John Rahaim on the California Housing Crisis: What are planners to do?

Residential buildings in San Francisco.

In the past decade, San Francisco has become the poster child for income inequality, housing costs, and homelessness. The regional growth that fueled this national attention has been caused by a perfect storm of two factors: renewed interest in urban living combined with the explosive growth of technology companies. This has led to a worsening condition of economic inequality largely along racial lines. While the same phenomenon is also occurring in other coastal cities, the exorbitant cost of housing in the Bay Area has made the situation more acute.

As a planner, urban designer, and former Planning Director for the City of San Francisco from 2008–2020, I was a key player in managing dramatic changes to the city, which saw the most growth in nearly a century during my tenure. It seems clear that in the Bay Area, the price of housing and the associated repercussions are both a cause of, and an almost direct result of, economic inequality and homelessness.

In America, housing is a commodity to be bought and sold like a car. The result is that those with means have a place to live, and those without means do not. We must change this paradigm.

John Rahaim On why it is important to involve government at all levels back in the housing business.

In this politically charged environment—where housing policies, homelessness, and housing costs factor into almost every dinner conversation—the task most often put to planners is how to make more housing happen, and happen faster. There is broad agreement that California, and the Bay Area in particular, has fallen woefully behind in housing production. In 2018, Governor Gavin Newsom set a state goal to produce 500,000 new housing units per year. The state has only produced about 100,000 per year since (and only some of that shortfall can be blamed on the pandemic).

It is not hyperbole to say that California is in the midst of a housing crisis. And in spite of the changes in living patterns brought by the pandemic, the housing shortage will likely continue. What are planners—and state and local governments—to do?

First, cities must revise single-family zoning to allow multiple units. If cities don’t make this change, the state should require it. Single-family zoning was largely intended to keep out people of lower incomes, and therefore people of color. It largely worked, and still does. Today, the typical rationale for resisting changes to single-family zoning is to “maintain neighborhood character.” Minneapolis and Portland, which recently revised single-family zoning, are receiving a lot of attention in the planning media for taking this bold step.

Low-density, detached housing zoning must change to open all neighborhoods to a variety of incomes. As any Black resident of San Francisco can tell you, the lower density neighborhoods are those with access to quality public services, especially parks and better schools. If the physical character of the neighborhood is truly the concern, alternative types of housing can be produced through better design and a robust design review process.

But we must not kid ourselves into believing that changing single-family zoning will result in significant new housing production. It will not. Land assembly, delaying tactics by residents, and the cost of existing houses will hamper production. Further, residential neighborhoods, even in dense urban neighborhoods, are removed from public transit. Change zoning for the right reasons, but don’t assume it will increase housing production.

An encampment in San Francisco, 2020. Image by Christopher Michel from San Francisco, USA – Memorial Day 2020 – San Francisco Under Quarantine, CC BY 2.0.

Second, create minimum zoning requirements along all commercial corridors—but not more broadly. There have been several efforts in recent years by the state legislature to mandate higher density zoning around transit stations and other public amenities, regardless of the existing underlying conditions. These efforts caused enormous public backlash, and have generally failed.

If the goal is housing production, the vast majority of production will, and should, occur along commercial corridors where there are public services, better public transit, wider streets, and more eclectic design conditions. In the Bay Area, zoning provisions in many suburban jurisdictions do not allow housing on commercial corridors. But based on building codes, the most economical housing type is a structure of 6 or 7 stories, allowing for wood frame construction; this is a building type and size well suited to commercial streets.

Third, speed up the approval process—but don’t expect this to magically produce a lot of housing. The approval process is absurdly slow, and time delays are a factor in housing production. Among other delaying tactics, the California Environmental Quality Act has been turned on its head and used as a tool to stop housing production in precisely the locations where it is the most environmentally friendly—urban areas with access to transit and services.

But let’s be clear: housing approved is not housing built. As of two years ago, San Francisco had 60,000 entitled housing units in the pipeline, with only 10,000 actually under construction. The housing approval process is the bogeyman cited by every real estate reporter and elected official in the state, because it is far easier to blame public sector agencies than to cite the private development industry which—even in the hottest economic climate in a century—was unable to produce the housing that was already approved.

Finally, and most importantly, get government at all levels back in the housing business. President Biden has acknowledged that housing is an essential component of our infrastructure. We don’t think of our roads, sewers, and transit stations as private commodities—they are available to all. In America, housing is a commodity to be bought and sold like a car. The result is that those with means have a place to live, and those without means do not. We must change this paradigm.

In San Francisco, 6 percent of housing is controlled by the public/nonprofit sectors, and that is higher than in most US cities. In Hong Kong and northern Europe, the comparable number is about 50 percent. In Singapore, it’s 80 percent. The provision of social housing in these places is based on a fundamentally different paradigm—that housing is indeed part of necessary public infrastructure. This combination of public and private provision of housing accommodates all income levels, which the private market alone simply cannot do.

Further, governments must get involved in private housing production after it is approved, and not assume that the private market will simply take care of it. Why are so many approved projects stalled? Could the state provide revolving loans, via a mechanism such as an infrastructure bank, to kick-start horizontal development on large projects? More provocatively, should the state restart a form of redevelopment to allow cities to take control of large sites?

The California housing crisis is a key, if not primary, component of economic inequality in the Bay Area, and many other regions. As the most populous state, California has on outsize impact on the national economy; and the state’s policy initiatives have often set the stage for other states and on national policies. If we are to realistically address this crisis, it is time for California planners to work with communities and elected officials at all levels of government to change our housing policy paradigms.

John Rahaim is an urban designer and city planner. He was the Planning Director for the City of San Francisco for twelve years, the longest contiguous tenure of any Planning Director in the city’s history. He serves as a Design Critic in Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard GSD where he led the studio “Building Respect on San Francisco’s Third Street” in the spring of 2021.