lay shorter distances of thicker pipes than longer distances of thinner pipes. There are cost disease considerations, of course, but perhaps we should fix that too?

      • hollyluja says:

        Suburban expansion is often federally financed, or financed by debt. Long term, very little of that infrastructure is sustainable at current tax levels. Dense urban neighborhoods, OTOH, usually produce more than enough taxes to support their own infrastructure.

        My theory is that if you internalized the negative externalities of suburban sprawl correctly, it would almost disappear.

        • naj says:

          Being outside the blast radius of a nuclear weapon hitting downtown has some positive externalities that are not usually formally taken into account.

    • grendelkhan says:

      Normally, these things scale reasonably: if you build more houses, the occupants pay property tax, and that pays for the fire and police service, the roads, power lines, water service, all that.

      Prop 13 in California turns this on its head. Housing, even when it appreciates in value, doesn’t pay more in taxes. In fact, the real property-tax rate goes down due to the 2% annual cap on increases, which is generally below inflation.

      California has an unusually high cost of living, largely driven by high housing costs. (Everything here is interconnected.) So infrastructure costs more there, because labor costs more. To raise the money for this, cities and counties issue bonds and raise sales taxes, and most of all, “impact fees”, where a new development pays tens of thousands of dollars to make up for the depressed property taxes of their neighbors.

      And because commercial developments change hands more often (property taxes reset on sale), and commercial developers can afford larger impact fees, cities fearing a pension crunch approve more commercial than residential real estate; the incentives are such that every town wants someone else to be the bedroom community. So we add more jobs than places for workers to live, as well.

      The pension crisis is very real, and cities are trying to make up for a broken revenue model. Infrastructure is pretty much off the table.

      • Eric Rall says:

        Prop 13 in California turns this on its head. Housing, even when it appreciates in value, doesn’t pay more in taxes. In fact, the real property-tax rate goes down due to the 2% annual cap on increases, which is generally below inflation.

        Sort of. If an existing house remains in the hands of a single owner (or their heirs) and doesn’t undergo any renovations that trigger a reappraisal, then its valuation is capped at a 2% nominal annual increase as you say. But a lot of properties do get sold, renovated, or even demolished and rebuilt, and all of those things generally trigger reevaluation. And of course, newly-built property (probably the most relevant category for a NIMBY/YIMBY discussion) is taxed at its current price.

        Santa Clara county’s property tax rolls (the sum of the assessed values of all taxable property in the county) grew about 7.5% from last year, and 63% (a bit over 6%/year) since the 2010-2011 fiscal year. I expect this is significantly less than the increase in the market value of the county’s real estate stock, but it’s still a lot more than 2%, and it’s quite a bit more than inflation (about 16% total) plus population growth (about 9% total) over the same time period.

      • Anthony says:

        San Francisco County’s property tax revenues *did not decline* through the housing crash of 2008. When lots of people are paying tax on assessed values from 5 to 10 years ago, even a 50% decline in property values means some people’s assessment doesn’t go down.

        (Mine did. By over 60%, and I ended up paying much less property tax for a few years. But my house is in Oakland, and I bought near the peak.)

    • Plumber says:

      “Another issue I wonder about… even if the housing units could be expanded enough to accommodate demand, would the city/county really be able to expand the infrastructure enough to meet the demands of an ever expanding population? SF traffic is pretty horrendous now and I assume there are limits to the current water, sewage and electrical capacity. I would think the cost of adding infrastructure would be considerable.”

      @mdv1959,

      Yes the costs would be considerable. 

      Currently I work as a plumber for The City and County of San Francisco (mostly repairing plumbing fixtures in one of the Jails), but I have done some work in San Francisco’s sewage treatment plants, and I had a wastewater treatment plant operators certification for a few years, and know a little bit about this.

      San Francisco (where I work), Oakland (where I was born and have mostly lived), and Berkeley (where I spent most of my childhood), unlike newer towns, are all older cities that don’t have seperate sewage and storm pipes in the streets, which causes problems during heavy rain, and the Federal government fines cities for how much raw sewage goes into the bay during downpours.

      The current treatment plants can’t handle many more people, more land and money is needed.

      If the pipes under the streets were rebuilt this would be less of an issue, but that would be extremely disruptive (Hey can you please not flush, or use the street you live on for a while?), and really why should current residents tax themselves more, and be displaced so more people can be crammed into an already overburdened area?

      Instead of up here, why not build in south San Jose, there’s lots of land down there, and it’s even closer to the “Silicon Valley” that seems to be the source of the overbidding that’s causing this problem. 

  3. idontknow131647093 says:

    Its raining outside and this has spoiled my late night walk. What to do now?

  4. ReaperReader says:

    Is 2.5% growth rate unattainable? Countries have undertaken some amazing building programmes around WWII. Or the French roll out of nuclear plants in the 1970s/80s.

    • Andrew Farrell says:

      > Around WWII

      I think the counterargument is that to achieve that rate, you need a much faster process for clearing large numbers of existing buildings. As an example, London was assisted in this sort of thing by the free services of demolition experts from Germany. The process by which they were fast-tracked through planning permission left a great many people distinctly upset at the time.

      • It’s not just Europe. In the US Detroit housing grew at a huge rate in the years before and the years after WWII and there wasn’t any German bombing in the middle of the continental US.

        • Freddie deBoer says:

          So we just need the historically unique growth conditions of the post-World War II, post-Great Depression United States? That should be easy.

          • stucchio says:

            From what I can tell, the main condition is governments ignoring folks who are explicitly trying to prevent the wrong kinds of folks moving in.

            I know it’s unpleasant when other people eat different foods than you, wear different clothes, and might not make you feel “comfortable.” It might even be the case that new businesses crop up to meet other people’s needs.

            https://fredrikdeboer.com/2018/06/21/what-new-construction-where-for-whom/

            There’s nothing preventing us from going back to our historical policies of welcoming migrants, except cultural opposition by folks like you and Trump.

          • rlms says:

            @stucchio
            lol

          • ReaperReader says:

            Why? Australia and New Zealand built plenty of post-WWII suburbs too. China’s building rapidly right now. It’s not like the laws of physics have changed, and there’s massive potential profits with the rents people are currently paying in SF. The issue seems to be the regulatory environment.

      • ReaperReader says:

        I don’t see why. In my home country of NZ, Wellington and Auckland central business districts were mostly rebuilt into office towers during the 1950s to 1980s with no bombing required. London in the early 2000s looked quite old-fashioned to my eyes, trained not just to Wellington and Auckland but Sydney, New York, Singapore and KL.

  5. shakeddown says:

    Object-level counterargument: you mention you’d like other people’s hubs to exist. But restrictive zoning and housing shortage is a nationwide thing (granted, unusually bad in the bay area). For example, Boulder, CO was starting to be the new hip/techie place, but now is getting net negative migration because of similar issues. Globally, NIMBYism is what stops alternative hubs being created.

    Meta-level counterargument: Unlike your past steelmen, which presented new perspective or arguments the counter-movement was unlikely to have encountered, this doesn’t really. Or at least, it feels like level-1 thinking, where you’re steelmanning NIMBYs by acting as a NIMBY who models YIMBYs as level-0 strawmen. So I’m not sure YIMBYs who aren’t level-0 srawmen (granted, those probably exist) have much to learn from this.

    • kominek says:

      For example, Boulder, CO was starting to be the new hip/techie place, but now is getting net negative migration because of similar issues.

      as a resident of the area, that seems surprising. is it perhaps just the city of boulder? there seem to be plenty more folks in the area, and zillow says my house just outside city limits is worth 20% more (!!!) than it was this time last year.

      • shakeddown says:

        I read something on that (can’t find the source again, though). But it’s consistent with the sudden skyrocketing of prices in the area, which makes it hard for it to develop as an alternative to SF.

      • Brad says:

        Wasn’t an anti-jobs slate elected to Boulder city government sometime in the last year?

  6. massivefocusedinaction says:

    I don’t see it mentioned, but did the studies look at the experience of Tokyo, which allows much more rapid home construction (there was an article a few years ago in the FT, that claimed Tokyo had more new home construction permits than the entire state of California) and very little price appreciation.

    • Wency says:

      Off the top of my head, three factors that I’d think would limit the ability to increase demand for Tokyo housing relative to the U.S.:

      1. Negative Japanese population growth, including very little immigration
      2. Following from this, a more elderly, less mobile population
      3. Tokyo is a much larger share of Japan’s population than SF (or any city) is of the U.S., so there’s a relatively smaller pool of marginal would-be internal migrants

    • jefftk says:

      In Japan, when someone buys a house they typically tear it down and build a new one. This means home construction permits aren’t a good metric for housing expansion, because they include both new units and replacement units.

    • Anthony says:

      Metro Tokyo has a population similar to that of the entire state of California.

  7. Allan53 says:

    I’m pretty ignorant of the tech sphere (postgrad student in psychology in Australia), but is there a particularly strong reason why teleconferencing etc isn’t viable for at least some tech jobs? I mean, I’m sure there are some tech things that require you to be there, but “we need you to go through the code and find why the thing is doing the thing and to make it do the other thing instead” doesn’t seem like one of them?

    I mean, there’s the social benefits, being able to hang out with other tech people etc, I suppose, but surely the social costs of living in SF would more than cancel those out?

    • mgoodfel says:

      Near as I can figure, the only downside to VR or other telework is that managers can’t wander around and make sure everyone is working. Since most managers aren’t really into the guts of their projects, they don’t seem to be able to just evaluate the output.

    • johan_larson says:

      I work remotely for a tech company in Silicon Valley as a programmer. Right now, with email and chat and teleconferencing, doing this job remotely is feasible. But I am clearly less clued in to what goes on in the company than people at HQ who hear about things just by being there. And sometimes it takes a while for me to get answers to questions because it takes a while for people to respond to me, whereas if I had been at HQ I could just have walked over to their desk and asked them.

      My take on the situation is that working remotely as a programmer right now works, but I wouldn’t want to do it in a more communication-focused job, such as a manager.

    • eggsyntax says:

      I’m a programmer who’s chosen to spend the last eight years (~80% of my career) working remotely. It’s a lovely solution. The key is to find companies that are entirely or mostly remote. If you’re one of just a few remote employees, you miss all the watercooler networking. But if everyone (or everyone on a tech-related project) is remote, all that stuff happens online, typically through group chat apps and group video conferencing. I would absolutely hate to go back to working in an office at this point.

      It’s true in my experience that the top 10% or so of the most exciting and high-paying companies don’t have remote teams — but the companies just below that are still extremely exciting and high-paying. And being remote-centric has big attractions for companies too — you lose some opportunities for serendipity at the watercooler, but on the other hand you can hire extremely good programmers for less money (and programmer salaries are a huge expenditure for tech companies).

      • jefftk says:

        To give another perspective, after working only in-person programming jobs for about ten years I tried a job at a fully remote company. While the company had a very good remote culture, with good use of Slack (chat) and Quip (docs/wiki), I often felt lonely and isolated.

        I’m now at Google in Cambridge, and I really like being in the same place as my coworkers.

    • fluorocarbon says:

      Not for senior or experienced developers. I do think that inexperienced developers benefit from being in an office and learning work habits and other intangibles from experienced developers.

    • thedufer says:

      This doesn’t explain why, but it seems telling that most remote teams get together in person for 1-2 weeks at a time at least once a year, and often once per quarter. Would they spend all that time and money traveling if teleconferencing was just as good?

      Most people seem to agree that remote communication of all forms is noticeably lower bandwidth than talking in person. Proponents of remote working for tech work typically underestimate how much time we spend communicating with other people, and overestimate how much time we spend communicating with computers.

    • John Schilling says:

      I mean, I’m sure there are some tech things that require you to be there, but “we need you to go through the code and find why the thing is doing the thing and to make it do the other thing instead” doesn’t seem like one of them?

      Yes, absolutely. The code does the first thing because someone wrote it to do the first thing. Once you find out who did that, you can probably solve the whole thing in ten minutes if you can just walk over to their office and talk to them. If you have to wait until they respond to your email/text/whatever, and hope they don’t read an implied “…you incompetent fool” into your sterile inquiry into why they did it the wrong way, then repeat for each new question or correction, it takes much longer and is more likely to result in a hostile relationship going forward.

      Teleconferencing works tolerably well when things don’t need to be fixed. If you can break your coding project into ten chunks, with fully defined interfaces, then you can send ten coders off to the far corners of the Earth to work on their bit and keep touch electronically. And if everything works and nobody is surprised by what anyone else has done, great. If anything needs fixing, you really want to be there for that part. And those “fully defined interfaces”; if that’s a job for more than one person, then you want them to be meeting FtF.

      My job is making sure things don’t go wrong with rockets, and fixing them when they do. The people who build the rockets, yes, are scattered across three continents. When things go wrong, I get much better results when I go visit them myself (or, now, send someone else to do so). We can and do teleconference when we have to, but it really isn’t as effective.

      More generally: If there’s a dispute, the resolution will almost always favor the people in the room over the people on the line. And that includes not just disputes over “How do we fix the code on Project X?”, but things like “Who gets to lead Project X, who gets to be one of the worker bees on X, and who gets stuck maintaining legacy code Y?”

      So, yeah, if you want build a career in Tech(tm), you really do want to be in the Bay Area or one of the other major hubs. And they want you to be there.

      • Matt M says:

        I think people get hung up on words like “require.”

        It’s true that most tech jobs (and most white collar jobs in general) do not require face-to-face interaction.

        It’s also true that most tech jobs (and most white collar jobs in general) derive significant benefits from face-to-face interaction. And it’s also true that most such jobs exist at companies who are willing to pay for those benefits, and that the jobs are generally compensated well enough and/or are prestigious enough to attract people who are willing to live in otherwise undesirable locations.

    • Calvin says:

      There’s a segment of a podcast with the CEO of Shopify on how they forced everyone to work from home for a month, which made everyone realize the value of having the team together under one roof as well as the unique difficulties in including team members who have to telecommute.

      https://fs.blog/tobi-lutke/

  8. Eric Rall says:

    Some people can’t tolerate the big city – what do you want them to do? Sell their house, leave all their friends and family, and try to start again somewhere else? You think that’s an exaggeration? If where I live became more like San Francisco, I would do that. Lots of people would!

    Speaking as someone who has done something vaguely like this, it’s not as bad as it sounds when you say it, for two reasons. One is that urbanization increase land values (even if dwelling units stay the same price, you’re still putting more dwelling units on a given amount of land, which makes the land more valuable), so the process of selling your home and starting again somewhere else tends to come with huge piles of money from selling the old house.

    The other is that “moving away” doesn’t mean “moving across the country”. Moving, say, twenty or thirty miles out is probably enough to get you into safely low-to-medium density areas that are likely to remain so for the next decade or two. It’s a bit more work to see your friends and it requires a bit more planning, but it’s not a insurmountable obstacle.

    One refrain I heard again and again was that they hated living in San Francisco, but had come anyway because their company pressured them, or because their companies would pay them extra, or because that was where all the best jobs in their industry were

    Okay, this part really resonates with me. I’ve noticed lately that the recruiters messaging me on LinkedIn are increasingly recruiting specifically for positions in San Francisco proper, and they generally seem startled to hear I’m not interested in commuting there from Gilroy (let alone relocating). Most of these are startups, and I’m having trouble understanding why a startup would choose to set up shop in downtown SF instead of just about anywhere else in the Bay Area.

    • Robert Jones says:

      I’ve never done it (I like living in a big city), but it didn’t sound bad to me, for the reasons you state. Maybe I’m just a product of a fragmented society, but I was puzzled by the implication that people could reasonably expect to live in the same house forever. If the character of your area changes in a way you can’t tolerate, you move to a new area. In that situation it’s definitely better if the change is one which increases the value of your property.

      • Cerastes says:

        It depends on the logistics of moving. For instance, I would have a very hard time relocating and would hate it because my particular lifestyle and situation place a lot of additional specifications on what sort of houses are livable and the sheer logistical difficulty of moving (short version: my reptile collection is better and bigger than the local zoo’s). I’ve moved repeatedly, and every time, it has been one of the worst experiences of my life, worse than the two life-threatening medical emergencies I’ve had.

      • Lasagna says:

        You honestly don’t understand people’s attachment to their land? I’m genuinely curious. You don’t get people who want to stay in their house, in their neighborhood, near their families and their friends?

    • arlie says:

      Most of these are startups, and I’m having trouble understanding why a startup would choose to set up shop in downtown SF instead of just about anywhere else in the Bay Area.

      It’s the kids – the new grads really really really want to live in San Francisco, and the rest of the Bay Area won’t do. That’s why Google and Apple and their like run so many private commuter busses out that way, even while being based in Mountainview and Cupertino (painfully commutable from Gilroy, but I’d hate to do it). and that’s why some startups plunk themselves down in SF – they want to be attractive to the latest grads – more than they want to be attractive to locals with experience, or anyone concerned e.g. about the quality of local schools.

      Like you, I don’t listen to recruiters pitching San Francisco to me, but I did once work for a company with 2 sites – SF and Sunnyvale – which gave new hires a choice of where to sit, and a warning that there’d be meetings in both locations, and so some long distance commuting. That was their reasoning, and I think they were right.

      • Eric Rall says:

        That makes some sense, although I’m also puzzled by what appeals to new grads about living in San Francisco. Granted, there are a significant upsides to living near a big downtown area when you’re young and single (nightlife, etc), and some of the downsides are mitigated relative to a middle-aged couple with kids and pets (don’t care about school districts, less stuff, better able to tolerate sharing a tiny apartment, etc), but other downsides are magnified (if even a tiny apartment with roommates is hideously expensive, that’s rough on the budget of a recent grad with an entry-level salary and student debt).

        I’d also wondered if it’s some combination of agency costs and typical mind fallacy: if for some reason startup founders in the Bay Area disproportionately love San Francisco (c.f. Scott’s joke about masochists), they may set up shop there because 1) it’s their company and they can do what they want, and 2) they assume everyone else loves SF as much as they do.

        I could also be picking up a bit of observation bias, too. If you’re right about SF being appealing to recent grads, then startups based in downtown SF are likely having an easy time recruiting junior engineers, but they need to go hunting for mid-career programmers for senior roles. Meanwhile, any startups based in the South Bay or East Bay suburbs would have an easier time recruiting for senior positions, but a harder time recruiting for junior positions. Since I’m a mid-career senior software engineer, it’d be expected that I’d hear a lot more from SF-based startups casting a wide net than from the more suburban startups.

        • Nornagest says:

          That makes some sense, although I’m also puzzled by what appeals to new grads about living in San Francisco.

          It’s cool. That’s all. San Francisco is an objectively terrible place to live, but it is very very hip.

    • lambda_calculus says:

      For the same reasons any other company would want to be located in the city: it’s centrally located. This maximizes the potential worker pool. SF is where BART and Caltrain meet, so there’s a lot of folks who can access it via public transit. Moreover, lots of tech workers already live in the city proper, which makes it a more desirable place for them to work.

      This is likely some kind of inadequate equilibria. The tech companies want to be in SF because that’s where the workers are, and the workers are there because that’s where the companies are. If everyone simultaneously picked up and moved to e.g. Reno, everyone might be better off.

  9. Douglas Knight says:

    how can we let people who want to live in a medium-density suburb live in a medium-density suburb for more than ten years at a time?

    What is the maximum growth rate that allows the density to be roughly the same a decade later? At 3% growth rate, the density doubles in about 25 years. Isn’t that slow enough?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Good point, I’ve edited that part out.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        OK, but now you aren’t offering any quantitative standard. Lots of people in the comments are equivocating or talking nonsense because they refuse to talk about details.

        3% growth, doubling in a generation, sounds pretty reasonable to me. If you know it’s coming, then you shouldn’t buy the density you want, but a little less dense. And it is the plan. The State of California requires towns to build at a certain rate and most of them are just cheating. One of these days the State will take back the power of zoning and catch-up building will be disruptive, in part because it will be done at such a distance.

        Whether 3% growth is disruptive depends on the details. If it’s smooth in place and time, it sounds pretty reasonable to me. Consider a town of 1 acre lots. Every year, tear down 1% of the houses and build 4 new houses on 1/4 acre lots. The character of the town will change, but smoothly. This shouldn’t disrupt the community, no more than the normal turnover, which is a lot higher than 1%.
        Alternately, one could tear down 1/3000 of the houses and build apartment buildings for 100 people each. This would be much more socially disruptive. It would create more economic diversity. It would cluster newcomers, making them less integrated into the new community. This is the kind of thing the State will do, if it acts on its own. On the other hand, if the apartments are near train stations, it might not be as bad for traffic.

        (I think the plan was 2% growth for the Bay Area, with 3% needed for catch-up.)

        • hollyluja says:

          What we see in Portland is that the tear-downs happen anyway. Under current zoning, they are replaced 1:1 McMansions because that’s the only thing that is legal to build.

  10. Cliff says:

    “just building more houses won’t, on its own, be a solution to the problem”

    Wait, what? Why not?

    What problem are we talking about again? People wanting to live somewhere where there is no new development? Obviously it is impossible both to lower prices and build new housing and also not build any new housing, so that in itself is an intractable problem. But the high prices could certainly be addressed by building more housing as your post seems to demonstrate. A reduction in prices by 40% in 20 years would be phenomenal and best of all would cost nothing.

    • Based on context, it’s clear that Scott sees high housing costs as “the problem.” (Correct me If I’m wrong.)

      There are two ways of framing the housing crisis: as a housing affordability crisis or a critical housing shortage. If you mean towards the latter framing, it’s obvious that building more housing is the solution. But if you are prone to thinking of the problem in terms of price, then there’s a remote chance that building more housing could increase both supply and demand equally, leaving the price unchanged.

      However, as Scott’s point 5b suggests, this still implies a massive increase in consumer surplus as the demand for San Francisco rises without limit. So I don’t see that as a bad outcome at all.

  11. rycpt says:

    No mention of property taxes or prop 13? There are plenty of empty bedrooms in the SF Bay – they’re just being banked by owners with no incentive to build ADUs or move away from an economic center for retirement.

    • Anthony says:

      [citation needed]

      Rent control has made it very, very attractive to convert your rental unit into an AirBnB when your tenant moves out, but I’ve seen very little evidence that there is a significant amount of actually vacant housing that’s not vacant for remodeling/repairs or showing for sale.

  12. rycpt says:

    Also the claims about Manhattan aren’t quite right. Sure Manhattan is pricey but just outside – in Queens – it’s possible to buy an apartment for $200k and still take the F train to work in the city (cf https://www.redfin.com/NY/Corona/112-50-Northern-Blvd-11368/unit-6B/home/113180232 )

    That kind of price near SF would lead to an absolutely brutal drive into work each day.

    • cryptoshill says:

      @rycpt – I also reject NYC as an example here because NYC zoning laws and restrictions are even worse than SFs. In a sort of “NYC was SF before SF was SF” way.

      • The Nybbler says:

        NYC restrictions are a complicated form of bribery; they don’t stop things from being built as effectively.

  13. andre says:

    In my experience, the two unique accesses offered by the bay seem to be subcultures and money. However, given that the work done to earn rent paying wages there is generally antithetical to value generation for the subcultures, I imagine the cultural sticking force is much less powerful than the financial.

    I anticipate an increase in flash gentrification, where a subculture/company takes over all these dying towns we keep hearing about. If you build it, they will come.

    If you are a Bay Arean and you are reading this message, know that there is hope.

    Luna is moving our headquarters to Berlin and we’re hiring. If you’re driven to build better social technology, we need your help!

    Berlin has several wonderful features:
    1 bedroom apartment is $600/m. For the cost of a one bedroom in SF, you can rent a 2700 sqft 4 bedroom loft
    No policy brutality
    Fellow rationalists and SSC enthusiasts — it’s home to the Less Wrong Community Weekend
    A functioning public transportation system
    Cheap flights to Tel Aviv, Tenerife, Morocco, Europe, Turkey, Russia, etc
    High density of expats. Thriving subcultures. Artists haven’t been completely pushed out, yet.
    Nascent/burgeoning tech scene

    email me @ andre@meetluna.com

    • Nornagest says:

      the work done to earn rent paying wages there is generally antithetical to value generation for the subcultures

      I can’t figure out what you mean by the second half of this. Are you saying that young Bay Aryans hate techies because they’d rather play identity politics?

      If so, that’s not quite it. They hate techies, and they like playing identity politics, but I don’t think there’s a “because” there. I think they hate techies for being, essentially, an immigrant population they see as displacing their culture: they’re suffering from the same problems that Scott’s friends are (viz. crumbling infrastructure, unaffordable housing, disgustingly long commutes, human feces getting into the BART escalators), and that’s making it worse, but the same basic dynamic exists in cities like Portland that’re nowhere near as expensive and have much more functional local politics.

      “Policy brutality” is a fun phrase, though.

      • Plumber says:

        Speaking as a 50 year-old non-“techie” born in Oakland, California who lives and works within 15 miles of my birthplace, while I appreciate being able to communicate with you via “tech”, I don’t like the presence of “techies” for much of the same reason I really vehemently dislike U.C. Berkeley faculty and students:

        Their numbers and/or their wealth (in the students case it’s loans and parents that provides the income, but their numbers multiple the effect) force us out and change our hometowns.

        And the “techies” insulting refer to “disruption” as a good thing.

        Feels like being an 18th century Scottish peasant being forced out of what had been the family home for generations to make way for sheep.

        To stay in the only area I’ve known I have to work far longer and hard than my father for a smaller space for my family, and I had to be 15 years older to start that family and 25 years older to have a house.

        That galls!

        • Brad says:

          I’m not a libertarian (anymore) but, like most of us at least claim to be, I am capitalist and at some point there needs to be the concept that you own what you own and don’t own what you done own.

          If you want a static hometown where nothing ever changes there is a long tradition of planned utopian communities in the United States where the whole thing is owned by and under the direct control of some organization. But otherwise you have no more right to your neighborhood then any other American.

          • Wency says:

            If people prefer less local change, they are welcome to resist change in different ways. In our society, the most mainstream and acceptable way to do this is through political solutions like NIMBYism. In parts of New Guinea, it might include eating any newcomers while preserving their severed heads as a warning to others.

            I prefer the first solution, but if it’s forbidden and all places must surrender before the engine of homogenizing capitalist progress, then expect other forms of resistance to manifest from time to time.

          • Tenacious D says:

            If you want a static hometown where nothing ever changes there is a long tradition of planned utopian communities in the United States where the whole thing is owned by and under the direct control of some organization. But otherwise you have no more right to your neighborhood then any other American.

            Leaving aside planned utopian communities, there are also mechanisms like restrictive covenants and easements (IANAL, but couldn’t a neighbourhood that wanted to remain low-rise negotiate an interlocking network of solar easements with each other?) that can shape your neighbourhood in certain ways. But these mechanisms require accepting the trade-off of having them priced into your property value.

          • hollyluja says:

            I’m also surprised Scott didn’t point out how weird it is that we can veto a second story built by our neighbor on land we don’t own.

          • ana53294 says:

            The Soviet Union did have towns that where closed to outsiders. They were military/nuclear research/military research towns. The pay was quite decent and they had fewer deficits.

            The revealed preference of the people in those towns was to leave, though, which they did soon after the Soviet Union fell.

          • Plumber says:

            “…..otherwise you have no more right to your neighborhood then any other American”

            @Brad,

            Individually no, but collectively voters may impose rules that limit the “rights” of property owners (and “property rights” themselves only exist as far as government and/or people with weapons enforce them!).

            That’s why there’s zoning in a democratic republic in the first place.

            A while back I read somewhere that surveys show that a majority would prefer to live in a two story house surrounded by one story homes rather than a three story house surrounded by four story homes, and the authors claimed that this should how “irrational” people were in wanting to “give up space in order to have status” but I had a different take, in the two and one story alternative you’d have sunlight coming in your windows, but in the three and four story alternative you’d be in shadow!

            I spent too many years in a moldy apartment not to appreciate natural light!

            Eventually they may be enough voters that want the State to overrule municipal government and force denser development, but that may be a while because it’s the young who want crowded cities and the young don’t bother to vote!

          • Brad says:

            It needn’t be just young people. People of all ages, all over the state of California and the country would benefit financially from overriding the narrow parochial interests of Bay Aryans.

            And there’d be little downside or even risk for most. There’s no much interest or point in overriding the zoning rules of the suburbs of Cleveland, so it isn’t like the voters there would need to be worried about the precedent set.

          • Aapje says:

            @hollyluja

            I’m also surprised Scott didn’t point out how weird it is that we can veto a second story built by our neighbor on land we don’t own.

            Basically, when you buy a plot of land, you can only guess at what externalities you will experience in the future. You often only know the current externalities and typically make decisions based on that, notably including investments that take a long time to pay off.

            The question is then how to deal with change. On the one hand, it’s (usually) good if people can do make changes to their own property. On the other hand, we want people to be able to make long term investments without a huge risk of unexpected changes that undermine those investments.

            The problem with the libertarian position is that it harms human prosperity by making people very conservative, as they are very wary of making investments or taking risks, because the potential downside is too large.

        • watsonbladd says:

          Don’t blame the newcomers. Blame your parents for banning apartment buildings.

      • Placid Platypus says:

        I read it as saying that having to work a 9-5 all day makes it harder to contribute to your subculture? Not sure though.

    • raj says:

      Police brutality isn’t remotely a problem for anyone who’d be reading this. That’s a meme created by the media.

      • Matt M says:

        Given Scott’s description of BART stations, it sounds to me like SF could probably use a great deal more police brutality…

      • arlie says:

        I imagine we have some black readers, many of them male, or having male family members.

        • sunnydestroy says:

          If we go on the SSC 2018 Survey results, Black readers number less than 0.5% of the readers here. In absolute terms, the survey had 41 Black respondents compared to almost 6,800 White respondents.

          I don’t think that’s enough to really here any Black people’s perspectives in the comments.

  14. peopleneedaplacetogo says:

    Lower housing costs aren’t anybody’s terminal goal, the main reason to care about them instrumentally is that high housing costs keep people from moving to the city and force others to leave. If everybody who wants to can live in the city then mission accomplished, how the prices work out (maybe rents stay high but wages go up? maybe everything else gets cheaper?) is an implementation detail. I support YIMBY because I want all people (or failing that as many people as possible) who want to live in San Francisco (or any other city), from anywhere in the world, to be able to live there. As long as vacant units and second homes are rare (and in cities like SF they are), increasing the number of homes in a city increases the number of people who can live there, which is what I care about.

    You equivocate a lot about whether you mean SF proper or the Bay Area. The Bay Area is probably the more relevant unit of analysis, in which case the relevant housing production figures are lower, and e.g. the baseline density is a lot lower. Here is a chart/spreadsheet of housing permitting rates by Metropolitan Statistical Area for the cities used in this post, which makes SF look significantly worse than your graphs. (The Census considers San Francisco and San Jose separate MSAs so I included both.)

    Comparing exclusively to US also cities seems odd when most YIMBYs I know think land use policy in the entire US is horribly broken (it’s just most noticeable in places like SF). Tokyo’s housing growth rate is nearly 2% despite much higher baseline density than San Francisco or Austin, and as a result rents there are falling.

    I would find a place like Helena Montana where you have to drive everywhere completely intolerable. It’s okay for such places to exist for people who prefer them (or at least, it would be if they paid carbon tax/drove electric cars) but NIMBY laws force almost everybody in the US to live in such places. New York and small parts of San Francisco are exceptions but NIMBYs keep them tightly contained so that only the richest or luckiest have the option of living in them.

    Cars kill twice as many people in the US as crime, so I’m not sure BART is the thing to be scared of here; basing claims about its safety on sensationalized anecdotes is at any rate not truth-seeking. The unpleasantness of BART compared to other US transit systems seems to be mostly a consequence of higher homelessness in the Bay Area, which is in turn mostly a consequence of the housing shortage.

    I think it makes sense that if somebody who wants to live in a neighborhood with certain characteristics they should be prepared to move if their neighborhood changes around them. Neighborhoods change, and trying to freeze them in amber, stagnant, is often incredibly harmful; it seems almost akin to trying to keep children from growing up. I don’t see why the interests of somebody who happened to get there first should take so much precedence over the interests of the larger numbers of people who want to move in.

    Incidentally, I am friends with Alon Levy, their post you linked about “The Mines” was based on stories I told them about my friends in the Bay Area, and after they posted it I showed them your post “To The Great City!” to try to explain why they were wrong about why people move to the Bay Area. I don’t really understand how you could write that post and then defend denying the rest of us space to move to the Great City too.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thank you for the graph. I spent a while looking for something like that but couldn’t find it. I’ve added it into the original post.

      I think people talk about crime a lot because it’s legible, but I think the main problem with BART stations is the noise, smell, weird confrontational encounters, and having to be vaguely afraid all the time. People just bring up murders because it’s a tangible thing you can point to as opposed to “a guy yelled at me as I walked by”, which is actually pretty unpleasant but which doesn’t really move readers to sympathize with you.

      I became very disillusioned after arriving at the Bay Area because it was much less pleasant to live in than I expected (I had previously only visited). I was also criticized for writing that by some non-SF rationalists sad that everyone moves to SF and their communities are disappearing.

      I continue to live in the outskirts of Oakland and work in Walnut Creek, both of which seem much nicer than San Francisco.

      • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

        I’m very aware of the high levels of disruptive passengers etc on BART. The problem seems far worse on BART than I’ve observed on any other transit system in the developed world, and furthermore only seems to have become such a big problem in the past 2-3 years. I think this is some cause for optimism that the problem can feasibly be ameliorated, and at any rate it’s no argument against housing or transit expansion in any other city. It does seem to be somewhat related to the housing shortage but I grant that permitting more housing might not solve it quickly.

        (I likewise talk about cars killing someone every 25 seconds because it’s legible and tangible, but day-to-day the main problems with cars are the pollution, huge inhospitable expanses of concrete everywhere, and having to be vaguely afraid all the time.)

        I’m one of those non-SF rationalists sad that everyone keeps moving to the Bay Area. However:
        1) One of the reasons I’m sad about it is that the NIMBYs have kept the Bay Area so unlivably low-density. I’d be much happier if everyone were moving to NYC, London, or anywhere I didn’t have to choose between a 90 minute commute to work and a 2+ hour commute to do anything social.
        2) I don’t think everyone draining to the Bay Area has that much to do with rationalism or your post, my non-rationalist friends all keep moving there too. The biggest single factor is that that’s where the money is; jobs are enough easier to get and pay enough better that it’s worth the high rent and long commute.

        I expect my friends to keep moving to the Bay regardless of what happens with housing policy (since their employers can generally pay enough to make it worthwhile no matter how high rent is). But more broadly I think this kind of regional economic inequality is actually exacerbated by NIMBYism; for most of their history per capita incomes in rich US regions (like California) and per capita incomes in poor US regions (like Kentucky) were converging, but this trend stopped in the late 1960s right around when zoning became widespread, and subsequently reversed. Caps on production of housing near jobs made it hard for workers from Kentucky to fill labor shortages in California, but also weakened the bargaining power of the workers still in Kentucky who could no longer so credibly threaten to move to California. Everyone being free to move where they want can help those who don’t move too.

