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Let's Retire Our Ideological Labels For Cities

Josh Stephens on
Dec 7, 2021

Last week, CP&DR covered what was, for many, a shocking rejection of a 495-unit housing development in the heart of San Francisco by the city's Board of Supervisors.

It was shocking for any number of reasons. Pragmatically, it calls into question the city's ability to meet its state-mandated housing goals. Politically, it was a rare abandonment of aldermanic privilege. Perhaps most notably, it demonstrated that, ideologically, progressivism is now officially, unambiguously at odds with the provision of housing.

In many ways, the denial of 469 Stevenson was a long time coming. The "radical left," as I have called it, has been protesting capitalist developers for years. In part because of the influence of self-described Democratic Socialist Dean Preston, the current Board of Supervisors has waded deeply into radical territory and into anti-developer activism. Of course, by many accounts, the provision of housing aligns squarely with progressive values: housing is a human right, and governments ought to protect, and even further, that right. A diversity of housing typologies and price points, especially in dense, diverse cities, is the epitome of inclusiveness.

San Francisco doesn't seem to get this. But some other cities do -- and not necessarily the ones you'd expect.

Though I wrote about San Francisco this time around, the real progressive stories are in San Diego, San Jose, and Sacramento -- to name a few.

Let's start with San Diego. The city, which has a heavy military influence, has traditionally worn its conservatism as a badge of honor. It gave us Republican standard-bearer Pete Wilson, and, as recently as last year, it was run by a Republican mayor, Kevin Faulconer (who also made a go at the governor's office). Appropriately, San Diego's urbanism comes straight from the 20th century: single-family homes on subdivsions served by commercial strips, a relatively small downtown, and not much in between.

And yet, in just the past few years -- under Mayor Faulconer and now under his successor, Todd Gloria -- the city has aggressively and exuberantly taken measures to promote urbanism, increase its housing supply, and, ultimately, make the city more affordable for people at many income levels. In 2019, it eliminated parking requirements for housing near transit. Just last week, it did roughly the same for businesses. It's trying to redevelop its sports arena, with thousands of units of housing. It just welcomed a major light-rail extension (developed by the county Metropolitan Transit System).

Much the same is happening in San Jose. Though not exactly a hotbed of political activism, partisan or otherwise, San Jose's pattern mirrors that of San Diego. It's largely suburban, and it's largely business-focused. Its civic culture and urban fabric couldn't be more different from San Francisco's legacy of hippies and Victorians. And yet, it too is slashing parking requirements, embracing public transit, promoting mega-developments (including 4,000 units associated with a new Google headquarters). Even prior to the passage of Senate Bill 9, it had signaled a willingness to embrace duplexes on single-family lots. Mayor Sam Licardo has spoken unabashedly about his enthusiasm for housing production. Just the other day, the city confirmed that duplex redevelopment would be allowed in traditionally sacrosanct historic zones. 

Town of Truckee
California's new, unexpected capital of progressive urbanism.

In Sacramento -- which has typically maintained a low political profile, perhaps in deference to state politics -- the council and stakeholders alike have embraced reduced parking requirements, and it was the first city in California to legalize duplexes citywide. On that count, Sacramento vastly out-progressive'd San Francisco, declaring by-right -plexes to be a matter of social justice, reversing the segregation that implicitly accompanies exclusionary zoning. Berkeley -- staying true to its liberal values -- did much the same around the same time, and for the same stated reasons.

As Bill Fulton reported a few months ago, production of multifamily housing in both cities is already way up, and that's before many of these new policies have kicked in.

Beyond those cities, we have Los Angeles, which is politically too much of a mess to characterize as progressive or conservative but has, nonetheless, accepted its 560,000 RHNA number without protest and recently adopted a housing element accordingly. And we have Oakland, which is, arguably, the country's strongest bastion of social justice. It has embraced thousands of downtown units -- dating back to Mayor Jerry Brown – and its 26,000-unit RHNA goal.

Now that it's been chastened by just about everyone short of Karl Marx's ghost, how is San Francisco following up its decision on 469 Stevenson? Well, Supervisor Ahsha Safai just introduced an ordinance that lets homeowners build fourplexes as long as two of the units are deed-restricted affordable. This approach essentially ensures that zero such units will be built in the city, since no one is going to build four units just so two of them can operate at a loss. To top it off, San Francisco is doing something similar with pandemic-inspired parklets: "allowing" them de jure, but imposing regulations so burdensome that they are, de facto, impossible to get permitted. San Francisco is thus living up to the traditional definition of "conservative": it doesn't necessarily mean that you vote MAGA, but it does mean that you value the status quo above all else. 

So, what's going on here?

Broadly, these trends illustrate that political ideologies that inhabit manifestos, speeches, and lawn signs have yet to catch up with the reality of actual bodies occupying actual built environments. 

Much (though not all) of progressivism in city politics comes from older Californians and, in particular, older homeowners. These are people who came of age in the 1960s, when urban development looked very different than it does today. At the time, cities were emptying out. Many of the hippies who lived in the Haight probably replaced residents who had decamped for the Peninsula, Marin County, or Contra Costa County, leaving abundant vacancies and low rents. Meanwhile, the state government, led by Gov. Pat Brown, was spending money on all sorts of projects, most notably the expansion of the University of California and building of interstate and suburban highways. That's probably one reason why many people assume that the public sector can and should pay for affordable housing.

Fast forward to today, and those two historical trends give rise to the progressive assumption that government can and should provide affordable housing--market-rate, for-profit developments be damned. Ideology aside, many of these people are in a personal bind. If they've owned property for years, they've enjoyed the twofold benefit of appreciation and Proposition 13 protections. And, of course, geographically constrained cities, like San Francisco and Santa Monica, make real estate development feel (correctly or not) like a zero-sum game.

Conversely, I can't help thinking that the San Joses and San Diegos of the world want to get in on the fun. For pretty much as long as California has existed, they have been considered less urbane, less fun, and less attractive than rivals like San Francisco and Los Angeles. They missed out on the dense urbanism that developed before World War II and then contentedly took advantage of suburbanization in the latter half of the 20th century. Now that urbanism is back -- because of the creative class, antipathy towards long commutes, revolts against suburban living, or what-have-you -- they're grown tired of their own dullness (one of the more outlandish examples: San Jose's proposal for a weird monumental tower). And, importantly, they have relatively more land with which to try new things and seem unafraid of welcoming new residents.

When a Navy town, a state capital, and the world's largest suburb are all leading the way on housing, you know it's probably time to retire political labels, at least as they relate to housing. Pro-business vs. anti-capitalism; social justice vs. freedom; incumbent tenants vs. aspiring residents; density vs. open space; my property rights vs. your property rights; local control vs. sharing responsibility -- it's all just a mess. 

For those of us who need labels, at least as shorthand, there is an alternative. A few years ago, when (super-progressive) Santa Monica was deep in a battle over a slow-growth ballot measure, opponents of the measure put it best: the question is not "liberal vs. conservative" but rather "open vs. closed." Cities can be open to change and open to new residents, in whatever configuration suits them best. Or they can be closed, choosing to serve their own and hope that other people will find refuge in other places.

Neither position bears on a city's attitude towards peace and love--just on the number who can be loved. In San Francisco, 495 more was, apparently, 495 too many.

Image credit: Jerome Strauss, via Flickr.

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