But Where Can We Shelter?

Originally published in The Nation on June 16, 2020.
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After the fifth debate of the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, The Washington Post published one of its infamous fact-checks highlighting those moments when, in the paper’s estimation, someone got too loose with the truth. Among the 10 claims flagged by the Post was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s remark that the United States has “500,000 people sleeping out on the street.” This statement was “exaggerated,” the Post admonished, because while it’s true that in 2018 the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated that there were 553,000 people experiencing homelessness in America, not all of them were technically on the streets; some 360,000 were in shelters or transitional housing.

Putting aside that many experts believe HUD grossly undercounts the homeless, the Post’s finger-wagging exemplified some of the peak absurdities of America’s housing crisis. The United States is the richest country in the world, but millions of its people struggle to afford housing or find it at all. Instead of ensuring that there are enough units in areas where people want to live, we’ve dawdled for decades and made excuses for why things can’t be different—or even claimed they really aren’t so bad.

Golden Gates, a new book on the housing crisis by New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty, dives straight into these problems, skillfully exploring everything from the yes in my backyard (YIMBY) movement, which promotes more housing development, to anti-gentrification activism, the normalization of homelessness, and the factors that have made it so prohibitively expensive to build anything new. It’s the latest addition to a slate of books on housing that have come out over the past few years, including Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, Ben Austen’s High-Risers, Matthew L. Schuerman’s Newcomers, and P.E Moskowitz’s How to Kill a City. These books have explored various aspects of housing discrimination, especially the burdens borne by the nation’s poor and people of color, but Dougherty’s is among the first to look squarely at the politics of trying to respond to this disaster. By examining the inertia and ineffectiveness of political leaders who largely agree on what needs to be done, he makes a sobering case for how and why our politics have failed. While not so much a book of specific policy prescriptions, Golden Gates helps clarify why we have a housing crisis in the first place.

As suggested by the title, Golden Gates focuses on California, especially on San Francisco, where the housing troubles are particularly extreme. California has the distinction of having one of the highest housing costs in the nation and some of the highest-paying jobs. It also has, using HUD’s metric, more than 150,000 people experiencing homelessness—far more than any other state in the country. But California’s problems, Dougherty insists, are not anomalous: They are merely “an exaggerated example of the geographic inequalities” that we see in almost every American city as urban centers grapple with the increasing concentration of economic opportunity and the rising cost of living near it. As higher-paying industries like tech and consulting consolidate in and around a few dense areas and as lower-paying retail and health care jobs replace those in manufacturing, the competition to find housing near the good-paying jobs has grown more acute.

To tell this story of housing scarcity and political inaction, Dougherty focuses on a diverse set of people, including Jesshill Love, a longtime Bay Area landlord wrestling with how to raise rents, and Rafael Avendaño, the director of a youth center who tries to teach teenagers in Redwood City how to fight their evictions. We hear from housing developers like Dennis O’Brien and Rick Holliday about the byzantine barriers they face to build more homes and from state Senator Scott Wiener, who has struggled to get his housing reform bills approved. And we hear quite a bit from leaders in the YIMBY movement, like the teacher turned housing activist Sonja Trauss, who moved to the Bay Area in 2011. Since then, the Bay Area has created roughly eight new jobs for every new housing unit, far beyond the 1.5 jobs per new unit recommended by planners. Trauss and her fellow YIMBYs want more homes built, arguing that the shortage in metro areas with highly sought-after jobs has led to soaring rents and home prices and justified fears of displacement.

One of the most sobering aspects of Dougherty’s narrative comes from his historical findings. Many people are familiar with the current affordability crisis in San Francisco, which is often blamed on greedy tech CEOs and venture capitalists. But fewer are aware of its deeper roots. Digging through the archives, Dougherty shows just how long California leaders have been aware of the housing crisis that the state faced if it didn’t alter course. “Changing San Francisco Is Foreseen as a Haven for Wealthy and Childless,” read one New York Times headline in 1981. Two years earlier, an MIT urban planning professor blasted the Bay Area for its “arrogant” and “self-serving” land-use policies and traced how developers were routinely stymied by environmentalists and homeowners opposed to new people moving in. Delivering a 1981 commencement speech at UC Berkeley, the university’s top economics student warned that the Bay Area’s housing shortage would result in sharply rising prices and that homeowners were likely to keep fighting any efforts to address that.

The commencement speaker was right, yet too little was done in the years that followed. This lack of reform around land use was largely rooted in the failure of leaders to take on entrenched interests who profited from the status quo—from the investors, developers, and building trades to the homeowners who were fortunate enough to move to a desirable area first.