        • ReaperReader says:

          Your last point is a really good one.

        • christianschwalbach says:

          I think part of the problem in using these comparisons as examples is that migrancy into San Francisco tends to lean havily towards educated Tech workers and other educated individuals and support. The Kentucky (or any similar example) comparison is moot in this age as number of people from Kentucky going into a tech field is going to be perhaps both relatively minimal, and require them to move to where the jobs are, namely SF. Kentucky bargaining power isnt even really in this discussion.

          • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

            The reason migration into SF is mostly tech workers is that they’re the only people who can afford to move there given the artificial scarcity of housing! Wages for unskilled (retail, etc) workers are higher there too (minimum wage is $15 in SF, $11 in California, $7.25 in Kentucky); if housing growth were truly unlimited people at almost all skill levels from all over the country would flock there for higher pay (or threaten to do so unless paid more where they are), but with so few units available for people moving in of course they all go to tech workers.

      • pontifex says:

        San Francisco seems to be a love it or hate it kind of city. I don’t like it, either.

      • Garrett says:

        I’m always amazed that there are people who complain about how too many people take private vehicles to work when one of the areas in the country most amenable to quality public transportation has this as the experience for its users.

        • ana53294 says:

          Good infrastructure would mean that for anything less than 5 miles people would bike. The alternative to cars for small rides are not buses for healthy mobile people.

          • arlie says:

            *sigh* I’m sick of aggro-bikers. You can bike; those who can’t are chopped liver. Everyone has perfect balance, adequate vision, no issues with falling, etc. etc. – or else they are ‘sick’, probably shouldn’t be working, and should presumably have to call para-transit (or Uber) to get anywhere – because *you* can bike, and therefore they can too.

            This is just an extension of must-drive-to-get-anywhere, except that the unseen population of those who cannot go anywhere in this system is mostly different. (With drive-to-get-anywhere areas, the largest group of people harmed are those too young to be allowed to drive, though plenty of others also have problems.)

          • ana53294 says:

            I am just asking for an opportunity to allow people to have a choice to bike. And I am always surprised to see how many differently abled people actually choose to bike when the opportunities to bike are pleasant (safe, nice places, not being stuck in traffic, actually being able to reliably estimate commuting time).

            Even if *you* choose not to bike, more people choosing to bike rather than take a car is a net benefit to *you*, because that means less busy roads, more parking spaces, and cleaner air.

          • arlie says:

            I am just asking for an opportunity to allow people to have a choice to bike.

            Ah, but that’s not what you said:

            The alternative to cars for small rides are not buses for healthy mobile people.

          • ana53294 says:

            Because when you have a city with good bike lanes near green areas, people will prefer bikes or electric bikes when it is not raining. I personally would rather spend 15 minutes leisurely biking through a promenade full of trees rather than spending 10 minutes waiting for the bus, 3 minutes in the bus, and 2 minutes walking from the bus station. I hate waiting.

            But I am fine with people who prefer to take the bus for a two-minute ride. I just rarely meet them in person.

          • John Schilling says:

            Because when you have a city with good bike lanes near green areas, people will prefer bikes or electric bikes when it is not raining.

            Some people will prefer bikes. I’m one of them. But I’m not arrogant enough to believe that everyone shares my preferences.

            The way you thoughtlessly shift between “for anything less than 5 miles people would bike” and “I am just asking for an opportunity to allow people to have a choice“, strongly suggests that you really don’t understand that there are people who DO NOT LIKE RIDING BICYCLES. Who would rather drive a car five miles in city traffic than ride a bicycle the same distance on a nice safe green bike path.

            These people exist, they are real and numerous, their opinions count just as much as yours, and even to someone like myself who just finished a three-mile bicycle commute in city traffic, they are a hell of a lot more sympathetic than arrogant bicycle-uber-allists like yourself. If you want more bike paths and bike-friendly cities, understand that your attitude is part of the problem.

          • ana53294 says:

            I was answering about a comment on public transportation, and the inevitability of cars. I meant that people without reduced mobility would prefer the bike for a small distance trip to public transportation (because it’s packed and noisy).

            While I acknowledge that there are reasons why you would prefer to take a bus for a 2 mile trip rather than a bike (wearing a long dress, a fancy suit, heavy bags), it’s hard for me to imagine people who hate biking so much, because I hate being in close quarters so much. I apologise for that.

            But cars should not be the only option to public transportation that give you a certain amount of personal space and not having to smell urine and vomit.

            Having more people choose to bike rather than take the car benefits even those who use the car, because they get less traffic and more parking spots.

            Improving a city’s bikability makes life better for the people who prefer bikes and for those who want to drive, because otherwise everybody is driving, which makes driving a worse experience.

            Cars should be given the lowest priority in city planning, because they use the most amount of public real estate, especially when parked (I have seen figures as high as 20 bikes parked pr parked car).

          • John Schilling says:

            I was answering about a comment on public transportation, and the inevitability of cars.

            If this was truly your goal, everything you had to say would have gone over much better if the word “bicycle” had never appeared in any of your posts. There are ways to usefully introduce bicycles into a discussion of urban transit options, but if it’s a choice between saying that bicycles are best and not mentioning them at all, really, don’t mention them all.

            Same goes for scooters, subways, Segways, or anything else anyone thinks is obviously the best.

          • Aapje says:

            Private cars are extremely space-inefficient, so they are simply incompatible with high population densities. Any realistic transport infrastructure for high population areas cannot be car-only.

            If there are congestion issues in high population areas, the solution is generally to get people out of cars and into other types of transportation. If a choice has to be made because of limited space and/or funding, mobility can generally be increased by taking away space and/or spending for cars and instead using it for alternatives.

            Everyone has perfect balance, adequate vision, no issues with falling, etc. etc.

            If someone doesn’t have adequate vision for cycling, they certainly don’t have adequate vision for driving either.

            People with balance and falling issues commonly use three-wheeled bikes in my country. For example, this person had a cerebral infarct, requires a walking stick for walking and a three-wheeler for riding.

            Limited strength can be solved by electric bikes or scooters.

            I’ve regularly encountered a cyclist with only one arm. He used an adapted three-wheel recumbent. I’ve also met paraplegics who use their arms to power the bike.

            Of course, bikes are not perfect and/or suitable for any situation, but cars are not either. The most sensible transport mix for high population areas, in places where the weather is not extreme (too often), seems to be public transport + bicycles + scooters + walking for most people and then exceptions for special needs, like trucks that supply shops (although perhaps limited to some hours of the day), some handicapped people, emergency services, etc.

            A remaining problem is then that cars are more efficient in less populated areas, so long distance trips into or out of cities can then be an issue. This can be addressed with Park & Ride, where people park at the edge of the city and switch to public transport, as well as car rentals.

      • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

        One other thing worth mentioning is that, across the US as a whole, people are willing to pay a significant premium to live in more walkable neighborhoods, and this result is robust to controlling for income, proximity to jobs, age, etc. This suggests that overall people actually do prefer cities (or at least, that more people prefer them than the current supply of walkable US cities can easily hold), and aren’t just living in them out of necessity or inadequate equilibrium.

        • Lasagna says:

          Maybe, but “city” is broader than what’s being discussed here, right? Small cities – say Kansas City – can also fill this need.

          And I prefer walkable – it’s a dealbreaker for me – but I don’t live in a city anymore and won’t ever willingly move back. I live in the suburbs, a few blocks from a large town. So this poll would pick me up.

          • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

            Average walkscore in Kansas City looks pretty low, though there’s a tiny walkable area downtown.

            In general, the minimum amount of dense development you need to support a full-size grocery store without a huge parking lot (which I’d consider the minimum to call a neighborhood walkable) is pretty rare in the US outside of a few of the biggest cities.

          • Lasagna says:

            In general, the minimum amount of dense development you need to support a full-size grocery store without a huge parking lot (which I’d consider the minimum to call a neighborhood walkable) is pretty rare in the US outside of a few of the biggest cities.

            I can only speak to NY and Boston suburbs, which probably aren’t representative samples, but I’ve never seen a suburb in either that didn’t have full-size grocery stores without huge parking lots (you mean rather than like a bodgea type of thing, right? Something with aisles and a butcher and you can buy anything you’d reasonably expect to find in a grocery store?). That’s a boatload of suburbs, though. My suburb (for example) has a full sized grocery store a few blocks away from me, and a parking lot that fits about 20 cars.

      • Jayson Virissimo says:

        I lived in the Tenderloin for 4 months, and a homeless-looking person with a bandage on their nose took a swing at me while I was walking to the grocery store. I ducked under the punch and jogged across the street between traffic. I still have no idea why they did that.

        I wasn’t hurt, and nothing was taken, but the memory was salient when I was considering moving my family there for a really well-paying tech job. I ended up not moving there, and so far I don’t regret that decision.

      • Atlas says:

        I became very disillusioned after arriving at the Bay Area because it was much less pleasant to live in than I expected (I had previously only visited).

        Out of curiosity, could you elaborate on this? Or would that be too personal?

      • Lasagna says:

        I had a question for the SF residents: is prostitution just wall-to-wall, or was that only in the neighborhood I was in?

        I’ve visited SF twice for work, each time for about a week. I wish I could remember the name of the neighborhood – it was sandwiched in between the Tenderloin and Chinatown, I guess. I was really excited – I’ve lived on the east coast my whole life, and the mythology of SF loomed big in my mind. I thought I was going to love it.

        Unfortunately work really kept me in the area I stayed at, and it was pretty lousy (a brief visit to Haight-Ashbury was great, though). Not much going on where I was, but my God, I’ve never been approached by so many prostitutes in my life. I mean, literally – I ran into more streetwalkers in SF in two weeks than I ran into in decades of living in and around New York City, including NY before it was cleaned up (or whatever, I hate that phrase).

        I know it’s not an earth-shattering question, but I was REALLY surprised, and it felt unsafe. I’m usually an eager city explorer, but this managed to make me reluctant to leave the hotel bar.

        • Nornagest says:

          Not an SF resident, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time there. I’ve only seen obvious prostitution once in the city, and it was in the northwestern Tenderloin, near Polk Street. Union Square is between the Tenderloin and Chinatown, and that’s pretty clean and upscale, so I have a feeling we’re talking about the same neighborhood.

          I used to see it a lot more in Oakland, when I lived there — a hotel near my martial arts dojo was a hangout for streetwalkers, I guess. A couple years before I moved out there was some kind of sting, the hotel got shut down, and their numbers plummeted. (I hear it’s since reopened under new management, but without the hookers.)

          • Lasagna says:

            That sounds about right. My hotel was a few blocks away from three blocks of strip clubs, if that helps. I feel like that was also right next to the entrance of Chinatown, but this was years ago, and my sense of geography could have gotten compressed.

        • christianschwalbach says:

          If you dont mind me asking, what sort of “mythology” were you writing about in your post, at least as an East Coaster? I have never lived in SF, but I was born and raised in San Diego, and I visited SF often, but I cant say I ever really had a “mythology” about East Coast cities…..though maybe that was because my interest was shifted more towards the fact that the east coast held the US’ colonial roots, and also that I visited NYC at age 4 and so was exposed to it early in life.

          • Mabuse7 says:

            Since he mentions Haight-Ashbury, I assume he means the mythology of SF as a hippie counterculture mecca.

      • Mark Atwood says:

        The disgusting literal crappyness of the BART and it’s recent descent into worseness is a significant part of why I’ve significantly cut back on my “pop down to SF for a string of meetings and meetups”.

        Hell, I’m popping over TO LONDON in a few weeks, and that felt less oppressive then a daytrip to SF.

        About the only outdoor part of SF I can tolerate now without wanting to hurl isthe more patrolled parts of the Moscone, and the shopfronts around Balboa Park and nearby neighborhoods, where unsympathetic and muscular hispanic men actively sweep away and wash away the filth and threaten away any local color that could detract from their carefully handmanaged shopfronts.

        Other than those specific places, SF is without question the most trash strewn filth strewn litter strewn literal actual sewage strewn city I’ve ever visited.

        Bangalore is cleaner.

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      yeah this is pretty much exactly the sneering, aggressive YIMBY attitude, well done

    • lambda_calculus says:

      I think there’s another very important reason to care about housing costs in the city you live in: money is good to have. Having to pay high rent means having less of it. In counterfactual SF where the cost of a one-bedroom apartment never rose above $2100, you’d have an extra $1400/month to spend versus today. That’s a huge sum of money!

  15. Michael Watts says:

    BART stations tend to collect a penumbra of litter, drug use, weird people playing incredibly loud music at all hours of the night, weird people shouting at each other at all hours of the night, and the never-dissipating stench of marijuana mixed with urine. This stuff is usually just background noise, but it did make the news earlier this summer when there were three unrelated murders at BART stations in one week. These don’t seem to have been gang shootouts or anything – they were just people trying to get on their train and getting randomly murdered instead. I am very aware I could get murdered every time I get on a BART. Last time I got off one (three days ago), there was a guy standing in front of the door shouting “FUCK YOU KKK WHITE BITCH” at any woman (of any race) trying to enter or leave the station. Nobody found this surprising or unusual. It’s just what BARTs are like.

    […]

    I believe some people need to have BART stations near their houses, just like some people need get arrested or be executed. But resisting each of these seems so natural and fundamental that I am unwilling to blame anyone for trying. I think neurotypical people usually underestimate how bad cities are for people with noise sensitivities, anxiety, purity intuitions, or just a need for nature and green things in their environment, and that the campaign against people who want to keep their suburbs suburban doesn’t take this into account.

    Multi-part counterpoint:

    I have rented apartments in Shanghai. There, being next to a subway station is a selling point, and improves the value of the apartment.

    I have rented an apartment in Millbrae. There, being next to the BART station is a selling point, and improves the value of the apartment. There was one homeless guy associated with the station, but just one. He was quiet and appeared to have a taste for decorating with used candy wrappers.

    I can’t help but notice that every single example you give of bad effects of BART stations are actually bad effects of the people inside the stations. The implication is pretty strong that [if the scary, high-crime people who currently live around the stations in central San Francisco and Oakland were to be replaced with middle-class tech workers], BART stations farther out would magically become a valuable amenity where they had been a frightening hazard. The problem people see isn’t that a BART station magically produces needles and human waste. It’s that a BART station would be connected to other BART stations, and those other stations are full of frightening people who leave used needles and feces around and occasionally murder random strangers.

    In a normal city, people would be trying to get closer to the subway stations, not farther away.

    (Edited by request.)

    • ana53294 says:

      In Spain, people lobby to extend the underground to their neighbourhoods, because that increases housing prices. Does being near a train station lower the price of housing in the Bay Area?

    • Michael Watts says:

      When I say “I have rented an apartment in Millbrae”, that is an unjustified error in thought. I’m actually talking about Hayward.

    • caethan says:

      Yeah, I used to live in an apartment building literally right next to the Union City station. It was great. No weird guys causing trouble.

    • Zeno of Citium says:

      Support for this position: in Somerville Mass, the MBTA (transit authority) is finally expanding the subway line into the city proper. There’s already an expectation that places where the new subway stops are planned to be will become more expensive. In general, in the Boston metro, landlords brag about how close they are to subway stops and even bus stations. Boston is a small city compared to most, but it’s the data point I have.

    • Anthony says:

      The problem is the BART stations in downtown San Francisco, and in Oakland. It seems that most of the issue is that BART allows vagrants, the mentally ill, and petty criminals to congregate on BART property. Some of this leaks into the paid areas of the stations, but that’s mostly after hours. The unpleasantness of the BART ride proper would be massively ameliorated with better air-conditioning, better soundproofing, and more frequent trains during commute times. But even a nice ride on the train doesn’t make up for having to walk your bike through a shit-covered walkway a half-a-block long, as a coworker of mine did for a while.

      • mtl1882 says:

        Boston has some of this, but it seems way worse in San Francisco. I’m not quite sure why that is. I know warmer weather means more homeless people, but it seems like San Francisco has an obligation, if only due to its own self-interest, to come up with some moderately appealing shelters where people can go at least part of the day. They can’t do things like permit people with addiction issues from entering, because most of them probably have issues with addiction. But it seems like providing bathrooms would help. Some mentally ill people won’t want to enter the shelter. That is fine, if they are not dangerous – it may make you uncomfortable to hear someone talk to themselves, but there’s no right to be free of them. If they are dangerous or clearly not able to take care of themselves, it shouldn’t be impossible to get them evaluated. I realize it’s not an easy fix, but all this makes it sound like San Francisco isn’t even trying to deal with the issue. Maybe I’m wrong and there are other factors at play. Perhaps for some reason SF is just overwhelmed with homeless people, which I’ve heard, although I’m not quite sure why. If it’s a case of other communities dumping them there, then it’s a disgrace to all of them. There will always be chronically homeless people – most probably suffer from severe mental illness. Every community has this issue to some extent, and it won’t ever go away. I’m baffled by the descriptions of how out of control it is.

        Of course, crime will be present, but it can certainly be managed. The comments about police have been kind of bizarre in this thread. I don’t think they mind driving by train stops and campus areas at night to make their presence known. And they don’t follow up on property theft because those things are usually very hard to solve, and if they do get solved it would probably be through a long stakeout investigation, and they don’t have the time. Now that I think of it, it seems kind of strange, but I would almost never call the police due to theft, other than of a car, and I’m surprised at how many do report it. Unless you know who took it or that it is part of a crime wave, or you can track it through GPS, it just sucks. In my building we have little lockers in the basement – I’ve never used mine and have no lock for it. Someone went in through mine, got into my neighbors and stripped her bike. I felt really bad, but I thought it was weird she called the police – what would they do? I suppose pull surveillance tape, but I never heard more of it. It seems like it would be someone in the building, but it would be hard to prove.

  16. DS says:

    Unfortunately, the post’s numbers are based on a badly unrepresentative sample. 2008-2015 is right after the housing bust. This sample looks at housing construction at the single lowest period it’s ever been in modern American history.

    The post tries to generalize from 2008-2015 to answer “how fast could we build.” But that’s like measuring unemployment in 2009-2011 or 1930-1934, and using it to answer how many people could have a job!

    Even in Texas and California, they used to build a lot more apartment buildings than they do. The peak of American construction seems to have been 1965-1985. New construction permits in that period in (e.g.) California appears to have been about 3-4 times the rate of today. That’s more than fast enough to meet the standard set in your post.

    Meanwhile, New York City has been seriously limiting new construction since about 1960, which makes citing Manhattan prices as evidence that allowing construction doesn’t work exactly backwards. (Fun fact: the NYT did an article showing that 40% of Manhattan’s already-existing buildings would be illegal to build today.)

    If you want dense with lots of current construction, try Seoul, South Korea. There, rent-to-income is about 35% of average national income.

    That’s equivalent to an SF Bay Area with a median rent of $2,000 a month (~35% of average California income), as against current typical rent of about $3,000/mo (~50% of average California income).

    So if the Bay Area were as pro-housing as Seoul, over time you might cut housing prices by a third, and get a lot more people in.

    (Note you should compare national or state-level incomes, not city incomes. That way you correct for people currently kept out by rental costs. If you compare SF rents only to SF incomes, you underestimate the costs inflicted.)

    (Also you should ideally look at the SF Bay Area, not SF proper, or you get weird boundary effects since San Francisco proper and other equivalent-sized entities are usually part of much larger metro areas.)

    Personally I think the good NIMBY arguments are these:

    1) Cutting housing prices by a third is big, but not the biggest thing in the world, and it’d take a long time.

    2) Good density requires good public services, and it’s easy to lack confidence that modern cities will responsibly provide those upgraded services. You can stop crime at BART stations with enough police, but do you really think cities will invest enough to do that? They are, as this post points out, not investing enough in those services already. Are we going to cross our fingers and hope that it’ll get better after more density gets it even worse?

    3) If you like living in a suburb, pro-density zoning may force you to move every twenty years. You might plan on selling your now-more-valuable house to afford that. But what if you’re unlucky enough to have the first neighborhood house next to a new apartment tower? Then density can make you a financial loser, not a winner. Good legislation could compensate you for these losses, but do you really think cities write their laws well enough to do that?

    4) Telecommuting is getting more viable every year. “Moving to your job” may be as outmoded as “driving your own car” in a generation. We should be cautious about making large commitments for what might be an outdated model.

    My response to these tends to be: people hate moving, yet they’re willing to pay a huge premium to live in these cities. Doesn’t that tell you there’s a lot of value to society in making more of that possible? And if building public services to match growing cities was feasible for us fifty years ago, why should we call it impossible today?

    More urbanization in a country is good even for measured economic growth, let alone non-measurable things like “meeting people like you to fall in love with.” We should find ways to address the (real even when limited) NIMBY problems, not use them as an excuse for inaction.

    • Garrett says:

      Why is it that the two organizations you’d think are most amenable to telecommuting, Google and the US Federal Government, seem to be the ones which gather the most centralization. Google’s at least building more offices everywhere. But the Federal Government insists on having everything in and around DC when so much of that could be pushed to other locations.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        A nontrivial fraction of the federal government work around DC involves classified secrets (military, NSA, CIA, FBI, etc.), or working with other people’s personal data (too many agencies to name).

        Letting people telecommute to a job that involves working with classified or even confidential material, when you don’t really have any control over the security of their home computer setups, sounds like it has the potential to go horribly awry.

        I mean, that doesn’t explain ALL parts of the Federal government, but it does explain some.

    • christianschwalbach says:

      Couple Nitpicks here- the growth rate in Post WW2 US was heavily influenced by the growth of the (then brand new concept) suburbs, and you had large growth in manufacturing at least in the first few post ww2 decades, so Cities like Detroit and others grew suburbs commiserate with manufacturing, also there was a shift towards growth in the West, and the continued trend of Great Migration effects in Northern Cities, which allowed for much more widespread growth. Modern growth seems to be more concentrated in a few urban areas, and is in many cases industry specific esp. in regards to tech.
      You write “My response to these tends to be: people hate moving, yet they’re willing to pay a huge premium to live in these cities. Doesn’t that tell you there’s a lot of value to society in making more of that possible?” …..wouldnt this be a good argument for spreading out growth rather than concentrating it in cities?

  17. Atlas says:

    Having read Matt Yglesias’ book The Rent is Too Damn High and Ed Glaeser’s book The Triumph of the City a few years ago, I thought the YIMBY case was pretty solid, so I was surprised to see this post. But, having read through it, I feel like Scott pretty much concedes most of the substantive ground on each point and can’t find a way to honestly make a good case for NIMBYism over YIMBYism, which makes me kind of wonder what the point of writing this essay was. Scott says that he’s encountered some really annoying YIMBYs and wants to annoy them, even though he grants that much of what they say make sense. Fair enough, but I feel like if I was a smug, passionate YIMBY and I read this essay I would just feel more smug and self-satisfied at the end: “AHA! My cause is so righteous and logical that even the great Scott Alexander himself fighting at full power could hardly put a dent in its armor!!!!”

    As Pyrrhus might have said if he were a poster rather than a general, “One more such steelman for our position and we will have lost the argument.”

    1. San Francisco is uniquely terrible at building new housing

    Me: but wait (among other things) wouldn’t the steelman YIMBY position here be…

    This might be an unfair objection, because the YIMBY argument might be that San Francisco is uniquely terrible at responding to demand for new housing, and this may be true.

    So you…agree with YIMBYs that it seems like SF has an exceptionally high ratio of demand for housing space relative to new housing construction?

    2. Building more housing in San Francisco is an easy way to lower rents

    I feel that “easy” is really doing a lot of work here. This is like if someone wrote an anti-EA essay arguing: “Those annoying smug Effective Altruists say that saving lives is really cheap. One of their favorite arguments is the drowning child parable, which asks if you would/should save a drowning child at the cost of ruining your suit.

    But actually the average suit at Men’s Wearhouse costs $300, while—with lots of caveats and hand-wringing and such—GiveWell’s top rated charity, the Against Malaria Foundation, is estimated to require about $3,300 to save a life. So it actually costs 11x more than the hypothetical suit in the misleading parable to save a life. Take that, EAs!”

    And it’s like…uh, ok, sure, maybe someone on Twitter or in the Facebook comments section is overly aggressive relative to what the data suggest, but the correct conclusion is still pretty much the same, and most of the prominent people who have written books or articles about the subject are well aware of this.

    For instance, a really typical statement of the YIMBY case was Timothy B. Lee’s article in Vox, “The case for making New York and San Francisco much, much bigger.” Lee says:

    How much richer could better housing laws make the country? In a 2015 study, Moretti and co-author Chang-Tai Hsieh estimated that fully eliminating restrictive housing regulations could boost the output of the US economy by 13.5 percent.

    However, that number is worth treating with considerable skepticism. To capture those large gains, more than half of the US population would need to relocate. New York City would have to grow eightfold — making it far larger than any city in the world right now. And the American city would lose 80 percent of its population. Obviously that’s not realistic.

    But even in a less extreme scenario in which 10 percent of the US population moves to higher-paying cities, Moretti and Hsieh estimate that the US GDP would be boosted by 3.4 percent, or almost $2,000 per American.

    3. But at least building more housing will make things a little better, and it certainly can’t make them worse, right?

    Devon Zuegel points out that we’re really not sure if that’s true. Why does Manhattan have higher land values than Kansas? Because people want to live where other people (and jobs) are. The denser you make a city, the more other people and jobs will be there, and the higher the land values will get.

    So, increasing density in SF could make things worse, because…it will increase the economic benefits of living and working in SF? Enrico Moretti’s book the New Geography of Jobs did a good job explaining that there are a lot of positive effects that come from people living and working next to each other in big cities.

    4. Holdouts who oppose development are inexcusably selfish, or hate poor people, or are racist

    This is the point I am most sympathetic to, but I feel like it’s hard to effectively argue for it within the taboos imposed on the conversation by the current paradigm for thinking about differences between groups of people. From the perspective of the people who define the publicly acceptable conversation on these issues, yes, to some extent saying “I want to live in a safe and orderly environment with other law-abiding people” is a signal that you are racist and hate poor people.

    You just can’t win this argument unless you’re willing to fundamentally challenge the idea of racism/classism. Arguments that go “no, you’re the real [noun for bigot ending in -ist]”, which I feel like is kind of what the point about neurotypical misperception is, always lose, because they’ve conceded the high ground of the battle to their opponents, which is that whoever gets to call their opponent an -ist and makes it stick the best wins. (Possibly, as per the Meditation on Superweapons that Scott wrote a while ago, “racism” is a pattern-matching epistemic superweapon. You need to destroy the superweapon to be safe, not run in terror and hope you make it to the nearest bunker in time whenever it shoots a missile.)

    5. Even if building more housing doesn’t lower costs, it will at least allow the people who want to live in San Francisco to do so.

    A fair point about retroactive “even if…” being bad. But I feel like in terms of the economics of the issue, lowering rents and allowing people to move to SF are good outcomes for the same reason (there are positive gains from voluntary trade that would occur if the government wasn’t restricting this market.) So I don’t necessarily think that this is just an arbitrary leap.

    5b. Okay, sorry. Oops, I was wrong about the housing prices. Now that I’ve said that, don’t you also think that building more housing would at least allow the people who want to live in San Francisco to do so?

    This is a good and important point, and I think the strongest one in the YIMBY arsenal. I am not really against it, but I can think of one kind of speculative argument that sort of challenges it in part.

    I’m not 100% opposed to considering this idea (though right now based on what I’ve read I think it’s more likely wrong than right), but is this kind of admitted speculation that only partly challenges the main YIMBY argument really worthy of being called a steelman of the NIMBY argument? Because if so, it seems like a big nail in the intellectual NIMBY coffin.

    Also, isn’t this argument kind of similar to the policies that were critiqued in Seeing Like a State? That is to say, instead of letting cities grow or decline as people freely associate and do business with one another, we’ve seen a flaw from looking at the situation from on high, so we’re going to tell people—well, not tell them, but pass a regulation here, raise a tax there—-what kinds of cities they should organize into?

    6. There are no alternatives

    I’m not sure this one is wrong.

    Well, me neither. I agree that things will probably continue to suck no matter what, but they would probably suck somewhat less if some YIMBY policies were implemented, which is more than you say confidently about a lot of other proposed policies.

    • Bugmaster says:

      “One more such steelman for our position and we will have lost the argument.”

      This might be off-topic, but generally speaking, don’t you want to lose the argument if it turns out your position is factually wrong ?

      • Tarpitz says:

        Only if what you’re interested in is being right. People frequently have emotional, financial or other investments in one side of an argument that provide strong incentives for them to want that side to win, regardless of the facts.

      • Atlas says:

        Sure. “We may hold different positions at different hours, but may always be said to be on the side of the truth.” But Scott wrote in the introduction that he’s found many YIMBYs to be really annoying (I have no reason to doubt his personal experience) and wanted to write a steelman of their enemies’ position to piss them off.

        In which case, at least a part of you doesn’t want to lose the argument. ‘

      • Simon_Jester says:

        You want to win the argument, but honorably in fair combat. You don’t want to win because the “steelman” you constructed was significantly weaker than it could have been- that is to say, a balsawoodman, even if not an outright strawman. The complaint here is that Scott, having set out to construct a steelman, instead constructed a balsawoodman. Something that looks durable at first glance and isn’t outright straw, but which will not stand up well under stress.

        Now, Atlas…

        Regarding point (1), I’m a bit confused. I don’t think you actually addressed Scott’s claim. Scott’s claim is that San Francisco actually has something like an average rate of new housing construction by national standards, and is NOT in fact uniquely terrible. Of course, by this point Scott has amended or partially withdrawn that argument, so I don’t know whether to keep zeroing in on it.

        Regarding (3), well, at that point the argument is that building more housing may not fix RENT, specifically. Because demand for housing in the middle of a city interacts strangely with supply ad demand and can’t just be modeled as “more supply will cause price point to fall,” and if that were the way it worked then New Yorkwould not have been the birthplace of the The Rent Is Too Damn High Party.

        More housing might or might not fix other problems; that’s addressed elsewhere or not at all.

        Regarding (5b), yes, there’s a Seeing Like a State issue here, but there’s also a Meditations on Moloch issue here. Because “almost everyone in the country moves into three or four very crowded megacities because of economic forces, and almost everyone hates it there because of the crowding and other problems” is a CLASSIC example of the sort of quasi-unforced error a society may commit thanks to Moloch.

        [For any viewers who don’t know who I mean by Moloch, that’s not the literal Phoenician deity, or even the bad-PR version of him the Israelites talked about. Moloch, in SSC parlance, is a metonym for the concept of sacrificing terminal goals and values, for short-term benefits you need in order to survive and overcome competition. He is, as it were, the god of making yourself and everyone around you miserable in the long term, as “the cost of doing business” from day to day.]

        Anyway.

        Basically, the role of the state in society is to look at the situation from fifty thousand feet up and go “wait, this situation sucks, let’s find a regulation that ends this terrible situation.” Sometimes the terrible situation is “local nobility and merchants have turned weights and measures in the country into a demented hodgepodge, institute the metric system.” Sometimes it’s “the market has incentivized everyone to delay having children until they’re forty and a lot of women in particular are struggling with it, institute better support for mothers.”

        Sometimes it’s “the market is incentivizing everyone to move into a single megalopolis in an admittedly pretty part of the country, but a loooot of people hate it there and have to sacrifice job opportunities of any satisfying kind if they DON’T want to live in that specific megalopolis.” At which point the solution is ???

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      I will say again: the prototypical NIMBY is not a wealthy Park Slope resident who just wants to keep their brownstone neighborhood the same for aesthetic reasons. The prototypical NIMBY is a poor activist of color who is fighting to stay in their neighborhood as the wave of gentrification steamrolls through.

      • Brad says:

        So what? Does that means we shouldn’t rezone Park Slope, because “people of color” in Brownsville are allied with them?

      • cryptoshill says:

        Sure. I’m not sure whether you’re sympathetic to that poor activist of color or not. My major problem with that kind of “activism” is that it’s usually for stuff like rent control and eviction restrictions – which hurts *everyone but the poor activist of color* to benefit them. The sympathy value of “poor activists of color” seems to be so strong that I can’t even manage to get other people to pattern-match it to rent-seeking.

        • Brad says:

          They may advocate for rent control and eviction restrictions, but at least in NYC it isn’t what they get. Instead its (rarely) blocking new development entirely. Usually allowing reduced scale new development in exchange for some pork that sometimes benefits activists (e.g. community centers) but often doesn’t necessarily benefit anyone in that particular community (e.g. sub-market rental units given away by lottery).

      • Atlas says:

        Good point, although I don’t know enough about the issue to say which kind of people are more politically powerful and I think the policies advocated by such activists are probably mostly counterproductive.

      • The Nybbler says:

        It’s baptists and bootleggers (though I suppose referring to ad execs who do Seagrams campaigns as “bootleggers” is stretching the point). Your poor activists of color have shared interests with your wealthy Park Slope residents, for different reasons. I don’t think either one is “prototypical”.

        On the other hand, your prototypical “YIMBY” is someone who either doesn’t live in the city but wants to, or is living N people to an apartment and wants to reduce N somewhat or at least reduce the rent. So it’s not really “my back yard” to them, more like “YIYBY”.

        • yodelyak says:

          YIYBY is exactly what it is! What a great acronym!

          That’s sort of my position. I read idiosyncraticwhisk pretty regularly, and am quite persuaded that the whole U.S. economy is being held back badly by a failure to build, especially in closed-access cities… but I think this post by our host has gone a long way to make me stop and wonder if NIMBY is the problem, or if there’s something else (a more conventional market failure) at work here. I’m putting my thought there in a parent-level comment.

          • 天可汗 says:

            Having lived for a while in a suburb that was slated to get new development and was very unhappy about this, and having observed why it was so unhappy about this, I think a lot of the “failure to build” comes down to the failure to preserve order, and the failure of a lot of the American population to meet basic standards of decency.

            This would explain why Japan doesn’t have that problem.

      • stucchio says:

        A lot of other anti-migration activists are poor/lower middle class white folks fighting against economic competition as the wave of Mexican immigration steamrolls through.

        Do you feel a similar level of solidarity with them? If not, why not?

        Incidentally, I do quite agree with you that the wealthy park slope residents trying to preserve their property value are allied with/hiding behind the poor activists of color you are citing. No disagreement there.

      • DocKaon says:

        NIMBY drives gentrification. If rich people can’t buy nice, shiny new apartments/houses in rich neighborhoods, they’ll buy cheap, crappy apartments/houses in poor neighborhoods and renovate them, eventually driving up prices and driving out the original residents. Nimbyism keeps the physical buildings of the neighborhood the same, but it results in pushing out the existing population in favor of the wealthy. Barring a socialist revolution, the wealthy will always be able to outbid the poor for housing. The only plausible solution is to lower the cost of housing as much as possible by actually building it. Not fight a doomed rearguard action against the full force of the market.

