It’s odd to me how bad San Francisco is, when other large cities like New York or Paris are basically utopias.
But just a few comments down, Lasagna says:
I despise (I’m choosing that word carefully) [New York City]. 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 […] 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.
This would be fascinating if it weren’t so predictable. One person describes NYC as “basically utopia”, and another person can’t stop ranting about how much he hates it and is glad to have escaped it.
In the same vein, from Cerastes:
“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.
I think this is why these discussions are so hard. People’s preferences on what makes an acceptable place to live differ so strongly, and in so many little ways, that I think a lot of the debate is just people screaming to have their existence acknowledged. It’s infuriating to feel like everyone around you is calmly assuming as obvious and universal, preferences that could make your life not worth living.
And that makes it tempting to come on too strong, to say that no, my preferences are obvious and yours are crazy. An earlier draft of the post suggested that people who enjoy living in San Francisco might be “lizardmen”; I deleted it on advice from more sober-minded friends. I assume it would have just made the
lizardmen San Franciscans angrier, and made them talk even more about how they couldn’t stand living somewhere where they had to drive more. I get it. Everyone’s preferences exist, competing access needs, etc.
If cities are your personal Hell, then even if on some intellectual level you know that other people can tolerate them, it becomes hard to fight for subjecting more and more people to hellish conditions. And if cities seem great to you, and suburbs boring and stupid, then you start thinking anyone defending their suburb against urban encroachment must just be classist or racist or something.
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.
Yes, a lot of the discussion of preferences above is completely irrelevant, because in the real world there will always be some suburbs and some cities (at least until the age of ecumenopolis).
When I say that YIMBYs are often right about their policy proposals but make me hate them anyway, that’s what I mean. There’s no reason these debates have to devolve into “suburbs and people who like them suck” vs. “cities and people who like them suck”, but they often do – and I admit I am personally guilty of reinforcing this.
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.
Okay, I vote that Team Gleaming Skyscrapers and Team Leafy Suburbs come together to burn the heretic.
The equivalent cities by population in Europe [to San Francisco] 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..
I agree with this. Most of the US’ problems with dense cities are solveable in principle. But I would still feel more comfortable if the order went first, solve the problems, second, tell everyone not to worry about them because of how solveable they are. Otherwise, I think people are justified in having a high prior that the problems won’t be solved, just as they haven’t been solved so far, and so higher-density cities will indeed keep having all of these problems that make them hard to live in.
Andrew on why prices might go down faster than the models I quote predict:
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.
Atlas against worrying too much about agglomeration effects:
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.
DS against some of the statistics:
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.
Douglas Knight, on how growing cities doesn’t necessarily have to be disruptive for people who don’t like density:
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.
TheNybbler on whether cities have to be where the jobs are:
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.
wulfrickson is skeptical that agglomeration effects are really that bad:
The Zuegel piece that Scott linked in point 3 (arguing that agglomeration effects may mean that more housing => higher prices) was discussed pretty widely when it came out, and the consensus was that things could come out that way in theory, but the empirical evidence points in the other direction: agglomeration effects are probably not big enough. Here’s a bit of Twitter discussion. Another paper by French economists estimates that increasing a region’s population by 10 percent would increase costs of living by 0.3 to 0.8 percent, once housing supply adjusts to compensate (in the short run, it’s more like 1 to 3 percent). This isn’t anything to write home about.
peopleneedaplacetogo takes a wider perspective:
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.
grendelkhan says that one reason California is especially bad is Prop 13:
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.
And from eternaltraveler:
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.
Uh, thanks for putting things in perspective, I guess?