Tag Archives: Zoning

Apartments Are Banned from 76% of San Francisco

I came across in incredible stat today. Apartments are banned in 76% of San Francisco. It’s no wonder that it’s the most expensive city in the United States.

In fact, given increasingly restrictive zoning, 54% of the homes in San Francisco could not be built today! The picture in New York City is similar, where 40% of Manhattan homes couldn’t be built under current zoning codes.

I find the anti-development discourse often focuses on “greedy developers” when a more appropriate person to focus on might be “working class mom who doesn’t want to live 90 minutes from work.” How we frame the problem may be the key to winning the argument. The “neighborhood character” trope is another NIMBY standby, but against a struggling single mom who spends four hours a day commuting on a bus to her job as a nanny and just wants an affordable place near her job, i think their argument loses its punch.

Housing in expensive cities like SF and NYC could get more affordable in a different, more painful way. Everyone I know of who lives in San Francisco is decrying staggering amounts of crime and school closures that have gone on over a year. The tech industry has moved to Zoom and found real efficiencies there. I live in the NYC area and can attest that crime has increased substantially.

Perhaps the way San Francisco and similar cities get cheaper isn’t by building, but by self-destruction.

For more on zoning and politics, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Typical San Francisco house” by 4nitsirk is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Is Zoning Keeping Poor People Poor?

I recently subscribed to a newsletter from the journalist Matthew Yglesias that has turned out be outstanding. A message I received this morning really struck me. Yglesias argues that the best thing we can do for the poor, given that housing is their biggest expense, is to build housing like crazy:

This is diametrically opposed to the narrative we so often hear, that new development replaces the urban poor with, well, people like me. Yglesias’ argument makes sense in terms of basic supply and demand. New York is creating 3.9 jobs for each new housing unit. In San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the numbers are far worse, at over 6 jobs per new housing unit! (And sure enough, SF/Silicon Valley is more expensive than NY.) Unless the average household size is about 4 in the case of NYC or 6 in SF/Silicon Valley, this simply won’t work. There will be more workers who need apartments than there are apartments.

What happens then? You guessed it: your rent goes up. However, I was greatly encouraged by this tidbit:

Now, you’re on my territory! I’ve lived in Hudson County, NJ for about 6.5 years and love it here. And I did notice that we seem to build a lot more than New York does. But you know what they say: the plural of anecdote is not data.

The data is in! And it’s striking, especially since Brooklyn’s population is around 2.6 million and ours is under 700,000! Dividing Brooklyn’s roughly 2,559,903 residents by 9696 new permitted units gives us 264 residents per new apartment allowed to be built. In Hudson County, that ratio is approximately 672,391 residents divided by 8,238 units, or 82 residents/new unit.

We are building housing more than three times as fast as Brooklyn, our nearest competition!

So, is all of Hudson County a noisy construction site surrounded by snarled traffic? Hardly! There are countless parks, a beautiful waterfront walkway, and lively, pedestrian-friendly streets. It’s actually not so different from Brooklyn, except it’s cheaper and arguably safer, especially these days.

Yglesias’ argument also makes sense given an inside view into NYC development that I happen to have: my friend Tim* is a commercial real estate broker in New York City. He often works with owners of lower productivity industrial real estate in poorer parts of the city that were recently upzoned to allow apartments. A typical client might be the owner of a small factory that is not very profitable, who can do better selling his land to a developer who will build apartments. The factory can move somewhere cheaper nearby (hello, New Jersey!) and people can have places to live.

My one bone to pick with Yglesias’ otherwise excellent article is:

I think a lot of sensible people have different opinions on that one!

Check out Yglesias’s website here. Tons of great reporting of the sort we don’t see enough of!

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*Not his real name

Photo: “MichaelPremo_MsWard-4364” by michaelpremo is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0