How will large cities change in the next generation? That’s hard to think about now, in the depths of a new crisis. But even before the coronavirus hit, the politics of housing development included plenty of fearfulness, tribalism and bad information.
That’s the message of Golden Gates, a new book by New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty that examines the housing crisis in the San Francisco Bay area. It spells out how housing and inequality are connected – not just there, but in other prosperous cities, including Vancouver and Toronto.
It’s a dark picture, and it’s hard to imagine how it will grow brighter after the virus, as people become more fearful of being close to others. “Cities are going to persist,” he says over the phone from his home in Oakland, Calif. “But the fights over density might have a different kind of feeling.”
Density – whether people get to live close together – is at the heart of the story: The Bay Area doesn’t have nearly enough housing. Because of the region’s incredible prosperity, driven by the rise of Silicon Valley, people keep moving there. But the place has experienced 40 years of anti-growth sentiment, so cities are not allowing enough new homes to be built.
“In essence, the policy was to enthusiastically encourage people to move there for work while equally enthusiastically discouraging developers from building places for those people to live,” he writes.
This is important, but also abstract. Mr. Dougherty soon finds a character who will give it colour: A young math teacher and natural troublemaker called Sonja Trauss, who shows up at public meetings in her orange-sparkle Crown Victoria. Her mission is to argue in favour of new developments. She soon founds an organization called San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation – SF BARF.
“At first I thought of Sonja as someone who would help bring some life to all these academic arguments,” Mr. Dougherty tells me. But Ms. Trauss rapidly became the leader of a real political movement known as YIMBY, for Yes In My Backyard. These are young professionals, mostly with progressive politics, who feel squeezed out of the real estate market and irritated when homeowners complain that a new apartment building is “a degradation to my quality of life.”
The YIMBYs give voice, for the first time, to the interests of potential residents of new buildings. Those are people who, Mr. Dougherty says, were called “unorganized, and probably unorganizable” by an urban planning professor from the 1970s.
Not any more. Brought together by social media and cheap drinks, the YIMBYs raise money, get people elected, pass legislation. And the YIMBY movement quickly expands across the United States and into Canada; in fact, Vancouver has its own vocal crowd of YIMBYs now.
Dougherty is sympathetic to their basic message, but he also comes to understand – along with the YIMBYs – that a freer market alone isn’t going to help everyone. He visits an area that has no rent control, and watches as a teenager named Stephanie Gutierrez organizes against her new landlord and rent hikes. She loses. She and her mom are displaced. But the new residents aren’t wealthy tech bros; they are construction worker Ismael Pineda, his two brothers and their parents. Low-income people are displaced by low-income people with a bit more money. Nobody wins.
So what’s the solution? A mix of measures. “There’s no way to rectify a housing shortage other than to build housing, and there’s no way to take care of people whom the private market won’t take care of other than subsidies or rent control, or both,” he writes.
The problem is that building housing is still exceptionally difficult. It requires loosening local regulations, which means changing the toxic rhetoric about “neighbourhood character” and tenants that often surrounds development – in California as in Kitsilano and Etobicoke. YIMBYs have had an impact on this issue, but it’s slow work.
And now? Mr. Dougherty guesses that the traditional cry of Not in My Backyard is going to ring out louder. “People are going to think about density very differently,” he says. “We’re going to have people saying we need single-family houses in order to stay safe from disease.” That’s not true, scientifically, but I suspect he’s right. Even when our society gets healthy again, certain ailments aren’t going to go away.