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    The Housing Blame Game, and Democracy (Mostly) Restored at City College

    Rafael Mandelman

    Rafael Mandelman

    If there was any question that housing unaffordability is the pressing issue of the moment, this November’s ballot, which by my count will have five housing measures for the voters’ consideration (more on them in a future column), should put any doubts to rest. Everyone seems to recognize that we are in a housing crisis; what we plainly do not agree on is the cause or the cure.

    SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf recently blew up the interwebs with an article titled “What’s the Matter With San Francisco,” published on the Atlantic’s Citylab website on July 23. The thesis of the article, unsurprisingly consonant with the worldview of many of SPUR’s funders in the real estate and development community, is that San Francisco’s progressives, well-meaning but economically-confused as we are, have prevented the City from building the housing at all income levels that would have helped it avoid the current housing crisis. I, perhaps equally unsurprisingly, think that’s mostly nonsense.

    As Tim Redmond reminded us on July 26 at, for much of those decades when Metcalf faults progressives for allegedly blocking housing, significant new residential construction wasn’t even on the City’s policy agenda. To the contrary, the City’s big land use fights were over office development, and it was often progressives who were fighting to preserve housing from being destroyed to create freeways and new office space. When the tide did finally turn and market demand for housing began to rise again, Redmond points out it was progressives on last decade’s Board of Supervisors who passed the Eastern Neighborhoods re-zoning and approved many of the entitlements that allowed the current construction boom in SOMA and throughout the City.

    I appreciated one particularly thoughtful response to the Metcalf article from architect Mark Hogan, on his eponymously named website Hogan takes aim at the oft-repeated line that San Francisco should have been building 5,000 units a year for the past several decades to avoid the current crisis. As Hogan points out, it’s an absurd claim: “The math makes sense in the simplest way possible, but we all know that no developer is going to build those units at the bottom of a recession (and the economy is always cyclical), and nobody 25 years ago would have predicted the level of in-migration and income inequality we have right now—even taking the population boom that started in 1980 into account. Far more units than that have been permitted in each boom, and, in most cases, developers have declined to build them (or deferred them until the next cycle). The fact that they haven’t been built has more to do with economics than obstructionism.”

    Metcalf’s real aim, of course, is not to settle a debate about how we got into our current housing mess as much as to strengthen the position of the development industry in the current boom. If blame for San Francisco’s current housing crisis can be laid at the feet of San Francisco’s market skeptics, perhaps we can finally acknowledge that government is best which governs least, and stop talking about moratoria or other similarly misguided efforts to ensure that existing communities share in the benefits of new development.

    Wrong again. As Robert Cruikshank has written on Calitics (“Progressives Didn’t Cause the San Francisco Housing Crisis,” 7/23/15), laissez faire is not the solution to our contemporary housing woes: “Ultimately SF is at the leading edge of a problem that is now facing all U.S. cities. Urban America has become expensive. As we live in an era of increasing inequality, and in a time where macroeconomic policies favor investments that benefit the rich over those that benefit the poor or the middle, no market solution alone can solve the problem. Government will be needed to help solve the crisis—through rent control, through subsidies, through an expansion of public housing stock, and through facilitation of private sector housing stock too.” In other words, this is no time for progressives to get out of the way.

    I will leave you, dear readers, with a bit of positive news out of City College: July 23 was the first business meeting of the (nearly) fully re-empowered Board of Trustees. Those who have been following developments at the College will remember that we started meeting again as a Board back in January after an involuntary year-and-a-half long hiatus imposed by the State Chancellor.

    Since that time, we have gradually been re-assuming responsibility for various aspects of the College’s governance from the Special Trustee put in place by the State Chancellor at the height of the College’s accreditation crisis. On July 8, the State Board of Governors approved the State Chancellor’s re-appointment of the Special Trustee for an additional year, but now only with so-called “stay and rescind” powers. That is, he still has the authority to override Board decisions he determines would be catastrophic for either the College’s finances or its accreditation, but subject to that (admittedly significant) proviso, the Board is back in charge. Major challenges remain, of course, but we do seem to be making progress, and July 23 did mark an incremental victory for democracy and local control. At City College, we’ll take some incremental victories.

    Rafael Mandelman is an attorney for the City of Oakland. He is also President of the City College of San Francisco Board of Trustees.