From afar, San Francisco’s skyline looks pristine and thriving. But take a closer look. From how we interact with each other to vivid displays of the widening divide between rich and poor, it’s not as booming as it appears from a distance. As many have suggested over the last decade: The city might be broken.
Never mind the benign stuff that riles the gatekeepers—replacing in-person communication with a permanent gaze upon our screens, a sartorial identity reduced to a uniform of Patagonia vests and Allbirds shoes, $15 salad lounges, Muni—it’s the malignant mainstays that have caused real damage: Unprecedented wealth has contrasted sharply with our growing homeless population. The middle class (including first responders, service industry workers, and teachers) can no longer afford to live here. The issue of sanitation, or lack thereof. And above all, unrivaled economic inequality.
We also allegedly lost our soul. Again. And again. And again.
Can San Francisco be fixed? I asked a gaggle of local journalists whose beats encompass Curbed’s purview, a few policy influencers and activists, and one noted tech CEO if San Francisco, unassailably cracked, could be brought back to the utopian state that probably never existed in the first place. Here’s what they had to say.
SF is a city that’s been in perpetual crisis since forever. There’s too much special interest, lobbying, and conservative ideology among progressives and moderates alike to save it. At this point, any real fixes for SF will have to come from Sacramento.
San Francisco can be fixed with a three-step plan:
- Money. Proposition C funding must get through, as we need this critical funding for our homeless and homeless prevention.
- Housing. We need to build 5,000 extremely low-income housing units.
- Personal responsibility. Every San Franciscan must get involved and do one thing for the public schools, the public hospitals, the homeless, and their neighbors.
Of course San Francisco can be fixed. What other choice do we have? There is a dark nihilism that has gripped people, and we have to shake out of it. There’s nothing so wrong with San Francisco that can’t be fixed by what’s right with San Francisco. We have the values of inclusion, of celebrating diversity, of welcoming the stranger and defending the helpless. All we have to do is translate those values into action: housing everyone, investing in public transportation, and creating a strong social safety net. We are capable of building a city we are proud of: an integrated, sustainable, vibrant city where anyone can thrive.
In 1906, an earthquake all but destroyed San Francisco. Ten years later we hosted the World’s Fair. We are “the City That Knows How.” The question is if we will. Everyone needs to set aside their cynical, smart-boy nihilism, roll up their sleeves, and get involved in local politics.
Mike Isaac (technology reporter at the New York Times; author of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber):
I desperately want to tell you yes, this city can be saved. I’ve lived here for 15 years, and it feels more like my home than any other city in the world. And it is not an unreasonable wish for lifelong San Franciscans to try and hold on to some of the things that have made this city so great. I love San Francisco, oftentimes in spite of itself.
But I worry when I look around and see the many competing stakeholders, few of which have any interest in collaborating.
Companies like Uber and Lyft are being pressured by investors to find a path to profitability—something that works against any incentive to reduce the amount of cars on the road in San Francisco. (The companies are the two largest contributors to traffic congestion in the city, responsible for half of the overall increase.)
Airbnb, meanwhile, is positioning itself to go public in 2020, which can only mean it needs to increase listings and inventory in the cities it operates, including San Francisco. Even with San Francisco’s more stringent guidelines around short-term rentals, people are gaming the system with fraudulent resident information in order to list their apartments for rent, exacerbating rental shortages for potential long-term residents, and jacking up prices across the Bay Area. Airbnb, of course, has little incentive to police its platform, and only attempts to do so when forced by legislation or bad press.
NIMBYs and YIMBYs hate each other; both groups [are] vehemently opposed to the others’ point of view. As rent prices skyrocket, it is more difficult than ever to build new units to catch up to the backlog of demand as more people flood into the Bay Area for IT jobs. Big tech companies like Facebook and Google compete dearly for talent without putting the same level of effort into engaging with the surrounding communities. (Only recently have executives at these companies started to make more serious inroads to change this.)
