Amidst all the screaming accusations of gentrification, whitewashing, corporate greed, and even Soviet-style central planning, San Francisco’s housing problems aren’t getting any closer to being solved. The amount of housing being built annually in San Francisco county is far below what’s needed to keep up with demand.
So we asked: What would it even look like if the number of new rental properties built downtown kept up with San Francisco’s growing population? Just how many skyscrapers is that? We’ve visualized it for you, and it’s quite a lot, as it turns out.
In 2014, San Francisco housing added 3,654 units and authorized the building of another 3,834, according to the city’s housing planning authority. But if you compare that to what Lisa Vorderbrueggen, a spokeswoman for the building association says is needed, something in the neighborhood of 40,000 units, the difference is staggering. San Francisco is literally giving its citizens less than 10% of the new housing they need every year.
The sad irony of these numbers is that every year the Greater Bay Area housing market fails spectacularly to provide adequate housing. The gap between what’s needed and what’s available grows and San Francisco housing needs grow each year. It’s almost like compound interest on a developing housing crisis.
The result is a city grappling with the increasing absurdity of its own housing crisis. Sometimes that process is expressed through tongue-in-cheek art projects, other times through protests. All of this begs the question, what would it even look like if San Francisco actually built all the housing it needs to?
Here you can get an idea of the scale we’re talking about when we say 40,000 units of new San Francisco housing. This model shows 268 new buildings, 18 of which would need to be over 50 stories.
So in a single year, that’s 18 50-story buildings – in addition to 250 other shorter buildings. Then the same thing next year, and the year after that. Ultimately, the Bay area population pressures causing this issue aren’t going away anytime soon.
Looking at how these kinds of changes would impact downtown San Francisco in particular, South of Market would see a complete transformation, with dozens of new buildings going up in that neighborhood alone. Folsom Street could be unrecognizable and gridlocked with traffic, parks might find they only get sunlight for an hour a day amidst the flurry of new skyscrapers.
The very idea of the Embarcadero existing under the shade of 50-story towers or the endless construction sites marring the skyline and famous cable car routes would likely create strong opposition to this kind of a plan – even stronger than what most existing housing proposals are already facing.
That leads to one of the big elephants in the room when it comes to the greater Bay Area’s population pressures: the wealthy suburbs. All of the headlines declaring that San Francisco is facing a housing crisis are ignoring the fact that the suburbs have more than their share of the blame.
What seems clear is that creating 40,000 new units of housing in San Francisco proper every year isn’t really sustainable. As Slate puts it rather succinctly, “San Francisco Can’t Solve San Francisco’s Rent Crisis. But Its Suburbs Could.” Tech companies may get an unfair amount of the blame for a situation which has really been exacerbated by the suburbs. But why have the suburbs had such an outsized impact?
Areas like San Mateo County have been gladly welcoming in new office parks and other commercial developments to boost their tax base while balking at the idea of zoning for more (and more dense) residential developments. The results have been, sadly, predictable.
These communities like to pretend they’re islands, instead of really acknowledging their role in the Greater Bay Area’s economy and housing market. Still, they can’t take all the blame. Property owners in San Francisco proper have also used city policies to keep property values on the rise in an area where most of a person’s wealth is likely stored in their property.
For now, probably in a subleased closet somewhere. The hard truth is that new housing development in the Bay Area may be on the rise, but not nearly at the rates needed. In the meantime, we can expect a lot more of the same problems. The battles will continue between tech giants and longtime homeowners, between city dwellers and suburbanites.
What do you think San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area should be doing to address its housing crisis? Is more development and infrastructure the right answer?
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