Today politicians are trying to tackle these structural problems more directly. Policy analysts say California needs to build 3.5 million homes to get serious about solving its housing crisis, and in 2017, California Governor Gavin Newsom committed to reaching this goal by 2025. But this is a tremendous task that would necessitate building roughly 500,000 units a year, when over the past decade, on average, fewer than 80,000 homes were built in the state annually. And there are, as Dougherty observes, considerable impediments that stand in the way, including soaring costs for construction and land. The cost of building a 100-unit affordable housing project in California had increased from $265,000 per unit in 2000 to almost $425,000 by 2016. And that’s an average. In cities like San Francisco, it can cost upward of $850,000 to build a single subsidized unit. When California’s legislature passed a $4 billion bond to build affordable housing in 2017, it was hailed as a serious step forward, one that would amount to a nearly $12 billion effort when paired with private money. But $12 billion divided by $425,000 equals just 28,235 units, or 0.8 percent of the 3.5 million goal. As Dougherty writes, “This sort of math could make a joke of any new funding effort.”

Voters across California have been more supportive of new funding packages for affordable housing over the past few years, but the quiet dread among advocates is that once the public realizes how little effect each influx of money has on the crisis, their appetite for new taxes might wane. “Behind each new affordable housing bond and the additional billions for homeless services was a public who thought they were being generous, when really the new taxes were nothing in comparison to a problem that was getting worse faster than cities could deploy the money,” Dougherty writes.

While the political leaders in Sacramento and on city councils continue to squabble, renters are doing what they can to organize, and Dougherty gives voice to their experiences too. In particular, we hear from teenager Stephanie Gutierrez, who studied every Tuesday night with other community members how to protest gentrification and eviction. One day, Gutierrez returned home to discover that her family’s rent would be jumping by 45 percent.

Gutierrez and the activists she worked with did their best to raise hell. “No hay peor lucha que la que no se hace,” another tenant insisted—there is no worse fight than the one that isn’t fought. But Dougherty doesn’t sugarcoat the hurdles that renters face. “Protests could make [housing] flips more expensive, but not nearly by enough,” he writes. Despite the occasional bad headlines, developers saw easy opportunities to make more money, and landlords were well within their legal rights to raise rents.

Dougherty also follows the YIMBY activists as they mobilize for new subsidized and market-rate housing. Their build-everything philosophy often pits them against anti-gentrification groups, which view new for-profit development as housing policy moving in the wrong direction. But activists like Trauss insist that more housing will help reduce prices for everyone by relieving pressure on strained markets. Dougherty is sympathetic to this argument, but he also notes some of the real limits faced by these mostly white, highly educated activists as they struggle to build a multiracial and cross-class movement.

Perhaps one reason Dougherty is more sympathetic to the YIMBY movement is that unlike many others, it has been more willing to confront the reality that you can’t stop people from moving to dense, crowded cities, no matter how much you wish they’d stay away. As Wiener, who is aligned with the YIMBYs, once vented, “There is a strain of self-described progressive politics in San Francisco that says: ‘Lock down the city’…. Don’t build more housing—just lock it down, and maybe if we dig a moat around the city and put crocodiles in it we can just stop people from coming.”

Despite finding some hope in local activism, Dougherty doesn’t end his book on a particularly optimistic note. The rising costs to build, the increasing polarization, and the failure to take on entrenched special interests, he suggests, could leave California in much the same place it has long been. And yet he writes that there is growing momentum on the legislative level, not just in California but across the country. Since 2017, rent-control bills and ballot initiatives have cropped up in roughly a dozen states, and in February 2019, Oregon became the first to pass rent control statewide. In June 2019, New York legislators beefed up rent control for nearly 1 million apartments in New York City, and California approved statewide rent control a few months later. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis City Council voted to end single-family zoning, a measure intended to boost the housing supply, and Oregon shortly followed suit. In the DC area, where planners say at least 320,000 new units are needed in the next decade to accommodate demand and population growth, lawmakers are considering measures to expand rent control and reduce barriers to construction.

Yet a crucial question in Golden Gates remains unanswered: What can governments do to help those who need housing now without enacting policies that could make the situation worse in the long term, whether by exacerbating displacement and segregation or by contributing to an even more severe shortage down the road?

Some new housing ideas have emerged recently on the left, such as building more housing that would be kept off the market for speculation and profit entirely. The homes guarantee movement, launched in September 2019, seeks to do for housing what Medicare for All would do for health care. While some homes guarantee advocates object to the idea of expanding Section 8 vouchers because they’d like to reduce reliance on the private rental market, others maintain that these policies are not necessarily in conflict with each other. In fact, Sanders campaigned on both a homes guarantee and making Section 8 vouchers available to all who are eligible. “Mixed solutions can feel like a cop-out,” Dougherty writes, “especially in polarized times. And yet, over and over, in city after city, it’s always where people end up and what seems most likely to work.”

He has a point. To move forward, movements will have to find ways to break out of their particular communities and build strength across class lines. In other cases, activists and political leaders might need, as was the case with Medicare for All, to find new language to address existing policy demands. One think tank in Seattle tested YIMBY messaging and found that the word “homes” worked better than “development” and the phrase “walkable and convenient” was more appealing than “density.” In Minneapolis a YIMBY group has opted for the warmer name Neighbors for More Neighbors. These are all worthwhile steps, but the politics won’t be solved by friendlier rhetoric alone. To build more housing, we’ll need to build more power.

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