And the mess of red tape it takes to open a small business in a neighborhood has made it prohibitively difficult for would-be entrepreneurs to offer more local services to neighborhoods. I live in the Castro, where it sometimes feels like more vacant shops line Market Street than occupied storefronts. It doesn’t help that neighborhood associations fight against new occupants regularly, opting for an empty storefront [rather] than a filled one. Add to that the landlords sitting on exorbitant asking prices for retail rentals, and we wonder why Main Street is being quickly replaced by Amazon.
My hope would be for more people to engage with their community, to become a part of the neighborhoods they live in. Right now, I see a lot of people succumbing to a commuter culture that spends its time in transit on buses down south to the Valley, then opting to complain and fight on networks like Nextdoor and Facebook instead of regularly attending neighborhood meetings. And conversely, longtime residents often prefer to indict tech workers and want to eject them from the area instead of trying to work together as a community and make San Francisco actually function in the face of a rapidly changing cityscape.
Perhaps instead of eating another Doordash meal on the couch watching Netflix and surrounded by unopened cardboard Prime boxes, people will recognize how important it is to forge bonds within the neighborhood in order to make San Francisco a better place to live for everyone.
We can’t go back to what San Francisco used to be. But we can improve it to at least be better to live in for tomorrow.
Fixing something in San Francisco is like applying a Band-Aid to a gushing wound. There’s a lot to love about the city, but it’s clear that entire systems need to be overhauled and dismantled for real change in areas such as mental health, pedestrian safety, housing, [and] inequality. I have to believe that change is possible, but it will require a lot of imagination, innovation, people power, and political will to make our city better. All the more reason why civic and political participation of all people, especially those from marginalized communities, is so important. We know the issues best and we have the solutions.
I think San Francisco’s problems can be addressed and possibly even “fixed.” But to say the entire city can or cannot be “fixed” seems to assume there was a time when everything was working well. No such time existed, and as I’ve written before, a lot of nostalgia for better times is only possible via the decoupling of fond memories from abjectly horrible ones. To wit, my family’s sepia-toned memories of San Francisco do not include aggressive policing, violent crime at a level unfathomable in the current era, or urban renewal (my dad, during his cab-driving days, did drive Steve Miller home from the airport, which is a much more jolly story).
San Francisco’s problems are so vast and endemic and intractable that confronting them all at once can be extremely discouraging. Anybody suggesting that any singular fix will solve things—be it public power or more housing—is either naive or a charlatan. It’s the complexities of our problems—homelessness, unaffordability, transit issues, lurking budgetary nightmares, etc.—that make them endemic and intractable... and extremely discouraging.
With that said, we can create so many better outcomes for so many more people. The ongoing nightmare of mentally ill homeless people being pushed onto our curbs cannot be solved in an afternoon. But we can expediently fix the situation at San Francisco General Hospital in which 45 long-term beds for such people were willfully kept empty. We can help individuals and we can make incremental progress.
We can also attempt to shoot the moon with sweeping new proposals. A few of these have come to pass or are in the works. And they may well do much good. But they may well lead to iniquities of the sort that better-off San Franciscans have always ignored, leading to the shaky nostalgia for an ostensibly better time.
Can San Francisco be “fixed”? That’s hard to say. Can we do better? That’s easy to say: Most definitely and, God willing, soon and lots of it.
Asking “Can SF be saved?” is functionally equivalent to asking “Can America be saved?” We’ve long been the country’s leading exporter of new ideas—the modern internet, the LGBTQ+ rights movement, fancy beer—and now we are its leading exporter of dystopia. Every city in America is lapping at the high-water mark we’ve set: increasingly unaffordable, recalcifying into neighborhoods segregated by race and class, bleeding citizens with nowhere else to go.
Everything that is wrong with SF—with America, with the world—can be traced back to wealth inequality. We mint billionaires at a per-capita pace that is unmatched on the planet. A few of them are generous; most are not. Meanwhile, many of their employees are struggling to make it here. The service workers who attend to their every whim can’t even afford to live within an hour’s drive.
I hesitated to get political in response to this question, but the truth is that government—that little thing that is of, by, and for all of us—is the only solution to this problem. We need massive investments in subsidized housing, transit, infrastructure improvements, and public education to make this city a fundamentally just place. The hoarded wealth here could do all that and more, but the federal government gets the majority of the taxes. That means real change won’t come without a fight on a national level.
