- Even though rents are plummeting in San Francisco, it is still one of the most expensive cities in the US and exemplifies the affordable housing crisis.
- The city's mayor, London Breed, identified an inability to build more affordable housing as the source of the local crisis on the Freakonomics podcast earlier this week.
- Breed also placed blame on the city's Board of Supervisors, who she said prioritize the "lefty movement" over the city's residents, and ultimately hinder her efforts to create more housing.
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As the coronavirus pandemic wears on, residents seem to be fleeing the biggest cities in the US.
There's currently double the normal amount of housing inventory — or homes on the market — in San Francisco. At the same time, mounting vacancies have sent the median apartment rent plummeting by more than 30% — the largest pandemic-fueled rent decrease anywhere in the country this year.
But that median rent hasn't fallen far enough. San Francisco is still notoriously expensive. Even now, the median rent for a studio in San Francisco comes to $2,285, while the median rent for a studio on the national level is $1,347, per a Realtor.com analysis in September.
Simply put, San Francisco is still an extreme example of the affordable housing crisis sweeping the country.
And London Breed, its mayor, knows where to place blame.
"San Francisco has become more popular as more people were working here," Breed said on the Freakonomics podcast this week. The tech giants like Google and Facebook that revitalized the area were also key drivers behind the city's climbing cost of living and widening wealth gap.
This growth "pushed out a lot of natives," the mayor said. "I think the problem we have, and why we are seeing even more homeless people than we have in the past, has a lot to do with the fact that we have not kept up pace with building more housing."
New, more affordable housing is badly needed nationwide. At the rate that people have been buying single-family homes, the US could run out of inventory of new homes in just months.
In San Francisco, however, special circumstances prevent the development of new affordable housing. On the same podcast, Harvard economist and urban issues expert Ed Glaeser noted that San Francisco is particularly "constrained" by factors including "historic preservation" and earthquake risks that make it increasingly difficult to build there.
What's more, San Francisco doesn't "necessarily have a Board of Supervisors [that's] cooperative as it relates to policy changes to getting more housing built," according to Breed.
"San Francisco has a very, very extremely left group of people on the Board of Supervisors," she continued. "And I think, in some instances, their focus is not necessarily to do what is best for the people in San Francisco, but do what's best to stay in the good graces of this whole lefty movement," she said.
Breed is a Democrat herself. The first Black woman to be San Francisco mayor, she ascended to the post following the sudden death of Mayor Ed Lee in 2018. She had previously served on the very same Board of Supervisors she referenced on the podcast. She started her political career as an intern in the Mayor's Office of Housing and Neighborhood services, after being raised by her grandmother in local public housing and attending local public schools.
What Breed called the "lefty movement" in the context of blocking new housing from being developed overlaps with a well-known issue in urban planning called NIMBYism, or "not in my backyard."
The affordable housing issue at hand doesn't fit neatly into partisan boxes — and research shows that voters on both the right and the left tend to oppose new developments in their own neighborhoods, even if they are supportive of affordable housing at large. Access to more affordable housing has historically been a left-wing cause, but prominent Democrats in big cities in 21st century America have tended to ally themselves with — or at least largely represent — NIMBYs, which may have been Breed's point.
Some strides towards more affordable housing have been made in San Francisco. Breed previously helped establish a "neighborhood preference" policy. The 2016 policy sets aside somewhere between 25% and 40% of new affordable units in neighborhoods for people who already live there, she explained on the podcast. A similar policy in New York has recently come under fire for merely creating a "facade of affordability." Even the "affordable" apartments price locals out — meaning the policies need to be fine tuned to better serve their intended purpose.
"Rather than trying to work with me as the mayor," and expound upon policies like that, Breed said, "[The Board of Supervisors is] mostly trying to undermine things that I push forward that would allow the city to move forward in building more housing."