NEWS Does City Hall Care If You Die?

The jury’s still out, but the evi­dence is in.

Diego Aguilar-​​Canabal, Edi­tor in Chief, The Bay City Beacon

For the orig­i­nal arti­cle, click here.

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Peo­ple are dying on the streets of San Fran­cisco: in tents, on cross­walks, and on bikes. While not alike in cir­cum­stance nor cause, these tragedies share one sim­i­lar­ity: they are entirely pre­ventable deaths, with com­ple­men­tary poli­cies avail­able to pre­vent them. Quite sim­ply, they involve less hor­i­zon­tal space for cars, and more ver­ti­cal space for homes. San Francisco’s Board of Super­vi­sors doesn’t seem to care.

Peo­ple are dying in Mozam­bique and Malawi. Entire cities drowned in the floods from a his­toric cyclone. The polar ice caps are melt­ing and the oceans are warm­ing at unprece­dented rates. Cli­mate change is an impend­ing geopo­lit­i­cal and eco­log­i­cal cat­a­stro­phe. This, again, is entirely pre­ventable: a nec­es­sary but insuf­fi­cient com­po­nent of that involves fewer cars and more homes in San Fran­cisco and other urban cen­ters in coastal Cal­i­for­nia. Cities around the world need to dras­ti­cally cut down on their car­bon foot­prints. But City Hall doesn’t seem to care.

Words and Deeds

The San Fran­cisco Board of Super­vi­sors recently declared a Cli­mate Emer­gency, and passed leg­is­la­tion reau­tho­riz­ing an ongo­ing Shel­ter Cri­sis. But they con­tinue to oppose poli­cies that would reduce sub­si­dized space for pri­vate car travel (a cor­po­rate give­away if there ever was one), and add more space for hous­ing. They do not seem to care that their fel­low human beings are dying and will con­tinue to die.

San Fran­cisco is sup­posed to be a Tran­sit First City. Such a pol­icy has been on the books since the 1970s. Yet as recently as last year, Super­vi­sors Ahsha Safaí and Aaron Peskin sought to restruc­ture the city’s trans­porta­tion bureau­cracy to seize con­trol over their park­ing and car traf­fic reg­u­la­tions. Super­vi­sor Fewer has vocally opposed con­ges­tion pric­ing for single-​​occupancy vehi­cles and has been crit­i­cal of Geary’s Bus Rapid Tran­sit project—because evi­dently, the pri­vate takeover of pub­lic street space is fine if done by per­sonal auto­mo­biles, but not by char­ter buses. The Board gen­er­ally has been slow to take action on traf­fic safety, but quick to grand­stand against fac­tional rivals in both pub­lic and pri­vate sectors.

More damn­ingly, a super­ma­jor­ity of the Board passed a res­o­lu­tion oppos­ing State Sen. Scott Wiener’s Sen­ate Bill 50, the most impor­tant state pol­icy at the nexus of hous­ing, trans­porta­tion, and cli­mate change.

The bill needs lit­tle intro­duc­tion if you have fol­lowed Cal­i­for­nia news lately. If passed, SB 50 would man­date higher den­si­ties around pub­lic tran­sit, as well as high-​​performing schools and job cen­ters, while exempt­ing tenant-​​occupied hous­ing (includ­ing single-​​family homes), requir­ing a min­i­mum pro­vi­sion of afford­able hous­ing statewide, and defer­ring its imple­men­ta­tion in low-​​income com­mu­ni­ties left vul­ner­a­ble after decades of dis­in­vest­ment and racial seg­re­ga­tion. (Now take a deep breath.)

If you were to believe Super­vi­sor Gor­don Mar’s res­o­lu­tion oppos­ing the bill, one might have the impres­sion that the bill aims to throw renters to the wolves, replace frag­ile com­mu­ni­ties of once-​​affordable walk-​​up flats with tow­er­ing infer­nos of five-​​story sky­scrap­ers, and remake the City into a mere exten­sion of Palo Alto and the Stan­ford cam­pus. This doesn’t explain why afflu­ent cities like Sun­ny­vale and Bev­erly Hills were among the first to oppose it.