      • Urstoff says:

        Do you think NIMBY policies prevent or slow gentrification?

      • Sebastian_H says:

        Do you have stats to back that up? There haven’t been enough poor black families in SF to be prototypical anything unless you are using a very odd definition.

      • grendelkhan says:

        On what do you base this? The NIMBYs I’ve seen at my local planning meetings (too-small town in the Bay Area) have been overwhelmingly older, white, single-family homeowners who believe it’s very important to note the number of years they’ve lived there, and who are primarily concerned about, in descending order (a) property values, (b) free parking and low traffic, (c) homeless people and “noise”, which may be a euphemism. Pretty much what you’d see on @nextdoorsv.

        I don’t live in a gentrifying neighborhood, so maybe I’m missing these activists, who would have totally been on board with a mass upzoning around transit if they’d been consulted first. But the incentives around rent control and Prop 13 are disturbingly similar–people who were there first pulling up the ladder after themselves, trying to close the neighborhood’s borders because they don’t want it to change. (Building more reduces displacement, source here.)

        I guess I’d feel similarly if I’d worked hard for my little piece of the landed aristocracy, especially if I were cash-poor, especially if my incredibly valuable sinecure of a rent-controlled apartment couldn’t be cashed out like a Prop 13 house. But I hope I wouldn’t mistake that feeling for principle.

      • disciplinaryarbitrage says:

        The prototypical NIMBY, if you have even one foot outside the NYC/SF bubble, is neither a rich white urbanite nor a poor non-white urbanite, but an upper-middle class suburbanite rattling off talking points at a Zoning Commission hearing about how a low-rise apartment building will make traffic so much worse on Highway A, and our kids have played in that wooded lot for generations, and my daughter’s classroom has 28 kids this year already and you want to send more children there, and and and…

        The Bay Area is uniquely fucked up as housing markets go, but it would be much easier to set aside that problem if housing prices weren’t marching upwards in nearly every reasonably nice second or third-tier city across the US (and Canada). The face of that national-scale problem is middle-class homeowners.

      • Rob K says:

        I can’t speak to NYC, but my experience in Boston (where I try to get off my ass to at least do something about development politics, although I’m not super-involved) is that the wealthy white NIMBY stereotype is exactly true, and, moreover, the development they’re stopping is the sort of infill in already gentrifying areas that might prevent displacement elsewhere in the city.

        Recent examples in my area:
        -Developer proposed a 5 story set of condo buildings on a lot that the city had sold near me (was previously some sort of storage lot); after people objected at community meetings it got knocked down to 4 stories, loss of I think 6 total units.
        -There’s a house at the end of my street, which is mostly apartment buildings and triple deckers; it’s an 1860 Victorian. A developer bought the lot and wants to build 9 units in 3 triple deckers; local activists want it preserved for historic reasons. If it’s preserved the result will be one $2.5 million or so unit instead of 9 $400,000 or so units.

        I live in an area that has an unusual amount of undeveloped/industrial land for a hopping residential neighborhood, so I probably see more of these – 5-10 similar stories a year in my area seems right – than would be the case elsewhere. But still, each of these results in less marginal housing.

        I make the point frequently when talking to YIMBY-inclined people that we need to have the hard, good fight of developing in already-wealthy areas, not the easy, bad fight of kicking poor neighborhoods around, and while I’m sure there are people who are doing the bad thing, my point is generally met receptively.

    • gwern says:

      So, increasing density in SF could make things worse, because…it will increase the economic benefits of living and working in SF? Enrico Moretti’s book the New Geography of Jobs did a good job explaining that there are a lot of positive effects that come from people living and working next to each other in big cities.

      Yeah, that was my problem with #3’s summary. ‘It might not lower housing prices on net, all it might do is fail by creating billions or trillions of dollars in compounding new wealth through greater economic efficiency in a vital technological hub.’ Oh, is that all? Sounds like a pretty good way to fail.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        It’s….really not a good way to fail.
        We’re only having this conversation because of the following:
        Wages: High
        Rent: Really High

        If these two do not change, then the average person SF resident is not better off. If the average SF resident is not better off, then there is no way the marginal resident SF better off. So why are more people moving to SF, since the move is making them WORSE off (compared to today)?

        Because Super-SF sucked up jobs from somewhere else. People aren’t moving to SF because it’s better, they are moving from SF because their alternatives are now worse (because those places lost their jobs to SF).

        Someone is making billions, but it sure isn’t the relocated workers in this hypothetical scenario.

        Note: I don’t believe this above scenario can happen. However, given the large number of people who regularly believe markets fail in large and important ways, it surprises me no one else is making this argument, especially since it’s basically “1% screws over the middle class again!” It makes me think urbanism is married to political center-left in unhealthy ways.

        • Brad says:

          I think that’s a weird–incorrect–way to think about jobs. (Some thing with “took our jobs” and similar.) They aren’t some random piece of movable property like a diamond ring or rolex watch or something that was in St. Louis but now all of a sudden is in San Fransisco. Companies, ultimately investors, have to pay a lot more money in San Fransisco than they would in St. Louis. That is to say that people that are putting their money where their mouths are (unlike most of us here) very much think that more value is going to be created in SF than SL. If they are right some of that value is inevitably going to spill over, no company can come even close to capturing all of it.

          Yes, it isn’t a Pareto improvement, but the pie is definitely bigger when SF “sucks up” jobs, and all those extra slices aren’t just ending up in Zuckerberg’s pockets. Even he isn’t that rich.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            It’s a weird way to think about economic activity, but who cares? From my POV there are all sorts of weird ways people think about economic activity, and this wouldn’t even rank among the top 50%.

            For instance, there are people who seriously and honestly think that virtually all economic growth since 1973 has been captured by the top 10/1/.1%…and that seems to be the consensus left and close to consensus center-left view. That’s $12 trillion of GDP. So if you think the Elites have captured almost all economic growth from 1973 onwards, or 1980 onwards, you should absolutely think that growing San Francisco’s growth will probably ALSO go to the Elites, and the above-described mechanic is completley plausible. Your prior should probably be that the average person would be worse off.

  18. Bugmaster says:

    Is our social technology just totally unable to deal with the problem of “how can we let people who want to live in a medium-density suburb live in a medium-density suburb?”

    Yes, in the same way that our astrophysics technology is just totally unable to deal with the problem of “how can I travel faster than light ?”. As you point out later in the article, there are massive economic advantages to centralization. As long as such advantages exist, economic pressure will build up behind the impetus to consume more suburbs and subsume them into the city center. You can temporarily resist this pressure with “thin bright lines” or government regulation or Twitter mobs or whatever, but eventually you will fail, because the pressure is constantly increasing.

    In the absence of the Singularity or some other black swan event, Earth will become Coruscant eventually, because this is the most efficient arrangement of humans in 4d space-time. There’s nothing you, me, or anyone else can do about it.

    • Nornagest says:

      You sound awfully confident of that, considering the dynamics you describe have only really kicked into high gear in the last thirty years or so.

      • Bugmaster says:

        What do you mean ? These dynamics kicked in since the invention of agriculture (and trade); I agree that they are much stronger now than in the past, but that’s just because human productive output increases exponentially over time (give or take a few black swans). Villages turn into cities, cities turn into city-states, city-states turn into empires, empires build bigger and bigger cities, etc.

        • Nornagest says:

          We’re more urbanized than we’ve ever been, and that trend shows no sign of changing, but “urbanized” is one thing and the exact shape of urbanization is another. It may in fact consist of living in a medium-density suburb, and forty years ago, medium-density suburbs were thriving while city centers were hollowing out. That could happen again. Or the next trend could be towards something else, e.g. Parisian-style dense low-rise apartments. It isn’t a fact of life that all cities are eventually going to look like Manhattan; that’s contingent on culture, politics, and infrastructure.

          • Bugmaster says:

            and forty years ago, medium-density suburbs were thriving while city centers were hollowing out

            Is that actually true ? I’m not being snarky, I genuinely don’t know — I was living in a different country then.

            It isn’t a fact of life that all cities are eventually going to look like Manhattan; that’s contingent on culture, politics, and infrastructure.

            I’m not convinced that’s true. I agree completely that culture etc. plays a role; geography and history do as well (most capital European cities are based around an ancient city center, AFAIK). However, all those things are just temporary barriers to total urbanization.

            Ultimately, a skyscraper is more efficient at housing humans (and maximizing their economic output) than a country house. AFAIK even Paris has been growing steadily over the years, and I don’t believe the trend is likely to reverse.

            Your best option is, as Scott said, to keep moving away from your former suburbs into new suburbs further out on the edge… Hopefully, by the time there are no more edges left, moving off-world becomes an option (though “hope” and “most probable outcome” are rarely the same thing).

      • Lasagna says:

        This. I’m 40, and I remember a time when everyone was FLEEING NYC because it had become unlivable. What makes you think that dynamic can never come back?

        • albatross11 says:

          Indeed, being unable to keep a handle on crime and panhandling and homeless crazy people crapping on the street is a *great* way to make a city unlivable and drive people away.

        • grendelkhan says:

          Unless we start poisoning people with lead again, or gross incompetence leads to a serious breakdown of services, I don’t see that happening.

          (Though New York City seems to really be trying for the latter.)

    • Cerastes says:

      There’s an easy fix to it, and the day Earth even starts to look like Coruscant, we should take it: drop the remaining smallpox into the world-city’s water supply and let that sort it out. The fastest way to counter such a nightmare world is just to lop a few zeroes off the human population.

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      It seems like no one in this thread realizes that population growth slows, stops, and eventually reverses as populations industrialize, and there is no way to be so heavily urbanized without being that wealthy. World population is going to peak long before we look like Ravnica, let alone Coruscant.

      • christianschwalbach says:

        yeah you bring up a good point about population growth slowdown. Granted, they have unique cultural factors, but wouldnt Japan be the leading example here? Both growth slowdown and urbanization?

        • ana53294 says:

          The Japanese countryside is becoming more empty. There are plenty of villages with only old people.

          The same thing is happening in Spain.

          • CatCube says:

            The same thing is happening in the US, as well. The small town I grew up in is aging rapidly.

  19. watsonbladd says:

    Ever been to Manhattan? Or Tokyo?

    The problems with shit on the street and needles and BART safety aren’t a result of population: SF isn’t that dense compared to places like Paris or Brooklyn. It’s a result of our lackadaisical approach to public safety: that person shouting abuse at people easily could be arrested, but for some reason our police forces don’t do it. Likewise with city services and arresting people for public defecation: we could, we just don’t.

    Rationalists centralize because there aren’t that many of them. Jews have thriving centers in many world cities and Israel because there are enough to have a viable pocket in many cities. And still there are all sorts of conveniences in NYC that don’t exist elsewhere.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Personal anecdote: on our first day in UC Berkeley, we had an orientation lecture with a representative of the local police office. He said,

      1). If you have a bicycle, it will be stolen. It doesn’t matter how clever you get with bike locks, it doesn’t matter if you unscrew the front wheel and take it with you. It will get stolen. Buy a cheap bike. The Berkeley Police does not pursue bike theft cases in any way shape or form, as a matter of official policy.

      2). If you live off-campus, your apartment will be broken into, and your stuff will be stolen. Get cheaper stuff. Technically the Berkeley Police does pursue such cases, but in practice we have bigger issues to worry about, so we won’t.

      3). If you walk around certain places at night, or even during the day, you will get mugged, raped, or murdered. We will pursue such cases to the best of our ability. Our current backlog is 3 months.

      4). Yes, you in the back, what’s your question ? No, we cannot and will not do anything about homeless people, as a matter of official policy and also lack of resources. We’ve got months and months worth of murders to investigate.

      • Doug S. says:

        It sounds like they need to hire a lot more police officers.

        • grendelkhan says:

          Service calls rose 10% 2012-2018, while the department is having a manpower crisis. They have the budget for 181 officers, but were running with 130 as of this February.

          Police reformers have questioned, too, whether the smaller force is actually a problem, and said it makes sense for Berkeley to look into “civilianizing” a number of roles officers have traditionally played. They note that crime trends overall in recent decades have been on the decline, and say Berkeley should spend less money on policing and more on grassroots solutions for mental health and homeless services, as well as disaster preparedness.

          Berkeley is a strange, strange place.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            Deputizing needs to be done in some of these places. Of course, the problem is most such places also make it politically unfeasible because politicians can barely let people own guns without getting lynched.

      • Randy M says:

        This all seems like the kind of information that should be given out well in advance of orientation. Like, in a bright red flyer included with the application packet, or as a giant pop-up on the website. Anything else is basically collusion.

      • rakhalchele says:

        I accidentally clicked the report button on this comment and could not find a mechanic to undo this. My apologies to the moderator.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        How long ago was this?

      • shakeddown says:

        Can confirm the bike thing from personal experience. Anywhere in the bay area, the expected lifetime of a bike is 6 months tops.

    • Brad says:

      The police in major American cities are essentially on strike. One side is happy about that because they don’t think that policing in necessary in the first place. The other side may not be happy about it, but unconditionally support the police–they think that it is reasonable for police to go on strike after the people dared to respectfully request that they not to kill people without any justification.

      I feel like I’m living in a funhouse.

      • ana53294 says:

        I don’t think there is anybody who would object to a better policing system if you could manage to do it without putting people in jail for not being able to afford a 100$ bail for public urination, and without accidentally killing innocent people.

        • Brad says:

          What do *you* think should be the response to public urination, and how does it avoid the end game of the streets as public bathrooms?

          • ana53294 says:

            Community work cleaning up the city for a week for first offenders, or a 1,000$ fine.

          • Brad says:

            And if you don’t show up for the community work or pay the fine? Because that’s something that is definitely going to happen.

          • Matt M says:

            And if they don’t report to their assigned community work?

            If they can’t/won’t pay the fine?

          • Randy M says:

            Sometimes the stars align…

          • albatross11 says:

            Probably locking people up for vagrancy, public urination/defecation, disturbing the peace, etc., until the homeless crazy people all either are locked up somewhere or have learned to keep a lid on their crazy to avoid the notice of the cops.

          • Brad says:

            In NYC we, by law, have sufficient shelter beds for everyone that needs one. I don’t think it is unreasonable to insist that people: 1) find an actual apartment to live in, 2) live in one of those free shelters, 3) live in some kind of mental facilities, or 4) be arrested an in jail.

            I don’t see any obligation for we as a society to allow people to use our public spaces as bedrooms and bathrooms. And if you don’t have 4 there as a final resort (or a much more aggressive 3 than I feel comfortable with) I think that’s where you are going to end up.

          • grendelkhan says:

            The problem in California is that because housing is so tight, there isn’t shelter space. So the cops sweep everyone off the street, and then they… go back to the street, because there’s nowhere else for them to be.

            I’d be a lot more comfortable with the sweeps if we were providing an actual choice between living in a shelter and getting arrested. At this point, it’s getting arrested or also getting arrested.

          • Brad says:

            The problem in California is that because housing is so tight, there isn’t shelter space.

            Because space is so tight or bad public policy? I mean in what sense is it tighter than NYC?

      • cryptoshill says:

        @Brad – The idea that anyone is “respectfully requesting” the police not “kill people without any justification” is far too charitable to the Blue Tribe. Chanting about killing cops is accepted practice at these protests, and meanwhile the police aren’t really “shooting people without justification” all that often. https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2015/10/24/on-duty-under-fire/?utm_term=.4b019c25d2aa

        Under these conditions, I could see a line that is “the political situation is too dodgy for us to reliably do our jobs, so we just won’t, because while we want to have a safe, nice, clean city where the homeless don’t attack people on the street – we like not being in the middle of a political firestorm and keeping our jobs more”

        • Brad says:

          If they don’t want to do their jobs, they should quit. Of course that would mean giving up their lavish compensation, including their ridiculous pensions.

          If it was any other public sector union that was on a de facto strike, you guys would be the first ones screaming for mass firings. But because its men with guns and uniforms all of a sudden y’all sound like Samuel Gompers.

          • gbdub says:

            Don’t include me in your “y’all” because I actually agree with you here.

            As far as public sector unions go, police are some of the biggest abusers of the worst policies so I see no reason they shouldn’t be targeted for cuts.

            And while I’m much less convinced it’s because of racism full stop than the average blue triber, I agree that cops shoot too many people, and that cops in general are trained to be (and not punished for being) too paranoid – training them to be less paranoid would slightly increase the number of dead cops but significantly decrease the number of civilians shot by cops.

            EDIT: I should add though that I am somewhat sympathetic with cryptoshill in that the “asking” often wasn’t very respectful (and in fact was downright violent) in the places where cops are “on strike”. It was hard to distinguish “hey, be more careful shooting people” from general “fuck the police”. It would take a saint to not to have a little bit of “fine, if you don’t want me here, wallow in your own damn crime”.

          • Brad says:

            Sure, some of the cheers at the rallies aren’t totally sane. But what seems to really piss cops off (see e.g. Chicago) is a cop put on trial for murdering someone when the evidence is that the cop murdered someone. Even someone getting fired for–manslaughter at best–infuriates them. In their minds this seemingly justifies their de facto strike.

            That’s ridiculous. If this was 1980s Ulster and police officers were routinely being picked off on the street by their enemies, then fine they aren’t going to be patrolling as much. But “when I’m out on the street people say mean things so I’m not going out on the street” is total bullshit. Look at the over all comp packages (including net present value of pensions). These are very highly compensated jobs, they can deal with a little bit of hostility from the public.

            Edit: And I’ll be glad to exclude you from the y’all.

          • cryptoshill says:

            1. You are asking a group of people that lose 12 -18 years of compensation (because public servant compensation isn’t that lavish except for those ridiculous pensions you mention, and you only get those if you meet a certain years-of-service bar) to voluntarily quit because they are afraid that doing their job will lead to their firing by people who are politically motivated against them. This is an extremely false choice.

            2. What do you mean “you people”? – I am strongly pro-union, I am against mandatory unionization (the process by which 3 people decide to start a union chapter and therefore the whole shop is now union whether the workers or the management likes it or not)? The Janus decision was a good thing, but that doesn’t mean I’m a moral monster that doesn’t think people have a right to negotiate for wages.

          • gbdub says:

            Right, I think the “good cops protect bad cops” stuff is bullshit and needs to stop. “There was a vague rumor of a gun and he looked like he might be reaching for his waistband” needs to stop being sufficient justification for unloading a clip into a guy.

            I do think you’re underselling a bit though – communities were demanding less aggressive policing, and are getting less aggressive policing. But some of that policing might have actually been working. The tradeoff for cops hassling good people less is that they hassle the crooks less too. Communities are being less cooperative with police, and fewer crimes get solved.

            I don’t know how you fix this – I suspect effective policing in a high crime area either requires being really aggressive OR a really cooperative community that has a good relationship with the cops. Instead you’ve got “fuck the police” and “snitches get stitches”. Police aggression can be dialed up or down relatively quickly, but building the community relationship takes a long time and is fragile. In the interim crime is going to go up if aggression is dialed down.

          • albatross11 says:

            Brad:

            I think you may be right about the police in some specific places (Ferguson, Chicago, Baltimore). But is there any reason to think that the police in San Francisco are effectively on strike? ISTM that the problem in SF / Berkeley is that the political leadership of those cities has decided not to enforce the law.

          • Brad says:

            @albatross11
            No, I don’t really know much of anything about SF specifically. They may have their own special snowflake fucked up situation. It wouldn’t be the first time.

        • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

          Annual police killing rate per million people:
          US blacks 7
          US whites 3
          Israeli Arabs 2.3
          Canada 0.7
          France 0.2
          Germany 0.1
          UK 0.04
          Israeli Jews 0.03
          Even white people are killed by US police at higher rates than other developed countries’ oppressed minorities. And the US doesn’t even get a lower crime rate in exchange. (This isn’t just a result of exogenous higher crime rates either; in the US police commit about 5% of homicides while in the UK more like 0.3%.) US police are for the most part shit at their jobs, in both the false-negative and false-positive directions.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            Why would you compare the US to countries that don’t look anything like the US? Demography is incredibly important.

            Brazil is a 20 on that score, and the US is basically halfway between Brazil and Canada when it comes to large countries, demographically speaking.

      • The police in major American cities are essentially on strike.

        Are private security scabs in this analogy?

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        I don’t know if this is true..? Caveat, I do not live in a urban hellhole thriving community, but I am one of those people who supports “the police.” But I don’t support “the police” so much as I support police officers. If such a thing were going on in my town, I would be made at the mayor’s office or the city council or whoever it is who made the policy the police are following.

        Similarly, I support the troops, but do not like any of the wars we’ve fought for the last several decades and do not want any more wars. But I blame the politicians for those, not “the military” and certainly not the soldiers.

        • Randy M says:

          If such a thing were going on in my town, I would be mad at the mayor’s office or the city council or whoever it is who made the policy the police are following.

          I don’t know how much discretion individual police officers on patrol have to engage or not with suspected violent crime.

          There could be a policy of “Stay out of these neighborhoods full of people likely to complain if we have to shoot them” or there could be a lot of individual officers with their attitudes shifting to “Let’s just take a few more minutes to respond so that the coast is clear when we show up and we just have to draw the chalk outlines and take reports.”

          Does anyone have experience here?

        • Matt M says:

          Every currently serving soldier voluntarily enlisted at a time when our current wars were being fought. They are not blameless here. They know what’s going on, what the deal is, and what they will be asked to do. They accepted the bargain anyway. For money.

        • Brad says:

          But I don’t support “the police” so much as I support police officers. If such a thing were going on in my town, I would be made at the mayor’s office or the city council or whoever it is who made the policy the police are following.

          There are some policies that are probablamtic (like the Manhattan DA’s decision to flatly refuse to try fare beating cases), but by and large this isn’t a policy problem. It’s a wildcat work to rule strike.

          I get that you want to support them men with guns and uniforms, but in this case they are the lazy, overpaid union workers not doing their jobs–so something has to give.

          • cryptoshill says:

            I think you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone here that a job that routinely involves “being shot at” , “dealing with domestic violence as it happens”, and the like as a “lazy overpaid union worker”. For the same reason that it’s hard to convince people that poor activist – of -color NIMBYS are NIMBYS just the same.

            You haven’t offered a single recommendation that would actually make police willing to go back into areas where they are taking more risk – because your entering argument is that “the police are shooting people way too often, this is an emergency, and it’s because the police feel like they can shoot anybody for any reason”.

            Parts of Chicago are a literal warzone, and as much as I *don’t like* the fact that the CPD does things that are very much like military actor in a warzone, I don’t begrudge them using wartime tactics specifically because I don’t want to make the error that the people they are interacting with are normal, nice, people who would never do anything bad to other people.

          • gbdub says:

            Incidentally, the fact that “work to rule” strikes are a thing makes me much less sympathetic to unions in general – even they know the things they are negotiating for are ridiculous and business killing, so much so that “following the rules that only exist because we pushed for them in order to punish the business” is an intentional tactic.

          • Brad says:

            > I think you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone here that a job that routinely involves “being shot at”

            Routinely, eh? What percentage of American sworn officers were shot at last year?

            > Parts of Chicago are a literal warzone

            Literal warzones, eh? Lots of places in Chicago like this: https://petapixel.com/assets/uploads/2016/08/1836914_770902366314146_1361731691142569862_o.jpg

            A ton of people walking around with missing limbs? Tens or hundreds of thousands killed?

            Or just some silly statement made to advance the instinct to defend the men in authority with guns and uniforms?

          • Matt M says:

            You haven’t offered a single recommendation that would actually make police willing to go back into areas where they are taking more risk

            Fire anyone who refuses to do as they’re told.

            (This would probably require wages to increase, but whatever)

          • cryptoshill says:

            @Brad – People who actually live there call it a warzone, it might be a reach but it definitely isn’t much of one. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2006-03-13-0603130207-story.html
            https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/chicagos-murder-rate-is-rising-but-it
            There’s also a big ol’ spike in the murder rate.
            Something you should know about Chicago – most of the neighborhoods of Chicago are pretty nice by modern standards, there are a few neighborhoods that are responsible for almost all of the crime.

            I’m not sure what you advocate for – there’s solid evidence that the police aren’t shooting people very often, and when they are, they aren’t wrong very often. So why is it that I’m defending based on instinct to defend men with guns and uniforms and have to justify my statement, but you are not required to similarly justify the claim that police are killing people left and right for no reason?

            74% or so of police killings of civilians involved police actively being shot at. So yes, routinely. At least if the definition of “killing people for no reason” is your actual model for how the police behave.

            @Matt M – More pay and less job security is usually the answer to these sorts of situations. You can attract better people, and fire bad people more easily. I also suspect a lot of cops get off on these incidents because prosecutors are determined to get the cop for Murder when it wasn’t. One final edit: Less pensions and more actual pay might do that as well, there’s less of a need to stay on the force for X years.

          • nkurz says:

            @cryptoshill

            74% or so of police killings of civilians involved police actively being shot at.

            That’s a surprising statistic, and if true, might make a strong case that police involved in killings usually have legitimate fear for their lives. Do you have a source for this number?

            I didn’t have success searching for entire-US statistics, but the more specific reports I found suggested much lower numbers for police firing back at shooters: https://www.app.com/story/news/local/public-safety/2017/10/09/nj-officer-police-shooting-deaths-suicide-accidental-use-of-force/739388001/

            This story says that for New Jersey, over a ten year period, only about 20% of those killed by police (12/58) had shot at the officers first. It does say though that “In 79 percent of the fatal shootings, the suspect brandished a gun or knife or used it to shoot at or attack responding officers”. Are you possibly confusing this much larger (and harder to define) pool of those who were claimed to be threatening the police with the percentage who “actively” fired shots at police?

          • Nornagest says:

            74% or so of police killings of civilians involved police actively being shot at. So yes, routinely.

            That doesn’t establish that police routinely get shot at. It goes some way towards establishing that the police shootings that do happen are usually justified or at least not cartoon-level villainous, but remember that the base rates here are pretty low either way — most cops never draw their weapons.

            (On the other hand, most cops don’t police places like the Tenderloin.)

          • cryptoshill says:

            https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2015/10/24/on-duty-under-fire/?utm_term=.018dd810d9c8

            This was my source for the data. I admittedly confused “was engaging a shooter of violent attacker” with “being shot at”, but still feels to me like being a police officer involves enough routine risk that criticizing them for being lazy and overpaid as well as being cartoonishly evil isn’t going to get far except among circles that think police are a tool of evil capitalist oppression to start with.

      • Some Troll's Serious Discussion Alt says:

        Whats “on strike”? Less agressive policing waa demanded and provided.

        People want less type 1 errors and you can’t get that without more type 2 errors.

        • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

          US police have far higher rates of both type 1 and type 2 errors than police in other developed countries.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Any resource or link for somebody who is surprised to hear this and wants to confirm that it’s true?

        Are you talking about post-Ferguson, or is this something longer-term?

        • Some Troll's Serious Discussion Alt says:

          https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/07/12/baltimore-police-not-noticing-crime-after-freddie-gray-wave-killings-followed/744741002/

          Police typically learn about crime in one of two ways: either someone calls for help, or an officer sees a crime himself and stops to do something. The second category, known among police as an “on-view,” offers a sense of how aggressively officers are doing their job. Car stops are a good example: Few people call 911 to report someone speeding – instead, officers see it and choose to pull someone over. Or choose not to.

          Millions of police records show officers in Baltimore respond to calls as quickly as ever. But they now begin far fewer encounters themselves. From 2014 to 2017, dispatch records show the number of suspected narcotics offenses police reported themselves dropped 30 percent; the number of people they reported seeing with outstanding warrants dropped by half. The number of field interviews – instances in which the police approach someone for questioning – dropped 70 percent

        • Brad says:

          I’m thinking post-Ferguson / BLM. I don’t have a link handy.

    • pontifex says:

      Ever been to Manhattan? Or Tokyo? The problems with shit on the street and needles and BART safety aren’t a result of population: SF isn’t that dense compared to places like Paris or Brooklyn. It’s a result of our lackadaisical approach to public safety:

      Don’t worry, De Blaiso is working to fix that problem. NYC will soon have as much poop and needles on the street as SF.

      Fairness!

      • Matt M says:

        Austin also seems to be pursuing an intentional policy of “Become as much like SF as possible.”

        Portland’s initiative on this front is mostly already complete.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          While some of Seattle’s local political loudmouths denounced a program of pressure washing the accumulated crusted feces and urine off the sidewalks in some of the more “vibrant” parts of downtown as…

          … “racism”.

    • The Nybbler says:

      The same kind of people who support greater urbanization and “YIMBY” generally also oppose harsh measures to clear homeless people from the streets. The measures they do support do not work. So it comes down to “let’s make this place more urban, refuse to ameliorate the side effects, and call anyone who complains about the people crapping on the streets callous or racist.”

      • grendelkhan says:

        That’s not exactly true, at least for me–I oppose harsh measures to clear homeless people from the streets when there’s no plan as to what to do with them. If you just throw people in prison overnight and incinerate their stuff, yes, I’m going to oppose that; it’s brutal and pointless.

        There’s no justifiable reason to do homeless sweeps unless there are places for people to go. I’m in favor of more places for people to live, and that includes people who are currently homeless. (SRO-type housing-first initiatives seem like a fine idea, for instance.)

    • FosterBoondoggle says:

      As others have pointed out, the problems on the streets and BART are relatively new. I used to take BART from Berkeley into the city daily (2006-2013) and over that time the worst thing I saw was some guy harassing a woman, then being chased off the train at MacArthur by others in the car. The BART problems have appeared a the same time as the huge tent cities under the freeways, which implies a fairly direct link to homelessness (and possibly how that exacerbates mental illness).

      • Doug says:

        Well, this is mostly related to Prop 47. As it turns out, maybe it’s not a good idea to decriminalize burglary. As mentioned up comment-stream, police in California have basically gone on strike from policing.

        The harsh truth is the ability of police to stop and harass shady characters for minor infractions has always been an essential component of policing in America. And there’s a tremendous amount of racial and class prejudice at play. It might not be right and it might not be fair, but it is the way things are.

        And we really haven’t come up with any effective alternative to the roughneck sheriff stopping and frisking and saying “boy, this is the wrong neighborhood for ya to be in”. Ebbs and flows in crime in America, both in terms of national trends and regional divergences, have always strongly coincided with how much arbitrary leeway beat cops are given.

        http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-thefts-rise-california-20180613-story.html

        http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-police-slowdown-20170401-story.html

        • Matt M says:

          When I visited SF for work a few months ago, I caught a local news story about the wave of break-ins of rental cars, and about how the city council had decided that enough was enough, and that they were going to finally put a stop to this once and for all by stepping up enforcement…

          … not of car break-ins, but of the REAL culprits, the greedy rental car companies who were brazenly and defiantly flaunting the law requiring them to display signs in their rental cars warning passengers that their cars would almost certainly be broken into

  20. thomasthethinkengine says:

    Every city will reach saturation point eventually. Until we change transport technology significantly cities will hit saturation even if they spread out on a big plain and have an amazing subway beneath. San Francisco just has problems that mean its saturation point is at a much lower population than other places. Even if you can loosen the planning laws and integrate the public transport, but you can’t fight the bay itself, nor the seismic risks.

    What this means is SF will probably not be the most popular destination, nor the tech capital, forever.

    Various types of event risk exist that could shake out the equilibriums, from a quake to another state setting up a tax-free zone, to a recession, to a change in what kind of technology is most popular (if AI cars become hot, Phoenix Arizona has a potential lead.)

    • Doug says:

      The biggest thing that the Bay Area has going for it relative to other would-be tech capitals is California’s non-enforcement of non-competes. This allow high-skilled workers to easily move between companies, which in turn leads to a rapid diffusion of innovation. Which in turn raises the entire market’s productivity. California tech companies are miles ahead in terms of best practices and state of the art.

    • CatCube says:

      I remember reading about the US seizure of patents from Germany in the aftermath of WWII, and one guy testifying to Congress said in relation to us having reprentatives in Germany’s high-tech companies (I think I got the gist of this) “If we had lost the war, we would have had German representatives in Schenectady.” Because, in 1947, Schenectady was the hot tech capital. Now it isn’t. As you said, there’s no law of the universe that SF will be the tech hub forever, or even for the next 50 years. A sea change in what’s important can enable everybody to shift at about the same time to somewhere better. (Depending on what they think is “better” at the time.)

  21. sohois says:

    I feel like the Austin point is fairly weak and just ignores obvious confounders. Population in Texas has grown by about 10 million people in the 20 year measurement period, and urban/rural percentages have also tilted heavily in favour of urban migration. Both of these factors likely overwhelm the level of development in Austin. Pointing out that Austin house prices have doubled despite a reasonable level of housing growth is naive; you should be considering the counterfactual where development was constrained to lower levels, and the level that house prices would have reached in this case.

  22. eric23 says:

    Two issues which I think motivate most NIMBYs, and should really have been discussed in this post, are schools and (neighborhood) crime. Here is a brief summary of those arguments:

    In most of the US, your kids are eligible to attend only a single, local public school. The quality of this school depends, more than anything, on the demographics of other students and parents. By increasing housing supply and lowering rents, you allow less “successful” families to move into your district, thus degrading the quality of the schools, and handicapping your kids’ future lives and careers. Why would a parent, who paid perhaps a 100% premium on their house in order to ensure it’s in a good district, support zoning changes which will make the district less good?

    Rich neighborhoods typically have low crime, and poor neighborhoods high crime. Everyone wants to live in a low-crime location, but not everyone can afford it. In practice, people choose the lowest-crime neighborhood which they can afford. (And there, they likely find similar people to themselves, who make the neighborhood a good social fit too.) By manipulating the supply/demand balance in a neighborhood, you will make the neighborhood either too expensive to afford, or too crime-ridden to tolerate. Granted, the nature of neighborhoods can change even with constant zoning, but this is likely a slower process.

    I realize that these arguments are quite demagogic – but there is a limit to how much altruism you can expect of random people, particularly ones less insulated from the material stresses of life than ourselves. If you want to defeat NIMBYism (and I do), you have to confront these arguments head-on.

    • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

      Note that San Francisco proper assigns students to schools by a lottery, rather than by neighborhood. (Neighborhood schools are somewhat more of an issue in the rest of the Bay Area, but still less than in most of the US, since school funding in California is equalized at the state level rather than being based on local property taxes as is common elsewhere in the US.)

      • eric23 says:

        It’s not about funding – there are plenty of well-funded terrible schools in terrible neighborhoods. It’s about how academically-inclined the aggregate of people in the district is. A school in a bad neighborhood will have discipline problems, lack of parental pressure for curriculum improvements, a general atmosphere that discourages study, insufficient student demand to justify advanced classes, and be an unattractive career opportunity for quality teachers. Those are the main factors that make it a bad school, not the funding level.

        • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

          Hence SF’s lottery. Would you predict that the lottery system would decrease NIMBYism? It doesn’t seem to have in SF. (Nor, for that matter, has the fact that most of the newcomers don’t have children.)