Real change means unionizing your office and setting an example for other cities’ workers. It means attending byzantine community meetings to speak up for more affordable housing for those who have nothing. It means giving your money and time to the only two presidential candidates who will do what needs to be done to finance a fair society: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It means dropping Nancy Pelosi, our sole federal representative, who has proven she is not answerable to this crisis. Her 2020 opponent, Shahid Buttar, deserves the chance to fight for something new for us.
The mission is clear: Either we remake SF’s image, or America gets remade in ours. Your actions and mine are the sole determinant of whether we are saved.
Yes! I hope none of my fellow respondents say no. How depressing would that be? Our city is too beautiful, creative, diverse, historically significant, and whimsical to write off. It has major, infuriating problems, but it also has thousands of dedicated, smart people intent on fixing them. At least we all seem to be on the same page (finally): that it is neither compassionate nor humane to let people wither and die on our streets, to allow unfettered public drug dealing and usage, and to cycle people in and out of San Francisco General Hospital’s psychiatric emergency room without plans for long-term care.
Of course, finding the money to offer the shelter and treatment we need is easier said than done, but at least City Hall is moving slowly in the right direction. We know what’s needed—we just need to move a lot faster to make it happen.
I was extremely heartened after I wrote a column about the Gubbio Project, a nonprofit that allows homeless people to stretch out on church pews and sleep. The under-the-radar group does very little PR, and not many San Franciscans had heard of it. But after the column ran, a woman walked into St. Boniface in the Tenderloin with a check for $5,000. Others delivered supplies. Within days, the nonprofit had collected $65,000, more than a thousand blankets, more than a thousand pairs of socks and a host of toiletries. San Francisco still has a heart, and it still has a soul.
San Francisco cannot be fixed, but perhaps it can be improved. Before the police shooting on December 7, the SFPD had gone some 18 months without shooting a single person. The department is still more than 570 days without a deadly shooting. And 2019 was the first time in 21 years—since 1998—that the SFPD committed only one police shooting in a calendar year. That’s by no means “fixed,” but I’d say a definite improvement.
To fix San Francisco we need a cultural shift away from othering and toward a recognition of common humanity. It’s too easy to live life in this city from the shelter of an Uber, an office building, a three-star restaurant, never engaging with the many who need our help. As a result, we have a major compassion problem.
Compassion doesn’t require understanding, or even demand kindness—rather, it necessitates that we acknowledge people’s traumas and stories, and respond with warmth. This can be as simple as a smile to a stranger, an extra cup of coffee for a someone unhoused, [or] carrying a pair of socks for a person living outside on a rainy day.
But how to get there? Our city’s compassion issue is not something that can be fixed through legislation, ballot measures, signature drives, [or] online fundraisers.
It increasingly seems possible that SF’s current population is incapable of compassion, and that we take a step deeper each year toward a pit of extreme selfishness, the antithesis of human-to-human connection.
But is it fixable? I have to think so in order to continue waking up in this city every day. Otherwise, what are we all fighting for?
I refute the idea that San Francisco alone needs fixing. Its most vexing issues, homelessness and housing, are cast upon us by failing federal policies, state policies, and regional selfishness.
Despite that massive, daunting bureaucratic reality, San Francisco is still “the City That Knows How.” Don’t count it out, not for an instant.
San Francisco is on a tipping point of unliveability. The people forced to live in tents and cars are obviously the worst victims, but the housing affordability and resulting homeless crisis affects all of us. Teachers, restaurant workers, artists, and musicians can’t afford to live here. It’s hard to recruit and retain workers. Business leaders fear tourists, and conventions will stay away in the face of so much human misery. We risk a downward spiral in which San Francisco becomes a weird hybrid of Monaco and a shanty town.