We should increase den­sity, espe­cially near tran­sit, and we should update our zon­ing to allow this,” Super­vi­sor Fewer said dur­ing the resolution’s Land Use Com­mit­tee hear­ing. “The ques­tion isn’t whether we should build more hous­ing or not—we must. It’s about what we build, how and for whom.” But so far, Fewer has made no pro­pos­als of the sort she said the City “should” pur­sue on density.

Their objec­tions to SB 50 rest not only on a litany of oft-​​debunked false­hoods, but they are under­mined by their utter silence on the state legislature’s many earnest efforts to pro­tect vul­ner­a­ble ten­ants and pro­vide more sub­si­dized afford­able hous­ing.

While some Super­vi­sors such as Mar have made gen­er­ally reac­tive ges­tures against local tech indus­try wealth, the Super­vi­sors have oth­er­wise been silent on state efforts to redis­trib­ute wealth. They appear to care more about con­tin­u­ing a par­ti­san piss­ing match against the authors of SB 50 than sup­port­ing those same leg­is­la­tors’ efforts to enact pro­gres­sive tax reform and fund afford­able hous­ing. Wiener him­self has intro­duced an estate tax bill to coun­ter­act GOP-​​led regres­sive cuts in the fed­eral tax code, while SB 50 coau­thors Sen. Nancy Skin­ner (D-​​Berkeley) and Asm. Buffy Wicks (D-​​Oakland) have intro­duced a cor­po­rate tax hike for the same rea­son. Mean­while, San Fran­cisco assem­bly mem­bers and SB 50 coau­thor Phil Ting has intro­duced a bill requir­ing local inven­to­ries of sur­plus pub­lic land to pri­or­i­tize for afford­able hous­ing. Not a peep from the Super­vi­sors about these bills.

San Fran­cisco was one of the only two coun­ties to nar­rowly approve the Novem­ber 2018 rent con­trol reform mea­sure, Propo­si­tion 10. While Assem­bly Bill 36 presents a polit­i­cally risky new effort to reform the state’s rent con­trol pro­hi­bi­tion, where are the Super­vi­sors with their res­o­lu­tion to sup­port it? Per­haps they are just too busy oppos­ing SB 50. AB 1482, from San Francisco’s other Assem­bly­mem­ber David Chiu, could estab­lish statewide emer­gency rent caps. Where is the Board’s res­o­lu­tion to sup­port this bill? Or how about Asm. Rob Bonta’s AB 1481 to estab­lish statewide just-​​cause evic­tion pro­tec­tions? Evi­dently, oppos­ing SB 50 is more important.

These other bills would limit the legal power of land­lords such as Fewer and Mar, while SB 50 could sharply reduce their mar­ket power. Their silence on the for­mer, and their disin­gen­u­ous grand­stand­ing against the lat­ter, is consistent.

The Board resolution’s half-​​truths and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the bill have been debunkedat length by the Sen­a­tor and oth­ers. The truth doesn’t seem to be the Super­vi­sors’ chief con­cern, though. It is impor­tant to note their hints at a deeper moti­va­tion: decid­ing who gets to live in San Fran­cisco, and exer­cis­ing the power to hand-​​pick their constituents.

Con­cern for Whom?

Local con­trol over land use means that incum­bents get to choose “for whom” the City opens its gates—and the his­tor­i­cal record quite plainly shows that these choices are sel­dom, if ever, equi­table. Here’s a refresher on a recent quan­ti­ta­tive study by UC Merced polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Jes­sica Troun­stine, which we have cited before:

The gen­eral mes­sage com­ing from Super­vi­sors is as sim­ple as it is false: San Fran­cisco is doing enough. Leave us alone.

Well, is it? Accord­ing to the City’s Depart­ment of the Envi­ron­ment, San Fran­cisco has slowly seen a 36% reduc­tion in net emis­sions since 1990. Mean­while, trans­porta­tion accounts for the lion’s share of those emis­sions (45% at lat­est count), though this appears to grad­u­ally be decreas­ing. But these num­bers are deceptive.

