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Why the fight for affordable housing is so hard to win

Conor Dougherty examines the housing crisis in “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America”

“Improbably stylish.” “Surprisingly riveting.” “A hypnotic tale.”

These aren’t descriptors one would usually associate with a book on housing policy. But they are reviews Conor Dougherty, Oakland-based reporter for the New York Times, has received for his new release, Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.

Golden Gates is ostensibly a policy book, but in it you won’t find a list of wonky recommendations on how to solve the Bay Area’s housing crisis. Instead, Dougherty follows a cast of characters, each facing their own housing struggles, and each with their own ideas about how to fix the vast inequities in the area’s housing market

“Housing policy is fucking boring,” Dougherty tells Curbed. “I wanted it to feel more like a novel than a newspaper article.”

By most metrics, San Francisco is the most expensive city in the United States. The average one-bedroom apartment rents for $3,700 a month, while the median house price is $1.4 million. But the Bay Area’s housing crisis is about more than exorbitant prices, and its multifaceted nature is reflected in the variety of stories Dougherty tells.

Fifteen-year-old Stephanie Gutierrez from Redwood City got involved in housing organizing out of necessity, when tenants in her building received exorbitant rent increases that threatened to displace them. Stephanie’s own family’s rent jumped from $1,898 to $2,750 per month, an increase that was untenable for her mother, a single parent, who made $14 an hour.

Cover of a book with the title “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.”
Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America is available now from Penguin Random House for $28.

Meanwhile, in the wealthy suburb of Lafayette, City Manager Steve Falk became an advocate for more housing stock when a local developer proposed building hundreds of new apartment buildings on a plot of land within the suburb. Neighbors balked. Falk negotiated with denizens opposed to the project, housing activists, the City Council, and the developer to try to get something built. In the process, he himself turned into a housing activist.

And then there’s Sonja Trauss, the main character of Golden Gates.

Trauss first appeared at Bay Area Planning Commission meetings to support new housing construction in 2014. While neighbors showed up to say “not in my backyard,” Trauss was there to say yes. Many credit her, in part, with founding the YIMBY movement. In the years since, she’s garnered international press, founded a legal nonprofit enforcing housing accountability law, and ran for San Francisco supervisor.

Trauss’s deregulatory agenda and inflammatory rhetoric have also made her enemies.

At a community meeting eight days after Donald Trump’s election, Trauss spoke in support of the construction of a market-rate project in San Francisco’s gentrifying Mission District. She did so by comparing those who opposed the project to Trump.

“In Trump’s America we’re already disturbed by nativism everywhere,” said Sonja. “And when you come here to the Board of Supervisors and say that you don’t want new, different people in your neighborhood, you’re exactly the same as Americans all over the country who don’t want immigrants. It is the same attitude. It is exactly the same attitude.”

Then-Supervisor David Campos credited Trauss for changing his mind about the project. He walked into the meeting intending to approve the project, but after taking offense at Trauss’s comments, he voted no.

Dougherty’s focus on Trauss, a polarizing Bay Area housing activist, might alienate some readers. But from Dougherty’s perspective, Trauss’s infamy is what makes her a powerful protagonist.

When Dougherty first met Trauss, she was living in West Oakland. She pulled up to their meeting in an orange Crown Victoria wearing loud printed pants. She’d just gotten her start in housing advocacy by founding an organization called San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation—also known as SFBARF.

“What I found interesting about Sonja was that nothing she was saying was all that original,” Dougherty says.

In contrast to her divisive personality, Dougherty thought Trauss’s ideas were fairly mainstream. The Obama administration supported many of the policies that Trauss discussed, including relaxing zoning restrictions and establishing density bonuses to incentivize housing construction.

“People like to latch onto a personality,” Dougherty says. Trauss is certainly a personality.

Dougherty kept himself out of Golden Gates, never breaking the fourth wall by using the first person or quoting an interviewee speaking directly to him. But Dougherty is also a character affected by the housing crisis.

The journalist grew up in San Francisco, moving up to Napa when he was in the seventh grade. He continued to split his time between San Francisco and the North Bay through college.

His dad has lived on the same block in Noe Valley since 1972, when he bought his home for $60,000. Like many Californians, he later took a second mortgage on the home.

The Doughertys’ housing stability was a relief for the family later in life, when the author’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Her years of familiarity with her San Francisco neighborhood helped her navigate independently. Her quality of life would have been lower had the Doughertys been displaced.

As a Gen Xer, Dougherty came into adulthood in San Francisco before the worst of the housing crisis. He has a few years on millennial Trauss, and several decades on Gutierrez.

“I do have friends who are one landlord death away from what the fuck do they do,” says Dougherty.

But he also saw friends achieve the so-called American dream—escaping poverty through employment in the tech industry and saving enough to buy a home of their own. As housing costs have risen, low-income families have been priced out of the Bay Area. As a result, these families have less opportunity for economic mobility.

Front of mind for Dougherty when writing Golden Gates was to engage readers with an issue that, while mired in complex technicalities and policy-speak, is near and dear to his heart.

“I don’t worry, like at all, about offending someone’s politics or ideology,” Dougherty says. “I worry immensely about boring people.”

Though Dougherty doesn’t offer his own opinion in Golden Gates, working on the book did expand his perspective. During a recent stop on his book tour, Dougherty got emotional when recounting young Gutierrez’s story before a crowd. He says it’s a story that made Dougherty himself a stronger advocate for rent control.

But Gutierrez’s is just one point of view offered in Golden Gates. Each character has their own position on how to solve the housing crisis. And for Dougherty, that fact is part of why the housing crisis hasn’t yet been fixed

“The issue isn’t that solutions haven’t been proposed,” Dougherty says. “It’s that people can’t get on the same page.”