The jury’s still out, but the evidence is in.
People are dying on the streets of San Francisco: in tents, on crosswalks, and on bikes. While not alike in circumstance nor cause, these tragedies share one similarity: they are entirely preventable deaths, with complementary policies available to prevent them. Quite simply, they involve less horizontal space for cars, and more vertical space for homes. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors doesn’t seem to care.
People are dying in Mozambique and Malawi. Entire cities drowned in the floods from a historic cyclone. The polar ice caps are melting and the oceans are warming at unprecedented rates. Climate change is an impending geopolitical and ecological catastrophe. This, again, is entirely preventable: a necessary but insufficient component of that involves fewer cars and more homes in San Francisco and other urban centers in coastal California. Cities around the world need to drastically cut down on their carbon footprints. But City Hall doesn’t seem to care.
Words and Deeds
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently declared a Climate Emergency, and passed legislation reauthorizing an ongoing Shelter Crisis. But they continue to oppose policies that would reduce subsidized space for private car travel (a corporate giveaway if there ever was one), and add more space for housing. They do not seem to care that their fellow human beings are dying and will continue to die.
San Francisco is supposed to be a Transit First City. Such a policy has been on the books since the 1970s. Yet as recently as last year, Supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Aaron Peskin sought to restructure the city’s transportation bureaucracy to seize control over their parking and car traffic regulations, in order to obstruct traffic safety improvements. Supervisor Fewer has vocally opposed congestion pricing for single-occupancy vehicles and has been critical of Geary’s Bus Rapid Transit project—because evidently, the private takeover of public street space is fine if done by personal automobiles, but not by charter buses. The Board generally has been slow to take action on traffic safety, but quick to grandstand against factional rivals in both public and private sectors.
More damningly, a supermajority of the Board passed a resolution opposing State Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 50, the most important state policy at the nexus of housing, transportation, and climate change.
The bill needs little introduction if you have followed California news lately. If passed, SB 50 would mandate higher densities around public transit, as well as high-performing schools and job centers, while exempting tenant-occupied housing (including single-family homes), requiring a minimum provision of affordable housing statewide, and deferring its implementation in low-income communities left vulnerable after decades of disinvestment and racial segregation. (Now take a deep breath.)
If you were to believe Supervisor Gordon Mar’s resolution opposing the bill, one might have the impression that the bill aims to throw renters to the wolves, replace fragile communities of once-affordable walk-up flats with towering infernos of five-story skyscrapers, and remake the City into a mere extension of Palo Alto and the Stanford campus. This doesn’t explain why affluent cities like Sunnyvale and Beverly Hills were among the first to oppose it.
“We should increase density, especially near transit, and we should update our zoning to allow this,” Supervisor Fewer said during the resolution’s Land Use Committee hearing. “The question isn’t whether we should build more housing or not—we must. It’s about what we build, how and for whom.” But so far, Fewer has made no proposals of the sort she said the City “should” pursue on density.
Their objections to SB 50 rest not only on a litany of oft-debunked falsehoods, but they are undermined by their utter silence on the state legislature’s many earnest efforts to protect vulnerable tenants and provide more subsidized affordable housing.
While some Supervisors such as Mar have made generally reactive gestures against local tech industry wealth, the Supervisors have otherwise been silent on state efforts to redistribute wealth. They appear to care more about continuing a partisan pissing match against the authors of SB 50 than supporting those same legislators’ efforts to enact progressive tax reform and fund affordable housing. Wiener himself has introduced an estate tax bill to counteract GOP-led regressive cuts in the federal tax code, while SB 50 coauthors Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Asm. Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) have introduced a corporate tax hike for the same reason. Meanwhile, San Francisco assembly members and SB 50 coauthor Phil Ting has introduced a bill requiring local inventories of surplus public land to prioritize for affordable housing. Not a peep from the Supervisors about these bills.
San Francisco was one of the only two counties to narrowly approve the November 2018 rent control reform measure, Proposition 10. While Assembly Bill 36 presents a politically risky new effort to reform the state’s rent control prohibition, where are the Supervisors with their resolution to support it? Perhaps they are just too busy opposing SB 50. AB 1482, from San Francisco’s other Assemblymember David Chiu, could establish statewide emergency rent caps. Where is the Board’s resolution to support this bill? Or how about Asm. Rob Bonta’s AB 1481 to establish statewide just-cause eviction protections? Evidently, opposing SB 50 is more important.
These other bills would limit the legal power of landlords such as Fewer and Mar, while SB 50 could sharply reduce their market power. Their silence on the former, and their disingenuous grandstanding against the latter, is consistent.