San Franciscans have voted for a number of things designed to help, but it’s not enough. Our city has the highest building costs in the world, and we need to do every responsible thing we can to reduce those costs. Step one: Eliminate single-family zoning in much or all of the city (and region). We need more public transit investment and more density along transit routes. There are roughly 1,000 people every night on the shelter list; voters should consider passing “must shelter” law to eliminate that backlog. But shelters are obviously not the whole solution; “housing first” plans to get homeless people into permanent housing saves cities money in the long run.
In the meantime, we need to up street cleaning, homeless and addiction services, and for God’s sake, stop dithering over the design of municipal garbage cans and get them out there. We cannot claim to be a progressive city and block the projects that help ease the crisis. Nor can we continue the very San Francisco tendency of letting perfect be the enemy of the good. Zoning law is wonky and boring, but zoning boards are where most of the decisions that affect urban life are made; voters need to make sure they are not only populated by for-profit developers.
This is not just a San Francisco issue, and Governor Newsom should pass a state of emergency for housing, speed safe development so as to curb the homeless crisis and stop us from sprawling into fire zones. Any federal help is at least a year away, we cannot wait.
The big changes require big levers, government, taxes, laws. But part of caring for a city is rolling up your sleeves too. Vote and agitate, but also adopt storm drains, plant rain gardens and street trees, pick up garbage. If we all do a little bit more, we make a corner of the city better, and find allies for greater actions.
Conor Dougherty (economics correspondent at the New York Times; author of Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America):
The answer is yes, but let’s begin by acknowledging just how much is not broken. The city has an existential housing crisis, but it also has an unemployment rate around 2 percent, and lately the biggest budget fights seem to be about how to spend the surplus. There’s a whole bunch of places in America where the problem is too little growth, which is almost impossible to solve, versus too much, which is.
There will eventually be another recession, at which point developers will go bankrupt and the budget will head down, not up. Outside of a few corners, there’s pretty much consensus around what SF needs to do: build more housing overall and find creative ways to subsidize affordable housing for people who can’t afford what for-profit developers are building. The city has the wherewithal to accomplish that plan, and it will be far easier now than when times are leaner and the headlines shift toward looming financial challenges, which is already starting to happen.
I’m going to define “fix” as “make viable.”
Right now it has to be conceded that living in San Francisco is not a viable option for the majority of workers any city needs to function: nurses, teachers, cops, firefighters, cooks, librarians, medical researchers, carpenters, architects, plumbers, clerks, bus drivers, social workers, mechanics. Not to mention all the people a city needs to be a place worth living: the dancers, painters, songwriters, singers, designers, actors, poets. (I’m not sure if newspaper reporter belongs on the first list, the second list, or neither.)
So can we get SF back to where it’s viable again? I think with enough political will, we can get maybe halfway there. The two housing bonds voters passed (a combined $910 million) are the reason why there are five cranes in the Mission District right now, all affordable projects, 1,000 units, mostly family-size. Now we need to focus as much on other neighborhoods as we have on the mission—which will take political will.
We can build tens of thousands of new housing units in every part of the city. Schlage Lock, Balboa Reservoir, Stonestown, Treasure Island, Candlestick, India Basin, Potrero Power plant. We can use modular housing technologies to stretch our affordable housing money. We can build navigation centers and supportive housing for the homeless, and we can protect renters.
But beyond these policies and priorities, I think the city will benefit from a little external relief. Maybe a recession; maybe a gradual shift in where top tech talent wants to be. For 10 years we have been the bullseye for the wealthiest global investors, the most ambitious entrepreneurs, the fastest-growing tech. That’s why homes in my neighborhood sell for 25 times the city’s median household income of $110,000! And it’s all cash buyers!
I don’t see how that’s sustainable. In tech, the money follows the talent, and I think a lot of smart entrepreneurs are realizing that there is life outside of the Bay Area, places where a house doesn’t cost $2 million and you don’t need to pay $5,000 for two bedrooms. At the same time, it’s inevitable that some of the city’s biggest money-losing tech companies will face a reckoning, and lots of those $250,000 jobs will vanish. That could provide some relief. Obviously, a lot of the best tech talent will stay in the Bay Area, which is great, but hopefully during the next boom we will see more geographic balance. It’s a big country—I just drove across it. Kansas City is really nice.