    • watsonbladd says:

      It’s not clear that the peer effects you suppose actually exist for the sorts of changes we’re talking about, namely adding more tech workers to a neighborhood. Adding more housing to the Sunset will not make it Fruitvale. Crime is much less in Tokyo then it is in most American cities that are far more expensive.

      San Francisco has extreme tolerance for criminality in some neighborhoods, and very little in others. This, not anything about the neighborhoods, determines where the crime is. SF has a notoriously ineffective prosecutor. There is no reason to think these have anything to do with building houses. In fact, newcomers are more likely to not tolerate this sort of bullshit.

    • I’ve also had a coworker explain to me that he was paying a lot into the public school system in the form of property taxes. If people were allowed to rent apartments in his community then they wouldn’t pay so much into the public schools and so wouldn’t be doing their fair share to support the school system he was paying for.

      • Randy M says:

        He assumes that landlords pay property taxes out of their own pockets and insure the rents they charge don’t account for this expense in order to save tenets from these burdens?

        • It doesn’t really matter where the incidence of the rents is so long as the amount of property tax being collected is smaller compared to the number of school age children.

          • Randy M says:

            Are you saying the difference is that single occupancy homes usually have higher property values than rental units?

          • Garrett says:

            I think the question is not dollars-per-area but dollars-per-unit. I believe that the tax rates per unit are lower for large apartment buildings than single-occupancy homes despite the higher tax revenues for the area of land used.

          • Randy M says:

            despite the higher tax revenues for the area of land used.

            I don’t think that this should be a consideration; the business and/or individual will pay taxes on the revenue gained from the rent as well as property taxes, right?

      • FosterBoondoggle says:

        Particularly given the distortions of Prop 13 (i.e., people who bought 20 years ago paying much less per unit of current value than people who bought recently), this argument seems especially nonsensical.

    • hollyluja says:

      If crime and schools are an issue, why do they oppose apartments for single tech workers (“luxury units”)? The people who can afford to live there won’t be committing property crimes, and the apartments are too small for school aged families.

      • christianschwalbach says:

        Those single tech workers could afford a princely sum in rent and drive up costs. Vs a family with more costs to deal with.

    • knockknock says:

      Thank you eric23, I’ve been wondering why schools are not getting more comment. Rationalists have kids too, don’t they?

      A lot of NIMBY is actually NIMSD — not in my school district! So new construction might be OK if it bolsters the local school-tax base, but not OK if it stretches the budget or otherwise compromises the quality of your local schools. That would be too many more kids, or the “wrong kind” of kids

  23. Robert Jones says:

    I travelled on the London Underground almost daily for a decade. Public transport can be rough around the edges: you necessarily travel in close proximity to bunch of strangers, and some of them may be drunk or disturbed. Occasionally there are beggars. Very rarely (usually late at night) there is vomit. I have never witnessed anyone being beaten up or robbed. A man was murdered near my local station not long ago, but I’m pretty sure that was just a coincidence. The stations are reasonably clean and nobody is playing loud music or shouting (although the stations themselves play classical music, which apparently deters antisocial behaviour). The features you describe are not normal and can be fixed. The awfulness of BART stations isn’t something you should be building around.

    • Lambert says:

      And that’s a public transport system that’s over 150 years old.
      And apart from the strikes, I’ve never heard people complain much about how it was run.
      Folks love to whine about how unreliable the regional rail network is: about Southern Rail and replacement bus services, but never the London Underground.

    • zzzzort says:

      N=1, but I’ve lived in london for 2 years and seen someone stabbed at a tube station, and seen a lot more vomit than I’d like to think about. But agree that it’s generally pretty safe and clean, especially around commutes.

    • Lambert says:

      And on the bigger stations, at least, there’s a decent police presence because the underground has been a prime target for the IRA and Al-Qaeda.

  24. theandreinfante says:

    Data point of one, but I commute to work in VR on the regular. Granted I also work *on* VR software, but for a lot of stuff it’s better than you think it is. Furthermore, it’s going to be a *lot* better in a generation or two when the facial capture and inside-out body tracking stuff is mature and becomes part of the competitive standard (and when the ergonomics don’t suck). I’ll be shocked if it hasn’t caught on in ten years, at least among tech companies.

  25. Jack V says:

    Oh, interesting.

    I’m in a similar position. I think NIMBYism does, must, cause a lot of harm (even when it’s completely reasonable response), because almost all worthwhile things are inconvenient for SOMEONE. And it definitely seems like “not enough housing” and “housing is too expensive” would naturally be improved by “more housing”. But I don’t (maybe no-one does) understand the economics well enough to be sure what would actually help.

    “But if centralization really increases productivity, hasn’t the market decided this is the best solution? I see two ways this might be false.”

    I would phrase this much more strongly. The market is great at finding LOCAL optimums. In theory it finds global optimums, because someone could make money by doing that. But if the leap from one equilibrium to another costs billions to make, the likelihood of doing it is dominated a lot more by “does one trillionaire have the patience to force the project through” or “does it look like a good investment in the short-to-medium lifecycle of investment professionals careers” or “is it politically popular for a government to do it” than by “would it be more effective if it succeeds”. That sort of large scale decision is not usually made often enough that people who make the decision well get to make the next decision, so it much more “just happens” than operates with any sort of efficiency.

    I also think, we should look a lot more about what DID happen in Tokyo, or other high density cities. I always thought Tokyo was incredibly crowded and also expensive, but some people are saying something different. Network effects are likely to lead to the largest cities growing more, unless the government is serious about building up other cities to match (some countries are less dominated by a few giant cities and some more). But what constitutes a successful version of that? And do we have realistic metrics for comparing how “expensive” a city is, including how fast that falls off, how reliable commuting is, etc?

  26. deluks917 says:

    People who bought Bay area homes have been rewarded with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Its unfortunate if somoene has to move because the suburb they bought a house in stops being a suburb. But if they have been compensated with hundreds of thousands of dollars I cannot feel too bad. I feel significantly worse for the service workers who need to commute two hours.

    I have more sympathy for recent home buyers in San Fransisco. But many such buyers were speculators or commerical real estate companies. And even normal people who bought Bay area real estate are normally rich and trying to make alot of money if prices keep going up.

    • eric23 says:

      The beauty of YIMBYism is that everyone wins (in strict economic terms). Rent decreases (or increases less than it would have, and/or becomes a smaller fraction of income). At the same time, property values increase (because you can do more with the property). How can both of these happen at the same time? Because more housing units are present on the same piece of land.

      Of course, like with other economic models (free trade comes to mind), there are transition costs. If your suburb fills up in high rises, you will have to move elsewhere to have a quiet suburban home. You can afford to move because you are now owner of a high rise, but it’s still a pain to move.

    • zzzzort says:

      It would be interesting to consider whether communities would be willing to maintain the status quo in their area if it meant forgoing the increase in house values that they get from neighboring areas becoming more developed. Certainly a lot of the loathing that YIMBY’s feel is due to this free-rider problem. We might imagine a georgist or similar tax where communities with restrictive zoning have to pay taxes equal to their land value appreciation, or possibly the land appreciation that would exist without the restrictive zoning.

  27. Robert Jones says:

    Policy 3.3 of the current London Plan is to increase housing supply by net 42,000 units a year. Actual construction is 29,000 units. The Strategic Housing Market Assessment found that we need 66,000 units (to accommodate the existing backlog and projected future growth). Policy H1 of the draft new London Plan is to build 645,350 units over 10 years. The Communities Secretary (who is from a different party from the Mayor) has criticised the draft plan, saying that in fact we need 100,000 units. It seems a slightly arid argument, since actual net change has been just over 25,000 since 2001 and was lower before that, with a nadir of 11,500 in 1986, although 61,460 units on average were build annually during the ’30s.

    There are currently 3.5 million dwellings in London, so 66,000 would be a growth rate of 1.9%. Tokyo has seen annual growth of just under 2% during the current century. Tokyo has a population density of 6,225 persons/square km, vs 5,590 for London (and 7,282 for San Francisco). There doesn’t seem to be any reason why London shouldn’t be able to achieve the same growth rate as Tokyo, which is after all a larger city, so must have the same problems with scaling up infrastructure. Paris, which is usually considered a livable city, has a density of 20,909.

    I have often said that we should build a million homes over the next decade, but if the Mayor can actually deliver the 645,350 in the draft plan, that would certainly be something. In absolute terms it would be highest rate of construction ever, although it may have been higher in relative terms in the ’30s, and would be similar to the rate achieved in Tokyo.

    The difficulty seems like to be in the execution. The Mayor continues to oppose building on the “green belt”, even though much of that land holds no particular aesthetic or ecological value. In theory the Mayor supports tall buildings, but I suspect that particular proposed tall buildings will run into the usual objections of blocking the view from Alexandra Palace to St Paul’s. I run past Alexandra Palace every other day, and it’s nice that I can see St Paul’s (which is about 6 miles away), but it seems a weird thing to base planning policy around.

    • Lambert says:

      Even if the green belt land isn’t particularly special, it’s nice not filling the Home Counties with urban sprawl.
      Personally, I think there should be more focus away from the South East and towards places like Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol.

      • Robert Jones says:

        I’m skeptical that “it’s nice not filling the Home Counties with urban sprawl” can be made rigorous. Firstly, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Berkshire, Surrey, Kent and Sussex have a combined area of 17,426 km^2, vs 1,572 km^2 for London. If a 20% increase in London’s housing supply was achieved entirely by expansion at the current density, it would use 1.8% of the Home Counties’ land.

        Secondly, the number of people benefitting from the absence of urban sprawl is small compared with the number of people who would benefit from the additional houses.

        Your second point runs up against “erring on the side of letting people live where they want”. If you want to live in Manchester, go for it. I hear it’s nice. I’m not proposing to move and I’m not proposing to tell anyone else to move, nor am I proposing to obstruct people who want to come here. We need to deal with the population trends we actually have.

        • Lambert says:

          Let people live where they want, but make 2nd tier cities into places where more people want to live. Build infrastructure and encourage the creation of jobs up there and people will come.
          To hell with the Bucks NIMBYs, get HS2 built.

    • eric23 says:

      The mayor is hostage to NIMBYs. NIMBYs didn’t let him close Oxford Street (London’s version of Broadway) to vehicles once the new rail line opens. There is no way they will let him redevelop the drab but super-expensive neighborhoods, like here, into high rises. Or even into beautiful 8 story buildings like the ones in Paris.

  28. mgoodfel says:

    Instead of talking about what *should* happen, let’s talk about what *will* happen.

    First, housing prices are not coming down. Existing homeowners would be devastated. They will tolerate some “lower prices for the poor” or “more apartments around transit” kind of talk, but no politician is getting elected on a policy of “permit housing until the price drops by a third.”

    Second, California’s policy is “no more freeways”, which means it will be pretty difficult for traffic to get any better. Commutes in the greater Bay Area are already horrible. Living in Sacramento (hours from SF), I’ve still gotten stuck in traffic on I-80, on a Sunday afternoon. Driving into the Bay Area even on weekends is a chore, with half your trip stuck in slow traffic. Around rush hour (2-3 hours really), double the time it would take on open roads.

    Third, it’s up to the tech industry. If tech companies, large or small, decide to build plants in other parts of the country, it will start an exodus. So many people are tired of this area that if the signal went up saying “Austin is the new Bay Area”, thousands of techies would start thinking about leaving.

    So my prediction is that this situation will get worse until one of the big companies moves, and then the land rush will be on. Detroit lost a lot of the car industry when the big companies moved to avoid labor unrest. The same thing can happen here.

    • johan_larson says:

      Man, I wish this post had a +1 button. I’d punch it like a rat on meth.

      It wouldn’t actually be hard for the big tech companies to switch up. Google has something like a hundred offices all around the world and a dozen big ones. Shifting hiring to the bigger branch offices, particularly for incoming staff, would be straightforward.

      I wonder how high the Bay area premium would have to get before they started real efforts in this direction. If you dug around the HR departments of these companies, I suspect you could find plenty of studies addressing this issue.

      • Garrett says:

        The problem is that Google’s headquarters are still there. It’s entirely possible to have a good career at Google without working in the Bay Area. But if you want to be someone who significantly grows in their career to the point they have influence, it’s well-understood that you are better off being in the Bay Area.

        • johan_larson says:

          I expect they could decentralize to the point that there is no point in moving to HQ until you’re a VP or Principal SDE. Once the branch offices get big enough, they’ll have a certain weight of their own, particularly if you push some of the more senior decision makers to live where their workforces are.

          • Matt M says:

            Is anyone here a former Intel employee? My impression is that they are basically like this – with a nominal Silicon Valley HQ that mostly houses rich execs, while a whole lot of their more “operational” work takes place out of Hillsboro, OR (an outlying suburb of Portland with tons of space and very cheap property, such that a lot of Intel employees in Oregon actively choose to live in Portland for the “culture” and have a long “reverse” commute)

          • rlms says:

            We could also look at similar industries. How much of a push is there to move to the head office in investment banking?

          • Doug says:

            Investment banking isn’t a good comparison. It’s primarily a sales driven business. You want to be easily accessible to clients. New York is the clear winner. One because tons of businesses are already located in New York, particularly the type that make heavy use of investment banking. And two because New York is easy, convenient and desirable to travel to for both foreign and domestic clients. An investment bank that relocated to Akron, Ohio would lose these substantial advantages.

            In contrast most of the major tech companies are not sales-driven. Ad buyers will keep buying Facebook ads because they pretty much have to. You don’t need sales guys taking them to strip clubs. And most of the ad buyers aren’t in the Bay Area anyway. The only barrier to Facebook relocating HQ to Akron would be the complaints of its workers and management.

          • rlms says:

            @Doug
            I’m not talking about the location of the company HQ, but about whether Garrett’s point holds for other industries. If you want to climb high in the corporate ladder at Goldman Sachs, how important is it to be in New York rather than Chicago or LA (or London or Tokyo)? You probably have to move if you want to be in the c-suite, so the question is the extent to which new CEOs/COOs etc. are drawn from the people below them in the HQ office versus regional heads.

    • Brad says:

      First, housing prices are not coming down. Existing homeowners would be devastated.

      This is exactly why American (Western?) post-war policies designed to increase the homeownership rate come hell or high water turned out to be such a bad idea. It turns out that if you adopt that policy package then it constrains everything other policy choice way too much.

      The only way I can see out of this is to try to get the Republicans to fall on their swords in a fit of ideological purity.

      • Tarpitz says:

        I think you could probably (discreetly) pursue a policy of reducing real house prices over time without triggering an electoral or financial apocalypse; it’s falls in nominal house prices that are politically impossible.

        • rlms says:

          That limits the reductions to inflation though, which means they won’t be that effective unless you have inflation that’s high enough to be bad.

      • Guy in TN says:

        If trends continue, at some point in the future >50% of voters will be non-landowning renters. At this point, instead of perusing policies that raise property values, governments will be incentivized to peruse policies that lower them.

        Until that threshold, implementing an intentional policy that lowers rent will be very very difficult.

    • gbdub says:

      The value of your home wouldn’t necessarily drop. In fact, it might go up – it’s just that the person buying it is going to tear it down and replace it with something with more units.

      • baconbits9 says:

        Right, if you buy a city block with 50 homes for 50 million, tear down and build 1,000 units and sell them each for 500,000 the average unit price will decrease but no one with an actual home has to see their house decrease in value.

    • qwints says:

      Second, California’s policy is “no more freeways”, which means it will be pretty difficult for traffic to get any better

      Building more freeways doesn’t necessarily make traffic better. Have you read about Braess’ Paradox?

    • arlie says:

      Somewhat more than 20 years ago, when Sun and HP were big name tech companies, they both set up shop in Colorado, while keeping their Bay area digs. Some techies moved. Much distress was expressed by locals, concerned about newcomers and the fragile local water supply. That didn’t stop the moves, and the greater Denver area became kind of viable for a techie who didn’t want to move any time they got a new job.

      I nonetheless moved from there to the SF Bay area, and was able to buy a house and live there long enough to pay off the mortgage – being able to credibly threaten to leave a job is immensely valuable, as is being able to actually do so, without uprooting one’s family. And I don’t recall hearing much recently about Denver/Boulder/Colorado Springs as a branch of Silicon Valley.

      My prediction is that even if e.g. Google were to move completely, not just open a big branch office and indicate that new growth would be at the branch, the size of the move might overwhelm the new location, but wouldn’t really put a dent in the SF bay area tech population.

    • Swami says:

      Agreed. The obvious solution is for the major high tech companies to meet as a group and decide to move to someplace nice, with lots of room outside of the absurdity of California politics. They could form a council or association with a name like “Technology Association For Affordable Living” and begin working with competing locales for a pro growth relocation strategy. It could start small and grow organically.

      Honestly, the idea is so obvious that I think it is darn near inevitable as tech firms seek more affordable wages and employee satisfaction and hiring.

      • Matt M says:

        with lots of room outside of the absurdity of California politics

        The absurdity of California politics did not occur in a vacuum.

        When the Californians leave, they take their politics with them.

        • johan_larson says:

          The typical employee of Facebook or Apple is not a native Californian. If you persuaded them to move to some shiny new FAANG City, Colorado, there is plenty of room to hope they could shed enough of their recent acculturation to at least keep people from shitting in the streets.

          • Matt M says:

            But they’re also someone who was willing to move to California.

            Which means they’re, at the very least, more progressive than me.

            In any case, as you may recall from some of my previous OT comments, I am not remotely convinced that the politics of the overwhelming majority of tech company employees differs significantly from the politics of the average Californian.

  29. joncb says:

    Hrrm… point 2 makes me confused. Supply and Demand is supposed to work exactly as YIMBY suggests so why not in this case?

  30. ana53294 says:

    A lot of the arguments against YIMBY, the ones where people are against the city expanding, are against San Francisco. I was surprised at how small San Francisco’s actual population is, at just 884,363, according to Wikipedia. This is not the equivalent to a European capital, but to a mid-sized European city. And while big European cities, such as London, Madrid, Barcelona, Moscow, Paris, Brussels, etc. have issues with noise, overpopulation, and crime, these are big city problems. Mid-size cities suck less.

    The equivalent cities by population in Europe would be Valencia, Seville, Leeds, Glasgow, Stockholm, Cologne, Frankfurkt. And they don’t suck as much. Most of them are quite pleasant.

    You can have a greater density than San Francisco, a lower crime rate, a nice metro system, all while living in an apartment that is at a bikable distance to work and is much more affordable. With clean streets and no visible needles. For that, you need better sidewalks, good infrastructure, bike lanes, better policing and social policies, better public transportation, more parks (and close them at night). I lived in a city with the population of SF, and I never had anybody shout at me in the public transportation (although I usually biked). San Francisco is a high density city. Why isn’t it more bikable? that would reduce the strain on the public transport and the roads.

    So, in order to fix all those things NIMBYs complain about, you just need to fire the entire SF city council, and hire a foreign one fix those issues separately from the housing issue.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      I was surprised at how small San Francisco’s actual population is, at just 884,363, according to Wikipedia. This is not the equivalent to a European capital, but to a mid-sized European city.

      This is only slightly larger than the population of Amsterdam proper- which, like San Francisco, is part of a much larger conurbation (metro Amsterdam has 2.5 million, the Randstad conurbation has just over 8 million- compare 4.7 million for the SF-Oakland-Hayward MSA, 8.8 million for the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland CSA).

      • Robert Jones says:

        Amsterdam is a famously bikeable city though, so I’m not sure that affects ana53924’s point.

      • ana53294 says:

        Amsterdam, to my knowledge, doesn’t have the issue of public defecation, being shouted at in public transportation, needles on the street, and the other ones mentioned.

        This is because they have a good public transportation, the city is walkable and bikeable, they have plenty of green zones and blue zones (they say being near water is as calming as trees). Muggings are also not a big issue.

        The only complaint I have heard is bike theft.

        • AppetSci says:

          Amsterdam, to my knowledge, doesn’t have the issue of public defecation, being shouted at in public transportation, needles on the street, and the other ones mentioned.

          Not by residents, sure, but by the tourists. Amsterdam suffers from the phenomenon of over-tourism, often from the party-going “lads” set, who shout at the residents and generally ruin the life of residents.

    • gbdub says:

      For “why not more bikable”, check out a topo map. Any techie that tries to bike commute will soon find his skinny jeans can no longer accommodate his massive quads.

      • ana53294 says:

        While being flat is a plus for a bikeable city, it’s not a requirement. Barcelona is improving its bikability.

        If you have nice biking lanes that go along parks and rivers, are separate and protected from both cars and walkers, and take you to actually useful places (and are not just recreational) there will be enough people who will choose to bike to reduce traffic somewhat.

        • Eric Rall says:

          I just looked up a topographical map of Barcelona. It looks like there’s a significant slope (about 5% on average, if I’m reading the map and doing the math right) between the coastal areas and the hilly inland areas, but within most of the city the slope is pretty smooth, so streets parallel to the coast would be almost flat while streets that run in other directions would typically have slopes not much more than 5% even if they’re directly perpendicular to the slope.

          San Francisco, on the other hand, has a bunch of small, steep hills all over the city. 10% slopes are routine, and 20-30% slopes are far from unheard of.

        • christianschwalbach says:

          It seems quite obvious you have never visited SF. It is only bikeable in a feasible manner in a small semicircular strip from the GG Bridge to the Giants Stadium or so…..

      • The Nybbler says:

        Any techie that tries to bike commute will soon find his skinny jeans can no longer accommodate his massive quads.

        That is a _feature_ :-).

        • gbdub says:

          I would agree, but I don’t care about my hipster cred and I don’t “ironically” ride a fixie.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I would agree, but I don’t care about my hipster cred and I don’t “ironically” ride a fixie.

            Compact double for me; I live on a hill with a 12-13% grade, and that’s the gentle side of the hill. Basically we could keep hipsters out by tricking them into trying to ascend the steep side, then scooping them up when they collapse and putting them back on the eastbound train.

    • Sebastian_H says:

      This is because SF house YIMBY
      Is shorthand for the Bay Area, which has astonishingly low levels of density and very low levels of building. Scott seems to have accidentally cherry picked based on city limits rather than metropolitan areas.

    • grendelkhan says:

      Why isn’t it more bikable? that would reduce the strain on the public transport and the roads.

      Poeple have pointed out that it’s hilly. So you’d need a bike with electric assist, or a scooter. Dockless scooters are a much more space-efficient solution to moving people around a city, and tend to substitute for short car trips. San Francisco first banned, then heavily restricted them, with one supervisor derisively declaring them “joy rides for tech bros” as the local activists use them to blockade commuter buses.

      The modern history of San Francisco seems to consist of engineers turning problems into solutions, and activists and politicians turning them back into problems.

  31. Cerastes says:

    “I think neurotypical people usually underestimate how bad cities are for people with noise sensitivities, anxiety, purity intuitions, or just a need for nature and green things in their environment, ...”

    THIS!!! A MILLION TIMES THIS!!

    The concept of living somewhere that isn’t green is literally nauseating to me, and the idea of a place that isn’t teeming with wild animals feels like suffocating. My house is in as wild a place as possible given my commute, budget, and region, and almost every room has a fully planted vivarium with an animal (as well as my office).

    The amount of urbanist triumphalist crap drives me up the wall, as if these people cannot see why someone would not want to live in conditions far inferior to even low-quality zoos, or why someone might need to balance a job in a city with such desires.

    Being 100% honest, I actually feel like there’s something genuinely wrong with people who don’t feel the need to spend time in nature, especially if they also lack pets. They’re like sterile androids in some sort of weird dystopia, utterly cut off from life.

    • ana53294 says:

      Good zoning does solve the green areas issue. But I don’t think the issue is solved by individual private lawns. They are not big enough to be satisfying.

      Stockholm is a city that has a bigger population than SF, and it’s incredibly green. There are plenty of other cities with nice big parks. I think that if having green areas is your objective, packing people’s homes into an apartment building, and using the space saved to build a big park, would be a better policy to have more greenery.

      I do support NIMBYs when they are protecting public parks from being re-zoned. Cities need parks; they are the cities’ lungs. If anybody came up with a YIMBY idea to build housing in NY Central park, I would support voting them out of a city council.

      • Cerastes says:

        I think you underestimate what I mean by “living somewhere green/wild”. My current home is on 1.2 acres, with a farm behind it separated by a small patch of dense, undeveloped land, and that’s only because, as our first home, we couldn’t afford any of the 10-20+ acre properties we looked at. I’m not in the suburbs, I’m in the exurbs – we have neighbors with chickens and bees, and we have the former and will get the latter next spring. We’ve got deer, coyotes, hawks, bats, abundant songbirds, frogs, possums, and raccoons. Hell, if I didn’t have a university job, I’d probably be living somewhere far more remote; fortunately, my university is in a small enough town that I can live where I do and still manage a 20 minute commute.

        “Parks” within big cities are invariably sad, pathetic, over-cultivated with only minimal wild plant and animal life – it’s just pigeons and squirrels on what’s basically a big lawn with some trees. “Park” to me means several square miles of either original or long-ago-restored wilderness, somewhere that going off-trail at minimum risks getting lost for hours and at best for days or forever; the presence of a full food-web, complete with top-level predators, is best. If nothing can kill you, it’s too tame, and I’m serious about that – I think a lot of the common, pathologically “Disney-fied” views of nature many people have, especially urban dwellers, comes from never encountering a dangerous predator face-to-face in the wild.

        Obviously, this is wildly (sorry) unfeasible for most people and all cities, but I’m not asking that, only that the urban triumphalists stay within their borders and let those of us who genuinely love nature keep it, rather than cities spreading out like a cancer. That’s the part I dislike, the unwillingness to live and let live, driven by the relentless need for growth, some weird fixation on efficiency above all else, and the inability to accept other people’s stated preferences as valid rather than assuming they’re just uninformed.

        • ana53294 says:

          If you want to live in the countryside, people abandoning small towns and going to monster cities will benefit you – because denser cities means more green areas outside those cities.

          • Lasagna says:

            No it won’t benefit him, because there will no longer be a community in those areas to be a part of, or decent jobs to pay the bills.

          • Brad says:

            In other words he wants to have his cake and eat it too.

        • Alex Zavoluk says:

          Suppose a population density of 1 family 10 acres, who are therefore driving into the city to work, which causes traffic, and so a 30 mile commute would take about an hour. Sanity check: a 30 mile radius around NYC includes most of its actual suburbs, but 60 miles gets you almost to Philly or Hartford. So this metro area, approximated by a circle of 30 mile radius, could have a maximum population of about 180,000 families (under half a million people at the US average household size of 2.58).

          • Cerastes says:

            Except I don’t live in NYC, SF, or even somewhere within 2 orders of magnitude of those populations, precisely because such a situation would be unfeasible.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Meanwhile, in the actual New York area, a 15 mile commute takes over an hour by public transportation, and just crossing the Hudson can easily take an hour or more by car. Density makes commuting worse, not better.

          • Alex Zavoluk says:

            Cerastes: Sure, but the point is that there are clear tradeoffs, and it would probably be impossible to maintain such density for everyone, and trying to enforce low density leads to obvious problems.

            Nybbler: I think the key phrase there is “by car.” I can tell you for a fact that it’s normal for a train ride from 30 miles away from GCT to take just over an hour, even for the local, and the express or semi-express can be less than an hour. Anyway, this is why YIMBYs want more mass transit options/walkable areas.

            Also, in our hypothetical city, traffic would presumably not be as bad, because we have half a million people in the metro area instead of 20 million. But if traffic is worse than I assumed, that only strengthens my point, since it reduces the area available and thus the possible population.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            I can tell you for a fact that it’s normal for a train ride from 30 miles away from GCT to take just over an hour, even for the local, and the express or semi-express can be less than an hour. Anyway, this is why YIMBYs want more mass transit options/walkable areas.

            This is deceptive because this is not a door-to-door comparison. When I commuted the 25-30 miles using an express train, yes, the actual train ride took welllllll under an hour. But I still had to walk TO the train from my home, and I had to walk FROM the train to my work. Since this is a TRAIN, and you canNOT be late(because it will leave without you!), you also have to bake in time in case you are moving more slowly than normal or caught up by traffic lights.

            There are also complications when there are no more express trains for the evening and you have to wait an hour until the next commuter train, or the trains are simply done for the night.

          • Brad says:

            @The Nybbler

            Meanwhile, in the actual New York area, a 15 mile commute takes over an hour by public transportation, and just crossing the Hudson can easily take an hour or more by car. Density makes commuting worse, not better.

            Density makes commuting possible because it’s the only way to have any kind of productivity. As evidenced by the many people in this whole comment section that apparently hate cities but live near them anyway.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @Brad

            When cities were hollowed-out enclaves of crime and poverty, many employers set up in or moved out to suburban office parks and had plenty of productivity. Some even did that before the fall of the cities, Bell Labs being a NYC area example. Now cities are fashionable again and the suburban office parks are empty (except in Silicon Valley). But it doesn’t have to be that way.

          • Hendi says:

            @The Nybbler

            When cities were hollowed-out enclaves of crime and poverty, many employers set up in or moved out to suburban office parks and had plenty of productivity …. Now cities are fashionable again ….

            I think it’s worth noting that having cities be hollowed-out and crime ridden, as many US cities surely were during the 70s and 80s, was, in a historical perspective, quite anomalous. The more usual pattern in the past few hundred years, both in the US and in other developed countries, is that the best jobs are located in central cities, most wealthy people live in those central cities, and the best and the brightest leave suburbs, small towns etc. and move to those cities in search of opportunity.

            I think there’s a good argument that what’s happening now in SF, NYC, etc. is just what has been happening in Paris, London, Tokyo etc. for the past century, and what had already been happening in US cities during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, before it was interrupted by an unusual crisis brought about by a large crime wave, significant social upheaval, the collapse of city budgets, and other factors. If the growth of suburban office parks and the associated lifestyle is viewed as a response to that crisis, then it makes sense that once the crisis abated the new model ceased to be attractive: corporate offices in the suburbs were more efficient than corporate offices located in unsafe cities lacking public services, but were always less efficient than corporate offices located in a thriving city.

            The unfortunate part is that there is now an entire generation that grew up during this anomalous time that, quite rightly, feels that they were raised to expect that there would be good jobs available in the suburbs, that they should be able to afford a “typical” suburban house, and that their life style would be, more or less, similar to the one they observed around them as children. Now that that lifestyle is coming under strain, it’s quite normal to ask “why isn’t this working, it worked before after all”, but I would respond that there’s a good case to be made that “before” was the exceptional time and what we’re seeing is a return to normal.

        • Chlopodo says:

          I think a lot of the common, pathologically “Disney-fied” views of nature many people have, especially urban dwellers, comes from never encountering a dangerous predator face-to-face in the wild.

          Or, at least, of not ever reading any Darwin or E.O. Wilson.

          But I’m curious what this face-to-face encounter with a dangerous predator is that you imply you’ve had. Care to tell?

          • Mark Atwood says:

            I’ve been less than 100 feet from both coyote and brown bear. (Hilariously, inside city limits. Inside Seattle for the yote, and inside Fairbanks for the bear.) I’ve been line of sight to grizzly, and a lot more browns. I’ve heard cougar less than a mile away while hiking in deep forest. All of that specifically does not count the times I’ve been line of sights to such while I’ve been in a US National Park or a US National Forest. I’ve been less than ten feet from rattlesnake, copperhead, and cottonmouth, while just wandering the woods as a child.

            Those are about all the real non-human apex predators left in North America.

          • Matt M says:

            Coyotes aren’t predators (of humans) by any stretch of the imagination. Seeing them is rare because they typically run and hide well before you can get to them.

    • Brad says:

      99% of the country is vast open spaces with lots of wild animals and bugs to your heart’s content. If those are your preferences I don’t even understand why you would be part of conversations like this one. You have what you want.

      • arbitraryvalue says:

        People who hate urban areas don’t want a good job any less than people who love urban areas do. Cities are where the work is whether or not one would prefer green space.

        • Brad says:

          Sounds like sterile android thinking to me. What’s money as compared with communing with Earth Mother?

          • Cerastes says:

            And assholes like you are precisely why it’s so rare for me to even bother posting about this. If I *could* avoid urban density entirely, I would, and I do by having a job in a smaller city (<1 million) where livable areas are accessible.

            As I pointed out elsewhere, the thing I found remarkable in Scott's comment was the acknowledgement that folks like me have a genuine psychological need, not just a mild preference, and that certain jobs might require tradeoffs (like I myself have made).

          • Brad says:

            And assholes like you are precisely why it’s so rare for me to even bother posting about this.

            As opposed to:

            Being 100% honest, I actually feel like there’s something genuinely wrong with people who don’t feel the need to spend time in nature, especially if they also lack pets. They’re like sterile androids in some sort of weird dystopia, utterly cut off from life.

            Mote, beam. You reap what you sow. Etc.

          • albatross11 says:

            You know, life would be a whole lot easier if everyone just stopped wanting the wrong things.

          • toastengineer says:

            Personally, I consider anyone who doesn’t turn their basement into a Scrooge McDuck style diving pool of paperclips inhuman.

        • Matt M says:

          Trade-offs exist. Society doesn’t exist to cater to every single one of your preferences with 100% perfection, especially when they are contradictory in nature.

          (Edit: I’ve never seen myself agreeing completely with Brad so many times in one post. Let’s both remember this one the next time we’re yelling at each other!)

          • arbitraryvalue says:

            Of course trade-offs exist, but the statement I was replying to claims that people like me have no role in the debate about city/suburb housing density. I don’t expect society to cater to all my preferences, but I do have preferences (I prefer low density development even if it is expensive) and I will try to satisfy these preferences even as I acknowledge that other people have preferences incompatible with mine. There’s going to be a compromise, but I want it as favorable to my side as I can get.

          • Cerastes says:

            Have fun fighting that strawman.

            I literally quantified the tradeoff both at the larger level (which city I chose to live in) and local level (I can afford $ for a home and here’s my land area versus commute time in that budget).

            The point I make is that the tradeoff is a) real, b) legitimate and c) steeper for some people than others.

        • baconbits9 says:

          People who hate urban areas don’t want a good job any less than people who love urban areas do. Cities are where the work is whether or not one would prefer green space.

          If you prefer low density living there are tons of places where you can get a reasonable job with the lower cost of living compensating for lower dollar compensation. $80,000 is laughable money for living in SF but it will buy you a 3 bed/2 bath house with a decent commute in some areas.

      • Jacobethan says:

        If those are your preferences I don’t even understand why you would be part of conversations like this one. You have what you want.

        I find this a very strange comment. The whole NIMBY/zoning/development issue is people who “have what they want,” i.e., chose to invest in a particular place because it optimally balanced their various preferences, and want to coordinate with others with similar preferences to prevent the place from changing. That isn’t some sort of weird outsider perspective orthogonal to “the conversation,” that is the conversation.

        As a practical matter, I think “minimum length of commute that gets me to a tolerably nonurban-feeling environment” is the basic heuristic for huge numbers of Americans in deciding where to settle. I’m not sure what is gained by trying to argue that what they’re doing is somehow philosophically incoherent.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          As a practical matter, I think “minimum length of commute that gets me to a tolerably nonurban-feeling environment” is the basic heuristic for huge numbers of Americans in deciding where to settle.