The Board resolution’s half-truths and misrepresentations of the bill have been debunked at length by the Senator and others. The truth doesn’t seem to be the Supervisors’ chief concern, though. It is important to note their hints at a deeper motivation: deciding who gets to live in San Francisco, and exercising the power to hand-pick their constituents.
Concern for Whom?
Local control over land use means that incumbents get to choose “for whom” the City opens its gates—and the historical record quite plainly shows that these choices are seldom, if ever, equitable. Here’s a refresher on a recent quantitative study by UC Merced political scientist Jessica Trounstine, which we have cited before:
The general message coming from Supervisors is as simple as it is false: San Francisco is doing enough. Leave us alone.
Well, is it? According to the City’s Department of the Environment, San Francisco has slowly seen a 36% reduction in net emissions since 1990. Meanwhile, transportation accounts for the lion’s share of those emissions (45% at latest count), though this appears to gradually be decreasing. But these numbers are deceptive.
When I tried to compile a region-wide analysis of transportation emissions from the nine-county Bay Area, I ran into an insurmountable hurdle: the methodology had changed quite drastically around 2012. Rather than merely counting trips at their point of origin, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) developed a simulation of typical trips based on “travel analysis zones.” While analysts believe this data may be more robust, it renders pre-2012 comparisons to the present day essentially useless.
And an important caveat: “Our simulation model explicitly assumes that every worker living in the nine-county Bay Area also works in the nine-county Bay Area. This is, of course, not always true,” says the agency. Well, no shit.
San Francisco politicians sometimes speak as though every district in the City were equivalent to the vulnerable working-class of the Mission District circa 1990, or East Oakland and Vallejo today, where many former San Franciscans have since had to move. The genuine concern over market volatility upending marginalized communities is actually reflected in Wiener’s bill: many such census tracts with concentrated poverty and minority residents are those that Senate Bill 50 will temporarily exempt as “communities of concern.” But in terms of having affluent, expensive neighborhoods that compel longer commutes, the City as a whole has little in common with them. In this respect, San Francisco bears more resemblance to Marin County, a notorious violator of the Fair Housing Act.
By importing their workforces, Marin and San Francisco outsource their transportation emissions. A 2011 report by the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH), a co-sponsor of SB50, outlined the climate and social equity impacts of Marin’s workforce and housing disparities. According to the California Employment Development Department and data from the American Community Survey (ACS), over a third of Marin’s workers commuted from outside the county. But in the latest census, San Francisco led the nation in workers commuting from other counties.
San Francisco’s leaders don’t seem interested in reversing this calamity. Its recent approval of the Central SoMa plan, which plans space for over 3 new jobs for every new housing unit, suggests that City Hall is unanimously eager to see booming job growth continue apace. But rejecting state reforms to plan for those workers to be housed nearby—some of whom indeed will earn six-figure salaries and earn the ire of lower-income workers struggling to stay in their homes—is just planning for accelerating displacement.
Nonprofit affordable housing developers don’t build multi-million dollar detached bungalows—they build apartment buildings with units numbering in the double digits, which are prohibited under current zoning in nearly three quarters of the City. Notably, though Supervisor Fewer has called for more affordable housing to be built, her District has not been rezoned for the densities that make it possible.
One would think that elected officials concerned about displacement would be rushing to add more housing to balance out the job growth they approved. Instead, Supervisor Matt Haney bravely stood up for abundant sunshine, leading a unanimous vote in rejecting a housing development on Folsom Street with 25% Below Market Rate homes, because it would cast shade on 18% of the area of a nearby park, for 100 minutes in the afternoon, during the longest day of the year. Haney campaigned on fighting for affordable housing, not against shadows—and if climate change continues apace, his future constituents may wish he had approved some cooling shade.
Under the status quo favored by the Supervisors’ majority bloc, jobs will keep coming, workers will be forced to move out and drive from farther away, and no affordable housing will be built in their tony suburban neighborhoods to balance that out. It’s a transparent sham that the mainstream press and alt-weeklies alike are calling out—but will that make the Supervisors care?
Growth is Good, Actually!
Some local Progressive-branded thinkers have intimated to me that the housing shortage and climate crisis is inherently a crisis of capitalism itself: that growth necessarily brings inequality and destruction. This of course ignores the experience of our most recent recessions, in which all but the wealthiest suffered the most.
It is true that American cities have been strained under periods of prosperity, and emissions have increased as production increases. But a city’s emissions come from its residents, and people make individual choices within their society—they generate emissions per capita that are increasingly a function of their dependence on the automobile. The latest report from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) notes that the bulk of our car trips won’t switch to carbon-free electric vehicles soon enough; we will need to reduce car trips by 25% meet the state’s emission reduction goals. Fewer car commutes, however, does not mean fewer workers.