When I tried to com­pile a region-​​wide analy­sis of trans­porta­tion emis­sions from the nine-​​county Bay Area, I ran into an insur­mount­able hur­dle: the method­ol­ogy had changed quite dras­ti­cally around 2012. Rather than merely count­ing trips at their point of ori­gin, the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sion (MTC) and Bay Area Air Qual­ity Man­age­ment Dis­trict (BAAQMD) devel­oped a sim­u­la­tion of typ­i­cal trips based on “travel analy­sis zones.” While ana­lysts believe this data may be more robust, it ren­ders pre-​​2012 com­par­isons to the present day essen­tially useless.

And an impor­tant caveat: “Our sim­u­la­tion model explic­itly assumes that every worker liv­ing in the nine-​​county Bay Area also works in the nine-​​county Bay Area. This is, of course, not always true,” says the agency. Well, no shit.

San Fran­cisco politi­cians some­times speak as though every dis­trict in the City were equiv­a­lent to the vul­ner­a­ble working-​​class of the Mis­sion Dis­trict circa 1990, or East Oak­land and Vallejo today, where many for­mer San Fran­cis­cans have since had to move. The gen­uine con­cern over mar­ket volatil­ity upend­ing mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties is actu­ally reflected in Wiener’s bill: many such cen­sus tracts with con­cen­trated poverty and minor­ity res­i­dents are those that Sen­ate Bill 50 will tem­porar­ily exempt as “com­mu­ni­ties of con­cern.” But in terms of hav­ing afflu­ent, expen­sive neigh­bor­hoods that com­pel longer com­mutes, the City as a whole has lit­tle in com­mon with them. In this respect, San Fran­cisco bears more resem­blance to Marin County, a noto­ri­ous vio­la­tor of the Fair Hous­ing Act.

By import­ing their work­forces, Marin and San Fran­cisco out­source their trans­porta­tion emis­sions. A 2011 report by the Non-​​Profit Hous­ing Asso­ci­a­tion of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia (NPH), a co-​​sponsor of SB50, out­lined the cli­mate and social equity impacts of Marin’s work­force and hous­ing dis­par­i­ties. Accord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Employ­ment Devel­op­ment Depart­ment and data from the Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Sur­vey (ACS), over a third of Marin’s work­ers com­muted from out­side the county. But in the lat­est cen­sus, San Fran­cisco led the nation in work­ers com­mut­ing from other counties.

San Francisco’s lead­ers don’t seem inter­ested in revers­ing this calamity. Its recent approval of the Cen­tral SoMa plan, which plans space for over 3 new jobs for every new hous­ing unit, sug­gests that City Hall is unan­i­mously eager to see boom­ing job growth con­tinue apace. But reject­ing state reforms to plan for those work­ers to be housed nearby—some of whom indeed will earn six-​​figure salaries and earn the ire of lower-​​income work­ers strug­gling to stay in their homes—is just plan­ning for accel­er­at­ing displacement.

Non­profit afford­able hous­ing devel­op­ers don’t build multi-​​million dol­lar detached bungalows—they build apart­ment build­ings with units num­ber­ing in the dou­ble dig­its, which are pro­hib­ited under cur­rent zon­ing in nearly three quar­ters of the City. Notably, though Super­vi­sor Fewer has called for more afford­able hous­ing to be built, her Dis­trict has not been rezoned for the den­si­ties that make it possible.

One would think that elected offi­cials con­cerned about dis­place­ment would be rush­ing to add more hous­ing to bal­ance out the job growth they approved. Instead, Super­vi­sor Matt Haney bravely stood up for abun­dant sun­shine, lead­ing a unan­i­mous vote in reject­ing a hous­ing devel­op­ment on Fol­som Street with 25% Below Mar­ket Rate homes, because it would cast shade on 18% of the area of a nearby park, for 100 min­utes in the after­noon, dur­ing the longest day of the year. Haney cam­paigned on fight­ing for afford­able hous­ing, not against shadows—and if cli­mate change con­tin­ues apace, his future con­stituents may wish he had approved some cool­ing shade.