          That is one of the main things I love about both Seattle and Denver.

          Hell, in Seattle, you can take public transit to trailheads that join to trails that fan out for more deep woods trailway than can be hiked in a human lifetime.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I feel exactly the same as you, but I can’t in all conscience compel other people to conform to my aesthetic preferences. For example, all of my friends have concrete-paved back yards, and they love it; they are likewise perfectly fine with not seeing any greenery on the streets.

  32. fluorocarbon says:

    I didn’t know what to think going into this article, but I ended up being fascinated with it for anthropological reasons. Is San Francisco really that horrible? Programmers live three to a bedroom? People play music all night at BART stations?

    I would say that, though it’s an interesting post, it’s not really an accurate representation of the YIMBY movement outside of the Bay Area. When I think of the YIMBY movement, I think of organizations like Strong Towns. They don’t want giant towers, but rather fewer shopping malls and more pedestrian-centric development.

    I’ve also talked to some people in Boston on the YIMBY/pro-development side. The arguments I heard from them are:

    1 – parking requirements are dumb
    2 – more inner suburbs should zone for multi-family units (triple deckers)
    3 – there should be more mixed used developments
    4 – increased density should be allowed close to public transportation (MBTA) stations
    5 – there’s an absurd amount of red tape when developing anything and it should be reduced

    These all seem reasonable to me and nothing on that list would destroy existing neighborhoods. But then again I find walkable multi-family neighborhoods (2-4 stories) with mixed use developments and narrow streets much more pleasant than either single family suburban car sprawl or Mega-City One huge Manhattan towers everywhere.

    • brmic says:

      1 – parking requirements are dumb

      I’m not conviced that’s true. Rather, I think they should be lower and should continue to be lowered, but I am fairly certain that there are freerider problems (i.e. developers relying on the on-street parking being available because existing houses have private parking spaces, which in turn sucks for the developers that come afterwards, and for visitors to the area), externalities in terms of traffic (noise & small particles) generated by people looking for parking spaces, and problems with gentrification (i.e. it becomes much easier for the techies to drive away the previous occupants if a curb parking pass is ridiculously expense even though this is the economically optimal allocation of the scarce resource. OTOH, if curb parking passes are too cheap, everyone has them and the only people losing are the visitors to the area.)
      Basically, yeah, I think it’s more complicated than that. There may be some free lunch in an initial reduction of parking requirements, but IMHO the problems these requirements were supposed to solve pretty soon will emerge.

  33. Freddie deBoer says:

    I do a lot of housing activism in New York City, so I am hardly unbiased on this score. (I wrote at length about this stuff here.) And I don’t pretend that the following observation means one side is right and the other is wrong. However, it’s a fact: the overwhelming majority of anti-development activists on the ground in New York are people of color, mostly from poorer backgrounds, and the people yelling “NIMBY NIMBY NIMBY” at them are almost exclusively white dudes. And that really plays into a toxic atmosphere of people not hearing each other and talking over each other.

    Just ask yourself – if you grew up in Crown Heights, and your neighborhood had been neglected for your whole life, and suddenly wealthy white people want to come in and take it over, leading to rising rents and the closure of businesses that you had interacted with your whole life, and when you complain some dude with a graduate degree and a sneer says “you’re a NIMBY”… how would you react?

    • watsonbladd says:

      This is just not true. Look at Greenwich Village: mostly white, very low height limits, very expensive. That’s an example of anti-development activism which you don’t notice because of how successful it is: there aren’t even proposals to change that!

      Both de Blasio and Bloomberg downzoned white areas and upzoned minority areas. This is not what the YIMBYS in NYC wanted: they are focused exclusively on upzoning wealthy white areas. The answer to putting housing in Crown Heights is to put it in Greenwich Village or the Upper East Side instead, not not having it.

      • Freddie deBoer says:

        Both de Blasio and Bloomberg downzoned white areas and upzoned minority areas.

        Funny how that happens! It’s almost as if YIMBYs are totally, willfully ignorant about the actual distribution of power in this country and who their policies will inevitably serve.

        • Urstoff says:

          Anti-statism wins!

        • Ninety-Three says:

          So “the actual distribution of power” will pervert “upzone white areas” into upzoning minority areas and not white ones? Then why in God’s name are you hearing “don’t upzone minority areas” from minority activists and backing it as though the system won’t twist that even worse than it did to the rich white people’s policies?

        • Nornagest says:

          What was that you were saying about a graduate degree and a sneer?

    • baconbits9 says:

      Just ask yourself – if you grew up in Crown Heights, and your neighborhood had been neglected for your whole life, and suddenly wealthy white people want to come in and take it over, leading to rising rents and the closure of businesses that you had interacted with your whole life, and when you complain some dude with a graduate degree and a sneer says “you’re a NIMBY”… how would you react?

      If you phrase it as “taking over” then it elicits a negative reaction, but if you phrase it as stopping the neglect and investing and improving a neighborhood it sounds very different. The issues seem to stem more from the owner/renter divide where owners can capture some of the improvements either by staying and enjoying the better neighborhood or selling for a windfall as prices move up.

    • tcheasdfjkl says:

      yeah as an SF YIMBY this is the argument that I have the most often with other SF YIMBYs. I am quite sympathetic to affordable housing/anti-gentrification/anti-displacement activists in e.g. the Mission, even though I think they’re largely wrong about what we should do; it makes no sense to talk about them the way YIMBYs often talk about NIMBYs.

      that said the stereotypical version of NIMBYs also exists, and has been much more successful at keeping out development, so we’re not even having those conversations in the cases of the richer neighborhoods, which I agree is bad. I don’t think this is exactly neglected by YIMBYs, though it’s harder to address – going to community meetings for existing proposals to support them is pretty low-hanging fruit, compared to trying to make there be proposals to upzone rich suburbia – but especially in the broader Bay Area, YIMBYs have been e.g. supporting upzoning efforts in places like Mountain View and Palo Alto, and sued the city of Lafayette (also suburban) for denying a dense-ish development; in all these places the opposition looks a lot more like the stereotype.

    • FosterBoondoggle says:

      I don’t know the NY situation, but if you look at what the YIMBYs are pursuing most energetically in the Bay Area, it’s emphatically not exclusively or even primarily building in the less well-off areas.
      * SB827, hopefully to be revived this year, to upzone transit hubs. E.g., North Berkeley BART (in the heart of a middle- to upper-income neighborhood), Lafayette BART (upper income community), along Geary in the SF Richmond (middle- to upper-income), etc.
      * Showing up for city council meetings around the Bay Area to advocate for higher density in mostly well-to-do communities like Cupertino.
      * Pushing for transit improvements (a lot of overlap seemingly between YIMBY and NUMTOT types). Unless your theory is “all improvement of amenities is bad, because it will attract gentrifiers”, this seems positive for everyone.
      Does all this advocacy sometimes threaten poorer communities? Absolutely. You’ll also find YIMBYs here advocating (though not monolithically) for reversing the state law that prevents new rent control laws, on the theory that this will help prevent displacement.

      But part of the problem is that the Bay Area has a large number of rich NIMBYs who burnish their prog credentials by pretending to be “allies” of the impoverished, which is how you get an SF Landmarks Commission landmarking a laundromat in the Mission so it can’t be turned into apartments. Those are the people the YIMBYs are pushing against. (Also “tenants right’s” orgs that like to hold up development so they can extract some “community benefits” in the form of developer payoffs into their bank accounts, but that’s another story.)

    • sourcreamus says:

      Why do arguments get more less convincing based on the color of the people making them?
      This is a segregationist argument.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        If your arguments and preferred policies result in you running roughshod over disadvantaged people, and you are a priviliged person, you should at least pause and ask yourself “are we the baddies?”

    • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

      The YIMBY groups I know in New York explicitly avoid showing up to community meetings etc in disproportionately poor and/or nonwhite communities, focusing on getting more built in richer areas (where demand is actually highest) instead. As a result, at the recent community meetings on the Inwood upzoning, the speakers in favor mostly matched the demographics of the neighborhood, while the speakers against were disproportionately white DSA types. Likewise, at the recent community meetings about 80 Flatbush, the nonwhite attendees mostly supported the development while the white attendees mostly opposed it.

      As a matter of principle I don’t actually think the people who happen to live in a neighborhood first should have more say about how it grows than people from outside it, even if they are members of a disadvantaged group (though this can be reason for greater caution). But in practice your description is totally wrong about the strategy followed by Open New York and other NYC YIMBY groups.

  34. J Mann says:

    Perhaps if real estate is one of the rare exceptions to normal supply and demand, San Francisco could look into destroying housing stock to lower rents.

    • qwints says:

      If San Francisco bulldozed 1% of the housing stock without notice at random per year, rental rates would plummet because that would (probably) make people move away from San Francisco. That’s one reason Level 0 YIMBY thinking is wrong, demand isn’t fixed. As an exercise, consider the effect of adding a 100 unit building with luxury condos versus a building with the same footprint with 500 public housing units.

  35. 2irons says:

    Can anyone explain “purity intuitions” please? I’ve tried googling but only seen other uses of the phrase not a definition.

    I am unwilling to blame anyone for trying. I think neurotypical people usually underestimate how bad cities are for people with noise sensitivities, anxiety, purity intuitions, or just a need for nature and green things in their environment,

  36. Carl Milsted says:

    It seems to me that most of these arguments could be applied to Trumpist immigration stances.

    Here’s an interesting question for the open borders folks: Are we really helping poor nations by draining them of entrepreneurs?

    I am not saying the Trumpist position is correct. I am simply saying I have contempt for NIMBYs who complain about Trump’s border position. Selfishness I can relate to — I am guilty of it myself. Selfishness coupled with pompous virtue signaling is another matter.

    • shakeddown says:

      Poor nation’s that don’t offer their entrepreneurs reason to stay don’t deserve them.

      • Matt M says:

        Indeed. As awful as the US Government can be, most of the places suffering from “brain drain” as it were are orders of magnitude awfuler.

        We are, in fact, helping these nations, by showing them what happens if they continue to run their societies with some form of despotism/corruption/socialism/etc while someone else offers a significantly better alternative.

        • sclmlw says:

          I’d like to steelman the argument you just dismissed. You talk only of intellectual brain-drain, but what of other types of cross-cultural drainage? Scott’s article talks of hipsters and rationalists who can stir up more hip and rational communities in which they live. Is there a population that is being drained from Mexico that might do them good?

          How about agitators for change? A Mexican friend of mine recently showed me pictures of a lawyer she knows who got shot in Mexico for accidentally representing the wrong side of a case. Apparently one of the cartels was involved and he didn’t know it. He’s planning to migrate to the US – by whatever means – to get himself out of a bad situation. He’ll not be able to practice law here, so that seems like a bigger hit for Mexico for not quite the same level of gain for the US (a global net loss).

          Meanwhile, what would happen if he and millions of others who’ve migrated to the US in recent decades hadn’t had that outlet? What recourse would these people have in their communities and in their nation? The systematic drainage of an Mexico’s political dissidents is probably not helping a country that’s notoriously corrupt fix its problems. Think about it this way: what would happen to the US if people who most strongly oppose incumbent politicians were to suddenly leave? Would that be a good thing?

          On one hand, I’d have a hard time telling my friend (a Mexican who is similarly repelled by the idea of moving back to her home country – even though all her family is from there and she misses it terribly) that this lawyer, and others like him, should be kept from migrating to a safer life. But how many millions are suffering because the small-scale solution to individual problems provides space for large-scale human suffering at a national level?

          • Matt M says:

            Think about it this way: what would happen to the US if people who most strongly oppose incumbent politicians were to suddenly leave? Would that be a good thing?

            It would be a good thing for them.

            And if we assume that those people went somewhere else and built a new and better society that those who stayed behind could look to and learn something from, in the long run, it would probably be better for the US, too.

            Like, was it good or bad for the world as a whole that prominent Jewish intellectuals fled Nazism and came to America? I’d say probably good. I’m not sure an American policy of “No, you have to stay behind and convince the Nazis to reform themselves,” would have helped anyone.

            I maintain that immigration is a very effective form of social protest. Those who were shot in the back trying to flee East Germany did as much to bring about the downfall of the regime, and were every bit as heroic as any particular demonstrator or protester.

    • sclmlw says:

      I think the fundamental connection here should give pause to any YIMBYs who feel disposed to simply dismiss the NIMBYs out of hand. The multiple anti-immigrant movements in Europe, and the similar phenomenon in the US, are reactionary in perhaps the same way you’ll get whenever you ignore the indigenous population’s concerns in the short term. That’s not to say that indigenous populations should have absolute power. I’m just saying that they’re pretty much always going to be the majority, and will exercise their will if external growth doesn’t give way to their concerns to some degree.

      Even a 5% /year growth means that 95% of the city’s residents lived here last year. If they don’t like what’s happening, they’ll rise up against newcomers and reverse the migrant trend.

      Also, there are structural problems that need to be worked out when a new group of people comes to town. Imagine if half the population of SF moved to Helena. The first order of business would probably be to find enough water, electricity, and other services to accommodate this new population wave. Schools, sports teams, roads, public transit, etc., would need to be built out. What if that same half the population came over the course of 15 years at 5% growth instead? That would be easier to stomach, but we’d expect the local population to complain about unexpected changes happening in their communities. Perhaps they’d need to be accommodated and maybe growth would have to be slowed down even more. Clearly 100% growth per year would be really hard on residents. So would 50%.

      • Brad says:

        The difference here is that the natives aren’t the majority. If the legislators, or because of the initiative process the people, of California decide that economic growth is more important than the narrow parochial concerns of Bay Aryans there’s little the latter can do about it.

  37. baconbits9 says:

    Adding an objection to the Manhattan reference, you are comparing the highest cost section of NYC to the average SF price, and the surrounding areas in NYC are much cheaper than either Manhattan or San Francisco. In fact Manhattan’s existence is part of what keeps prices in the rest of New York from being significantly higher, without that one crazy area with its population density 4 times higher than San Francisco, you would have all of New York’s housing prices pushed way up.

    What NIMBY has done is prevent a division of housing from popping up, if there was a portion of San Francisco that was built up like Manhattan then almost all of the other complaints would go away. A massively dense area would draw in the top earners and people who like uber dense living and leaving the surrounding areas as less dense neighborhoods with their own particular characteristics allowing for many of the NIMBY’s to actually get/keep what they want.

    Or to put it in back of the envelope terms (Wikipedia numbers), building all of SF’s 47 sq miles worth of land up to Manhattan’s (22 sq miles) density would put SF’s population at between 3 and 3.5 million people while the entire bay area (7,000 sq miles) is around 7.5 million people, that would relieve a huge amount of pressure on the surrounding areas and allow them to develop differently.

  38. fion says:

    Man, San Francisco sounds awful!

  39. arbitraryvalue says:

    This is only tangentially related to the original post, but I could use some advice. I’m a tech guy living in a high-density urban area (NYC rather than SF) and I hate this place. I think I have what Scott refers to as “purity intuitions” – my default reaction to strangers is mild disgust. Plus I have strong libertarian tendencies, so while I generally don’t want to, for example, carry around a gun, set off fireworks, or drive without car insurance (all legal in New Hampshire!) I don’t like being told that I must not do these things. I can’t leave for a variety of reasons, and I’m having trouble coping. I feel like I can’t be happy here, but I can’t think of this as my “oil rig” either because I don’t want to retire early – I love my work.

    I’ve tried a 100% work-from-home job and I couldn’t handle it; I got very depressed. Is there any other option that I’m not thinking of? Or a coping strategy?

    • rakhalchele says:

      Every group of people concentrating in a geographic region will make a set of tradeoff decisions prioritizing certain values. New York has made a set that’s incompatible with how you want to live.

      One answer is remote work, from low-density housing, while working in shared environment. It’s an increasingly popular arrangement and co-working spaces are making their way to suburbs in smaller towns.

      The other answer, and one I hope you’ll consider, is to look into therapy to try to understand that stranger disgust. It won’t solve any of the other problems with NY, but it seems like a thing that affects you regardless of where you live and the return of understanding or managing that feeling could be quite high.

    • JustToSay says:

      When I moved to where I am now (more urban than I’d like, etc), I made a lits of things I liked about my living situations and put it on the fridge. I tried to add to it as often as possible.

      I’m aware of how cheesy that is, but it did help, and you can probably list a few things (the produce is good, I have a nice view out that one window, good hours at work, a pretty tree on the way to work, that store smells nice inside, and so on). You have to avoid putting anything on the list that’s damming with faint praise or passive-aggressive.

      It’s not a big fix, but it might make tomorrow a bit more pleasant than today, even if you still need another solution.

    • watsonbladd says:

      Manchester, New Hampshire is calling your name. There is software in southern NH.

  40. Quixote says:

    Its odd to me how bad San Francisco is, when other large cities like New York or Paris are basically utopias. Brooklyn (the nicest, hippest, most historic part of NY) has twice the density of San Francisco. Paris has 50% more density than that. Consider that maybe the problem with SF doesn’t intrinsically relate to density, but rather relates to other aspects of city management.

    • Matt M says:

      Consider that maybe the problem with SF doesn’t intrinsically relate to density, but rather relates to other aspects of city management.

      Ding ding ding.

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      Queens has more density than SF, and it’s largely residential, with many low-rise apartments and single-family homes with yards.

      • Matt M says:

        I’m not very familiar with New York so please correct me if I’m wrong, but my impression is that this isn’t a valid comparison in the sense that in NY, Manhattan is the clear “business district” where everyone works, while Queens/Brooklyn/etc. are more “residential districts” where people mostly live (and commute to Manhattan).

        Given that downtown SF is definitely the “business district” it seems odd to expect it to equal the density of Queens, which is a tightly packed urban district, yes, but doesn’t have a lot of space taken up by office buildings, city halls, historic theaters, or other various things that occupy land but cannot be used to house people.

        • baconbits9 says:

          Manhattan also is more densely packed than SF, but about 4x. The business districts in New York serve as both business and residential districts, and the high rises allow this. Without that you can’t build a dual use city of size.

        • Alex Zavoluk says:

          In addition to what baconbits9 wrote, part of my point is that Queens isn’t that tightly packed. It has relatively high density for an American city but it is far from being mostly high-rises or anything like that.

        • neonwattagelimit says:

          That’s true, but 1) plenty of people live in Manhattan, and 2) plenty of people work in the other boroughs. Brooklyn, in particular, has a pretty substantial business district.

          (Also this is a minor nitpick but due to NYC’s somewhat unusual government structure, every borough has its’ own mini-civic-center, with a borough hall, courthouses, and other stuff that you’d find concentrated “downtown” in places like SF, Chicago or Boston.)

          It’s already been pointed out that Manhattan is more densely packed than SF but the thing that I find striking about SF in comparison to NYC is that the density falls off much more quickly as you move away from the center. You’ve basically got brownstone-Brooklyn density in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding downtown, and the outer neighborhoods really look more like streetcar suburbs. It seems to me that there is plenty of room to upzone SF without the whole city turning into midtown Manhattan.

          • Alex Zavoluk says:

            . It seems to me that there is plenty of room to upzone SF without the whole city turning into midtown Manhattan.

            Yep. That is basically why I’m comparing SF to Queens.

  41. Lasagna says:

    The argument in Part 5 seems much weaker than the other arguments – so weak that we should probably keep our usual policy of erring on the side of letting people live where they want.

    I disagree. This is a strong argument.

    I lived in NYC for 18 years. Nobody can accuse me of not “getting” the city or anything. I genuinely loved it when I was younger, and thought I still did up until I moved.

    But we moved out the suburbs two years ago to raise a family. I would never go back. I despise (I’m choosing that word carefully) the city now. I still commute there every day, and I can’t stand it – the broken infrastructure, the horrible smells, the $14 for a yogurt and coffee in the morning, the massive crowds of unpleasant people (how could we NOT be? We’re walking through an open sewer). There’s a litany of other things that keep me permanently angry and depressed (just the thought of how much earlier I would have started a family if I didn’t live there….) I find it decadent, selfish, shallow – pick your bad adjective. I’ll stop now.

    Where I live now is nice. We have a town we can walk to, a lawn for the kids to play on and me to mow, we cook at home, we have enough room for our family to live and the kids to get exercise, even indoors. There’s no WAY I’m giving that up so I can live in an apartment again, all so NYC can squeeze MORE people into its area.

    If I had my way, we’d be much further away from the metro area than we are now, in a bigger, cheaper home with more land. But that isn’t possible; NYC is where my job is, and that’s that. Fine. But let’s not make things worse, and make NYC (and San Francisco, and DC, and Boston) even MORE indispensable generators of jobs. And please don’t think for a second that there aren’t sizable numbers of people like me, and like you, who do not want these things for our families.

    I appreciate you even bringing this up, because in every discussion I read about housing shortages in the major metropolitan areas, it’s never mentioned. I get it if someone want to live there – hell, I wanted to live there for almost 20 years – but how is it possible that so many people seem unaware that others might not like it? You’ve never heard of people wanting the country life? You never listened to Joni Mitchel’s Woodstock?

    Thanks for letting me rant. You should have seen the first draft of this thing. Twice as long, Scott. A litany of woes and anger.

    • Brad says:

      But that isn’t possible; NYC is where my job is, and that’s that

      Revealed preferences speak louder than any rant. The city provides you with something you consider indispensable in your life, but instead of people grateful you have nothing but hatred and resentment for it. That leads you to attack the very golden goose you depend on.

      Same thing with Cerastes above.

      • Lasagna says:

        I get it if someone want to live there – hell, I wanted to live there for almost 20 years – but how is it possible that so many people seem unaware that others might not like it?

        I lived in NYC for 18 years. Nobody can accuse me of not “getting” the city or anything. I genuinely loved it when I was younger, and thought I still did up until I moved.

        I hate it NOW. I loved it for a long time, and understand why other people love it. I am pointing out that plenty of people, including me, don’t consider expanding metropolitan areas to be a worthy goal. We like to live in other neighborhoods, and aren’t willing to sacrifice them for you.

        And the idea that I should be grateful to the city for allowing me to work is hilarious. The city provides me with something indispensable – a job – partly by draining places that aren’t the city of jobs. Plus I, you know, WORK. It’s not a gift from a kindly uncle. I don’t owe it anything.

        • Brad says:

          I am pointing out that plenty of people, including me, don’t consider expanding metropolitan areas to be a worthy goal

          Which means fewer high value jobs, like the one you consider indispensable, and the positive externalities that flow from those high value jobs. But that’s okay, because–fuck you, I’ve got mine.

        • baconbits9 says:

          What is so irreplaceable about your job that you have to do it in NYC?

          • Lasagna says:

            Because my industry is primarily located here. I could do it in a few other metropolitan hubs – only a few – but that just results in the same situation.

            Again, my point is simply that many of us don’t want to raise our families in urban nightmares spaces. I understand that it can be difficult for people who live there now to understand that lots of us hate the atomization, cramped quarters, anonymity, noise, and on and on. I understand that because I used to BE one of the people who didn’t mind these things.

            But there’s an attitude running through a lot of these comments that treats NOT wanting to live in a city as some kind of character flaw, or a demand for a luxury that shouldn’t be permitted. I don’t know where that comes from – there’s nothing more luxurious than living in NYC, I don’t know why people here seem to believe that THAT luxury is a right, while wanting a quiet home is something intolerable, to be taken away by the whims of city planners and the demands of the market. So: people have communities we don’t want displaced, land we worked hard to buy, extended families we want to stay close with, green areas we want to keep. And they’ll going to fight to preserve them.

          • Randy M says:

            or a demand for a luxury that shouldn’t be permitted.

            I think they’d reply that it is a demand for a luxury without paying for it that shouldn’t be permitted–or rather, paid attention to.
            I think this oversimplifies the effects of government on communities and it has to be shown that large urban centers are the only efficient mode of organization, but they may have a point if they account for that, in that you can’t demand Mayberry if Manhattan is able to provide for more people more efficiently.
            At least not if you aren’t independently wealthy.

          • Matt M says:

            But there’s an attitude running through a lot of these comments that treats NOT wanting to live in a city as some kind of character flaw, or a demand for a luxury that shouldn’t be permitted.

            IMO, it’s a character flaw to not acknowledge trade-offs. Demanding a very high paying job that also happens to be located in your own idyllic geographic preference is, IMO, a demand for a luxury. That betrays a very poor understanding of simple economics.

            Most disproportionately-high paying jobs exist either in ultra-dense urban hellscapes, or remote and unpleasant rural hellscapes. If you want to live in a nice, Mayberry-esque, small-town in Kansas, you can do that if you want, but then you don’t get to complain about how there aren’t any “good jobs” and how everyone has to work in the service sector. Conversely, if you want to make a lot of money and have a dynamic career with a lot of local options and potential for advancement, you don’t get to complain that this requires you to live in NY or SF.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Other industries exist, right? Why are you so tied to your industry that improving your quality of life isn’t a consideration?

            Again, my point is simply that many of us don’t want to raise our families in urban nightmares spaces.

            I get that, I have no desire to raise my family in a major city, but the issue that comes up is one of prioritizing. So often these discussions seem to boil down to “I state that I want X, but act like I want Y”.

          • cryptoshill says:

            A decent argument for density here is that denser urban cores allow for more suburban areas that don’t suck, and more people in them. You will still be eating a commute of some type, but it won’t be the 2-hour hellscape that say, the I5 North into Seattle is on a Monday morning.

            The real NIMBY problem is the old-growth suburbs and urban cores that refuse to densify, causing sprawl. Meaning the the atomized car-centric suburbia on 1/4-acre lots just continues on outward, forever.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        I’m writing this as a current Manhattan resident who thinks that New York City is the best city in the country, if not the world:

        Lasagna isn’t being ungrateful here.

        The things which make the city great don’t have to be a package deal with the things that make it awful. The panhandlers and piles of garbage bags on every sidewalk aren’t contributing to the city’s economy or culture, they’re a sign of a city which is simultaneously very successful and quite poorly managed. Better managed than most American cities but that’s an incredibly low bar to clear.

        The city could easily be more accommodating to families without sacrificing growth; if anything, the ongoing gentrification of neighborhoods in the outer boroughs shows that making a neighborhood safe and livable increases its fortunes.

        The only people who lose out when the city becomes more livable are the political machine and its clients.

        • Lasagna says:

          Thank you, Nabil. I appreciate the sentiment.

          And remember that I lived there for almost two decades, obviously I also found a lot to love (which I also said in my post). But I find a lot MORE to love outside the city, and those of use who choose not to live there (or are forced out, which was also a part of me leaving – raising a family there on my salary wasn’t an option, but I didn’t feel like complicating this story) would like it if we weren’t told we were, for some reason, required to urbanize.

        • Brad says:

          @Nabil ad Dajjal
          I agree with you about the garbage and the panhandlers. But what about the teeming crowds, the $5 coffee, or the lack of private lawns for kids to play on? Those are the things that are fundamental to high density which in turn is a necessary ingredient to NYC being the economic engine it is (which is turn is necessary for the existence of his fairy tale suburb).

          If the city needs to grow to keep that engine going, yes it is going to displace some people’s suburban utopias, but I don’t see why I should care. They can then move further out to the new suburban frontier. Meanwhile millions, if not billions, of people will be better off then they would be if we stopped letting our country’s most dynamic cities (which remember take up only a tiny tiny fraction of land is this country) do their thing.

          • cryptoshill says:

            Those suburban utopias were built by people and communities, and expecting those people to pack up and leave sometimes hundreds of years of hard work behind because you want to make more city is basically assuming your opponents are moral monsters.

            I grew up in one of the old-growth suburbs you advocate vehemently against. It truly is a unique and amazing place to raise children, near-zero violent crime, a high school whose band has won multiple grammys and has options for a student to become the very tops at any field they wish (including vocational fields like automotives, cad drafting, wood shop etc), plenty of greenspace and public parks, as well as being full of old oak trees such that you can’t see the sky except when you’re in the street.

            The answer to the people who currently are paying absurd prices and property taxes to keep it that way being “fuck you” is exactly why NIMBYs continue to exist and close ranks on you.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Those suburban utopias were built by people and communities, and expecting those people to pack up and leave sometimes hundreds of years of hard work behind because you want to make more city is basically assuming your opponents are moral monsters..

            No one is demanding they leave, they are offering to pay them millions of dollars to leave. NIMBYers know that some of their neighbors would take that money and are blocking them from doing so.

          • Lasagna says:

            NIMBYers know that some of their neighbors would take that money and are blocking them from doing so.

            Yes, they are. That’s how you preserve a neighborhood, by not allowing people to destroy it, even if they would make money doing so.

            I understand that offends your preference for as close to complete individual autonomy as possible, and I respect the libertarian perspective even when I disagree with it. But you aren’t expressing some fundamental moral position that the rest of us have to get on board with or be evil.

            More to the point, this is typically part of the deal when you move into a neighborhood! If you buy the house next to mine, you buy it already knowing that you aren’t going to be able to build an apartment building or a dance club or a gun range on the lot, even if you really really really want to and would make tons of money doing so. And these restrictions evolve as circumstances change, hopefully all with the goal of preserving the community.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            Slightly off-topic, but I actually live and work within blocks of a place selling $2 chai lattes, although obviously that’s substantially below the average price. You can find relatively inexpensive food if you’re willing to pay in time rather than money.

            Back on topic:

            I guess it comes down to what the objection is.

            I’ve been to parts of Queens and Brooklyn in the last few years that look remarkably suburban. One house and a small yard per family, clean quiet streets, green trees, the whole nine yards. I can’t speak to the cost of groceries there but evidently it’s not out of the price range of a lab technician’s salary.

            If Lasagna would consider an area like that acceptable than I don’t think he’s asking for anything unreasonable.

            If, on the other hand, he considers the population density itself and not the noise, smell, traffic, crime, etc. to be the issue I would agree.

            I read it as more of the former, you seem to be reading it as more of the latter.

          • arbitraryvalue says:

            No one is demanding they leave, they are offering to pay them millions of dollars to leave. NIMBYers know that some of their neighbors would take that money and are blocking them from doing so.

            Preventing someone from building high-density housing in a low-density community is exactly the sort of coordination problem which local government should solve. It’s a bunch of people coming together and saying “each of us wants to live in a low-density community, but none of us are billionaires who can afford to buy an entire community, so we all agree not to build high-density housing on our land, no matter how much money that would get us.”

          • cryptoshill says:

            It’s basically a precommitment to not-defect. I am aware that this has negative consequences on the growth of our cities (mainly , you have to build around any neighborhood that has a sufficiently motivated populace) but I am not sure how you fight them on this. If the march of the urban core was much slower than it is now (due to densification of urban areas at the same time) I could see those area just slowly moving outward, but at present – unless *everybody* precommits to YIMBYism – it’s just the rest of society benefiting at your expense.

          • Lasagna says:

            @Nabil: We almost moved to an area like that, actually, though it was still out of our price range. Obviously I would find them more than acceptable, but that isn’t really my point.

            The discussion is about removing restrictions on building in neighborhoods that have them in order to expand metro areas. My point, made using myself as an example, is pretty straightforward:

            1. We left NYC to start a family. We couldn’t afford to do that in the city, and didn’t want to besides.
            2. We moved to a house we could afford, in a suburban neighborhood we liked, near where we both grew up, and therefore surrounded by friends and family.
            3. We’ve found we love this arrangement, and would like to keep it.
            4. Therefore we are against bulldozing our neighborhood to expand the city. We don’t consider that a worthy goal, and would much prefer that resources be spent to expand areas in the nation that could use an injection of jobs and development. In any case, it is now our neighborhood, and we do not want it to be either socially engineered or libertarian-ed out of existence.
            5. None of this is morally unacceptable. It’s strange that so many people seem to have trouble understanding other people’s attachment to their land, communities, and proximity to their friends and family. These attachments are normal and righteous.
            6. Oh and yes: I have done a 180 on NYC, and really don’t like having to spend most of my life working there (and commuting into it; what a pain in the ass). Tough shit for me; I don’t get to ask the city to change. I DO, however, get to fight against city devouring my neighborhood.

          • Brad says:

            @arbitraryvalue

            Preventing someone from building high-density housing in a low-density community is exactly the sort of coordination problem which local government should solve.

            No, it’s exactly the kind of prioritization of parochial local interests over those of the nation that can and should be overridden by a higher level of government.

            It’s a bunch of people coming together and saying “each of us wants to live in a low-density community, but none of us are billionaires who can afford to buy an entire community, so we all agree not to build high-density housing on our land, no matter how much money that would get us.”

            I mentioned the long history in the US of utopian communities. There’s also private communities along less utopian lines. The option to to actually buy all of it is open. But they don’t want to do that because they want all the advantages that come from being an ordinary part of the state and country while also treating it as quasi-private property. They also insist that governments at every level do everything in their considerable powers to ensure that the party keeps going and their houses increase in value more than the rate of general inflation for another generation.

            Yes, this is immoral.

            @crytoshill

            I grew up in one of the old-growth suburbs you advocate vehemently against.

            Was it named Omelas by any chance?

          • baconbits9 says:

            preventing someone from building high-density housing in a low-density community is exactly the sort of coordination problem which local government should solve. It’s a bunch of people coming together and saying “each of us wants to live in a low-density community, but none of us are billionaires who can afford to buy an entire community, so we all agree not to build high-density housing on our land, no matter how much money that would get us.”

            This is just trying to frame the question to get a preferred outcome, stating that there is a problem with high rises in low rise areas is dishonest in the same way that describing people who choose to sell in the face of change as being forced out.

            NIMBYism is not characterized by people demanding that no changes occur in their city, it is characterized by people demanding changes as long as those changes don’t harm them. NIMBYers are typically in agreement that many things need to be improved, better sewer lines, more public transit, cleaner streets, better schools but that the major work which should be done on these issues should not inconvenience them. It becomes a negative sum game where everyone is trying to hoist the costs onto other portions of the town while reaping the benefits of improved infrastructure (housing is after all infrastructure). NIMBY isn’t NOT IN MY CITY but NOT IN MY BACKYARD (obviously not literally).

            Local governments fail to resolve these issues because blocking development through voting is easier than getting it passed because preferences don’t get weighted properly though democratic systems. A vote for a weakly held preference has the same weight as a vote for a strongly held preference. 10 homeowners who say NIMBY at the ballot outweighs 1 developer who owns 10 lots but gets 0 or 1 vote for those lots. This prevents coalition building in one direction once basic levels of NIMBYism are in place, those who want to sell out this year would have to convince people who want to sell out over the next few years to vote their way, but to vote their way NOW importantly. The best outcome for someone who will sell in 5 years is 4 more years worth of the current state of affairs and then a repeal of restrictions so they can sell for more.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Yes, they are. That’s how you preserve a neighborhood, by not allowing people to destroy it, even if they would make money doing so.

