Thoughts and ramblings on Architecture, Design, and everything inbetween.

Housing Prices and growth in San Francisco – Why it’s so expensive.

With all the discussion going on about housing prices in San Francisco, I’d like to add my perspective.  Our beloved City of San Francisco has become the least affordable place in the nation to live, and has some of the highest rents and home prices.  As an insider in the building process in the city (I design both residential high rise towers and single family homes in the city), I’d like to offer my opinion on why this has happened, and more importantly, what we can do to change it.  For many years this (in all other ways liberal and progressive) city has instituted and enforced some of the most conservative building policies in the nation; allowing a fear of change to ironically (and inevitably) lead to the biggest change San Francisco could go through: losing our creative class and forcing out of the city the very people that make the city great.  The city’s well meaning leadership and planning department, with the full support of some of the population, for many years have decided to slow building and development to a pace that was absurd for a thriving and growing metropolitan area, creating a gap between supply and demand that has lead directly to our current crisis.  (We are allowed on average to build 1,500 housing units/year.  We need 5,000+ units/year, and the current housing boom might add 6,500, leaving us still +/- 80,000 (nobody really knows?) short) This was accomplished through a byzantine and draconian planning and permitting process that is incredibly time consuming, costly and convoluted.  The effect that this has is to drive up the cost of any building in the city drastically, slowing down buildings by years, and neutering the design quality of any new building by encouraging a “design by committee” process and rewarding NIMBY’ism.  The Victorian Houses that everyone loves so much in the city; you would not be allowed to build those today, too colorful, too fanciful, too expressive.  The buildings allowed in the last 40 years are: grey, beige, and grey, making San Francisco known as “the place where good architects come to build bad buildings”.  Building has become so expensive in the city that any new building to come to market is outrageously costly and only very high end units can now be built.  Stifling growth and change like this is fine if you want to create a city where only the super rich can live, but that’s not what I or you want.  So what can we do to change it?  We can adopt intelligent policies on development and growth that allow our housing supply to keep up with our demand.. Encourage your city leaders, planners, friends and neighbors to rethink their policies on building, allowing for aggressive urban infill and smart levels of growth and change in a well thought out, beautiful, and sustainable direction.  Change is the only constant, embrace it.  Learn to love the old next to the new, rebuild the poorly built, non-dense and energy wasting buildings of the city and replace them with better.   Keep the beautiful and well designed, and set a high threshold for design and building quality then let the professionals do their job.  Learn to love experiments in building, take great pleasure in bold architecture and clever design, even if it’s not in your style.  Let your neighbors build an apartment downstairs and rethink the typical, conservative knee-jerk reaction to change in the built environment in the city.  Build intelligently, build sustainably, and build beautifully, but let us build.  It will take time, but things will right themselves, and we will get our city back, and if we’re smart about it, it will be better than before.

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