It seems like every day I read another story about the housing crisis in the Bay Area. Gentrification is rampant, and displacement is a fact of life. Buying a home is increasingly difficult for most area residents in most places. Rental prices in places like San Francisco and Silicon Valley have reached such absurd levels that a man can rent a tent in his yard for $46 per night. And in places like Antioch and Oakley, the aftershocks of the foreclosure crisis are still being felt — more people are renting and more people are poor, sometimes because they lost their house, other times because they got pushed out of the region’s core.
Sadly, the Bay Area is not alone in this. In virtually every major “up-market” city in the nation, gentrification and rising housing costs are major issues. Rents in Denver have nearly doubled in three years. Housing prices in some locations have tripled in less than a decade. Yes, their economies are booming, but incomes for the majority have not nearly kept pace with housing prices. Across the nation, and in globalized cities like London or Rio de Janeiro, the relationship between how much most of us earn and how much it costs to acquire housing is fundamentally broken.
This is nothing new in the Bay Area. Though it keeps getting worse, the affordable housing problem has been an issue for decades. The question everyone, from academics to policymakers to local residents, seems to be asking is twofold: How did it get so bad and what can we do about it? The way we tend to approach these questions actually contributes to the problem. Searching for origins tends to result in the blame game. Some blame excessive land use regulation, others blame NIMBYism and dysfunctional local politics, others blame landlords and real estate investors and tech companies, still others blame rising inequality and stagnant wages. Blame has been cast on environmentalists and unions, on local government and federal government and everyone in between, on cities and on suburbs. In a recent article, SPUR’s Gabe Metcalf inflamed already tense (and utterly dysfunctional) San Francisco housing politics by blaming progressives for siding with NIMBYs. The result was a slew of angry responses, lots of national media coverage and no real action.
Part of this “debate” revolves around solutions. Build more housing! No, build more affordable housing! No, protect the housing we have! Rent control is the answer! Rent control is evil! Despite the fact that article after article seems to understand that there is “no silver bullet” and that “the solution isn’t easy,” we still witness fights between “demand-side” and “supply-side” solutions, between individual short term solutions which are never mutually exclusive even if they are portrayed that way. Lines get drawn in the sand, not enough gets accomplished and most of us lose.
The only way for the Bay Area to have any hope for solving this seemingly intractable problem — and let’s not pretend it is easy to understand or solve — is to stop focusing on causes or blame or specific policy fixes, and to instead focus our energies on a broad political compromise. This starts by holding all institutions and all sectors responsible for our failures. The city of Berkeley likes to think of itself as progressive, but, to some extent, it has caved into NIMBYism and protectionism, much like its cosmic twin in Boulder, Colorado. I am a white, middle-class environmentalist, and all three of these groups bear significant blame. So do property developers, tech companies, banks, unions, big cities, suburbs, transit agencies, regional agencies, business groups and, yes, even some “progressive” housing organizations. Why is it so hard for us to accept responsibility for our collective inability to act? When will we stop pointing fingers and admit that most of us are at least partially responsible for the fact that most of the region is unaffordable to most of us?
This broad acceptance of responsibility is the first step toward the type of grand bargain whereby real solutions become possible. By this I do not mean a state-mandated regional plan or any other top-down process, but a process where every major institution in the region — public, private and not-for-profit — agrees to sign a pledge whereby they accept partial responsibility for where we are and commit to a long-term political compromise. We need to simultaneously protect what we have — both green space and people’s homes — and build what we don’t. And as the wealthiest and supposedly most progressive region in the United States, we should be able to do both.
Leadership toward this historical compromise needs to come from a set of institutions that have had the resources, ideas, power and relative neutrality to step into the leadership vacuum for a generation, but have largely failed to do so: our universities. This coming spring, our universities need to band together to host a housing and development summit — one where the full human, political and institutional diversity of the region will be present, and everyone who attends will take responsibility and accept only compromise.
Alex Schafran is a Bay Area native and a graduate of both UC Berkeley and Stanford University. He teaches urban geography at the University of Leeds.