International
Federation for
Housing and
Planning

San Francisco - City of High and Low

The IFHP Travel Squad reports from San Francisco.

In a city where rents are being pushed up by the tech industry moving in and a profound lack of affordable housing, both low-income residents and middle class families are struggling to gain foothold on the housing market.

The middle class has left
San Francisco is one of the few American cities that has made a successful transition to the post-industrial age. Concurrently with industrial jobs leaving town, a lot of new jobs within the tech industry have been created in San Francisco. This has bid up housing costs to a degree where only the entrepreneurial elite can keep up. But the influx of Twitter and other tech companies are not the cause of rising rents; they are mere symptoms of a city that has not managed to build affordable housing in due time.

“We have the discussion about affordable housing every day,” Planning Director John Rahaim says. “There are a lot of programs to help people that are very poor. And the private market takes care of the higher end. But there’s no political will yet to subsidize middle-income housing. So many families in the middle are forced to leave the city. San Francisco is now the city in the U.S. with the fewest children per household.”

The struggle of the working class
The lack of affordable housing is even more severe when it comes to San Francisco’s large homeless and working class population. Kriztina Palone is Director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services that aims at helping residents in need. Housing is one of the biggest issues they deal with. “The Housing Department list for public housing has been closed for well over five or six years,” she tells. “Sometimes we have to refer people to public housing lists that are opening up in other cities because there are simply no cheap housing options here.”

“Some working class people are working 2-3 jobs just to sustain themselves. Yet they can’t afford a home because the cost of living is so high in San Francisco,” Palone continues. “The problem is getting worse because there is no turn over in manual labour jobs in this city. People stay in their jobs leaving the blue collar market pretty saturated.”

Affordable housing needed
Over the past two decades, San Francisco has produced an average of 1,500 new units per year. This is far from enough to keep up with demand. Although affordable housing is desperately in need, many San Franciscans try to fight new high-density development. They love the city like it is with its historic buildings and low urban fabric. As Gabriel Metcalf, Executive Director of SPUR, writes in the eye-opening article ‘The San Francisco Exodus’, this ‘preservationist’ attitude accelerates housing prices and slows down construction of affordable housing.

But there is hope. In November 2012, SF Mayor Edwin Lee announced the City’s Housing Trust Fund that is to create affordable housing for low and middle income households in San Francisco over the next thirty years. In 2013, the fund has allocated $28.5 million for construction of affordable housing. However, San Francisco needs more affordable housing and in a hurry, Gabriel Metcalf points out. “It costs around $250,000 in government subsidy per unit. You can get a scale of the cost based on how many people you want to help. Subdizing affordable homes for 10,000 families comes at a price tag of $ 2.5 billion.”

Read the previous blogs on San Francisco
IFHP Travel Squad reports from San Francisco
San Francisco at a glance with IFHP
Living Innovation Zones - a tool to improve public space
San Francisco innovating through data sharing
San Francisco – green and growing
Parklets - claiming back the streets
San Francisco - City of Tranparency and Innovation