Wednesday, July 30, 2014

SF Housing: The Problem is the Peninsula

I've heard numerous claims as to why San Francisco has a housing crisis, and numerous solutions proffered. Few of them address the main source of the problem: San Francisco is facing an enormous housing crunch because of The Peninsula's land use and development policies.

Valley cities keeps building office parks and tech campuses, and yet they build no housing to accommodate the increased number of jobs in their city. Why? Because tech buses, and massive highways, and dense urban housing in San Francisco means they don't have to. Selfish home owners clinging to some false sense of suburban utopia (and skyrocketing home values) put pressure on the local pols to not create any rental housing. Local pols bow to pressure and shit-can any proposed rental and/or dense housing. Have you looked at rental rates in Mountain View or Palo Alto or any of the valley communities? The funny thing is, in the long run, these communities are cutting their own throats. But in the short run, San Francisco and its residents suffer.

Here's the rub: Its not that all tech workers are a bunch of hipster who want to live next to the urban cool kids in crappy sub-divided Victorian half units with bathrooms in the kitchen and no parking. Some of them do, but not all of them and certainly not the majority. It's that rents in Mountain View and Palo Alto and Sunnyvale and the rest of the valley are ridiculously expensive.  And if you have to pay a lot of money to live in the burbs, why not pay a the same amount of money, and live in San Francisco?  Especially since your employer will drive you to and from work for free. There are plenty of tech workers who would chose to live near their jobs instead of the cultural magnet of San Francisco... it's just that they can't because there is no cheap suburban housing available to them. Regional occupancy and rental rates bear this out.

So Fuck Peninsula politicians and home owners. I'm tired of being Silicon Valley's bedroom community. Anything and everything that allows people to work down the peninsula but live in San Francisco should be taxed and regulated to pay for low income housing, and bribes (see below).  Any commercial buses that are used for commuting but spend more than 50% of their time outside of San Francisco city limits should face a huge tax for the privilege of using our streets. And that tax should pay for below market housing and bribes.

Cal train Riders? Northbound routs into 22nd street and King should have an extra couple of dollars per rider surcharge if you are coming from outside of zone 1. Sorry. Gotta pay for housing  and bribes some how, and if that extra couple of dollars means you live in South San Francisco instead of San Francisco, all the better.

At this point, I'm almost ready to agree to toll booths going into San Francisco at the 280 and 101, as long as that money was used for housing and bribes, and not highway funding. Since the city can't actually control toll booths on state and federal highways, I recommend putting said toll Booths on the exit ramps.  Sure it will fuck up traffic badly, but that could be another dis-incentive to living in the city and working in The Peninsula. Anybody commuting in from adjacent cities can just take surface streets to avoid the tolls.... We aren't trying to tax them.... we are trying to tax the people working in the Valley. As such, the tolls should be reverse commute tolls that capture the valley workers... Driving into the city between 4 and 7 on the 280 or 101? Pay a toll.

And here's were the bribery comes in. San Francisco should bring its enormous financial and political pressure to bear on peninsula communities to build some apartments.  I'm open to incentivising this with cash - cash that could come from the above dis-insensitive taxes and fees.

The disparity between demand and supply won't be fixed quickly... but it will never be fixed completely until The Valley is dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, housing and land-use policy wise. Until then, all San Franciscans will continue to suffer.

Free Muni

Back during the heady days of the first boom, Muni was every-body's favorite thing to bitch about. The surge in population, and corresponding surge in ridership meant that the chronically underfunded transit service now faced increased ridership without a corresponding increase in budgets... it had old, outdated equipment that needed replacing and it needed to adjust its services to serve an evolving and rapidly changing population.

Sound familiar?

I was horrified, because it was a time when city revenues were booming and the economy was Go-go-go all the time. I didn't understand how was it possible that The City couldn't afford to properly fund Muni? As it turns out, it wasn't that the city didn't have the money... it was that the city didn't have the political will to solve the problem. Again, same situation, a decade-and-a-half later.

One of the solutions suggested to address Muni's problems, back in the days was to change the way it was funded. If funding is tied to ridership, but ridership can't go up because of bad service and lack of service, than funding to fix service and serve more riders never happens, creating a circle of failure.

What if Muni was funded the way our highways and streets are funded... that is, not on a per usage basis, but from general funds, and specific tax set asides?  What happens if Muni is free?

Some major points about "Free Muni:"
Revenue collection infrastructure eats up a large percentage of fares. Fair box maintenance and enforcement cost money.  Perhaps the specific percentages have changed since the advent of the clipper card, but those clipper readers and clipper infrastructure still need to be maintained and paid for.

