Guest Opinion: San Francisco needs more housing

  • by Audrey Liu
  • Wednesday January 10, 2024
Share this Post:
Audrey Liu. Photo: Courtesy Audrey Liu
Audrey Liu. Photo: Courtesy Audrey Liu

In 2019, right after graduating from the University of Toronto, I came out to my parents as transgender. While I was still allowed home, there were unspoken rules: I could not transition, I could not be referred to by my name, and I could not be who I was. I was a prisoner in my own home, and my only escape was financial independence.

So between the transphobia, the pleas, and the shouting, I applied to every tech job I could. At every application my heart jumped — maybe this could be my ticket out of here. And at every rejection my heart fell — I was stuck again. Although I couldn't afford to be picky, San Francisco was the city I coveted. Eventually a referral from a family friend became my ticket out. I moved to the city, and now I am free.

My tech job paid for my freedom, but sadly, we have created a city where that freedom is out of reach to those unable to pay for it.

Soleil Ho's recent San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece on the Castro is largely right in questioning the neighborhood and San Francisco's status as a safe haven for vulnerable, queer youth. It is painfully obvious that we do not adequately house our most vulnerable and marginalized populations. We put them at risk of homelessness, and punish them for it.

But that begs the question why?

I will oversimplify, but it seems that there are two dominant narratives.

For the "far-left" the answer is capitalism. Landlords forcibly evict families from their homes to then rent out to techies like me that can pay more. Developers either speculate their permits or build condos for millionaires, gentrifying the neighborhood. Private equity gobbles up rental properties or existing homes to only then jack-up the rent. In capitalism's never ending chase for profit, the poor are kicked to the curb.

For YIMBYs (yes in my backyard) the answer is our city's obstructionist policies and NIMBYism. San Francisco has a notoriously difficult permitting process exacerbated by NIMBYs (not in my backyard), and bans on apartments and triplexes prevents any homes from being added. Consequently, very little, if anything, gets built. As more people move to the city, prices skyrocket, pushing out those who are least able to afford the rent. Simply put, there is too little supply for the demand.

As a trans woman I sometimes feel like a child in the middle of a messy divorce. I strongly believe that the lack of housing, and consequently, our city's approval process are the dominant reasons why prices are so high. San Francisco has the longest housing approval process over any other county in California. Last August, I sat through a Board of Appeals meeting with fellow YIMBY members listening to the Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association fight an affordable housing development. The association, with dubious proof, contested experts from California's very own Department of Toxic Substance Control over its mitigation plan for PCE, a chemical carcinogen. Why is a neighborhood association debating the experts in their field? And why does a desperately needed affordable development have to go through another hearing when its permit has already been approved? I found it maddening.

At the same time, I'm also repulsed by landlords or corporations evicting marginalized tenants for the sake of profit, and I feel guilty for being part of the broader economic forces that fuel this system. The Mission is the city's poster child of tech-induced gentrification, pushing out existing residents for ones who can pay more, and consequently raising rent and home prices. Housing should be guaranteed, no matter how much you make.

In my opinion, you can be angry at both capitalism and San Francisco's obstructionist housing policies. It's not far-fetched to see how a culture of exclusion and classism works together with capitalism to create our homelessness crisis that puts the queer community at risk.

A political stunt from gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman is one example. He introduced a failed amendment to the Constraints Reduction Ordinance, making it harder to replace homes built before 1923. Effectively it would encase historical neighborhoods like the Castro in amber, inhibiting their ability to change and accept more residents. If neighborhoods can't change, then individuals with means will pay higher and higher to compete for the few available homes. Landlords will be tempted, sometimes by any means necessary, to profit by renting or selling their properties to those who can afford it. In a neighborhood where almost 50% of households make more than $200K per year, we cannot introduce legislation that blocks new homes while also harassing homeless queer people.

Tensions can run high when policies like rent control or inclusionary zoning are on the ballot, which are often a litmus test to sort you as a "moderate" or a "progressive." But this test has nuanced questions to answer beyond our political affiliations. How do you balance the immediate need for below-market-rate units without slowing down development overall? How do you reconcile that rent control may preserve housing for some marginalized individuals, while also incentivizing landlords to evict tenants and sell off their affordable units at market rate?

We have valid reasons to disagree or agree with the aforementioned questions. But I believe the research is settled — San Francisco needs more housing. Cities under the same capitalistic system, like Houston, have learned from California's mistakes and built a robust housing supply to reduce homelessness. And, when paired with strong supply, I think below-market-rate development, community land trusts, and rent control can be powerful tools to build, protect, and preserve affordable housing for low-income people.

I have no doubt that I will need to learn and unlearn policies and beliefs as our housing landscape changes.

This political battle between YIMBYs and the far-left has maintained our city's status quo for too long, and there are people who want to keep it that way for the sake of parking, property values, and neighborhood character. I coveted San Francisco because it was a safe haven at a time when my own home was not. In many ways it still is, but only because I can afford to be here. Unless San Francisco is willing to build more homes and accept more people, then capitalism will continue preying on the marginalized, and our historic LGBTQ neighborhoods will no longer be safe havens for those fleeing persecution for their sexuality or gender identity.

Audrey Liu is a District 1 immigrant resident, local transit advocate, a member of SF YIMBY, and a cyclist with a few too many close calls.

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife. Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!