Under the sta­tus quo favored by the Super­vi­sors’ major­ity bloc, jobs will keep com­ing, work­ers will be forced to move out and drive from far­ther away, and no afford­able hous­ing will be built in their tony sub­ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods to bal­ance that out. It’s a trans­par­ent sham that the main­stream press and alt-​​weeklies alike are call­ing out—but will that make the Super­vi­sors care?

Growth is Good, Actually!

Some local Progressive-​​branded thinkers have inti­mated to me that the hous­ing short­age and cli­mate cri­sis is inher­ently a cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism itself: that growth nec­es­sar­ily brings inequal­ity and destruc­tion. This of course ignores the expe­ri­ence of our most recent reces­sions, in which all but the wealth­i­est suf­fered the most.

It is true that Amer­i­can cities have been strained under peri­ods of pros­per­ity, and emis­sions have increased as pro­duc­tion increases. But a city’s emis­sions come from its res­i­dents, and peo­ple make indi­vid­ual choices within their society—they gen­er­ate emis­sions per capita that are increas­ingly a func­tion of their depen­dence on the auto­mo­bile. The lat­est report from the Cal­i­for­nia Air Resources Board (CARB) notes that the bulk of our car trips won’t switch to carbon-​​free elec­tric vehi­cles soon enough; we will need to reduce car trips by 25% meet the state’s emis­sion reduc­tion goals. Fewer car com­mutes, how­ever, does not mean fewer workers.

When a job is lost, the cor­re­spond­ing human being does not dis­ap­pear. They con­tinue to look for work and con­sume, though per­haps they will move to a more afford­able part of the coun­try with a much larger car­bon foot­print, such as Texas or Ari­zona. Cal­i­for­nia loses a tax­payer, San Fran­cisco loses rev­enue to pay its pen­sion­ers and ser­vice providers, but the planet does not lose a con­sumer of resources. So lim­it­ing job growth to achieve sus­tain­abil­ity, as pro­po­nents of the 1980’s Prop M office cap would hold today, is not a real choice we have now.

San Fran­cisco has seen major eco­nomic growth along with both net and per capita emis­sions declin­ing since 1990—but in the trans­porta­tion sec­tor, it is lag­ging sig­nif­i­cantly, as is the rest of the state. Urban infill and transit-​​oriented devel­op­ment is the most envi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able way for California’s econ­omy to grow—not the inequitable, sprawl­ing growth that has been the norm for too long.

To under­stand this com­plex issue, we turn to UC Berke­ley cli­mate sci­en­tist Dan Kammen’s work. Crit­i­cally, Jones, Wheeler & Kam­men et al (2018) found that emis­sions reduc­tions were greater when urban infill devel­op­ment was con­cen­trated within pock­ets of higher house­hold income. In other words, pack­ing rich peo­ple closer together reduces GHG out­put three times more than sim­ply adding den­sity wher­ever it is possible.

Infill devel­op­ment is a more potent emis­sions reduc­tion strat­egy in rich neigh­bor­hoods, the authors argue, such as“most of San Fran­cisco, and the wealthy hill­side of the East Bay.” Why? “While these neigh­bor­hoods have higher than aver­age car­bon foot­prints, they have lower than aver­age car­bon foot­prints for their income level. Low car­bon foot­print cities that make hous­ing avail­able at all income lev­els help share the bur­den of meet­ing hous­ing demand, while less­en­ing the impact on the cli­mate across the population.”

This should come as no sur­prise. Rich peo­ple con­sume more, and can afford the poverty trap of car own­er­ship more eas­ily. When they don’t drive, their emis­sions fall more steeply. Already, San Fran­cisco work­ers drive alone at a rate less than half of the national aver­age. And fur­ther, research from UC Berkeley’s Terner Cen­ter and Urban Dis­place­ment Project has pre­dicted that SB 50 will focus more market-​​rate hous­ing pro­duc­tion pre­cisely in the afflu­ent, high-​​opportunity neigh­bor­hoods that exclude it today.