Collecting fairs takes time:  On busy routes waiting for everyone to get their transfer slips and pay creates delays. If everyone were able to just get on the bus, at either door, overall rout times and speed could be increased, particularly on busy routs. Meaning it takes less buses to do the same number of routs.... OR you have more buses available for the route because they are zooming down Geary street much faster. so free Muni is a faster Muni.

The one downside pointed out by the free Muni studies* was that expected Ridership would Go up.  That's a win right? Part of  the goal of mass transit is to get people out of their cars and this would seem to be a win. But increased usage means increased crowding which would mean a need for more funding for more buses/LRVs.  This is only a problem if your funding isn't tied to ridership levels. If you have Muni Funding tide to usage, then this win stays a win. And, it promotes track-able and useful metrics at the management level... the more people you get out of their cars, the more your budget goes up.

Win win win.

The only problem is that in order to implement this, you need the political will to do so... That Muni Budget has to come from somewhere. Recently, parking revenue was reallocated to Muni, instead of ? (public safety?) and this created epic amounts of political backlash (SFPD, etc) and this backlash may have been behind the Mayor's recent shit-canning of an otherwise very successful transition to paid Sunday parking meters. Mayor Lee's inexplicably-but-purposefully sent Muni back into a deficit. That is some serious political football there. Muni was a wide receiver crossing the middle, jumping up for a pass, and Mayor Lee was a linebacker that speared Muni in the kidney. Muni will be pissing blood for weeks.

So where does the money come from? Who benefits the most from Free Muni? Employers of course. Many employers in the city pay for public transit as a perk for their employees (I know I did when I had a small biz in The City). Employers suffer when a bad Muni system makes their employees late for work, or stressed out when they get to work. Start there. Who else benefits? Land developers who can now sell condos without parking spots because Muni works and is free? Who else?**  Restaurants who can now expect more business because people Don't have to spend 30-40 minutes circling for parking? All of these groups are big players in city politics, and don't want Muni in their pocket books. And other agencies don't want their existing funding shifted away from them to Muni.

So Free Muni would have to arrive on a populist wave of anger and outrage, championed by someone who wanted to build a political career on the back of this very populist and popular idea.  Any takers?

*Sorry, but Google is failing me here. I'm sure you can dig up some of this history in 98-2001 era Bay Guardian editorials and articles. Right now, all of the internet Muni stuff seems to be related to how Muni can't possible afford to let kids ride for free, which tells you how bad things have become, vs-a-vi finding solutions to Muni's problems.

**Another way to look at it is who is rich and politically unpopular right now? Tech buses might have been a solution, but the big tech companies already sabotaged local cities by creating state legislation making it impossible for Muni  to rent out its bus stops to Google.  But... but but but.... Muni could refuse to enter in a commercial agreement with the tech buses... enforce existing traffic codes, and funnel that tech bus service to city owned parking lots.  Its sort of a dodge... but what SF would be dodging is Sacramento interference in local politics and revenue generation.  Given Google's recent "altruism/PRGambit" of paying for low income youth Muni passes, Its clear that they have money to burn. Let em burn it on a functioning public transit system for everyone.

What this blog is...

I've been living in San Francisco since 1997. That Practically makes me a native. Not really, I know. But you know what I mean. This city is full of people who have been here less than five years, but feel like they are experts on The City. I was here for the first boom, and I'll be here after the current tech bubble bursts, spraying hipster parts all over Valencia street like some kind of disaster movie.

My friends and I talk a lot about San Francisco... what we love about it... what we dislike about it... whats wrong with it, and how to fix it.  I find myself spending a lot of free time fantasizing about huge complicated solutions to the many ills that burden our beloved Baghdad By The Bay*.

Sometimes I may resort to facile rhetoric here... but at best, I want a place where I can carefully formulate and convey complex ideas.  I've been using twitter for this purpose for a couple years now, and its not a very good tool. If the only tool you have is 140 characters, every problem has a 140 character solution.

Seeing people bitch and complain on twitter, without having put much thought into the issues makes me believe that 140 character solutions are part of the problem.

Here's to solutions!

Hopefully, I can convince some of my friends to guest post here. We'll see.

*This name for The City far predates the first Iraq War, and the sneering insult that Republicans and conservatives mean it to be.  Read some Herb Caen and get to know the history of your city. As for me, I'm taking the name back... I'm Re-appropriating it. Screw the mouth breathers and pols from flyover states who think this is some kind of insult. I live in Baghdad by the Bay, and I'm proud of it!