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The not-so-radical case for de-zoning San Francisco

The cityscape of San Francisco is an iconic one: a fist of land jutting out into blue water, blanketed with bucolic hills and Victorian homes; iconic bridges guarding its periphery and cultural landmarks lying in the shadows of glass towers, reaching ever higher toward the clouds.

But to the west of that postcard image of San Francisco lies an alternate city; one far removed from freshman dorm scavenger hunts and swarms of camera-doting tourists. Neighborhoods like the sunset district, Richmond and Parkside host an insipid geometric grid of duplexes and built-in garages; a low-slung, featureless expanse that sits as a monument to cynical urban planning and profligate spatial design.

The existence of this suburbia, transplanted into the core of one of the nation’s most important cities, is permitted by a rigid collection of ultra-restrictive zoning laws. These regulations limit the height of all buildings (generally 40 feet maximum), the types of developments that can be built (almost exclusively duplex and single-family) and even the locations where buildings can cast their shadows (not over parks or public squares).

The links between these laws and the housing crisis that has become synonymous with San Francisco are indisputable and well-documented. By limiting the height, number and type of buildings that can be built, neighborhoods strangle the supply of housing and push renters further and further afield.

And in line with longstanding micro-economic tradition, the negative ramifications of all this are felt most poignantly by the middle and lower classes, whose displacement has itself resulted in a host of demographic crises, homelessness, segregation and gentrification chief among them.

The issue of San Francisco’s zoning laws is not one that falls upon the traditional fault lines of the country’s prevailing political and cultural divide. Activists from the left have been perhaps the most vocal in their desire to ease restrictions in order to increase the existing supply of housing for all. But at the same time, anyone with even a passing affinity for the Adam Smith school of thought can sympathize with the idea of doing away with regulations and opening up the city to market forces.

In a normal setting, this merging of right and left would be more than enough to pass seemingly common sense legislation that could prevent the crystallization of power and wealth via home ownership. San Francisco however, has never fit under the umbrella of “normal.”

The opposition to de-zoning efforts has been spearheaded by existing homeowners and the city council members and neighborhood associations that represent them. Their case has traditionally hinged upon a few loosely-related arguments, some reasonable, if outdated, and others downright immoral.

The most pervasive of these is the always-nebulous notion of “preserving neighborhood character.” In theory this is not an all-bad thing. Nobody wants a toxic chemical plant in their backyard.

The trouble arises however, when these ordinances are used as blunt weapons wielded toward any and all development projects that the neighbors don’t like, regardless of their potential to improve a city. In the case of San Francisco, preservation laws seek not to adapt but to suffocate any change long before it can threaten the status quo. And besides, anyone who believes that the architectural character of neighborhoods like Outer Sunset is truly worth preserving at all costs probably needs to reassess their views on the matter.

Other commonly cited arguments against development and de-zoning include the threat of earthquakes and the interest in maintaining the ocean views so synonymous with the city.

The earthquake argument is an outdated one. Building codes and technology have improved significantly since the 1940s and 50s when a majority of the homes in western San Francisco were first built. The idea that an act of God would destroy all the city’s newer or slightly taller buildings but not its middle-of-the-century two story ones is, at best, fearmongering, and at worst, an outright lie.

And as for the ocean views, well, if the supposedly hyper-progressive denizens of San Francisco seriously believe that their partially-obstructed vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge are more important than homelessness, inflation, societal partitioning, cultural implosion and economic alienation, they’ll overdose on irony long before their minds are changed on much of anything.

All of these sideshow arguments are collectively a smokescreen — a deceitful proxy meant to dress more gluttonous ambitions in a facade of neighborly ideals and community protectionism.

The central reason for these regressive attitudes and the real cause of all this is a simple one, familiar to even a first week dropout of Econ 1: when supply falls, prices rise. Homeowners’ assets are worth more when there are fewer of them to go around. And the prices have indeed risen.

The current average price for a home in San Francisco is $1.62 million. This figure amounts to a 91 percent increase over the past five years alone. By one study, the median house in San Fran would require buyers to earn 9.2 times the median salary of the city.

Homeowners will then argue that real estate investors are being rewarded for their foresight and financial savvy. To chalk the gains up to the glory of capitalism alone however, denies a more difficult reality — the very system that gave homeowners such a bountiful yield on their investment was in fact not a terribly capitalistic one at all.

Zoning laws are meant to stifle market forces, in a spirit that completely contrasts that of the traditional American economic ideal. These homeowners’ gains were not earned fairly and it is thus not unfair to challenge their suppression of the market.

Despite all the inequitable gains, the preposterous price hikes and the raw absurdity of the area’s economic climate, de-zoning proponents aren’t asking for much. They (largely) aren’t calling for homeowners to pay more taxes or be forced to part ways with their newfound wealth. They just want to be able to build more of it, to ease the stranglehold on prosperity that a small minority has wielded over the rest of the Bay Area for the past decade or so and lend a lifeline to those who are not as fortunate.

The city has miles and miles of land that are heinously undeveloped. A quick detour through anywhere in the western half of town will reveal just as much. And although pundits and politicians tend to keep the housing crisis discussion limited to just that, a discussion, this here is a very clear opportunity to make a tangible, positive change — one that will ease the burden on the most disadvantaged and make the city a more free and fair place for all.

 

Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman@stanford.edu

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Harrison Hohman

Harrison Hohman

Harrison Hohman is a junior from Omaha, Nebraska majoring in Economics and Iberian-Latin American Cultures. He enjoys sports, politics, music, and other stereotypical college-age interests, and ties far too much of his self-worth to his middling abilities on the pool table . You can find him at Kappa Sig, the Huang basement or the rejected pile at Goldman.