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Alamo Square, by the Painted Ladies, San Francisco, CA, Feb., 2015. (Photo: Hayk_Shalunts/Shutterstock)

To Make Housing Affordable, San Francisco Should Look Beyond California for Solutions

An important part of stemming and reversing SF’s decline is addressing the city’s acute shortage of affordable housing

By Sam Spiegelman, November 23, 2022 2:45 am

By Sam Spiegelman & Jeremy Talcott

On November 8, voters in San Francisco weighed in on a pair of ballot initiatives aimed at easing the city’s affordable housing crisis. Let’s at least give city officials this much credit — they do, in fact, appear to recognize the city’s serious housing problem. But their solutions fall flat. Of the country’s major cities, San Francisco ranks in or near the bottom quartile on housing affordability and homelessness.  The principal cause is the city’s regulatory framework for new development.

Two weeks after election day, voters have rejected Proposition E and look likely to reject D — counting takes time, especially in California, where several congressional elections are still outstanding. Still, these two initiatives only scratched the surface of solving San Francisco’s woeful development permitting process.

If voters had passed Props D or E, housing officials would have been allowed to expedite approvals by several months for developments that are 100 percent affordable, are to be leased to teachers, or set aside 15 percent of their units for below-market rates. Either Prop D or E (on paper) would have kicked in a 60-day approval process for qualifying projects, but only Prop D would have automatically fast-tracked projects whose deadline the city misses. Still, neither of these initiatives would have done anything to address the city’s antiquated zoning code, which limits multifamily housing to a sliver of its residential land.

So, here’s some free advice: if San Francisco really hopes to address housing affordability and availability, its officials must allow more of it to be built. This requires reform of the city’s draconian permitting and zoning regulations to allow light to medium multifamily dwellings throughout its residential zones. And for a better understanding of how to repair the city’s dysfunctional regulations, other cities across the nation can provide guidance on approaches that work.

The permitting process for new development in San Francisco is excruciatingly slow: review and approval for a new housing project takes an average of 27 months, according to one recent study. The city has set an ambitious goal for new housing units — 83,000 new units by 2030 — but it’s highly unlikely to hit that mark with existing regulations in place. Streamlining the permitting process to encourage more timely development is needed but won’t be enough.

The city’s zoning laws make it impossible to build new homes in the number, locations, and price points the market demands. These laws stretch back a century; the first San Francisco zoning plan, enacted in 1921, mandated single-family residential developments in most of the city’s undeveloped areas. This decision set the city on the course for its current dysfunctional land-use policy. Today, single-family residential districts account for 40 percent of all land use in San Francisco, despite blistering breakneck (and wonderful) growth in jobs and population.

Existing residents often resist the construction of more homes, fearful that more building would diminish their home values or neighborhood character. That fear is likely misplaced. In fact, a treasure trove of data-driven studies illustrates how even a small amount of additional housing stock can make life better for all by unleashing more growth and productivity.

Other similarly situated cities have made real progress in addressing housing shortages by recognizing that steady, incremental development brings more than enough benefits to ease the anxieties of incumbent homeowners. And they’re pursuing this needed development through intelligent reforms of zoning laws.

Take Portland, Oregon, where reformers obtained meaningful zoning changes, most notably permitting up to six homes on any one lot. Seattle’s Sightline Institute describes this change as “the most pro-housing reform to low-density zones in U.S. history.” Within one year, Oregon’s homeless population declined by 7.7 percent. Other cities are successfully using zoning reform to make land more productive. Minneapolis, for example, has seen some success in building more medium-density units once it fixed a few obsolete zoning rules. From New York City to Charlotte and Atlanta, zoning reform has become a programmatic, long-term objective that is already reaping rewards.

San Francisco continues to enjoy a reputation as a historic center of commerce and cultural innovation. Still, that reputation has suffered in recent years, with 70 percent of residents polled seeing a city in decline. An important part of stemming and reversing that decline is addressing the city’s acute shortage of affordable housing — and that starts with spurring needed housing development by reforming the city’s dysfunctional permitting practices and zoning regulations—not just the former.


Jeremy Talcott is an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization that defends Americans’ liberties when threatened by government overreach and abuse. 

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8 thoughts on “To Make Housing Affordable, San Francisco Should Look Beyond California for Solutions

  1. No, just no. Handing subsidized housing to teachers?

    Why the favoritism when public education in this state already takes a mandatory 50% of all general funds under Prop 98, they work only a 9 month year and the current costs to taxpayers per teachers in this state, as listed on Transparent California, is staggering.

    Home schools and pod schools now have been shown to be far more cost-efficient and preferable to subsidizing the aggressive teacher union power end runs for endless perks and preferences, which has only returned a #50 ranked education system no matter how much more money we keep throwing at open-borders K-12 in this state.

    This year: $23,000 per student – 25 average class size = nearly $600,000 year per classroom – for this 9 month year. Teachers unions decide how this $600,000 a year per classroom gets allocated each year – talk to them if you still think teachers need “subsidized housing”.

    Some areas of this state are already filled up with people and are straining resources to the breaking point. The market places sets rental values – when demand is high, rents will be high. Which means people who want “affordable house must relocated to less desirable areas. It is folly to pretend you can build “affordable” housing in high value areas that suffer no vacancy problems.

    BTW. All housing is affordable, when a willing buyer meets a willing seller .Stop using this useless term – you are lacking for sweetheart deal housing, hand-out housing, subsidized housing, kick-back housing, greed housing, or any other far more descriptive social engineering terms. “Affordable house” is a total smokescreen. Stop using this term. It is all affordable; except for those who refuse to do basic math.

    1. Median total compensation of a teacher in CA in 2021 from data so far is $127,091.

      I certainly empathize with people struggling to afford housing in our state, but the solution to that would be to work harder to stop our government from adding ever more nonsensical laws and regulations to the books that make it harder to build more housing and increase the cost of housing that does get built.

      Not to subsidize that with tax dollars, which only makes it more unaffordable in the long run.

      With that, the starting rate of pay for teachers in some districts is certainly lower than it should be. Not because, as you’ve pointed out, the money is not there ($600K/classroom is more than sufficient) but because the local unions – who all negotiate their own salary schedules – deliberately skew the increases in those schedules toward teachers nearing the end of their careers, not those just starting.

      Despite the fact that they will TELL you that their priority is to attract new teachers to the profession.

      Why? Because more senior teachers are often the ones that drive their union agenda and bargaining process, and higher ending salaries translate into higher long term pension payouts. As with almost everything, human nature makes it easy to justify “more money for me” as the way to improve anything.


    2. I live in OC and the problem is that more people are living in the same house. This trend has been going on for a while now. For example, a typical 3-bedroom house might have 1 family living in it and it cost $2500 per month. But with 3 renters living in it, the owner of the property might be able to collect $6,000 per month which drives up the sales prices of all local housing. Companies like Black Rock have figured this out and are buying up a lot of properties reducing the supply of housing for individual families.

  2. The authors claim that San Francisco continues to enjoy a reputation as a historic center of commerce and cultural innovation? Maybe years ago, but many of us think that the once great city had become a dystopian hellhole under the oppressive control of the Democrat cabal?

  3. Just hold your horses, folks…

    The current Democrat policies are chasing enough people away from San Franfreakshow that there will likely be a housing GLUT within a year or so…

    people are waking up and voting with their feet…

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