When a job is lost, the corresponding human being does not disappear. They continue to look for work and consume, though perhaps they will move to a more affordable part of the country with a much larger carbon footprint, such as Texas or Arizona. California loses a taxpayer, San Francisco loses revenue to pay its pensioners and service providers, but the planet does not lose a consumer of resources. So limiting job growth to achieve sustainability, as proponents of the 1980’s Prop M office cap would hold today, is not a real choice we have now.
San Francisco has seen major economic growth along with both net and per capita emissions declining since 1990—but in the transportation sector, it is lagging significantly, as is the rest of the state. Urban infill and transit-oriented development is the most environmentally sustainable way for California’s economy to grow—not the inequitable, sprawling growth that has been the norm for too long.
To understand this complex issue, we turn to UC Berkeley climate scientist Dan Kammen’s work. Critically, Kammen et al (2018) found that emissions reductions were greater when urban infill development was concentrated within pockets of higher household income. In other words, packing rich people closer together reduces GHG output three times more than simply adding density wherever it is possible.
Infill development is a more potent emissions reduction strategy in rich neighborhoods, the authors argue, such as“most of San Francisco, and the wealthy hillside of the East Bay.” Why? “While these neighborhoods have higher than average carbon footprints, they have lower than average carbon footprints for their income level. Low carbon footprint cities that make housing available at all income levels help share the burden of meeting housing demand, while lessening the impact on the climate across the population.”
This should come as no surprise. Rich people consume more, and can afford the poverty trap of car ownership more easily. When they don’t drive, their emissions fall more steeply. Already, San Francisco workers drive alone at a rate less than half of the national average. And further, research from UC Berkeley’s Terner Center and Urban Displacement Project has predicted that SB 50 will focus more market-rate housing production precisely in the affluent, high-opportunity neighborhoods that exclude it today.
But does this mean our climate solutions should exclude the poor from our booming cities? Of course not.
Take the recent research on Seattle by sociologists Rice et al (2019), which found that gentrification in Seattle resulting from Amazon’s infusion of high-paying tech jobs displaced lower-income residents with smaller footprints out to far-flung suburbs. This describes the status quo in many American cities, not the Smart Growth policy suggested by SB 50 and its proponents. As the authors noted: “In so far as densification paired with climate policy remains limited to parts of cities only, rather than the urban fabric as a whole, evidence strongly suggests that gentrification seriously undermines GHG reduction efforts.”
The goal of smart housing policy and evidence-based climate solutions should be to increase residential capacity in low-carbon urban cores, not a zero-sum, one-to-one replacement that outsources poverty to suburbs that lack a strong commercial tax base to support its safety net.
It should come as no surprise that Kammen’s research on hundreds of California municipalities predicts significant emissions reductions from urban infill development in places like San Francisco. This is not the case in more rural and suburban counties like Stanislaus County, where carbon-intensive sprawl absorbs displaced urban growth.
SB 50 presents a radical departure from the status quo in enabling California cities to grow more equitably and sustainably. It would expand affordable housing requirements to many cities in California that currently don’t have them. It explicitly prohibits the demolition and redevelopment of tenant-occupied housing and recently Ellis-evicted properties (something a statewide rental registry could help enforce), and it targets high-opportunity suburbs that have seen major job growth, but currently lack good transit, to discourage car traffic.
Again, while Supervisor Fewer insisted that she wanted to see more permanently affordable nonprofit housing in her district, she has made no effort to rezone District 1 to allow for the densities at which it can be built. Indeed, in most of the city, it is still illegal to build even the low-rise apartment buildings that pencil out for nonprofits, and SB 50 can change that. It is exactly the kind of policy the world’s top climate scientists and gentrification critics should be lining up to support—which is why Kammen co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times with Sen. Wiener to support it.
The evidence is consistent on averting climate disaster, and on eliminating traffic deaths: people need to drive less, and drive slower. Meanwhile, the City has had data on its High-Injury Network of deadly streets for years, and has well-documented numbers on car commutes comprising the lion’s share of its emissions. Given that it seems to take grisly, well-publicized cyclist deaths to impel the political action for protected bike lanes, what will it take to truly make San Francisco a car-last, Transit First city? Will City Hall wait until the Ferry Building is underwater before acting with any urgency to take some unpopular decisions? What will it take to replace on-street parking spots with bus lanes, or block some sunshine new apartments in western neighborhoods?
In light of all this evidence, San Francisco constituents should all have one question on their mind: do your Supervisors care? We should all be furious that so much evidence suggests they do not—and whatever happens after that, is called politics.
Sign up for the Bay City Beacon weekly newsletter! It's a free way of getting the best of political gossip and cutting-edge culture in your inbox every Friday.