The State of the Housing Crisis

The lack of affordable housing is a pervasive, escalating, global crisis driven in part by NIMBYism, speculative investments, and a lack of development. This is a social problem because the troubling social condition has been clearly outlined, and clear solutions exist for each underlying problem. NIMBYs use land use restrictions such as single-family zoning, height restrictions, and density restrictions to allow wealthy white people to artificially inflate housing costs, push out minorities, and prevent migration into their neighborhoods. An another front, speculators are holding vacant the very housing which is critically needed because they want to artificially inflate rent by reducing supply; there are currently over 46,000 vacant homes in the bay area. (Pena) There are about half that many homeless people in the bay area, at just 28,000. (Anthony) Lastly, developers are not building enough homes to meet the needs of cities. For example, at the current pace of housing development, Redwood City projects that it will meet its 2040 housing needs in 2880. (MTC)

The overarching problem of a lack of affordable housing is pervasive throughout the world, and it’s getting worse. Marginalized people are bearing the brunt of these problems across the globe, “While the advantaged members of the knowledge, professional, and creative class have enough money left over even after paying the cost of housing in these cities, it’s the less-well-paid members of the service and working classes who get the short of end of the stick, with not nearly enough left over to afford the basic necessities of life. They are either pushed to the periphery of these places or pushed out all together.” (Citylab)

Land use restrictions such as single-family zoning and height restrictions allow wealthy white people to artificially inflate housing costs, push out minorities, and prevent migration into their neighborhoods. In The Sunset district of San Francisco today, no one may build anything higher than fifty feet. (SF Gov) This means that despite the abundant availability of land, most of it is zoned for small, low density homes rather than large apartment buildings which could house many times more people.

All around the world, speculators make the housing problem worse. They buy distressed properties or even perfectly fine properties. They remove existing tenants and hold the property vacant. Eventually, they hope the demand will go up and cause the price to increase to the point where the speculator can make a significant profit from selling the property. This means that all they are doing for the community is raising prices on properties because of their personal greed. There is no benefit to anyone but themselves, and the people they removed from the property are now likely priced out of their own neighborhoods. In California, almost all homeless people are homeless in the same neighborhood they grew up in. (Marbut) There are currently over 46,000 vacant homes in the bay area. (Pena) There are about half that many homeless people in the bay area. (Anthony) In many cases, homeless populations exist in those neighborhoods because speculators forced them out of their homes before inflating the prices and reselling the properties to wealthy new owners who vote to deny services to help the people whose houses they are now living in. In one recent example, a group of homeless mothers in Oakland occupied one of these vacant speculator-owned homes. With broad community support, they were eventually able to acquire legal ownership of the home! (Elassar)

During the progressive era, the government decided to give trillions of dollars to certain kinds of people to fund the construction of the suburbs. Programs like FHA and the GI bill gave trillions of dollars in loans to people who would never have been given loans in the past. This funded the creation of the suburbs by now-wealthy primarily white people. They left the cities in a period we now refer to as “white flight.” Despite the fact that the GI bill and FHA gave loans primarily to white people, the racism of the home loan programs was extended into a policy called redlining. Tracts were described by lenders on a scale of how many people of color lived in the tract. If there were too many people of color then the tract was outlined in red on the map. Redlining meant no loans would be offered there, or to people who lived there and wanted to leave. Predictably, this led to a long period of decline and decay in the inner cities, where the white people had trapped most of the people of color. (Race, The Power of an Illusion)

Never fear because Urban Renewal was here! In the mid twentieth century, redlining was banned, but the damage it had done to urban communities of color was intense and pervasive. The US government responded by allocating enormous amounts of money to bulldoze those neighborhoods and allow white people to build new homes there which could then be used to exclude people of color from their neighborhoods, or in some cases rented out to them so they could now rent where they had previously owned. At the same time, public housing was also being demolished and replaced with private for-profit housing. Today there is no public housing left in San Francisco. Throughout the country, 90% of the housing demolished during Urban Renewal was never rebuilt. Two third of those displaced were black or latino. (Race, The Power of an Illusion)

Today in San Francisco, there are many programs intended to create “Affordable housing” as an alternative to public housing. When the phrase “Affordable housing” is capitalized, it means there is a subsidy involved. Programs like HUD’s Section 8 will cover the cost of rent for a small number of very-low-income renters with certain characteristics. Other programs will cover part of the cost for certain kinds of renters. There are few to no “affordable housing” options for most people. When this phrase is not capitalized, it means housing which costs less than 30-50% of people’s income. San Francisco basically thinks about only two categories; market rate housing and subsidized housing. Market rate housing is when a two-bedroom apartment costs $4,520/month. (Rent Jungle) This is affordable only if someone is earning $108,480-$180,800. This means you have to earn in the 76th-90th percentile for market rate to be affordable. (DQYDG) This tells us that for the vast majority of people in the city, there are no affordable housing options.

Developers are not building enough homes to meet the needs of cities. Cities are required to work with the state to project their housing needs on a regular basis through a program called RHNA. Cities are not, however, required to actually make sure that amount of housing gets built. For example, according to SPUR, at the current pace of housing development, Redwood City will meet its own projects for its 2040 housing needs in the year 2880. (MTC) If this sounds like a joke, it’s because this problem is so enormous and so out of control and so poorly managed by cities, that there is no longer any way to sugar coat these numbers.

Fixing this problem will take changes to land use restrictions which disempower NIMBYs and speculators while enabling massive redevelopment to take place. We need a lot more units, and we need them everywhere, not just in someone else’s backyard. We need units in EVERY back yard, and we need to replace single family homes with large high-density apartment buildings or we are going to continue to see enormous numbers of people on the streets and few to no affordable options available to most people. This crisis will continue to escalate until action on these points is forced down the throats of the people standing in the way. We can already see examples such as the one I mentioned in Oakland where people are beginning to rise up and demand change, even if it’s in violation of the unjust laws which allow a privileges few to perpetrate this crisis on the people.




Works Cited


Anthony, Kate et al. Homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area: The crisis and a path forward. McKinsey & Company. Accessed 2020-02-24. industries/public-sector/our-insights/homelessness-in-the-san-francisco-bay-area-the-crisis-and-a-path-forward

Citylab. The Global Housing Crisis. Accessed 2020-02-24. 04/the-global-housing-crisis/557639/

DQYDJ. Income Percentile by City Calculator in 2019.

Elassar, Alaa. “Homeless mothers with Oakland’s ‘Moms 4 Housing’ have been forcibly evicted from a vacant home they were occupying.” CSS. Published 2020-01-15.

Pena, Luz. ABC 7 News. There are an estimated 46,000 vacant homes in the Bay Area, but why? Accessed 2020-02-24.

Marbut, Robert. State of Homelessness. Presented 2015-04-07.

MTC. When Will Bay Area Cities Reach Plan Bay Area 2040 Housing Targets? Accessed 2020-02-11. plan-bay-area-2040-housing-targets

Race, The Power of an Illusion. California Newsreel.  April 2003.

Rent Jungle. Rent trend data in San Francisco, California.

SF Gov. “Zoning Map – Height/Bulk Districts.” City and County of San Francisco. Accessed 2020-04-01.