            A 4 story apartment building would destroy a neighborhood? A 3 story house? The housing restrictions in many places are not simply “no 50 story skyscrapers” but are basically “the city council can veto any plan that effects the aesthetic of the town”. What ends up happening is that a developer wants to build on J street and one person on J street objects. They go through the plans and point out to all their neighbors that the extra units will mean tearing up parts of the road and making parking an issue for the duration of construction, then points out there there is a perfectly good building lot on N street, why not develop there? All the J street residents show up and let it be known that they won’t vote for any council member who approves of the plan. Roughly zero people from A to K street show up, who has the time to show up to every council meeting?

          • Lasagna says:

            A 4 story apartment building would destroy a neighborhood? A 3 story house?

            Well, yes, a four story apartment building can absolutely hurt a neighborhood. It’s exactly the thing we’re talking about. Like I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not going to be OK if you build an apartment building next to my single-family house, which is located in a neighborhood of single families homes. It was part of the reason we moved to the area. Quiet, single family homes, low population density, low traffic.

            But yes, I hear you otherwise. Local council regulations can make life extremely difficult for homeowners, developers, and business owners. It’s designed to do so. And it can make you fucking insane when you’ve got to deal with it. My sister-in-law is going through that right now – she and her husband want a variance to build a deck. You can’t just apply for the variance. She has to submit the design, have it rejected because the deck isn’t up to code, and THEN apply for the variance. It’s taken up almost five months so far, and it’ll probably be three more before it’s approved. The whole process is put there to discourage people from asking for variances.

            While I understand your frustration if you’re trying to get something done on your house, I don’t see how it amounts to something actionable, at least on the levels we’re talking about here. You can’t build what you want in Scarsdale? I guess you’ll have to go build it somewhere else or do without. That community has put this stuff in place in order to discourage development. I see no problem with that goal. I understand you do, but there are plenty of communities that WANT to encourage development. Go there instead. Haven’t you given that exact advice elsewhere?

          • baconbits9 says:

            The other thing about destroying neighborhoods is that a good way to do it is create a situation where the city council has veto power on development and infrastructure can’t be maintained. Rust Belt cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh were vibrant urban areas at points in their history who fell into decay in part at least due to politicians extracting rents in the form of votes and legal (and illegal) bribes. There was a Boston (area?) mayor whose name escapes me who was known for vote grabbing among the Irish population, essentially driving off other ethnic groups and damaging the city. It isn’t always a question of “build or not build” but of what happens when the power structure is ingrained and some ass gets a hold of it.

          • cryptoshill says:

            @Brad – Wilmette Illinois, land of very rich people, poor people desperately trying to maintain cost of living to have their kids attend the very good high school there, and lots of high-power teenagers that are Going Places as well as total burnout twenty-somethings. You could say it’s Omelasian, and the child in this case is the property tax rate – my family pays $32,000 per year in property tax and that’s considered *extraordinarily low* for the area.

            As to your point about prioritizing parochial local interests over the interests of the nation – why do your preferences for how the nation should work magically override a given local community’s preferences? Remember – they live there and own property there, you don’t and just want cheaper housing on net. The power *should* be in their hands, which is why you should be trying to *convince* them to densify and find solutions that work for their preferences and are still denser (1/4 acre lot houses, or a midrise apartment building in the downtown area, or *something) instead of ranting on about how the people who would like these places to stay roughly that way are evil and immoral.

            Usually the concern is crime, but I am pretty sure you could put infinite apartments where I grew up without changing it from “roughly zero crime” to “crime and poverty ridden hellhole”.

    • Temple says:

      You don’t have to live in a city. Nobody wants to turn your suburb into a city. We want to densify the already denser-than-you-like areas of the country. The only thing we ask is that you don’t actively hinder that process.

      I understand the tradeoff. If cities densify, cities will be more attractive places for employers to go and jobs will move to the city. That might harm you. But it seems awfully selfish to say that such a large mass of people and employers need to accept suboptimal conditions so that you can live optimally. I’d rather take the more libertarian position that says, let employers employ wherever they see fit, let people live wherever they see fit, don’t use the government to prevent others from enjoying their preferred lifestyle and they won’t use the government to prevent you from enjoying yours.

      • Lasagna says:

        I think you’re incorrect – from what Scott is describing, this is precisely what’s happening in a huge way in San Francisco, by demanding that urbanization take over the whole Bay area. And in my suburb, the town board routinely has to reject re-zoning requests from developers who want to turn single-family lots into high density residential buildings. But OK, you think that YIMBY activists are solely demanding that only Manhattan (or maybe you mean the five boroughs, although all the other boroughs have huge swaths of non-urban areas) be made more dense.

        If it turns out I’m right – if you start to realize that there are demands that suburbs lose the sub- – will you oppose them?

        You also missed what I was saying. I never demanded that my employer move out the suburbs. I understand that I have to work in the city; I simply said that I hate it, and moved out. All I’ve said is that I don’t the town that I moved to destroyed to make way for urban sprawl.

        • Hendi says:

          At some point this just becomes a numbers issue: there simply aren’t enough people to have the entire NY metro area be as dense as Manhattan. For instance, if you built Nassau County out to Manhattan levels of density it would hold 30 million people — that’s 5 times as many as currently live in the five boroughs, more than the population of New York state as a whole. And even then there would still be plenty of suburbs in Westchester, southern CT, and northern NJ.

          I think what most YIMBYs want would be to go at a measured pace: let’s start by allowing the Lower East Side and Hell’s Kitchen to be built to the Upper East Side’s density. If housing is still too expensive we can upzone Park Slope and Sunnyside. Still seeing a lot of condos trading hands for $1500/ft? Maybe we extend the PATH train and build Bayonne out to look a bit more like Jersey City and upzone a few blocks around every LIRR stop (literally a few blocks, not whole neighborhoods). I think you’d hit an equilibrium that brings housing prices to reasonable levels long before we start bulldozing every last house in the suburbs.

      • The Nybbler says:

        You don’t have to live in a city. Nobody wants to turn your suburb into a city.

        Nonsense:

        If the city needs to grow to keep that engine going, yes it is going to displace some people’s suburban utopias, but I don’t see why I should care. They can then move further out to the new suburban frontier.

        • Brad says:

          I don’t think the government should bulldoze his suburb and build highrises. Governments, at least the ones I know best, are terrible at building things.

          What I’d like is for higher levels of government to step in a prevent local governments from value destroying regulations that can’t be justified in any way other than appeal to personal self interest. That have not even a shred of appeal to public reason behind them. Bypassing such parochial, narrow interest is one of the reasons we have higher levels of government in the first place.

          If Scarsdale wants to secede from the United States, I’d give the request a respectful listen, but that’s not the ask here (of course).

          • The Nybbler says:

            Governments can’t help but regulate land use. We’re never going to get a libertarian policy. Instead, we’ll get a selective policy that people can pretend is libertarian when they’re arguing with libertarians. So the suburbanites will be told “We’re building dense housing here, tough luck.” But when the suburbanites decide this sucks and try to buy an acre of rural (or rural-ish) land to build their house on, they’ll be told “Sorry, anything outside our growth boundary is agricultural preservation land”.

          • Brad says:

            I don’t know what there is to talk about if you are going to go all conflict theorist on me.

    • neonwattagelimit says:

      I don’t think anyone is asking you to live in an apartment, though.

      I live in one of the few parts of Brooklyn that is near-ish to Manhattan and still has developable land. When I first moved here, I signed up for an email list for a community group, thinking it might be nice to get involved in local issues a bit. This group was utterly fixated on the impending construction of a large mid-rise apartment complex in a part of the neighborhood that was at the time occupied by literally nothing: it was empty lots and mostly-unused warehouses. The group was dead set on fighting it, arguing it will “change the character of the neighborhood” and “accelerate gentrification” (the group’s members were mostly white and seemingly middle-class, FWIW).

      And look, on some level, I get it: it’s a low-rise neighborhood, and they like it that way. I like it that way, too. But they’ve got to build new housing somewhere, and this neighborhood actually has space. It just seemed utterly, preposterously, selfish to me. (And in the end the development was built and it did not change the neighborhood all that much, in my view).

      That, to me, is NIMBYism. Not someone who lives in a house in the suburbs wishing to continue to live in a house in the suburbs. At most, at YIMBY might argue that they should put in some townhouses or garden apartments near your local train station. Nobody’s saying a high-rise needs to go up next door, much less trying to force you back into an apartment.

      Also, I agree with you that it would probably be better for everyone if good jobs were more dispersed among different cities.

      • Matt M says:

        At some point, we as a society probably need to have a conversation regarding what level of change to a neighborhood is acceptable and what isn’t.

        Think of two edge cases here. On the one hand, if someone buys a nice quiet house in a suburban neighborhood, and immediately someone else purchases all of the land surrounding them and builds giant towers of low-income housing, that’s pretty clearly shitty and the resident probably has some right to complain.

        On the other hand, someone presumably can’t buy a house and then claim it entitles them to have zero physical changes to everything within a 5-mile radius of themselves for the next 100 years. That’s clearly unreasonable.

        Obviously the truth lies somewhere in the middle – but where exactly?

        • neonwattagelimit says:

          I’m not sure that this is something that needs to be decided at a society-wide level, but I do agree with you that there is a line here and it is far from clear exactly where that line is. But it does not seem like a question to which a clear, consistent answer can be found.

        • Brad says:

          I think a big part of the problem here is with individual home-ownership run amok. If it was a big company that bought some lot of land hoping to use it for X and it turned out that some other company bought all the plots around it such that the first lot was no longer very suitable for X, we’d be much more likely to say tough shit.

          If the person in your first example just rented a nice quiet house from a big commercial landlord, we’d probably say that maybe the landlord should let her out of her lease, but wouldn’t say that those giant towers should be blocked from going up.

          That said, there are people that would say that they shouldn’t go up if she had been renting that house for twenty years. I disagree, but in fairness I should note that they exist.

        • ReaperReader says:

          Why is that pretty shitty? If the resident wanted the land around them to stay the same, why didn’t they buy it themself? If they can’t afford to buy it all themselves then why should I care more about this random person than the people who can’t afford to buy or rent a house at all?

          If I want to be a big singing star do I have a right to complain if you decide to embark on a singing career and turn out to be way more popular than me?

          If I start a company dedicated to cold fusion and you do too and you get to market a year ahead of me do I get to complain that you destroyed the potential value of my company?

      • Lasagna says:

        I don’t think anyone is asking you to live in an apartment, though.

        Am I confused about Scott’s article? A few people have said this, but as far as I can tell, that is EXACTLY what YIMBY’s are doing in San Francisco. The argument is to remove zoning restrictions so high-density apartment buildings can be built where single family homes are now, right? Or are you just pointing out that nobody is doing that in my NY suburb at this moment?

        While I hear the rest of your argument, I don’t believe that it plays out the way you think. If the high rise apartment building gets built in your neighborhood, traffic massively increases. And if one, why not five more? Not wanting that is selfish, yes, but so is my desire to keep my house. “Selfish” is not an argument-killer.

        • neonwattagelimit says:

          Am I confused about Scott’s article? A few people have said this, but as far as I can tell, that is EXACTLY what YIMBY’s are doing in San Francisco. The argument is to remove zoning restrictions so high-density apartment buildings can be built where single family homes are now, right? Or are you just pointing out that nobody is doing that in my NY suburb at this moment?

          I am admittedly more familiar with NY, but it does seem to me that the crux of YIMBY is more like “let’s put more high-rises in Greenwich Village” rather than “let’s make everyone in Scarsdale move to apartments.” I think Scott is perhaps mischaracterizing things a bit. That said, it does strike me as possible that the situation you describe is more prevalent in the Bay Area due to its’ rather unique urban geography – SF is markedly denser than surrounding communities. So I don’t know.

          I do know, however, that building more apartments in Brooklyn is not going to appreciably impact your life one way or the other.

          While I hear the rest of your argument, I don’t believe that it plays out the way you think. If the high rise apartment building gets built in your neighborhood, traffic massively increases. And if one, why not five more? Not wanting that is selfish, yes, but so is my desire to keep my house. “Selfish” is not an argument-killer.

          I live in the same neighborhood, and I lived here before the new development I describe was built. Traffic has not appreciably increased, although most of the new residents probably do not own cars. (There is the problem of TLC drivers stopping in the middle of the street everywhere, but that’s happening all over the city and seems to be a direct consequence of Uber and Lyft.) The local subway stations do not feel any more crowded than they did before. Gentrification has intensified somewhat, but that was probably going to happen, anyway.

          In other words: it plays out pretty much the way I think, at least in this instance, because I have actually seen it play out.

          And why not five more? Well, that’s a good question. It goes back to Matt M’s comment about the line between acceptable and unacceptable levels of neighborhood change. I don’t really think this is something you can generalize about; the answer depends heavily upon a locality’s specific circumstances. But some level of development has to be acceptable.

          • Hendi says:

            I think the point about now wanting to bulldoze the suburbs can be made even more strongly than that. Let’s say a YIMBY finds a magic lamp and *presto* as of tomorrow there are no more zoning restrictions in the US. If that happened it would not be economically feasible to build a hundred condo towers in Scarsdale. (Also a hundred condo towers wouldn’t take up very much of the land in Scarsdale, which is 3.5x the size of the upper west side.) If I had to guess, if that were to happen the kinds of places that would actually see major, overnight upheaval would be in lower Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn. Maybe some condos would get built near LIRR stops?

          • arbitraryvalue says:

            @Hendi

            I thought the worry wasn’t “my own house will be replaced by condo towers” which doesn’t really make sense because no one is being forced to sell his house. Rather, the worry is “my neighbor’s house will be replaced by condo towers, and I’ll have to live next to them” and this is entirely compatible with your statement that such towers would not be build literally everywhere.

          • Hendi says:

            I suppose my claim is not “would not be built anywhere”, but is rather “would not be built in the great majority of places, even in wealthy and growing metro areas”. Land is only valuable enough to support dense developments in a few, very select places. There would still be en enormous number of suburban style dwellings for people who want to live in them. It is narrowly the case that a small number of people would find themselves living adjacent to new, dense developments, but the worst possible outcome for those people is probably something like “sell my house for a lot more money than it was previously worth and move a few blocks further away from the train station to a very similar house”.

          • arbitraryvalue says:

            @Hendi

            If we assume that your scenario is accurate, why do you think that suburban homeowners oppose high density housing? I’m not asking that as a trick question – while I expect that allowing high-density construction would not be the sort of win-win scenario you describe, I am no expert and I can’t say that you’re wrong a priori. But if I am wrong, then a lot of people with large sums of money invested in being correct are also wrong. What are they thinking?

          • mtl1882 says:

            @neonwattagelimit

            My experiences have been very similar to yours. I am sure the nature of the issue varies widely with the circumstances, particularly geographic ones. But I live in the suburbs very close to Boston, and I used to live in one that is the “best” one. There are a lot of wealthy people, but the NIMBYs seem middle class – probably upper middle by most standards, but not by this town. They probably bought the homes a while ago when they were somewhat cheaper. It’s very suburban but not sleepy. It really needs more housing, especially next to public transportation. Every so often a developer proposes what seems to be a reasonable nice apartment building. It gets labeled as affordable/low income housing, but that is defined as like 80% of the median income or something, which is like 100k. So it’s not cheap. Traffic is bad, so I see that concern, but a lot of people would take the public transportation. And it would bring with it some stores and things in the place of buildings not really being used. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I think it is extremely reasonable. The NIMBYs have a meltdown. I don’t even think it would be visible to them, but the traffic etc. character of the neighborhood etc. Now, they are entitled to these complaints, which may be reasonable. But that is not why they’re making them. These seemingly normal people, usually women, middle aged, not fancy, lose their minds over the issue. It’s truly pathological. It turns into a massive fight every time, and the city has refused to comply with state housing laws for so long that it is courting legal trouble. And compliance is easy – there are several places for small complexes to go that are perfect. If they planned it out right, they’d have a way better situation than any other town. But they’d apparently rather be forced by court order into a situation that is probably less favorable. They view the developers as the devil. Of course, many of the developers probably don’t seem interested in much but money, because that’s what they do, and they’re probably condescending, and the hearings descend into nuttiness. I used to screenshot the livetweets of the meetings. There was just an overriding panic and irrationality completely disproportionate to the situation, and I’m trying to be as objective as I can. People were often in tears.

            This is not always the case, but it’s a thing. It is not viewed as a win-win. It really bothers some people. Some of it may be that they don’t want to sell the house, and they want their kids to buy nearby. But since the kids grew up, prices have gone up so high they’ll never be able to. But that’s more the fault of the people tearing down all the old houses to build massive mcmansions.

    • ReaperReader says:

      Other people with lower incomes than you are dreaming of an apartment with two bedrooms so they can have one room for themselves and one for their kids. Or a stable home so they don’t need to keep moving and having to put their kids into new schools.

      Though I’m a bit puzzled by “cook at home”, given the things I’ve cooked equipped only with a camp stove, a billy, a table spoon and a pocket knife.

    • glorkvorn says:

      Where I live now is nice. We have a town we can walk to, a lawn for the kids to play on and me to mow, we cook at home, we have enough room for our family to live and the kids to get exercise, even indoors. There’s no WAY I’m giving that up so I can live in an apartment again, all so NYC can squeeze MORE people into its area.

      Is it the density of NYC/Manhattan that you hate, or is it the prices?

      Suppose we lived in an alternate universe where Manhattan has the same population that it does now, but it’s even taller/denser. Like, completely covered by buildings as tall as the Empire State Building. In this alternate universe, there’s so much real estate available that it costs the same as a suburban house- you can buy a whole floor or two of a building just for yourself, on a middle class salary. And then it seems like you still have all the same things you’d want- a big kitchen for cooking, room for your kids to run around, maybe even an indoor (or balcony) lawn if you really want that. It’s just up in the air, instead of at ground level.

      I just feel like we’ve internalized the idea that a big city also means very expensive real estate, which leads to shoebox apartments. But in theory it doesn’t have to be that way- you could have the same price per square foot as the suburbs. It just never seems to work out that way, for some reason.

      • The Nybbler says:

        But in theory it doesn’t have to be that way- you could have the same price per square foot as the suburbs. It just never seems to work out that way, for some reason.

        Building vertically is extremely expensive. So it doesn’t make economic sense until you can get prices for your building that are well above the level at which a middle-class professional can buy a whole floor.

        • Matt M says:

          Indeed. Skyscrapers have anti-economies of scale. The higher you try to go, the more expensive it gets.

  42. Michael Cohen says:

    I just want to add that San Fransisco is my favorite city in the world

  43. fr8train_ssc says:

    A counter-argument that goes along with 5b:

    5b. Okay, sorry. Oops, I was wrong about the housing prices. Now that I’ve said that, don’t you also think that building more housing would at least allow the people who want to live in San Francisco to do so?

    Kleiber’s Law
    Kleiber’s law predicts that as cities grow, they become both more efficient and innovative, in a non-linear fashion. If San Francisco doubled its population, it would lead to 2.37x as much innovation coming out of it, while only using 84% of the energy compared to having a second city of the same size exist somewhere else. I would assume YIMBY’s invoke this argument, and so a good steel-man (IMHO) would at least acknowledge that. I know Scott briefly touched on robustness:

    I’ve heard some people say the federal government should take an active interest in decentralizing tech, since right now one well-placed tsunami could wipe out the United States’ entire technological advantage. I don’t know if this would be a good idea.

    Thus a good counterargument would be “Hey, SF could have Another 7.9 quake and damage would also scale non-linearly.”
    Though if California is due for another quake, it could happen that the issue will resolve itself: either via tech extricating itself after the quake (We won’t be able to expand here since the next few years will be spent rebuilding, time to find a better place) or all the NIMBYs lose their houses and end up selling their properties anyway to developers.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      The most interesting counterargument I’ve heard is that America has lots of huge cities, and yet most of the best innovation came from very suburban Silicon Valley.

      I realize this is just an anecdote, but it’s a pretty important one. I wonder if the “startup in your garage” mentality works better if you actually have garages.

      • Matt M says:

        Well, most suburbs don’t happen to be located in reasonable commuting distance from multiple elite-level research universities, either.

      • moridinamael says:

        Is it true that “most of the innovation” comes from Silicon Valley in a quantitative sense? Honest question. I know most of the website-and-mass-market-gadget companies are there, but I’m not sure in what sense we ought to count better-targeted ad delivery as an innovation, relative to incremental innovations happening in other cities like building a new and improved subsurface drilling tool, or a more efficient and faster jet engine, or a more robust metal alloy.

        I feel like the most parsimonious explanation for the apparent rapid rate of “innovation” in Silicon Valley is just … the generalization of Moore’s Law providing a continually expanding/accelerating buffet of opportunities for innovation. It’s happening because “tech” is a kind of exponentially-growing, capital-unintensive field of opportunities, in a way that jet engine design is not. If this is true, then many differences between Silicon Valley and other cities are epiphenomena secondary to the fact that “tech” has chosen Silicon Valley/SF.

        • fr8train_ssc says:

          This. Assuming Silicon Valley and the Bay Area as the pinnacle of innovation discounts other cities like
          Pittsburgh (even not including robotics and metallurgy over the last century and a half) or Boston. Certainly Silicon valley had/haa Apple, Google, Intel, Oracle, SUN Microsystems… but the New York City area had/has Bell Labs (Under various ownership) Bloomburg, IBM, L3, RCA… I don’t doubt silicon valley may have been a leader in computer and Internet related innovation, but a lot of innovations in the infrastructure that would support what happened there has happened outside Silicon valley.

      • Doug says:

        This is somewhat akin to a common complaint among chefs in NYC. Rents are so high, that opening a successful restaurant requires high revenue streams from day one. Nobody wants to take the risk to do something new or innovative. And even established, famous but experimental restaurants, like WD-50, find themselves victims of rising real estate tides. A lot of people will tell you that the best restaurant city in America is Chicago, precisely because of the soft real estate market.

        I think this goes back to the explore-exploit dichotomy in optimization. In general putting the screws to people probably does lead to higher aggregate productivity. Cities tend to focus people into survival mode. Most people will respond to an easier quality of life by being a little bit lazier, sloppier or less success-driven.

        But at least some small minority of people will use the freedom to take some big risk that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And at least some small proportion of those big risks will payoff in a way that benefits society at large.

        https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/24/dining/union-square-cafe-joins-other-victims-of-new-york-citys-rising-rents.html

  44. QW says:

    The first is that the argument for ignoring the costs of new construction to existing communities have always relied on the humanitarian necessity of lowering rents for the disadvantaged. If all we’re trying to do is be able to pack a few more people who can pay $3500 a month in, the humanitarian necessity seems less pressing.

    Of course, neither the cost nor the benefit should be ignored. In a simple world, you could say that the benefit exceeds the cost if those in the existing communities would be willing to pay more to stop construction than people are willing to pay for the new apartments. Somehow I think that would not be the case.

    Regardless of whether you think the burden of new construction or lack thereof should actually be borne by the existing communities or someone else, the fact remains that preventing new construction probably does impose a cost to someone else (who could have otherwise moved there). If existing communities don’t bear any of the cost of preventing new construction, they’ll always have the incentive to try to prevent it even when the costs to the society exceed the benefits.

    Also, the new inhabitants might not be very disadvantaged but I assume neither are the old ones.

  45. gbdub says:

    A couple thought on growth rate:
    1) Growth alone isn’t that relevant, it’s the rate of growth vs. the demand that gets you. Some of the other cities in your tables (particularly the metro area one which is the most valid) are experiencing little or no net growth because there is no demand. I’d like to see what growth rate cities other than SF would need to maintain to keep rents stable – I’m guessing SF would look like more of an outlier there (in terms of the difference between “actual housing growth” and “growth that stabilizes rent”).

    2) My understanding of the Bay Area is that it is unique in being both geographically restricted AND relatively low density. It doesn’t really make sense to combine growth rate of housing in SF vs. Manhattan – Manhattan is already completely tiled with near-maximal density buildings. It should be possible to sustain more growth (at least short term) going from “medium density” to “maximum density” than going from “maximum density” to “super maximum density”.

    EDIT: 3) What does the distribution of housing in the SF area look like? My impression of NYC is that yeah, Manhattan is crazy dense and expensive, but across the 5 boroughs (and especially if you cross over into NJ) you’ve got a pretty wide range of everything from ultra-posh to relatively affordable.

    Is part of the problem in SF not just the median price, but a smaller distribution on the low side of the median price?

  46. gbdub says:

    This post is an interesting addressing of some YIMBY points, but I think it’s a poor steelman of NIMBYism.

    For one thing, my impression of YIMBYs is that it’s not just the goals of NIMBYism that irk them, but the way NIMBYs go about achieving those goals. Overly restrictive zoning, overly complicated processes for approving new building proposals, ever growing lists of regulations on building codes and environmental impacts, artificial caps on property taxes, etc. These could all have potentially distortionary effects on the market. A good NIMBY steelman would have to steelman their methods, not just make me more sympathetic to their goals.

    Also, this only covers “building more housing”. NIMBY goes much farther than that – my original experience with the term had more to do with rich NIMBYs shutting down critical infrastructure / public works in their immediate vicinity (which, because every backyard is somebody’s, means it either never gets built or gets plopped on top of poor people with less political clout). The ur example is Ted Kennedy shutting down offshore wind farms that might spoil his Martha’s Vineyard view. I think the case against that kind of NIMBY is a stronger one, and should probably be addressed here.

    • rahien.din says:

      The rare motte-and-motte-and-bailey.

    • Tarpitz says:

      A friend’s father once went to a local meeting to object to some building project. Someone accused him of being a NIMBY, and he asked them what it meant. When told, he replied, full of Northumbrian righteousness, “Well aye, exactly. Not in my back yard!”

  47. arlie says:

    Fun article to wake up to.

    This is not a subject I’ve ever studied. I have my own preconceptions, but so does everyone. But I live in the “South Bay – part of the same urban area, but perhaps 1 hr drive from San Francisco proper. So I have some idea of conditions on the ground.

    One thing I do note though, with my foreign background, is the description of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, aka something kind of like a subway, but mostly above ground, for those who don’t live in the area). US cities seem to have uniquely hellish public transportation – at least when compared with Europe or Canada. This contributes to various vicious circles. The local busses in the South Bay are too unreliable to be used as transport to any job requiring a fixed schedule – you’ll get fired for chronic lateness. So they have few passengers outside of the homeless, and various unpleasant situations ensue. Making them usable for commuters is on no one’s political agenda, because only the extremely poor don’t have some kind of (cheap, unreliable, etc.) car – because you can’t keep a job without one. The tech giants have quite notably given up on improving public transportation, and run their own private bus services – leading to farther manifestations of public anger against techies and their employers.

    Twenty plus years ago, the BART was at least reliable, and not AFAIK particularly prone to violent encounters. It didn’t connect to a lot of places where it would have been useful, but where it ran, it was decent. I pretty well haven’t taken it since that time – it doesn’t reach the South Bay. But I’m suprised to hear it described as uniquely dangerous to approach 🙁 Surprised, but not entirely – if the same sort of people are running it as run the public transit in the South Bay, they’ve probably done their best to drive away ‘respectable’ customers. And subway systems have special vulnerabilities to would-be trouble makers, not generally shared by busses – it requires positive action to keep them basically safe.

    • pontifex says:

      The biggest problem with BART is probably that it runs until very late, and the stations don’t have much, if any, security at night (I think some of them literally have nobody there).

      I wouldn’t call it “uniquely dangerous” and it is indeed taken by people who are not poor. In fact, it’s pretty expensive, and it connects to some expensive places as well.

      • Nornagest says:

        It runs until shortly after midnight. That’s not “very late”, it’s on par with the transit in every other major city I’ve been in. Less late than most of them, actually. I’ve never been to a BART station that didn’t have at least a station agent in a closed booth (and I lived in Oakland for five years and often got back late, so I think I’m fairly well-informed here), but you’re right that security is very light in the evenings.

        This might involve a Ferguson-like effect — BART cops were the ones who shot Oscar Grant. Never seen any rhetoric targeting that department specifically, though.

        • pontifex says:

          I guess my point is that you don’t hear about people getting mugged at night at VTA or ACE stations, partly because those trains just don’t run during nighttime hours. Caltrain runs about as late as BART, but since it’s at most one train an hour at those times, there are always a lot of people around.

  48. pontifex says:

    There really are valid reasons to not want something in your back yard. If the character of your neighborhood changes a lot, it can feel a lot like your property has been taken away, even if you still own it. I can understand why San Franciscans don’t want to build huge highways through downtown SF, or turn the Sunset into Manhatten, even if it would be economically efficient.

    As a homeowner in the Bay Area, I want to see development continue. It has to continue or else the Bay Area will lose out to other technology hubs. But I actually don’t think SF is the main place where development should happen, for a lot of reasons. There is just more room, and political willingness to develop, in the East Bay and South Bay.

    I think we need better transit, both rail and road, and more medium density development. I think we also should seriously evaluate how seismically safe and environmentally clean an area is before shoving more development there.

  49. stucchio says:

    This article is pretty dumb – dumber even than Scott’s article about UBI. The reason it’s dumb is that Scott’s list of comparison cities comes entirely from the US.

    Here’s a couple of articles about Tokyo: https://jamesjgleeson.wordpress.com/2018/02/19/how-tokyo-built-its-way-to-abundant-housing/ https://croakingcassandra.com/2016/08/05/perhaps-there-is-an-example-after-all/

    Tokyo is a growing city that’s had housing prices fall. It’s a city denser than SF and with earthquakes like SF. Housing prices fell because Tokyo built enough housing to exceed population growth.

    The fact of the matter is that Pune, Gurgaon, and many other Indian cities manage to build enough housing. (Bangalore and Mumbai don’t and they both have problems similar NY/SF.) Then if you really want to see housing construction, just go to China – you can see vast forests of 30 story apartment towers sprouting up to meet demand. These are both places vastly poorer than SF.

    It’s not impossible to build enough housing. If India, China, Malaysia and Thailand can do it, the vastly richer US can also.

    • False says:

      People keep bringing up Tokyo as an ur-example of an excellent correlation between housing construction and low prices, but this misses several key factors and also seems to fudge a lot of the numbers.

      As for discrepancies within the actual data being referenced, Tokyo’s population density (16,095 per square mile within the 23-wards, 11,515 in the greater metropolitan area) is, first of all, not higher than SF’s (18,679 per square mile). Secondly, the number I see thrown around for housing growth is 2.0% (as in the graph in your first link; although “Tokyo Prefecture” does not exist, I assume they mean the 23-wards), despite the fact that the current figure is slightly less than 1.5% (as you can see from the graph in that link, it sharply peaked to 2.0% around 2003 and has been declining since) and even that does not accurately account for the amount of dwellings destroyed each year; that link says .4 million households in one decade, but actual data puts it anywhere from 160,000 to 200,000 per year, although the trend does seem to be declining.

      More importantly, there are several factors outside of Japan’s liberal zoning laws that make the level of growth they do have sustainable and functional, the key one being: the greater Tokyo metropolitan area has the most robust transportation system in the world. It has trains that extend into every adjacent prefecture, essentially connecting an area equal to greater than that of the 9-counties of the greater Bay Area. This decentralizes rent prices; if I can move 30 km away but only increase my commute by 10 minutes, I might do that if rent is cheaper, which forces the market to compensate. While central Tokyo rent prices are more expensive in general, it wouldn’t be unheard of to find a tiny but cheap apartment in Shinjuku or Shibuya, and all of the the surrounding areas in any direction all contain dwellings with equivalent rent prices. Rent is often more tied to how close the building is to a train station (closer= more expensive), because the train system acts as the life-line ferrying people across the city, making where you live exactly within the 23 wards essentially meaningless (this is relative, of course, but we’re talking about the difference between $800 and $1200 for a one-bedroom).

      This is in addition to government services like rent-control, low-income housing and other factors like the declining population (Tokyo is still growing, but not for long). From this perspective, SF is up a creek with a paddle. It doesn’t already have a robust infrastructure and was never designed geographically to be this kind of metropolitan area (Tokyo’s area is 2,188 km² while SF is a meager 121.4 km² for christ’s sake). The overall circumstances of these cities are far too different. When people say, “Why can’t SF just grow like Tokyo”? the answer is that it would take an unfathomable amount of bureaucratic coordination with several different county and municipal governments to actually plan the proposed housing growth, to say nothing of whether or not that will actually reduce rent prices in any way.

      • stucchio says:

        Tokyo the city actually includes the entire metro area, so a better density comparison would be to the entire SF Bay area. That has a density of 1100 people/mile^2.

        I agree with you that Tokyo is well governed, while SF is a failed state that can’t even end open defecation. That’s ok, there are a lot of high density cities with bad governance. The private sector usually provides the missing mass transit, at least outside the US.

        This even happens in the US – dollar vans provide transportation in many areas when regulators don’t shut them down (c.f. the jitney in Jersey City and Union City, the latter of which has a population density of 66k/square mile). In India, Uber/Ola (Ola = Indian Lyft) are filling in the gaps.

        This is not an unsolvable problem, nor a problem where Tokyo has the only solution. It’s just a problem SF refuses to solve.

  50. Matt M says:

    The more I read this, the more I want to respond to all of it with a mixture of “A pox on both of your houses” and “The market is working as intended.”

    I did like Scott’s reference to the point about oil rigs and mines though. Yes, living on an oil rig sucks. Temp jobs in North Dakota and Northern Alberta suck. Living on a fishing boat in Alaska sucks. People do these things for one reason and one reason only: Money. And society doesn’t see it as necessary to spend a whole lot of time losing sleep and kveching over how we can make living conditions in these locations suck less. The simple fact of the matter is they don’t need to suck less. The money is sufficient to attract the necessary amount of workers, and then some.

    This also seems true of the Bay Area. If you don’t like it there, don’t move there. If you’re already there and you don’t like it, leave. I feel like the techies who want to keep their 250k/yr salaries and have a nice, low-density, cheap, green living space get a whole lot of attention and sympathy, while the high school dropouts who work on oil rigs and fishing boats and arctic mines get hand-waved away with “Well they get paid well and if they don’t like it they can quit” for reasons that should be obvious.

    Honestly, I think this just boils down SF being a magnet for spoiled middle class white kids who have clearly sold their souls for money, but have been so indoctrinated with the progressive ideals of “selling your soul for money is evil” that they have a psychological block and refuse to admit it. Mercenaries who are ruthlessly exploiting the capitalist system for all its worth, while occasionally joining a YIMBY advocacy group to convince themselves that they’re “helping the poor.” I have no sympathy for anyone involved. Not even the poor. They should leave too.

    • arbitraryvalue says:

      the techies who want to keep their 250k/yr salaries and have a nice, low-density, cheap, green living space get a whole lot of attention and sympathy

      Where do you see this attention and sympathy? I want some of it but I’ve never encountered any…

      • Matt M says:

        Any pro-YIMBY discussion anywhere.

        As I said, it’s often shrouded in “we’re just altruistically doing this to help the poor, nobody pay attention to the fact that it will benefit all of us as well.”

