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San Francisco senator calls for more market-rate housing

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Senator Scott Wiener says “market-rate” isn’t a bad word

Vida SF along Mission Street.
Vida SF along Mission Street.
Photo by torbakhopper

State Senator Scott Wiener took to Medium over the weekend with a nearly 1,700-word essay on the merits of new market-rate housing construction in the Bay Area and California.

In the piece titled “Market-Rate Housing Isn’t a Bad Word, and We Won’t Solve the Housing Crisis Without It,” Wiener alleges that lawmakers and community groups show “skepticism and even hostility” toward any new construction that is not “exclusively or largely [focused] on publicly subsidized, income-based affordable housing.”

To underscore the need for more housing, the senator breaks out some cold, hard numbers:

“According to California’s Legislative Analyst, the state needs to produce about 180,000 units of housing a year to keep up with [population] growth. In practice, we produce less than half that.”

California’s Legislative Analyst Office did in fact say that in a 2015 report, adding, “Seattle—a coastal metro with economic characteristics and average temperatures that are similar to California’s Bay Area metros—added new housing units at about twice the rate as San Francisco and San Jose over the last two decades.”

So okay, just build more affordable housing if that’s what people want. But Wiener says, pointedly, “We will never — and I truly mean never — produce enough of that housing to satisfy” all of our housing needs.

In part, he argues:

Our anemic housing production as a state has two main origins: 1) stifling, exclusionary zoning that rejects height, density, and multi-unit buildings, 2) unreasonable housing approval processes that subject even zoning-compliant projects to years of bureaucratic hoops and hearings that increase costs and make projects smaller. This perfect storm of shortsighted policies and lack of political leadership has completely jacked up the cost of housing.

Wiener does cite his two coauthored bills in the state legislature, which will hopefully yield as much as thousands of new publicly subsidized homes as evidence that he’s not hostile to affordable housing.

Scott Wiener.
Scott Wiener. (Echo?)

He goes on to say that San Francisco and California simply do not have the resources to build affordable housing at a volume sufficient to meet demand. Only the federal government can do that—and they’re knocking down our doors with offers these days.

This should all sound familiar to San Franciscans; it’s the same argument Wiener made for years during his stint on the Board of Supervisors.

Standard-issue supply-and-demand economics seem to support him; prices are high, Wiener argues, because supply is scarce. If we can’t build more one way, we’ve got to do it another way.

Locals skeptical of Wiener’s arguments, both then and now, allege that market-rate development won’t or can’t match demand, at least not without giving away the whole cake.

“You just can't quote Adam Smith in your Economics 101 textbook to say that's going to solve the problem,” a game venture capitalist told Truthout in a 2014 blog that argues that pricey housing attracts more of the wealthy and makes neighborhoods unsustainable.

However, the senator says this view isn’t realistic.

“Just to be crystal clear,” says Wiener, “Anyone who advocates that we ignore these process and zoning problems and instead focus our housing policy exclusively or dominantly on subsidized, income-based housing is advocating to perpetuate the housing crisis.”