The question is when the circus leaves town, will we have built enough housing to make the city more viable for more people?
I am not so sure that SF is broken, but suffering more acutely and first (as always) from a number of problems that ail our entire society, including drug addiction, mental illness, and income inequality. While it feels hopeless and also frustrating to see so many people living on the streets and there being no easy fix for what are systemic issues, an even more robust public-private effort is critical to how we can begin to cope with what is a challenge for all San Franciscans.
I think SF’s current interlocking set of interests make it really challenging for the city to veer off its multi-decade trajectory of being a city for either the increasingly poor or the increasingly rich. The city has doubled its budget size over the past decade, to more than $12 billion, and yet it is perpetually having to close deficits because expenditures rise faster than revenue collection amid the most visible economic boom of the last decade in the United States.
Let’s take this Curbed article, which looked at the past decade of housing. If the median price of a single-family home in SF went from $751,000 or $891,000, inflation-adjusted to $1.65 million, across let’s say 365,000 housing units, which is SF’s total inventory of 390,000 units minus some 30,000 units of public and other deed-restricted housing units, then that’s an increase of roughly $280 billion in total residential real estate value. Against this backdrop, SF has managed to raise $910 million in affordable housing bond money across two affordable housing bonds in 2014 and 2019.
So $910 million of local affordable housing funds versus housing becoming $280 billion more expensive in aggregate. That’s a 0.3 percent concession. And the primary reason that this year’s housing bond got expanded is because property tax revenue rose sufficiently high enough that there wouldn’t be an effective tax increase on property owners. In other words, housing got so much less affordable that we could expand the bond by a teeny, tiny bit. The irony is that both methods of raising funding at the city/municipal level for affordable housing—inclusionary and bond revenue—are structurally dependent on the property market being hot and frothy.
And these methods of extracting concessions, unfortunately, pit affordable housing against more housing supply generally. Because you can’t extract revenue from existing housing that’s capped under Prop. 13, the way that communities often get it is by extracting it out of newly constructed housing, which is effectively a tax on new housing. These fees and inclusionary requirements make new housing more expensive than it would otherwise be, and it also shortens the window for building because the extra fees make it take longer for new housing to pencil coming out of a recession. Then, new housing production becomes infeasible more rapidly than it would otherwise be toward the end of the cycle. Fees at this point surpass $150,000 per unit in SF.
Once you have that money, it doesn’t go very far. The $600 million bond we passed this year is expected to build or rehab 2,755 units. Generally, you’re looking at a $300,000 per unit of local subsidy on top of state and federal tax credits to get one affordable unit out the door. That can be less if the land is donated, or it can be more. The city recently paid $8.6 million for eight units of housing on top of El Rio, or more than $1 million per unit for a building with a politically well-connected bar. So it can also get substantially more expensive.
There are roughly 1 percent odds of winning each of these units in the lottery, as 70 to 80 people apply for every spot. These units are also generally geared toward low or very low incomes, as federal financing stipulates that you have to build for below 60 percent of area median income. So that means there’s a doughnut hole for financing middle-income housing, which is paradoxically more expensive to build in the Bay Area because you can’t slot in federal or state financing sources the way you can with low or very low-income housing.
What this means in the long run is that if SF wants to tread water against its unfunded obligations and not substantially cut services, it needs to keep growing the tax revenue base. If the city keeps growing its tax revenue base, that economic activity will keep getting priced into land values because of Proposition 13. And those higher land values mean that only a narrow band of income earners will be able to afford the city.
Communities will be able to organize, but they will get a token amount of concessions, and those concessions will largely target the very low-end of the spectrum. There isn’t really a solution for middle-income households in the Bay Area, because not that much housing gets built in the first place, and locally subsidized housing has income requirements that they earn too much to qualify for.
Conversely, if SF’s economy slows or stops growing, property values might have some stickiness, but then the city won’t have tax revenue that grows fast enough to keep pace with its rapidly growing obligations ... and this will imply drastic service cuts or closures, as we’re seeing in less wealthy major Bay Area cities like San Jose, which has fewer (!) employees than it did two decades ago, or Oakland, which is facing school closures.