        • arbitraryvalue says:

          Now I’m genuinely confused. I’m not pro-YIMBY and I am under the impression that people who want low-density, green living space are generally not pro-YIMBY.

          • cryptoshill says:

            Hard YIMBYs would even suggest that advocating for such is a signal of being a heretic, you might get *burned at the stake* for that kind of thing.
            We would at least suspect that you owned a single-family home in an old-growth suburb and were concerned for your property values.

    • ana53294 says:

      “If you don’t like it, leave” also applies to countries, but there are plenty of reasons why that isn’t a good policy.

      I think that people who are unhappy with the way their country works, and have reasonable tools to change that, should do everything in their power to change it. And I think the same about cities/counties/provinces.

      • Matt M says:

        It sounds like a great policy to me, even at the country level.

        When I first started turning libertarian and exposing myself to a lot of people trashing the American political system, I did a whole lot of research as to what other countries I might attempt to move to.

        It turned out that there were none who offered a comparable amount of freedom, economic opportunity, cost of living, and general cultural environment I found superior to the US.

        But if such a country did emerge, I’d be gone fast.

        The notion that fleeing a decrepit cesspool is somehow the cowards way out – that you’re not attempting to change things is absurd. “Fuck you, I’m leaving” is the single most powerful message one can send to a corrupt and dysfunctional political entity. Even moreso if the cost to leave is high. Ultimately, these governments need tax revenue, and to get tax revenue, they need residents. Withdrawing yourself from the tax pool is the ultimate protest. The best way for me to declare that the policies of California are stupid is for me to choose to live in Texas. Not to move to California anyway and to attend some stupid, futile, political rallies.

    • stucchio says:

      The main reason the SF tech bros get sympathy is because their pain is unnecessary, and entirely the creation of politicians and activists.

      An oil rig sucks. But there’s no law saying you can’t put a gym on an oil rig, or provide good food, or allow larger crew quarters. There are literally laws in California that say tech companies are forbidden from providing good food for their employees.

      tl;dr; an oil rig sucks for reasons you can’t fix. SF sucks for reasons you can fix.

      • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

        That stupid SF law against cafeterias in new office buildings didn’t actually pass. (There’s a single small office development in Mountain View subject to a similar rule but generalizing from it seems dubious.)

        • christianschwalbach says:

          FYI, that law was designed to stimulate local restaurant business by requiring workers to leave their premises to eat. I dont necessarily agree with that premise, but this whole post is on the topic of building up sustainable neighborhoods, both in housing and culture, so there can be some merit there, in that.

    • ReaperReader says:

      But not everyone in San Francisco is a techie on $250k a year. If you grew up there and don’t have the programming skills for one of those $250k jobs, well moving is expensive – both upfront and in terms of leaving your social network behind. Staying is also expensive – schools struggle to hire teachers because teachers can’t afford to live there. It sucks.

  51. Plumber says:

    “Everyone I know is a YIMBY – ie “Yes In My Back Yard” – ie somebody who wants cities (usually San Francisco dominates the discussion) to build more and denser housing….”

    @Scott Alexander

    I’ve known some yes-in-somebody-else’s-backyard construction workers in my over 50 years as a San Francisco bay area resident, but other than some folks who want a supermarket built closer to their homes, I’ve known exactly one “YIMBY” who didn’t fight a development next to her home because “It helps fight sprawl” (she had solar panels on her house as well, so I presume an environmentalist). Everyone else I’ve known hates construction near them.

    Where are you finding these “YIMBY’s”?

    • tcheasdfjkl says:

      I live in SF, my landlord has been building another house right next to mine (there used to be an old falling-apart barn there), it’s been loud and annoying but I’m glad they’re building it and I wouldn’t dream of trying to stop them.

    • yodelyak says:

      I live in Portland, OR. We have multiple activist communities that I know about and follow on Facebook, and that are large enough to have big internal squabbles / narcissism of small differences-type disputes (is new construction of affordable housing “YIMBY” enough, if the new beds are rent-controlled, isn’t that still price controls?)… look on Facebook for groups/pages with “YIMBY” in the title in the bay area, and I bet you’ll find multiple very large and quite vocal groups, and if you ask any of those what else to watch, there’ll be even more that they’ll flag as similar that don’t quite use YIMBY explicitly.

      But although they bill themselves as “YIMBY”, what they really are (mostly) is “YIYBY”–they’re mostly local renters, or people who want to see Portland growing and costs staying low, not local owners who want property values to go up. There are, however, a good fraction of single-family unit owners who want to build ADUs, or modify their homes into duplexes and then rent half, and need zoning changes to make that happen.

    • Nornagest says:

      Where are you finding these “YIMBY’s”?

      You have your bubble, Scott has his.

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      I live in a very pleasant western SF neighborhood zoned, like most of the west of the city, for single family homes only. I was a big supporter of SB 827 despite the fact that replacing some of my neighbors’ SFRs with 4-5 story apartment buildings might very well change the neighborhood into something I would find somewhat less pleasant than its present state. This is because I am libertarian enough to believe that neither I nor anyone else has the right to preserve their neighborhood character at the expense of the property rights of others, and liberal enough to believe that we also don’t have the right to preserve neighborhood character at the expense of economic opportunity for others.

      At least some of us YIMBYs have direct experience with exactly the sort of sneering bigoted NIMBYs that Scott lambastes us for invoking. Over the past couple of years I went to some neighborhood meetings to try and support a proposed affordable housing development, including some units for formerly homeless people, that was going to be constructed on the site of a church whose congregation had declined and who wanted to sell to a good cause. The farrago of excuses my neighbors came up with for opposing this was extraordinary in its creativity and imperviousness to fact or logical response. The low point came when a representative from the department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing came up to talk about the criteria for selecting residents and was badgered by a sixtyish woman about whether this would “bring drug addicts into our neighborhood” and told that he was an “outsider”. I do not think it was a coincidence that the HSH rep was literally the only black man in the room. Nor is it a coincidence that this neighborhood had a racist restrictive covenant for its first ~40 years of existence. Again, I’m not making any of this up, I’m reporting my own direct personal experience.

      It is also remarkable, on a rationalist blog like this one, that these arguments don’t engage more broadly with the evidence about NIMBY motivations nationally. Nobody, for instance, has mentioned Rothstein’s _The Color of Law_, or Kim-Mai Cutler’s articles on the origins of Bay Area housing regulations, or the recent research demonstrating a link between low-density residential zoning and racial segregation, or the fact that lots of cities including SF and Seattle used to allow apartment building construction much more widely and then just happened to downzone a bunch of their neighborhoods right around the time of the Fair Housing Act. There is pretty strong evidence that, as a general national pattern, homeowners who don’t want apartment buildings allowed in their neighborhoods are trying to keep out the “sort of people” who live in apartment buildings. This is a segregationist other-regarding preference which both freedom and fairness demand we not indulge.

  52. Alex Zavoluk says:

    How does this compare to other cities? I used data from Civic Dashboards to compare the housing stock growth rate of ten major US cities. They only had data from 2008 – 2015, so the analysis only includes those years. They find a higher SF growth rate than listed above, probably because growth has been increasing recently. Here’s what they got:

    Keep in mind, having a higher percentage growth rate is both harder and less necessary when you have a larger housing stock to begin with. Houston has more people than SF (whether going by city or metro), and AFAIK having roommates is less common. They have a lot more housing units to begin with; a smaller percentage growth rate will allow them to absorb the same number of new people each year.

    No large US city was able to attain this rate in the eight year period my data comes from, including cities experiencing tech booms during those years. Austin, Texas was able to come close. But at the time, Austin had a population density of 2,500/sqm. San Francisco has a density of 19,000/sqm. Building new houses is easy if all you have to do is clear away tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes – and Austin still only made it up to 2%. We’re expecting San Francisco to clear away existing neighborhoods and angry anti-development activists, and reach 2.5%? And maintain that rate for twenty years?

    SF has been getting itself into this mess for something like 40 years. Maybe longer. It really should come as no surprise that it will take a long time to fix the problem, and it isn’t an indictment of YIMBYism that it doesn’t immediately undo 4+ decades of awful housing policy.

    New York has similarly been hamstrung by bad policy for a long time, including rent control, which is pretty universally disliked by economists.

    “They bought a house in a medium-density suburb, then some other people came and said “No, this has to be a city”. If they give up, let San Francisco spread to their current home, and move to another medium-density suburb, what’s to prevent other people from trying to urbanize there too? Is our social technology just totally unable to deal with the problem of “how can we let people who want to live in a medium-density suburb live in a medium-density suburb?”

    If we got rid of all of the subsidies for living in a medium-density suburb, I wonder how many people would still want to live in them? In my opinion, one’s complaints about wanting to live where you want to live sort of fall flat when their method of achieving that is having the government forcefully preserve their neighborhood in amber like the living museum at Jamestown.

    I also grew up in a suburb, and there were things I liked about it, but I don’t think it should be forcefully preserved or heavily subsidized.

    If your theory predicts that turning a city into Manhattan will make rents plummet, then consider that turning Manhattan into Manhattan made rents much worse, and so maybe your theory is wrong.

    The basic theory of supply and demand pretty unambiguously predicts that strict regulations on housing will result in too few housing units being built. I propose that instead of all of economics being wrong, NY and SF have not built enough housing units, and that it is possible to build enough, like they have in Tokyo.

    Moreover, I think it’s clear that people will do whatever it takes to move to places like SF, and high rents won’t do much to keep them out. They’ll just pile more people into fewer units and/or drive up rents, because that’s exactly what they’ve been doing!

    San Francisco is easy to hate… BART stations are also easy to hate.

    The Bay Area seems to have a bunch of problems that don’t plague similar metro areas, or at least are much worse there, particularly if you’re looking at places with decent economies. I think these are the result of bad policies, including bad policy, which are specific to CA and/or the Bay itself, rather than just because all cities are full of human feces and used needles and crime.

  53. spinystellate says:

    Even though I think Scott meant for the NIMBY arguments to go from strong to weak , I thought they went the other way around. For example, I thought that the NIMBY point in (2) was weak since it implied that Austin was the upper limit on construction rates, and that a de-regulated SFO would build at Austin rates, at best. But in fact it would build at much higher rates, because the ROI for building in SFO would be much, much higher than in Austin, for decades to come. Would you rather have the deed to a brand new skyscraper 10 miles from SFO, or 10 miles from Austin?

    But I was remarkably sympathetic to arguments 4 and 5, especially to the idea that centralization of industry and subcultures is a bad equilibrium for almost all of us. I certainly don’t want to live in the Bay Area, but that’s where the lion’s share of my possible career advancement opportunities would lie. But I’m not sure how much weight to give it relative to YIMBY arguments for utils and growth.

    Also, regarding subculture centralization: I’m pretty happy to know a few rationalists IRL, plus some other nice people, plus a bunch of rationalists online. I don’t really think there is any point in my life other than maybe ages 18-28 when I really would have enjoyed a pan-rationalist social experience IRL. So maybe giving people the option to centralize is also implicitly preferring someone’s 24-year-old self over their future 44-year-old self, who is going to be pissed.

  54. Andrew says:

    I think that SF allowing moderately more housing would affect prices far more than what you suggest. Prices follow supply and demand, but prices also build in future expectations about supply and demand. Right now, SF works very hard to forbid construction. Therefore, you get lots of investors buying property. SF’s stance on denying construction affects demand as well as supply. If SF started allowing enough new construction that housing prices would stop going up, many of those outside investors would take their money elsewhere.

    I have no idea how large the effect would be, but it won’t be nothing.

  55. gefiltepez says:

    Great article. One thing I didn’t see addressed, which is another challenging part of the SF housing crisis is the age demographics.

    There is a huge population of unmarried (never will be married) 21-40 somethings, which causes two problems for families. (1) these demographic has no problem sharing a multi-room apartment or house to defray the cost, which effectively makes it more affordable for the individuals while supporting the inflated housing prices. A three bedroom for $6000/month is 66% of the cost of a $3,000 one-bedroom.

    (2) Additionally that same demographic generally budgets much differently than families do. They’re generally not saving for retirement, or for their kid’s college fund, or buying food for 4 people instead of 1, etc… so the result is that they are willing to spend a much higher % of their income on housing in order to live the exciting life in the big city.

    So yeah, I completely agree with the article. We absolutely should build more housing in SF, but at the same time, not everyone gets to live exactly where they want. There’s more affordable housing in Concord, or Livermore, or Vallejo, etc. Whining about not being able to afford to live in SF smacks a bit of entitlement. It would be great if every city could be everything we need it to be for everyone, but that simply isn’t the way the world works.

  56. alcoraiden says:

    Holy cow, you make San Fran sound like a shithole. I guess I don’t have much experience with it, but from my one trip there where I crashed with a friend in the Mission and derped around the city and even the Tenderloin area, I didn’t see “streets filled with needles and human waste.” I didn’t get yelled at for being a white woman going into and out of BART stations at night. Where does this tend to happen? o.O

    I do agree that I want companies to start spreading out. Why not go to somewhere cheaper, like Detroit or whatever, and revitalize old cities that have kind of decayed and now are inexpensive to settle in? Make a super awesome tech business, and people will move there to work at it. Let’s start actually having a situation where people will spread across the country. I may be motivated by not wanting all my friends to move to Cali, but…y’know.

    • Emily says:

      I’ve visited a few times. Someone was shooting up in the public bathroom of a community center where I went to for religious services. It was actually in the Mission.

    • proyas says:

      I visited San Francisco once, in 2012, and found the city to be magical, but I also saw large numbers of scary homeless people. I saw at least one of them smoking a crack pipe in the open, and also walked by a grinning young woman who was covered in small drops of real-looking blood (not sure if this was an elaborate getup done for attention/a social experiment, or if she cut herself up for real).

      My hotel was on the border of the Tenderloin district, whose reputation was totally unknown to me before I arrived. The interior of the hotel itself was fine, but the front door of the place was only about 100 feet from a moldy, dilapidated couch placed on the sidewalk where a group of loud homeless guys constantly hung out. I saw them there many times during my stay.

  57. beleester says:

    Even though you’re leaning into your contrarian side here, it’s really weird to hear a lot of stuff about how much the Bay Area sucks from someone who called it the greatest metropolitan area in the world.

    • Jacobethan says:

      Especially since Renaissance Florence was one of Scott’s comparisons, this seems on-point:

      “Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

      Point being that the kind of febrile creativity Scott was talking about in that post often takes place in a setting of political squalor and social decay; whether the city is shimmering or sordid depends on which angle you look from.

      • ana53294 says:

        Great art happening at times of great turmoil makes me wonder how much social peace is worth vs interesting times.

        In Spain, the greatest renaissance of literature happened in the decade before the Civil War. The Generation of 27 had some of the greatest Spanish poets and writers.

        Quite a few people familiar with Russian Literature find that Soviet era literature was better than modern Russian Literature, despite the censure.

        • christianschwalbach says:

          Is this a factor of notoriety after death, though? Isnt much of the success of art due to its “marketing” if you will. I mean, its far more exciting and compelling to read the works of a Soviet dissident shot tragically in 1936 by the NKVD, then say, a 70 year old Russian author living a basic, but not threatened lifestyle in Moscow in 2001.

          • ana53294 says:

            Late Soviet era writers faced nothing worse than not being allowed to leave the country to get the Nobel Price. While the early Soviet era did have some writers end tragically, most of the best writers and poets did not die tragically.

            As for Spanish literature, the only really famous ones to die were Federico Garcia Lorca and Miguel Hernandez. Federico Garcia Lorca was shot, Hernandez died in prison.

            But there were loads of them that were exiled and died peacefully. They were great and known not for their deaths, but for their life.

            My non-too-objective view is that Lorca is the greatest poet in Spanish literature, and there is nobody better than him. The story of his life is very tragic; he was openly homosexual, and life was difficult then. But he was a literary genious; he wrote plays that are still popular, his poetry is incomparable, he started and ended a literary style. Nobody can write like him, he is inimitable.

      • Tenacious D says:

        Creative destruction is aptly named on both sides of the ledger, eh?

  58. FosterBoondoggle says:

    As far as I understand it, the gist of the complaint about YIMBYism here is that SA likes living in a lowish density suburb (Montclair? Piedmont?), thinks that’s his right, and fears the YIMBYs will try to upzone his neighborhood and fill it with condos and 5-story apartments. But if he’s been paying any attention to what YIMBYs (like, say, Brian Hanlon, head of CAYIMBY) are actually saying, it’s not that Montclair needs to be full of skyscrapers (it’s on a hillside with narrow streets, so that doesn’t make much sense). It’s that the parts of Oakland, SF, Berkeley, the peninsula, parts of the S. Bay that are accessible to people without a car (Rockridge, N. Berkeley, S. Berkeley near Shattuck, the area near the Apple spaceship in Cupertino) should be upzoned for greater density. Walkability is desirable to a lot of people.

    It brings network effects, like stable and successful local businesses, good restaurants – e.g., College Ave. in Rockridge – that are net positive for everyone. It brings walkable access to mass transit, which reduces climate impact. Another net positive for everyone. It brings easier access to wilderness like the east bay hills or west Marin, because dense communities mean less sprawl. (Which is why the CA Sierra Club’s opposition to most current development, as captured by Scott Lucas here is particularly ironic.)

    No one (I know, never say “no one”) is trying to upzone SA’s single family Oakland hills neighborhood.

  59. Temple says:

    And even if it works – even if the city can do the impossible – that only lowers rents down to $2100 for a single-bedroom apartment.

    And what does the economic model say happens to rents in 20 years if the city continues expand housing at the current rate? The only claim worth evaluating is whether building housing lowers rents relative to what they would have been otherwise. And even if you don’t want to do that, at minimum you should look at change in real rents, backing out inflation.

    Devon Zuegel points out that we’re really not sure if that’s true. Why does Manhattan have higher land values than Kansas? Because people want to live where other people (and jobs) are. The denser you make a city, the more other people and jobs will be there, and the higher the land values will get.

    I honestly laughed when I read the Devon article. The claim is.. if you build more housing, the city will get better, and more people will want to live in a better city, and that’s.. bad? List price of housing is not relevant, value for housing is. If the city is simply a better place to live and rents stay the same, that is strictly better than the current situation.

    BTW, part of the magic of NYC is that the range of housing options is much wider even though the median is similar (or higher in some surveys) than SF. There is a lot of low end housing in New York, and that’s only possible because the rest of city infrastructure (public transport, mixed use residential/commercial space, public spaces) create an all-around livable environment even if one’s individual housing unit is subpar. That’s the tangible realization of the supposed steelman argument here – the city gets more dense, more density can support more highly utilized public infrastructure, higher utilization expands the number of projects that can be profitably underwritten, leading to a significantly higher level of services. In “public infrastructure” I am including things like the fact that every street corner has a bodega, restaurants, bars, gyms, museums etc – that is all part of the infrastructure that makes NYC livable even if one’s apartment itself is small.

    I have heard YIMBYs counter that we don’t have to turn Marin County into San Francisco II, that there’s a balance between trying to preserve what’s good about a place and reflexively opposing all new development.

    We don’t need to turn Marin into SF. We need to build SF higher (in areas where geologically feasible).

    • Guy in TN says:

      I honestly laughed when I read the Devon article. The claim is.. if you build more housing, the city will get better, and more people will want to live in a better city, and that’s.. bad? List price of housing is not relevant, value for housing is.

      There’s a lot of people, in this thread and previous, for whom lowering the price of housing is this crux of the YIMBY argument. Saying “well, new construction may cause rents to rise, but that’s not really important, because its just a sign that the city is a better place to live” is a major concession.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        Yes, that’s what I was thinking. Possible analogy to traffic: A lot of people want more roads to reduce traffic. As a poster above noted, this may not work, because there will just be additional cars and traffic will return to normal.

        However, you probably are putting more cars through per hour, because you now have a 10-lane road instead of a 4-lane road. Traffic still sucks, because there are more cars. But there are more cars, so more drivers are getting the same benefit.

        • Guy in TN says:

          Its all about whether the demand you inducing by construction is offset by the effects of increasing supply. It may or may not be, and needs to be investigated. The demand-inducing argument is still based on the laws of supply and demand, just a more nuanced understanding than is often presented. That city size tends to correlate with higher rents is evidence that “make San Francisco bigger” might not actually be the solution to lowering rent.

          • Matt M says:

            I guess it’s also worth asking what boundaries we are willing to draw in terms of whose benefit is worth pursuing and whose isn’t.

            If building more housing simply results in more people moving to SF, without necessarily lowering housing costs or improving conditions in the city – sure, that doesn’t make current residents of SF better off in any particular way. But presumably it does improve the lives of people currently living outside the Bay Area who want to move there, previously couldn’t, but now can.

            Is that worth something? Do current residents of SF have any particular obligation towards other Americans throughout the country to help them improve your lives? Is this obligation bigger or smaller than the one that residents of Bay Area suburbs have to the rest of the Bay Area? Why or why not?

          • Guy in TN says:

            Its looking like one of those “tug on a single thing, and find out its connected to everything else in the universe” situations.

            You’ve got economic benefits and harms, some direct and others as an endless expanse of externalities, effecting people in both concentrated and dispersed ways. The social effects, ecological effects. My god.

          • Temple says:

            If building more housing simply results in more people moving to SF, without necessarily lowering housing costs or improving conditions in the city – sure, that doesn’t make current residents of SF better off in any particular way. But presumably it does improve the lives of people currently living outside the Bay Area who want to move there, previously couldn’t, but now can.

            The only reason housing costs wouldn’t be lowered is because conditions in the city improved so much that demand for housing increased faster than supply.

          • m.alex.matt says:

            You say ‘more nuanced’, but it’s literally still econ 101 stuff. It’s not like you and the other people pushing this argument aren’t the first to have any sense of economic literacy. Yes, other things equal, lowering the price of something will increase the quantity demanded.

            But that’s only half of the supply and demand curve. If you increase the demand for something and keep the quantity supplied constant, *the price goes up*. That’s the fundamental argument behind the supply side half of the debate. Demand will increase *regardless*, because there is an independent attractor, so you either let housing prices spiral out of control *or you actually try to do something about it*. Fantasy, cargo-cultish solutions aside, the *only* way you ‘do something about it’ is to *build more freaking housing*.

            I mean, subdivision of tenancies and room-mate situations is *exactly* people already doing that: Increasing the supply of an inferior good because they aren’t allowed to increase the supply of a superior one.

            If lowering the price at a given cost schedule *increases* quantity demanded, *you keep building at that given cost schedule until demand is satisfied*. That’s how economics works. That’s how we moved away from a society where most people scratched a subsistence living out of the dirt and lived in terror of them and their community being wiped away by a single bad harvest. In order for prosperity to be general, production has to rise to meet consumption.

            If your area is *so* desirable that housing prices are barely staying level with rapid housing production *then your area has something really good going for it*. Denying that something to other people is *really* selfish. If you want housing to work for the masses, you need to treat it like every other mass consumption good we have in our unbelievably rich modern society and *let the damned builders build*.

    • Matt M says:

      If the city is simply a better place to live and rents stay the same, that is strictly better than the current situation.

      This is definitely worth repeating. The benefit of YIMBY policies might be to make housing cheaper. Or it might be to make housing better without any increase in price. The latter is a good development, even if the former doesn’t materialize.

  60. adrusi says:

    5b. Okay, sorry. Oops, I was wrong about the housing prices. Now that I’ve said that, don’t you also think that building more housing would at least allow the people who want to live in San Francisco to do so?

    This is a good and important point, and I think the strongest one in the YIMBY arsenal. I am not really against it, but I can think of one kind of speculative argument that sort of challenges it in part.

    If supply goes up but prices stay roughly the same, then it’s not that more people who want to live in the city are able to do so, it’s that more people want to live in the city.

  61. frankschmitt says:

    I’m something of a YIMBY, but my biggest source of doubt is the fact that there’s an entire country full of people who have no legal obstacle against moving to the bay area. And that as long as there are places that are, in aggregate, worse than San Francisco, the net migration will be into the city.

    In the face of that, and from the standpoint of an existing resident who is a homeowner or in a rent-controlled apartment, maybe soaring housing costs really are the least-bad option for making San Francisco suck about as much as the worst place in the U.S.

    • peopleneedaplacetogo says:

      They should all be allowed to move into San Francisco if they want to (and landowners there should be allowed to build housing for them). And not just the entire country full either; the legal obstacles to people from outside the country moving to San Francisco should be removed, so everyone can move there if they want to. Migration is a human right, and the benefits for the newcomers would add up to far more than any costs to people who already happen to live in SF.

  62. Chevalier Mal Fet says:

    Mostly this post made me glad that I live in St. Louis and not San Francisco.

    Even St. Louis is a bit too urban for me and I pine for my hometown of Kansas City fairly regularly. Best place to live in the world.

  63. Seth B says:

    I’m surprised that a steelmanning of NIMBY-ism doesn’t include an appeal to preserving the historical character of neighborhoods.

    I lived for many years in New Orleans, and it has some neighborhoods (such as Treme) which have produced important cultural innovations. As these areas tourist-ify, it has the potential to ruin the unique qualities of the neighborhood. If this reduces the ability of the neighborhood to produce novel cultural exports in the future, this is potentially an unpriced externality.

    This is a slightly different sort of NIMBY-ism than the main post is considering, but it is the kind I am most sympathetic to.

    • Matt M says:

      What exactly is a “novel cultural export?”

      Can you please cite a specific example?

      • Seth B says:

        For example, Congo Square (a park in Treme) is arguably the birthplace of Jazz. The neighborhood continues to produce very interesting musicians like Trombone Shorty. The Wikipedia page lists many more examples.

    • ReaperReader says:

      How much of those cultural exports are down to cheap rents, as opposed to the location per se?

  64. yodelyak says:

    “What we have here, is a failure to communicate.”

    Up thread I mentioned that the YIYBY acronym–yes in your backyard, nicely describes my position. I don’t particularly want to live in Manhattan or SF even as dense as they are now, and you’d have to pay me really well to get me to do so–and if you did pay me, and I did live there, I’d take a “mining” approach to my time there. I’d live under somebody else’s bed, or in the space under their sink, and save enough in a year or two to retire rich and buy a whole block in some nice suburb somewhere else. But at the same time, I am inclined toward frustrated bafflement that SF is building so slowly when numbers there are so incredibly high, and when so many very wealthy miners are throwing away big chunks of their lives on 2-hour or 3-hour/day commutes. What a colossal waste in our economy!

    I think the problem here is that the people with the power to block development in closed-access cities do not have a good enough way to capture even a small share of the value of that development if they allow it to go forward. I have some economic training, and I think the old example of how it doesn’t matter whether the farmer is responsible for any damage done to his crops resulting from his failure to fence out free-ranging cattle, or whether the cattleman is responsible for any damage done to others’ crops by his failure to fence in his free-ranging cattle, so long as the line is drawn brightly, and the farmer and cattleman both know where it is because if for some reason it is much cheaper for the farmer to build the fence than for the cattleman to build the fence, whoever is liable for the harms will pay the person for whom it is cheap to build the fence, and the fence will get built at the cheapest price, and no crops will get eaten. The point of the example is that sometimes there is a debate about who is liable–the farmer, or the cattleman–(economists call that “uncertainty,” and the behavior of the cattleman and farmer faced with uncertainty–where they hire lawyers and political consultants–is called “rent-seeking.”) or there may be one party for whom it is very cheap to build the fence, but no way for that party to accept payment for building the fence from the party needs the fence built to avoid liability for the damaged crops (economists call the cost of one party paying the other to build a fence a “transaction cost” and a situation where the transaction costs are so high that the fence doesn’t get built is a “market failure”).

    The problem here is that the farmer’s crops are getting eaten–that is to say, a major factor in slow national productivity growth in the economy is that value is being eaten by rental costs in the Bay area and other closed-access cities–and for some reason no “fence” is getting built. (No additional housing/commercial space/good transit infrastructure/etc is being built to bring down rental costs/travel times, and a great fraction of the most productive hours of the most productive people in the nation’s economy is being spent in cars, even as a similarly large chunk of productivity is lost as people who *could* be working at great tech jobs in SF are forgoing them to stay in Bend or Fort Collins or Tampa, where productivity is much lower, but where they don’t have to spend two waking days a week in a car and $3500/mo for a single bedroom apt.) As I should have remembered from basic Econ, the problem is not about whether it is the farmer or the cattleman who is liable for harm to the crops–the problem is when there is no good way for the cattleman to pay the farmer to build the fence, and for some reason only the farmer can build the fence.

    So yes, I am a YIYBY. And what I am inclined to say to people who find they are disinclined to accept the conditions inside the mining town is… drive as hard a bargain as you can, but please please please bargain. And the reason I find some strains of NIMBY tend to bring out the smug-seeming asshole in me and others is that they smack of innumeracy from a person who is rich, powerful, and doing something incredibly wasteful (such as neglecting to even notice the value of what they have, put to another use). I feel like I just want to hit them and shout “shut up and multiply” at them over and over and over and over. (I know a person who has lived in SF for decades, who lives by himself in a three-story row house just north of the museums in Golden Gate Park, and still pays 1972-or-whatever property taxes, and hasn’t even thought about what his house would rent for, or the fact that he has a private-entrance-suite below the house, and an unused backyard with a private-corridor entrance, both of which stand empty except for incidental storage! He also has family nearby, and isn’t particularly happy living alone… and has offspring who are desperately clinging to low-paying jobs in distant cities to afford life in those cities… this is not optimal!) I’m inclined to say, “really, this is *big*” and try lowering my voice significantly, or raising my eyebrows, but find I’m soon being reduced to pounding on things (or, in worse moments, shouting at people)–all the hopeless rage you feel talking to an innumerate person with power they don’t understand. The labor market is really shitty in some places. Many people struggle very much to afford a one-bedroom apartment for $800/mo or $900/mo in the greater Portland, OR area. There is a market for labor, and it is mostly a national market, and the result is that however bad things get in the Bay Area, a big fraction of the badness will be felt everywhere else… not least, we would really be better off if more of your miners were reaching their retirement goals and moving out, because you’d done the work to lower rents to $2500/mo instead of $3500/mo, and/or to cut travel times from 3 hours a day to 2.

    However, I’m not saying locals in SF shouldn’t extract value from this situation. I’m saying the opposite! Owners in the Bay Area are in an incredibly strong bargaining position and you can significantly slow the whole national economy by trying to stop SF from being the mining town it already is… or you can own a chunk of the whole economy by sponsoring this change. Take a small mortgage on your SF town-home, build a tiny home in the back yard and a vacation home in Vacaville or somewhere, and in five or ten years switch to living in the vacation home and renting out the townhome and tiny home to miners–or sell the whole thing to a developer, or whatever–and laugh all the way to the bank. But that is me being a smug YIYBY again–the reason this isn’t happening isn’t (the example of my one acquaintance with the rowhouse notwithstanding) mostly because people are just immune to the attractive power of money.

    To my mind the problem here is mainly that there is no good mechanism for homeowners to sell as a group. What’s the value of selling a single house on a block in somewhere-nice-and-close-in SF, at market rates to someone in no unusual position to be able to actually develop the property? What’s the value a hypothetical developer would be willing to pay per house, to get all the houses on a whole block, and to also get full-throated political support for necessary zoning changes from the surrounding neighborhood (perhaps by committing to building really terrific amenities for the whole neighborhood), and then building a 30-story mixed-use residential/commercial building? If the developer would pay many times more for the whole-block-of-houses-plus-political-backing than for the single house, that’s a kind of market failure. Solve it, and everyone gets rich.

    I don’t know, but my strong (and I think, educated) guess is that the reason economists are pointing at slow building rates in ‘closed access cities’ while property owners in SF are not shouting for development is because property owners in SF have no good way to capture the benefits of development–they’re like farmers who are the only ones who can build the fence, but cannot coordinate among themselves to offer a coherent commitment to build the *whole* fence, in exchange for a full-value payment for doing so–so the fence doesn’t get build, and the crops get eaten.

    • The Nybbler says:

      The thing you’re missing is this full-value payment is huge. You’re demanding that people change their entire lifestyle from a suburban one to an urban one, or vastly increase their commute. Someone comes along, says “F— the suburbs, everything from Jersey City (across the Hudson from Manhattan) to Morristown (about 30 miles from Manhattan) is now New Jersey City”, and now I have to choose between living in an urban area or a >2-hour each way commute from somewhere west of Morristown. How much would you have to pay to make me whole after such a substantial reduction in my living standards? Any time the question comes up, it’s always “you’re already more than compensated by living in our new urban utopia which is better than your nasty car-driven suburb”, so it looks like the opening bid is $0. Which doesn’t bode well for negotiation.

      • yodelyak says:

        Right. I think part of the market-failure here is that neither side really wants to even concede that the other side isn’t bad people being unreasonable.

        Anyway, all I hope to add to this discussion right now is the idea that instead of arguing that NIMBYs are bad and irrational, YIMBYs/YIYBYs should be looking to solve coordination problems among NIMBY homeowners, so that 100 homeowners can get as much value from selling as my hypothetical lucky developer gets from buying from each of them. When I look at the supposed macro-economic costs of closed-access cities being closed-access… well, shoot, it looks like the Bay Area should be able to buy Montana and build a 1.5x-scale model of the Bay area there, with all the parks 2x bigger and the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge built over prairie just for tourists who want the quirky experience of driving over Montana’s Bay Bridge, and still come out ahead. (Not only do they have 1.5x more of everything, they also still own the rest of Montana!) The reason this isn’t happening is because of a coordination problem among SF locals to really trade what they have for what it is worth.

        Or else, the YIMBY/YIYBY’s are wrong and SF locals really do like living in SF that much.

        Either way, beating up on NIMBYs is unhelpful.

      • yodelyak says:

        The thing you’re missing is this full-value payment is huge.

        I maybe didn’t respond directly to your point. I agree that people who currently live in SF may find that their life in SF may be dramatically different if they sell and leave, or even if they just pressure the city council to make it easier for them (and all their neighbors) to add mother-in-law units or convert houses into multi-unit apartments or etc. I think the problem is that if they pressure the city council to preserve what they have, they mostly capture the value of what they have, whereas if they pressure city council for pro-growth, mostly somebody else gets the value created in the economy by the change.

        So if you want to speed up growth in SF, find a way to pay the people who are in the way to get out of the way, and find out how much it costs, and then find the money. And don’t accuse anyone along the way of being a bad person simply because they know what they want and are willing to hold out for it.

        • RobJ says:

          So are you saying you don’t think property values affectively capture the full value developers would be willing to pay if they could by an entire area in bulk? That may be true, but I’m not sure there is any mechanism that could get more than a couple homeowners on the same page about something like that. Get any number of homeowners together and some would sell for below market value just because they don’t realize what their home is worth, and some won’t sell for anything because of stubbornness or attachment to the community.

