San Francisco is a microcosm of issues faced by the rest of the world today. The city has earned a reputation for one issue in particular, and that’s its housing problem: it has the highest rents of the largest US cities with minimal new development to support the population surge.

Of course this issue isn’t exclusive to the Bay Area. People are flocking to metropolitan areas like Seattle, Denver, Houston, Raleigh, and Cambridge, where a lack of housing for the influx is leading to big problems. Due to its unique geography and local politics, however, San Francisco is perhaps grappling with the most severe manifestation of this problem – even making its way into pop culture.

Scot Hampton famously created a satire series about San Francisco’s intense rental market.

San Francisco needs supply, and fast

Could San Francisco find an approach to urban development to light the way for the rest of the country – or even the world?

Fundamentally, the city suffers from a supply and demand issue. Lots of people want to live in the city and there is not enough housing. So prices skyrocket and the community struggles. So we just need to build more housing, right?

Not so fast.

San Francisco is also an eclectic city, and that eclecticism draws in a lot of viewpoints. This diversity of agendas is enriching, but it’s equally challenging. Development is as necessary as it is distrusted. The tension has escalated to the point where a new housing development in the city – already approved through the city’s extensive zoning and public involvement process – is being sued by the local neighborhood in an effort to halt gentrification.

We know this: it IS possible to create dense, in-fill developments that will appeal to high earning Millennials so the proforma can pencil out – while also allowing for affordable and mixed income housing that appeals to old guard progressives. Sustainability as the main ingredient might be the key.

Rather than looking at development as having an agenda of gentrification, we could show the doubters that real estate can actually narrow the divide. Rather than making the income gap wider and “kicking people out,” there is a way to increase housing supply at pace with rising demand and serve all income levels in the Bay Area.

So how can balance be restored?

At the crux of the dilemma appears to be, ironically, the anti-development sentiment of the city’s most progressive residents. As Gabriel Metcalf describes, “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.'”


These deeply rooted politics are exacerbating a fundamentally simple problem. Dramatic moves to balance the supply and demand equation must be made to increase affordability and support the cultural and economic diversity that make the city so unique and attractive.

Kim-Mai Cutler points out that the problem won’t be “addressed unless there is a broad-based, regional movement of people who consistently turn out to vote in favor of inclusive, in-fill development and deep investment in mass transit.”

A change in perspective on new development will be the catalyst

Is there a sweet spot between differing opinions? These are the ingredients of a development that will appease both Millennials and progressives. These strategies promote abundance and address city concerns such as climate change resiliency and drought. At the same time, they benefit lower income families by delivering efficiency so they can spend more money where it counts. And they benefit the Millennial workers by increasing wellness and aligning with their values. Designing creative third spaces to acknowledge the blurring lines between home and work contribute to the neighborhood and energizes the urban fabric – and could very well prevent lawsuits.

  • Innovative water reuse systems
  • Net positive energy
  • Healthy materials
  • Local technologies
  • Extensive integration with active and public transportation hubs
  • Creative third spaces

What could be

New construction that meets the housing needs of the region should be championed. It’s important to understand what development could be, instead of recoil at what development has been. A new urban fabric can be an engine of vitality.

Not every building can be the greenest skyrise in the world but it is possible, with the right mindset and support, for all development to make a positive impact. And that impact will be the key to unlocking the progressive blockade.


Nash Emrich is a technical consultant at Paladino Seattle. 

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