Why Are Local Politicians Denying Housing to the Middle-Class?

by on January 14, 2020

SB50 Provides CA’s Only Middle-Class Housing Strategy

Do San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, Sacramento, San Diego or other California cities provide ample housing opportunities for a new generation of middle-class residents? Absolutely not.   Few politicians in these cities claim that teachers, nurses, union construction workers, public employees and others in middle-class jobs do not face a desperate +`affordability crisis.

So why do so many  politicians falsely claim that building middle-class housing  eliminates or reduces      government subsidized “affordable” housing? Essentially arguing that there is an unbridgeable conflict between helping the middle-class live in the cities they work and housing low-income residents.

As I describe in Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America, San Francisco’s longstanding failure to build sufficient housing to meet jobs and population grown has priced out the new generation of working and middle-class residents.  This pricing out process occurred despite the city having the nation’s strongest rental housing protections and among the strongest tenant protections overall.

Opponents of California’s SB50 have invented a fictional world in which the housing market is split between “luxury” and “affordable” housing. Public employees cities are not living in luxury. Nor are librarians, MUNI or BART drivers, nonprofit administrators and the many other jobs that are still defined as “middle-class.”

Most of those in all of the above job classifications earn too much to qualify for nonprofit affordable housing. That’s a huge problem. I wrote an entire book to urge cities to start prioritizing housing for the middle-class. Yet the only, and I mean only, strategy that could expand CA’s middle-class housing in the near future is CA’s SB50.

No opponent of SB50 has yet to identify a single neighborhood that caused gentrification and displacement due to building six stories on transit corridors and four unit buildings citywide. Yet that’s the only type of housing SB50 allows.

It’s easy to spread fears of impending gentrification, as neigborhoods have routinely undergone that process in urban America since the late 1970’s. But opponents are hooking gentrification to to building four unit buildings and six stories on transit corridors; neither approach led the drive for displacement of working class residents in any urban neighborhood.

San Francisco is about to approve a 61-story luxury highrise on Howard Street—city supervisors are fine with bringing the ultra-wealthy into downtown but wage a holy war to prevent MUNI bus drivers and unionized contruction workers from living in a 6-story building in the city’s Westside.

No Competition Between Poor and Middle-Class

Opponents of SB50 act as if building housing for middle-class residents prevents new affordable housing—-as if cities lack the space for both.

This is nonsense. All of the cities I mention above have plenty of space to build. And affordable housing sites are limited by available public funding and the need for much bigger structures (most are at least 60 units) than the far smaller middle-class units in four unit buildings or six story structures.

The middle-class is not in competition with the unhoused and low-income people for housing. Middle-class housing does not divert a single dollar in public funding from those most in need.

Some believe that stopping new market rate keep the affluent from living in the city. Yet we know from the experience of gentrification and displacement in San Francisco and other cities that this belief is false. I show in my book how Noe Valley, the Haight-Ashbury, the Inner Richmond, Inner Sunset and nearly all of San Francisco’s once affordable neighborhoods gentrified without virtually any new housing development.

Obviously, not building housing has not kept wealthy people from living in of San Francisco.

 Some also argue that private builders drive up land values so that affordable projects are priced out. That would be true in city with only a handful of buildable sites. Cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco have thousands of such sites, so there is plenty of room for market and subsidized housing.

SB50 Opponents Offer No Alternative

 SB50 opponents have no housing strategy for the middle-class. They have made it clear they only think housing should be built for people who earn little enough to qualify for publicly subsidized affordable housing.

I have asked many times on social media what is the anti-SB50 strategy for otherwise housing those working in cities who earn too much to qualify for affordable housing. I have never gotten an answer—because there is no strategy.

How have politicians gotten away with requiring middle-class job holders in cities to live an hour or more away from their jobs? So that 140,000 workers are commuting daily from Sacramento to the Bay Area, significantly worsening climate change?

The answer is politics. The homeowner electorate that controls nearly all of the voting districts in California cities economically benefits from restricting housing supply. San Francisco’s median home price is up to $1.7 million, yet you never hear a San Francisco supervisor refer to single-family homes as “luxury” housing.

SB50 offers San Francisco’s only hope for allowing a new generation of middle-class to live in the city. Claims that new market rate housing is only affordable to the wealthy is utterly false and has been disproved by study after study.

As I wrote last week, district elections often prevents local politicians from making the land use changes that our cities, states and planet need. SB50 recognizes, as we know about homelessness, that housing affordability is a state and national issue. Powerful homeowner groups will not allow most local governments to make the necessary land use reforms.

California’s middle-class either gets to live in the cities they work via SB50 or continue to buy homes in Tracy, Stockton and Sacramento and drive two hours daily each way. I realize that many boomers in Los Angeles and San Francisco don’t care that their policies are subjecting others to long car commutes, but we can overcome their profound worsening of greenhouse gas emissions by passing SB50.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He wrote this article while awaiting emergency back surgery so please excuse any errors.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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