          I think community is the thing that complicates the whole issue. Communities don’t survive getting moved. Once a threshold of people start moving out and getting replaced with entirely different types of homes/homeowners, that particular community is gone forever. Even if they could theoretically coordinate to all move together somewhere, it wouldn’t be the same. I’m not sure how much we should value this in our judgements… nothing stays the same forever after all. But I’m very sympathetic to the fact that people will fight to defend the community they live in past the point of making economic sense.

          • yodelyak says:

            @RobJ

            So are you saying you don’t think property values effectively capture the full value developers would be willing to pay if they could by an entire area in bulk?

            That is basically what I am saying, yes. I too am sympathetic to folks defending their communities, but I don’ think this is about active fighting to protect something specific. (But I’m a YIYBY, so I don’t really know the facts on the ground.) Whatever it is, given the amount of money involved, it seems to me there should be a way to pretty nearly completely accommodate it, while improving a lot of things dramatically.

            Maybe you’ve heard the quip about the infinity bus arriving at the infinity hotel. The driver of the bus and the manager of the hotel have to somehow get everyone off the bus (which has numbered seats, from seat one all the way to seat infinity) and into the hotel (which has numbered rooms, from room one to room infinity). The problem is, all the rooms are already occupied, and the bus is full, and the bus driver and hotel manager realize they could very easily end up spending infinite time giving directions to people who want off the bus and into rooms, so they devise a clever trick using the hotel P.A. speaker system and the bus’s announcement microphone. They tell everyone in the hotel that there’s a change, and they need to repack and take all their things and go to their own room number multiplied by two. Then they tell everyone on the bus to go to the room whose number is given by taking their bus seat number, multiplying that by two, and adding one.

            Okay, back to SF. This is a coordination problem–Suppose every landowner in the Tenderloin could get together and agree to sell the whole of the Tenderloin to one developer, and that Tenderloin developer has a good reserve of cash money to keep everyone happy while he triples the height of every building in order to add a lot more beds in the Tenderloin. What’s that going to look like? Well, let’s imagine this developer has committed to using a phased demolition/construction schedule, and to provide to each displaced renter a similar but objectively somewhat bigger and better rental unit at the same price, plus six months’ free rent and full moving expenses, and that no renter will be asked to move more than once, nor moved more than a block from their initial unit, so that at the end, every tenant has had a paid-for move and six months’ free rent, and now lives in a new slightly nicer version of what they had before, albeit in much a bigger building. Along the way the Tenderloin also gets new rooftop park spaces, great pools and a kick-butt rec center and gym which are included as free amenities to every Tenderloin resident, plus a few really great community-service centers… and oh yeah, the Tenderloin also tripled in size, and there are now 20,000 more beds in SF.

            20,000 additional beds is worth $25k * 3,500/mo = $1,050 billion/yr in new rental income, so you could finance something like $20 billion in construction with that kind of revenue stream and have a ten-year payback window. That’s enough to rebuild the Tenderloin several times over in most places. So… why doesn’t this happen?

            I think the answer is, there is no single bus with a loud speaker, no single hotel with a P.A. system, and all the people involved do not trust each other–and especially, do not trust the big developer.

            (Details on the Tenderloin here: http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/Tenderloin-San-Francisco-CA.html. The Tenderloin is a lovely location with a serious set of overlapping crime/odor/homelessness/low-trust/drug use problems I can’t even talk about without hopelessly confusing and also offending people. Plus, even if some single developer felt like tripling the Tenderloin, what are the odds the folks in the Heights would be okay with that?

            Maybe I’m wrong about this?

            But I think this is a coordination problem where uncertainty and high transaction costs are preventing good deals from getting done, and the NIMBY and YIMBY/YIYBY folks are therefore unable to really cooperate to preserve everyone’s values, and instead resorting to conflict-mode type political battles… which the NIMBY folks are mostly winning for structural reasons. (Developer only gets one vote, and the people who’d live in the units he’d like to build can’t vote unless/until they already live there.)

            I also wonder if once trust breaks down, if you start getting a development ecology where mostly the successful developers are ones who use a conflict-lens to approach their problems… which would have very different results, to the extent those developers are occasionally successful, particularly for lower income tenants.

        • ana53294 says:

          But they will get paid. If their house gets re-zoned to an apartment building, the land their house is built on will be worth a lot more, and they would be able to sell their house to developers who will tear it down, and go live in some nice suburbs with all the money from the sale.

    • arlie says:

      *sigh* I can’t build a granny apartment for myself and rent my house to some (large) number of people who would really like to live in this location. The increase in density would have to pass zoning review. It’s possible that even taking in a bunch of roomers might create issues for me – though that’s at least less obvious. Same for your hypothetical person.

      In other words, it doesn’t matter what level the decision is made – the NIMBYs have put out roadblocks. You can’t evade this by individual action.

      Getting together with my neighbours might work – if we were all at a similar stage – where we wanted to do this. But we aren’t. Some of them have just bought their houses, and are unlikely to have purchased more space than they expect to use. Some can’t afford the time and attention to deal with this right now, or cope with moving, even across the yard. Some of them would rather replace all the houses with one huge multi unit building. And one of them is hanging onto the house her great grandfather built, and hopes her great grandchildren will be raising their children in it.

      There are ways to get around this, but they take time, and money. Lots of both, some of the time waiting for demographic changes. (Local houses didn’t start getting upsized until the original owners died off, for example.)

  65. caethan says:

    I grew up in a suburb consistently included in those Most Liveable Towns In The US ranking. It was really nice, and I often remember of it fondly when dealing with the stresses of living in slightly-more-urban Oakland

    Man, come move across the estuary to Alameda. It’s nice.

  66. neonwattagelimit says:

    Serious question: what’s been going on in SF? Has it really gotten that bad?

    I’ve never lived there, but I visited SF four times from between 2006 and 2015. It always seemed like a pretty nice place to me. Each time I rode the BART at least once; it did not seem to have more crazy or disruptive people than the NYC subway or other big mass transit systems. I do not recall seeing any human feces or needles on the sidewalk. There were more homeless people than in NYC, but not that many more, and they generally kept to themselves.

    Yet now I keep reading articles like this one which write about SF like it is some kind of urban dystopia. Was I missing something, or has SF reached some kind of breaking point in the past three years? And if the latter, what was that breaking point, and why did it happen?

  67. Axiomatic Doubts says:

    The South Bay, just about an one hour away from SF, where several tech companies are (Google, Apple, Facebook, among others) is actually pretty much exactly the opposite of how you describe San Francisco; largely suburban, clean, with very little crime and no BART stations. Google workers are not exactly pressured to live in SF, many of them actually prefer to. I have a friend who once worked in Mountain View and every once in a while would ask permission to her boss to work from a cafe in SF. And when it comes to suburb-lovers who have a job in SF, there’s plenty of suburbs around it: in Marin, the South Bay, Peninsula, Berkeley itself, etc. So I wouldn’t expect the phenomenon of “people feeling compelled to live in San Francisco itself despite absolutely hating cities and longing to live in suburbs” to be very widespread.

    • shakeddown says:

      > very little crime

      I got my bike stolen within a week of moving here, and (more tellingly) no one was surprised.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I used to live in Berkeley. There were bums everywhere. Certain parking structures were known as murder centers; someone would get mugged, raped, or murdered there once every couple months (at least). Fast food drive-thruough windows had bars and thick Plexiglass shields. One had blast marks on it. Police cars would sometimes drive through the area… quickly.

      • Plumber says:

        I grew uo in Berkeley, and Berkeley has always (in my lifetime) been a bit more like San Francisco than Marin, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties have.

        When I worked in San Jose (1999 to 2010) how many less beggers even downtown San Jose had compared to Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco was noticeable, Palo Alto had a bit more but still less.

        Strangely, the first “tent city” I was aware of was in north San Jose, close to my old unions training center, but it was by a creek out of sight of the road, unlike today’s ones in the central bay area that are increasingly visible.

  68. Alex Zavoluk says:

    Oh, and if you’re this obsessed with Austin, you should come visit! We have an active meetup group that I’m sure would be excited to meet you 🙂

  69. John Schilling says:

    The San Francisco Examiner follows a paper by Albouy, Ehrlich, and Liu that estimates a 2% increase in housing will cause a 3% decrease in rents. On the other hand, by the time San Francisco has finished building 2% more housing, the population and demand will have increased, meaning that a large portion of the gains will be expended just staying in the same place.

    I’m pretty sure you’re double-counting here. Or at least the Examiner is.

    The economic definition of “demand” for SF housing, included all the people currently living in SF housing and all the people who would want to live in SF if the price were right. This is the definition Albouy et al are using, if I decipher their jargon re household mobility correctly. If you build ten thousand new units, and ten thousand people move in from elsewhere to occupy them, and the population of San Francisco thus increases by ten thousand, the demand has increased by exactly zero. Those people were part of the demand to begin with.

    Or if you want to map demand to Bay Area tech jobs, on the theory that exactly and only people with such jobs/job offers will pay $3500 for an SF one-bedroom, the “demand” is defined by all the jobs that presently exist in that market, and all the jobs that would exist if employers note that increased housing / reduced rents mean they can bring on more workers in SF rather than building a new hub elsewhere or making their existing people stay an extra 10 hrs/week.

    Albouy et al saying that 2% more housing means 3% lower rents (not 3.5%), already includes the effect of people moving from afar to fill the new apartments and employers offering jobs to all the new tech workers. Of course people will move in to fill any new homes that are built – that was presumably the point of building them. But the reason they move, is that the price is lower than it was last year when they conspicuously didn’t move. And 3%, is the estimate of how much the prices have to come down to get 2% more renters in SF(*).

    To get an actual increase in the demand curve, you’d need to have more people total who want to live in SF next year than do this year. Since SF’s role is basically as Mecca to Blue/Grey STEM Gentry and Elites, and those groups reproduce at less than replacement rates, this isn’t going to be a major driver.

    * Which will be a mix of people moving in from outside SF, and people moving off their friends’ couches and getting places of their own; Albouy et al are counting both.

  70. TomGrey says:

    The US Federal Budget could use more cash — a Land Value tax would make some of the “excess rent” costs go towards the US deficit, rather than those who bought land in the last 40 years.

    I certainly think of how the $150,000 house in Palo Alto in 1979 is far more than 10 times that, now — as big an amount in increase as working for a median wage for 40 years and saving it all.

    There is never an “equilibrium”, but more companies moving more programmers to Austin, or Scottsdale, or Bratislava (Slovakia), with the telecommuting agile teams, will be helpful.

  71. Eternaltraveler says:

    I’m in SF bay and have been for the last 9 years because this is the best place in the world to find venture capital for anti aging biotechnology. The entire bay is otherwise almost entirely horrible, but the alternative is certain death.

    It would be nice if VCs decided to relocate somewhere remotely business friendly. California will probably be kind enough to encourage them all to leave as soon as they enact some more wealth taxes.

  72. VNodosaurus says:

    So I’ve lurked for a few years here, and this has finally provoked me into creating an account, mostly because it’s (subjectively, in my opinion, etc.) the worst SSC post I can remember.

    The object-level discussion about whether building more housing would achieve anything is discussed above by people more familiar with the topic than I am. The only thing I can add to that is that the ‘suburban utopia’ is only a utopia for parents; for children (and anyone without a car) it’s pure boredom. Admittedly, less so now with the Internet, but the atomization of suburbia is if anything greater than that of city life. Endless rows of identical houses, cars, and lawnmowers (the last of which annoy me far more than they seem to bother most people), like some rogue AI’s space-tiling. Some people like it, and that’s fine, but they shouldn’t assume everyone does.

    But the bigger issue is that the post – as, indeed, the whole NIMBY principle – is based entirely on “I like the way things are for me right now, and I won’t let anyone change them”. Point 4 in particular – yes, the motive of NIMBY is self-interest and disregard for the impact on the greater world; a sympathetic self-interest, sometimes, but pure self-interest nonetheless, and the rhetorical dressing doesn’t change that. That’s why it’s “not in my backyard” and not “not in any backyard”. It’s not a principled resistance to sweeping changes (there’s another term for that), but a narrow-focus resistance to local ones. It’s Yucca Mountain getting shut down, with the nuclear waste that would have gone there instead being stored in casks around the country not designed to last more than a few decades – but hey, the casks were there a decade ago, so let’s just keep things the way they are, ad infinitum. It’s forbidding the installation of solar panels on a neighbor’s home, because they look weird and might lower property values, but ultimately because ‘we’ve been doing fine without them’. It’s steadfastly holding onto the current state of matters, refusing any budge that isn’t a strict improvement in every aspect, the concept of a coordination problem incarnate. And the current world isn’t even in equilibrium, not anywhere close; in the case of housing, suburban sprawl extending ever outwards without increasing its density is not sustainable, because there’s only so much room in the world, and a lot of it has to be spent on farms, and it’d be nice to keep some space for wildlife too, instead of infinite flat lawns.

    Some people will, of course, argue that we both can and should stay in a static present forever (aka conservatism); there’s reasons besides NIMBYsm to oppose development; but this post doesn’t engage with any of that at all. Instead its aim seems to be to… “piss [the YIMBYs] off”.

    Posting with the sole aim to provoke people is not, IMHO, the pinnacle of what this blog can be.

    • John Schilling says:

      The only thing I can add to that is that the ‘suburban utopia’ is only a utopia for parents; for children (and anyone without a car) it’s pure boredom. Admittedly, less so now with the Internet…

      Actually, before we had the Internet, we had a culture where children could ride their bicycles at will anywhere in suburbia and often choice bits of urbia as well, which went a long way to dealing with the boredom.

      This is not entirely coincidental, though I think it was cable news rather more than the Internet which saw an end to that.

      • TentativeQuestioning says:

        My impression is that there are a few things that contributed to children going outside less.

        One is the advent of mass TV of course. Children want to stay inside on Saturdays to watch cartoons.

        The next is also TV. Specifically, sensational news about crimes. Rapists, murderers, kidnappers- i.e., “stranger danger” – made the world look a lot more dangerous for kids to the parents than it really was. So parents started keeping their children away from other adults, older kids, and generally inside and away from the outer world.

        The internet has contributed but I would imagine only a little; particularly perhaps since the late 90’s when computers started gaining more utility to the average consumer (and child).

        A big factor that most seem to miss is the encroachment of school life on kids’ time. The school day has expanded by about an hour since the 50’s. It also administers much, much more homework than it did back then. There are on average 25 more days out of the year that kids have to go to school. Additionally, outside-of-school activities such as bands and sports have been co-opted into the education system. And kids are bused to and from centralized schools, instead of walking to local schools. All this takes up time, and it’s in a system that is administered generally by and for the benefit of adults (teachers, parents, administrators, colleges, “society”), not the kids.

        So from school, kids are losing out on time to connect with each other, they’re being made to shut up and follow orders for more time in their day, and they’re crowded into segregated-age classrooms where their ability to regulate their behavior is hampered through not being able to be a role model for younger kids or look up to older ones. (Not to mention their sleep schedule being thrown in disarray by having to wake up at 6 to get on the bus.) Parental paranoia has seeped into no-leaving-for-lunch policies, even further limiting free time, no-touching policies, and an impersonal justice system that has more to do with preserving the school’s image and less about actually resolving conflict in the school.

        Kids in the US work harder, longer, and more unpleasant hours than most adults these days. No wonder when they get home and are done with homework they just want to zone out in front of the computer or TV. They might have gone outside, but they have few friends on their street, and only really have the time to meet peers on the bus and at school when people are grouchy or have to “focus”, and their parents want them to stay inside and not get into trouble, and the sun has probably set anyways.

        (Can you tell I’m juuuust a little bitter about my childhood?)

  73. BrianHanlon says:

    Disclaimer: I lead California YIMBY

    #1 and #2: Comparing the rate of home building relative to the existing housing stock for cities like Philadelphia doesn’t tell us much about San Francisco’s (lack of) home-building. SF is terrible at building homes relative to other non-California cities given the demand for housing. California metro areas have the largest delta between the cost of construction and home prices. As other commentators noted, the rate of homebuilding is much lower in many of SF’s suburbs than SF proper. Given that much of Bay Area YIMBY activism is geared toward enabling home building in jobs-rich exclusionary suburbs, a more fair comparison would be at the metro area level.

    #3: As the author notes, the coefficients matter here. Agglomeration effects are real, but there is no reason to think that benefits of agglomeration outweigh the supply + disamenity (crowding) effects. The author also conflates stocks and flows by referring to the density of Manhattan rather than its rate of home building (which is very low).

    #4: I don’t understand the relevance of anecdata about crime near BART w/r/t the YIMBY position that it should be legal to build apartment buildings near train stations. People oppose home-building for many different reasons and I agree it’s reductive and unfair to assume opposition to density is always about being racist or classist.

    #5: There are many reasons to be a YIMBY, apart from only increasing affordability. If policy advocates don’t at first succeed in convincing someone based on one argument, why not try another?

    #5b: “So the counterargument to ‘Every new housing unit built lets one more person move to San Francisco’ is ‘Every new housing unit prevented saves one person from having to live in San Francisco’. – I get the author doesn’t like San Francisco, but many people do and would like to live there. Would be migrants to SF don’t need the author to save them from themselves.

    #6: Sounds like the author agrees there are no plausible alternatives to YIMBYism absent a centrally-planned economy, so I guess we agree after all?

  74. vV_Vv says:

    What drives the popluation growth in San Francisco? I have never been there, and from what I read on teh Interwebz it look like it’s just tech nerds and homeless junkies moving there, presumably for different reasons. Is this correct?

    Anyway, as far as I understand, Manhattan is generally considered a nicer place to live than SF, therefore the problem doesn’t seem to be the rents, the population density or the hight of the skyscrapers. The problem seems to be that SF looks more like Mumbai rather than Manhattan, with the tech nerds, who are in theory skilled craft workers, living like the stereotypical Lumpenproletariat, and the actual Lumpenproletariat living like stray dogs. I suspect that this is largely orthogonal to the number of housing units.

    • grendelkhan says:

      it look like it’s just tech nerds and homeless junkies moving there, presumably for different reasons. Is this correct?

      Not exactly. It’s tech nerds moving there; people who lose their precarious rent-controlled apartment or their parents’ house or fall on hard times for whatever become homeless. In terms of domestic migration, all the income buckets under $110k were net-negative over 2007-2016.

      I suspect that this is largely orthogonal to the number of housing units.

      There isn’t enough zoned space for nonprofits to put up enough shelters to house the homeless people, which is why they live like dogs. This is directly related to the number of housing units, as is the fact that if people get evicted, they either end up on the street or homeless, as is the fact that kids growing up there can’t get their own place because their parents’ generation are hoarding all of the land.

      • vV_Vv says:

        This is directly related to the number of housing units, as is the fact that if people get evicted, they either end up on the street or homeless, as is the fact that kids growing up there can’t get their own place because their parents’ generation are hoarding all of the land.

        But again the housing units are even more scarce and expensive in Manhattan, yet we don’t hear tales of Wall Street bankers living three to a room or the NYC subway being inhabited by crazy homeless people.

        I wonder if this is because tech nerds tend to be unusually bad at negotiating salaries and/or value having a “cool” job unusually high w.r.t. the salary.

        Google, Facebook, etc., all make enormous profits, the tech startups are flooded with investor money, and there is a shortage of skilled programmers, therefore supply and demand predicts that the skilled programmers should command high salaries and be able to afford nice houses, instead we observe that their salaries, while high w.r.t. the national average, are crap at power purchase parity. They could probably work in other cities for smaller companies doing more boring jobs but with higher PPP salaries.

        I’m also unconvinced that most of the homeless were just normal people who couldn’t afford a house at some point because they were displace by the nerds. If that was the case, why didn’t they move to a cheaper area?

        • The Nybbler says:

          the NYC subway being inhabited by crazy homeless people.

          It is.

          • Brad says:

            But only in the last few years since we got this awful mayor. It isn’t an inherent feature of the city.

          • neonwattagelimit says:

            It is.

            While this is true in a strictly factual sense – a certain number of crazy homeless people do inhabit the NYC subway – simply stating “it is” in response to this assertion is misleading.

            I have ridden the NYC subway every day for roughly the past decade, and near-daily for the better part of 15 years. Beggars are a pretty regular sight, probably 1-2x per week, but usually they just walk through the car with some little spiel and a cup out and don’t bother or harass anyone. Perhaps you consider this behavior “crazy;” I don’t. It’s annoying, sure, but no more annoying than, say, sitting in traffic.* Maybe once or twice a year I’ll see someone or something that is truly disruptive or frightening.

            *While I live in NYC and commute on the subway, I also own a car and drive out of town fairly often, so I am roughly as familiar traveling by car as I am with traveling by public transit.

            But only in the last few years since we got this awful mayor. It isn’t an inherent feature of the city.

            I have not noticed a big increase in subway homeless since de Blasio took office. A small one maybe, but you could more plausibly tie that to rising rents, a problem which pre-dates de Blasio.

            Now, the service levels on the subway have gone to shit in the past 4-5 years, and de Blasio does deserve some share of blame for that (though probably not most of it, as the MTA is a state agency). But that’s a separate issue.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            @neonwattagelimit,

            I’m generally fairly satisfied with the level of order that the NYPD provides but the homeless can still get pretty in-your-face here.

            In one particularly bizarre instance, I had a guy start shouting at me that I had a big dick to get my attention when I (and the rest of the subway car) was ignoring his angry rant / panhandling.

            I’m a big guy so yelling random nonsense is as far as it’s ever gone, AM or PM, but I wouldn’t want to be a woman or a shorter dude alone on a subway car with one of these guys.

          • neonwattagelimit says:

            @Nabil ad Dajjal

            I’m not saying these things never happen; clearly they do. I’m saying they’re extraordinarily rare. If you ride the subway thousands of times it almost certainly will happen to you at some point, and it’s happened to me. But it’s not the norm.

            Also, I’m a shorter dude and I’ve never been physically harmed on the subway or come particularly close, but I have had to interact with scary weirdos a few times.

          • vV_Vv says:

            My point is not that you never run into the occasional annoying, potentially dangerous, person in NYC. This happens pretty much everywhere.

            My point is that Scott says that people in the Bay area are afraid of having a BART station open in their neighbor, which is extremely unusual, in particular for a first-world city. Normally, living close to a station of a mass transit system is seen as a plus, not as a con.

          • Brad says:

            I have not noticed a big increase in subway homeless since de Blasio took office. A small one maybe, but you could more plausibly tie that to rising rents, a problem which pre-dates de Blasio.

            I’ve lived here since 2004 and haven’t owned a car that entire time. I’ve noticed a big increase since de Blasio took office. In addition to more subway homeless, a lot more street homeless and beggars all over the place. A ton more fare beaters.

            I expect to see the return of the squeegee men before the end of this disastrous mayoralty. And also some stupid vanity boats — so yay for that.

        • Nornagest says:

          I’m also unconvinced that most of the homeless were just normal people who couldn’t afford a house at some point because they were displace by the nerds.

          They’re not; the visibly homeless are mostly drug addicted or mentally ill (or gutterpunks, if you’re in downtown Berkeley or the Haight). It’s not uncommon for someone that can’t find a room to spend a month or two in shelters, living out of their cars, or, most commonly, on their friends’ couches before either finding a room or moving away (this is also counted towards homelessness numbers), but you won’t see them, or, if you do, you’ll assume they’ve got a steady roof over their heads.

          It’s still bad that that’s getting more common, but it doesn’t have much to do with the people shitting on the sidewalk or shouting at you in the subway.

  75. grendelkhan says:

    For a worked example, compare commercial and residential costs. They’re roughly related–workers have to live somewhere, after all–but compare how commercial rents are flat in nominal terms since 2000, whereas home prices have more than doubled.

    The city continues to, like most other places in the Bay, push a jobs-housing imbalance for tax-base reasons, which is why you get programmers living three to a room. It stands to reason that if the city had built housing like it built commercial real estate, renters would be paying vintage-2000 rates.

    • John Schilling says:

      Commercial real estate is mostly owned by people who can expect to want or need more commercial real estate in the near future, who can make a profit from more commercial real estate, and who therefore will not lobby for obstacles to more commercial real estate construction.

      Residential real estate is mostly owned by people who have leveraged their need for a home into a singular high-value investment; they’ve not only “got theirs”, they’ve got all of theirs that they are ever going to get unless they become landlords, and will therefore profit from obstacles that will affect only their future competitors.

  76. jdaviestx says:

    > clearing away tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes

    Har, har, Austin’s actually pretty green, it looks just like the Midwest, Yankee. You’re thinking of El Paso.

  77. Windward says:

    Thank you for putting in a word for those whose anxiety/phobias/nonspecific neuroatypicality make density and the unavoidable logistics of Large Numbers of People… difficult.

    I love cities in theory. The waterfront of Vancouver is breathtaking, the museums in DC are fascinatingly fun (and free), and my brief piecemeal impression of San Francisco is one of shabby but haunting beauty. I’m familiar enough with Seattle that, choosing my travels wisely, I can get around most parts of it comfortably.

    In practice, I reach saturation point pretty fast when everything is loud, dirty, and full of strange people (both the “strange to me” and the “strange by most metrics” types). Likely the suburbs, or at least easy access to quieter spaces, is best for me currently. There is only so much hand sanitizer I am interested in using in a day. Maybe someday it will get easier. Until then, one of the things I like about my chosen profession is that I should be able to get a job basically anywhere.

    That being said, I do think city living can be fun if you’re in an area that is pleasant but where you can walk everywhere that really matters to your daily life. But I tried that out during a brief internship when I had financial help; realistically, I wouldn’t depend on it happening again for a while. I wonder what percentage of people in cities actually *can* do that? I suspect not many.

  78. It truly amazes me how difficult it apparently is to have cops patrol train stations and keep people from shitting on the street.

    • Matt M says:

      It’s not that they can’t. It’s that they don’t want to. It’s entirely, 100%, politically motivated.

      • Plumber says:

        I work around a lot of cops, and I think it’s more of a general reluctance to get near people and things that stink, also a lot of cops just feel sorry for beggers.

        I have a co-worker who says his cousin is a dope dealer with a home down in Santa Clara county and comes up to San Francisco with a van filled with garbage (with drugs hidden amongst the trash), the cops put on gloves, very briefly search the van, and give up in disgust.

        It’s also well known that the way to avoid handcuffs is to stink and look dirty.

        One police station was surrounded by tents for two years, and several people survived for years sleeping around police headquarters on the handouts that they mostly got from cops.

        • Matt M says:

          I work around a lot of cops, and I think it’s more of a general reluctance to get near people and things that stink, also a lot of cops just feel sorry for beggers.

          Maybe that’s how it goes in San Francisco.

          In Texas, any cop who says “Eh, I’ll just avoid these homeless drug addicts because I don’t want to smell them” gets fired. That’s an issue of political will.

  79. adameran says:

    Glad to see one commenter called out the effect of Prop 13. Essentially, lowering taxes on the rentiers allows them to extract all economic excess. Housing price rises are 95% skimmed off by the financial sector unless property tax stops them. (See realestate4ransom.com)

    The other aspect of Prop 13 is that local governments must collect all their costs in building fees (up front) which lets the anti-government crowd drain reserves (and then complain about low reserves) and game the later maintenance costs. (FYI, maintenance for sprawl is roughly double the cost of infrastructure maintenance for compact infill). Poorly maintained infrastructure then is slated for privatizing, turning the economy into a series of toll booths that make domestic labor less competitive with other nations, and turn the lower incomes into debt peons. Rinse and repeat.

    As long as the rentiers get off scott free (one is president now), this is the direction we’re headed.

    • johan_larson says:

      Wow, we don’t often see people here expressing views like yours. Welcome.

      If I may be so bold, do you identify as a Marxist?

  80. Anthony says:

    The City of Paris has an area of 105 km^2. The City and County of San Francisco has a land area of 121 km^2. San Francisco has 0.88 milllion people in that area. Paris has 2.2 million – 2.5 times as many in a little less space. Paris is widely considered to be very livable by the sorts of people who are City-dwelling NIMBYs.

    So all we really need in San Francisco is a Haussmann.

    • christianschwalbach says:

      The suburbs of Paris radiate from the city center in a way that the surrounding areas of San Francisco do not. Also, SF is far more hilly than Paris.

  81. thomasbrinsmead says:

    It is no surprise that both the YIMBY and the NIMBY positions are supported by libertarian principles – because in general, libertarian principles can support almost everything. And so it becomes necessary to investigate the issue on the basis of other factors specific to the case of urban development. State of Nature based thought experiments provide minimal guidance, as Scott has shown.

    There are logical inconsistencies in the principle premises of libertarianism that undermine its spirit, and show that these principles can not help determining policy in specific cases on an a priori basis without going to the trouble of investigating the actual preferences of the demos and the actual institutions that have been historically established. Appeal to libertarian principles does not resolve the genuine need to decide where to draw the line(s) between individual freedom to depart from collective norms and the freedom for groups to organise and constrain the freedoms of their members.

    In particular

    Premiss 1:

    Libertarianism: https://www.lp.org/platform
    Article 2.7:… We defend the right of individuals to form corporations, cooperatives and other types of entities based on voluntary association.

    plus Premiss 2:
    https://anticorruptionsociety.com/2013/03/30/the-united-states-corporation-a-big-plantation/
    OUR GOVERNMENT IS REALLY A COMPANY AND ALL OF THE STATES, COUNTIES, MUNICIPALITIES, AND TOWNSHIPS ARE FRANCHISES

    equals Conclusion:

    We defend the right of individuals to form governments…
    (And, by the way, if you would rather not voluntarily subject yourself to internal corporate policy, aka “the law”, which includes voluntary contributions called “taxes”, you must at least respect

    Article 2.1 As respect for property rights is fundamental to maintaining a free and prosperous society, it follows that the freedom to contract to obtain, retain, profit from, manage, or dispose of one’s property must also be upheld.

    which also implies “No trespassing on corporate [or government] property”, which under this model includes any and all public infrastructure.)

    And that, my Dear Reader, is how we justify Communism, or at least Socialism.

    Of course, this “Socialism” doesn’t solve the problem of exactly what to do for any particular policy issue either. Again, its not possible to avoid the hard intellectual policy making work of resolving the competing requirements that we’d like realised by any decent policy design. All it really demonstrates is that libertarian principles, because their impact depends so much on the scale at which they are applied, don’t really provide much by way of guidance for good public policy. And you have to start looking at the specific details on a case by case basis.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that libertarian principles are vacuous, but they are, without significant detailed specification, very very permissive.

    • sharper13 says:

      It appears you’re cherry-picking stuff you’d like to define as “libertarian principles” in order to attack a straw man version of libertarians.
      1. “libertarian principles” aren’t defined by the LP’s platform. The LP is one (relatively small) faction of small-l libertarians. There are actually more libertarians in the GOP, for example, as well as elsewhere. I will say that the LP mostly conforms to general libertarian principles, although as a sub-faction they of course have plenty of their own quirks.
      2. More seriously for your argument, Anticorruptionsociety.com isn’t exactly a leading libertarian philosophy group which anywhere near most libertarians have probably even heard of, let alone which defines “libertarian principles” for anyone. From the limited information available to me, they seem to be a non-profit single issue org dedicated to a specific point of view on an issue which isn’t representative of libertarians in general.

      So based on your argument, you’ve shown that the people who write for anticorruptionsociety.com, if they also support the LP’s platform, aren’t very consistent. That says nothing about “libertarian principles”.

      Lest you accuse me of no-true-scotsman type arguing or of being willing to just call anything I don’t like “not part of libertarian principles”, I’m happy to consider anything listed as mainstream libertarianism in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarianism as something you could legitimately call part of “libertarian principles”. I refer to wikipedia because at least it has a claim to be “generally accepted”. Please note the conspicuous absence of anything like anticorruptionsociety’s “governments are all one big corporation” idea in there.

      • thomasbrinsmead says:

        While perhaps not many libertarians explicitly subscribe to the belief that a government organisation is really a corporation, my main claim still holds. An appeal to libertarian principles alone will not assist in drawing the line between the legitimate interests of individuals to depart from collective norms, and the the legitimate interests of a group of free citizens to constrain the freedom of its individual members.

        If libertarianism permits voluntary associations to form and the freedom for those associations to impose any type of constraints on their members voluntarily agreed to by their members, then we are still left with the very practical, and unresolved question of what sort of constraints are appropriate to impose.

        The example Scott provides illustrates this perfectly (and I just realised that I posted this in the wrong thread). Whether the private owners of Nodrumia Corporation http://slatestarcodex.com/2018/10/04/next-door-in-nodrumia/ are justified in imposing their quietness conditions on other inhabitants, or whether they are a de facto government trampling over the rights of free individuals to make beautiful music in their own home, depends on the assumptions about how far property rights should extend. But there is nothing in libertarian principles on their own that will give a straightforward answer one way or the other as to where exactly the property rights that matter in this particular case should be assumed to lie in the absence of explicit negotiated agreement.

        More to the point, libertarian principles also give no guidance about where a reasonable default initial starting location for negotiation should lie.

        There is no point appealing to libertarian first principles to resolve the disagreement between those who want a coordinated approach to urban planning to resolve housing affordability issues (YIMBYs) and those who don’t (NIMBYs) because libertarian principles will tell you its OK agree to coordinate (and impose coordination constraints on others because that’s what they signed up to when they bought a share in their local government area, complete with local government rules about development strategies and how individual landowners may or may not participate in their formation via internal local elections) and they will also tell you its wrong for a government to impose its unreasonably restrictive regulations on a landowners private property.

        So it appears that in order to resolve these coordination problems, it is going to require a lot more than the application of libertarian principles alone (and most interesting political problems are coordination problems so my point stands – libertarian principles are quite permissive to the point of vacuity in providing definitive guidance – perhaps in all but the simplest of political decisions where everyone already agrees anyway.)

  82. Carson McNeil says:

    And yet, I’ve heard of Google programmers living two to three to a bedroom in Bernal Heights, not even that close to BART.

    “I’m not saying everyone in San Francisco hates it. There are people who like all sorts of things. Some people like being tied up, whipped, and electrocuted by strangers. And a disproportionate number of these people live in San Francisco. I am just saying this isn’t a coincidence.”

    Ahaha, these two quotes together made me feel personally targeted. I love living in San Francisco (and just moved back there from Berkeley). I have, as a Google Programmer, lived with two other roommates (also programmers, one Google) in a tiny bedroom that wasn’t even originally a bedroom in Bernel Heights. We were stacked in a bunk bed we built ourselves. And you know what? It was AWESOME. San Francisco is about extremes. It’s about weird people being weird and intense and not apologizing for it. It’s a place to go for when you want a firehose to the face of people, art, subculture, and ingenuity. Scott makes fine arguments, but at the end of the day there is nowhere quite like SF, and yes, the rent is too damn high.

  83. Steelmanning has jumped some sort of steelshark.

  84. sa3 says:

    4. Uniquely selfish? Nah, just normal-selfish. There’s a pretty obvious correlation between limiting new housing and value of existing housing, within reason, and people know it. It’s easy for some people to say that they’d definitely be different, but most people have most of their capital locked up in their houses. It’s not a small cost to push changes that reduce their property values.