But does this mean our cli­mate solu­tions should exclude the poor from our boom­ing cities? Of course not.

Take the recent research on Seat­tle by soci­ol­o­gists Rice et al (2019), which found that gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in Seat­tle result­ing from Amazon’s infu­sion of high-​​paying tech jobs dis­placed lower-​​income res­i­dents with smaller foot­prints out to far-​​flung sub­urbs. This describes the sta­tus quo in many Amer­i­can cities, not the Smart Growth pol­icy sug­gested by SB 50 and its pro­po­nents. As the authors noted: “In so far as den­si­fi­ca­tion paired with cli­mate pol­icy remains lim­ited to parts of cities only, rather than the urban fab­ric as a whole, evi­dence strongly sug­gests that gen­tri­fi­ca­tion seri­ously under­mines GHG reduc­tion efforts.”

The goal of smart hous­ing pol­icy and evidence-​​based cli­mate solu­tions should be to increase res­i­den­tial capac­ity in low-​​carbon urban cores, not a zero-​​sum, one-​​to-​​one replace­ment that out­sources poverty to sub­urbs that lack a strong com­mer­cial tax base to sup­port its safety net.

It should come as no sur­prise that Kammen’s research on hun­dreds of Cal­i­for­nia munic­i­pal­i­ties pre­dicts sig­nif­i­cant emis­sions reduc­tions from urban infill devel­op­ment in places like San Fran­cisco. This is not the case in more rural and sub­ur­ban coun­ties like Stanis­laus County, where carbon-​​intensive sprawl absorbs dis­placed urban growth.

SB 50 presents a rad­i­cal depar­ture from the sta­tus quo in enabling Cal­i­for­nia cities to grow more equi­tably and sus­tain­ably. It would expand afford­able hous­ing require­ments to many cities in Cal­i­for­nia that cur­rently don’t have them. It explic­itly pro­hibits the demo­li­tion and rede­vel­op­ment of tenant-​​occupied hous­ing and recently Ellis-​​evicted prop­er­ties (some­thing a statewide rental reg­istry could help enforce), and it tar­gets high-​​opportunity sub­urbs that have seen major job growth, but cur­rently lack good tran­sit, to dis­cour­age car traffic.

Again, while Super­vi­sor Fewer insisted that she wanted to see more per­ma­nently afford­able non­profit hous­ing in her dis­trict, she has made no effort to rezone Dis­trict 1 to allow for the den­si­ties at which it can be built. Indeed, in most of the city, it is still ille­gal to build even the low-​​rise apart­ment build­ings that pen­cil out for non­prof­its, and SB 50 can change that. It is exactly the kind of pol­icy the world’s top cli­mate sci­en­tists and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion crit­ics should be lin­ing up to support—which is why Kam­men co-​​authored an op-​​ed in the New York Times with Sen. Wiener to sup­port it.

The evi­dence is con­sis­tent on avert­ing cli­mate dis­as­ter, and on elim­i­nat­ing traf­fic deaths: peo­ple need to drive less, and drive slower. Mean­while, the City has had data on its High-​​Injury Net­work of deadly streets for years, and has well-​​documented num­bers on car com­mutes com­pris­ing the lion’s share of its emis­sions. Given that it seems to take grisly, well-​​publicized cyclist deaths to impel the polit­i­cal action for pro­tected bike lanes, what will it take to truly make San Fran­cisco a car-​​last, Tran­sit First city? Will City Hall wait until the Ferry Build­ing is under­wa­ter before act­ing with any urgency to take some unpop­u­lar deci­sions? What will it take to replace on-​​street park­ing spots with bus lanes, or block some sun­shine new apart­ments in west­ern neighborhoods?

In light of all this evi­dence, San Fran­cisco con­stituents should all have one ques­tion on their mind: do your Super­vi­sors care? We should all be furi­ous that so much evi­dence sug­gests they do not—and what­ever hap­pens after that, is called politics.


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