When San Francisco should have been building at least 5,000 new housing units a year to deal with the growing demand to live here, it instead averaged only about 1,500 a year over the course of several decades. In a world where we have the ability to control the supply of housing locally, but people still have the freedom to move where they want, all of this has played out in predictable ways.
Many cities faced the same set of dilemmas. But San Francisco’s challenge has been harder for the reason that our regional economy has been so strong. Regardless of what happened inside the city limits, we have had the most powerful engine of job creation in the country just a half hour to the south (a commute time that increases with economic growth). Over time, many of Silicon Valley’s workers have come to call San Francisco home. Moreover, in contrast to New York, San Francisco does not have a massive network of regional public transit connecting hundreds of different high-density, walkable communities to the city. In fact, neighborhoods that foster urban life and convenience are tremendously scarce in the Bay Area. All of this means the pressure on San Francisco has proven to be even greater than other cities in the country.
Regardless of these realities, most San Francisco progressives chose to stick with their familiar stance of opposing new development, positioning themselves as defenders of the city’s physical character. Instead of forming a pro-growth coalition with business and labor, most of the San Francisco Left made an enduring alliance with home-owning NIMBYs. It became one of the peculiar features of San Francisco that exclusionary housing politics got labeled “progressive.” (Organized labor remained a major political force throughout this time period, and has allied with both pro-growth and anti-growth forces, depending on the issue.) Over the years, these anti-development sentiments were translated into restrictive zoning, the most cumbersome planning and building approval process in the country, and all kinds of laws and rules that make it uniquely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to add housing in San Francisco.