Can this board game solve San Francisco’s housing crisis?

Like monopoly, only backwards. Image: Alfred Twu.

Monopoly is one of the best-known board games of all time. It pits players against each other with the goal of dominating real estate markets through a series of land grabs, jacking up rents and hotel fees, and being a generally nasty human being.

Now, though, there’s a new board game that’s turning that premise on its head, challenging players to work together to solve a housing crisis. And, in a doubly ironic twist, it’s focusing on an urban area known for shunning low-tech board games in favour of start-ups and apps: San Francisco.

The choice of location is certainly apt. San Francisco’s housing crunch is one of the most acute anywhere in the world, rivalling other global cities like London and New York.

Housing horror stories abound. The city’s landlords make use of California’s Ellis Act, which allows landlords to remove tenants and go out of business, to evict low income tenants with ruthless efficiency. Single room occupant housing – an affordable place to stay for lower income San Franciscans - is closing all around town. Some landlords have exploited rent control loopholes to raise rents by as much as $6000 within a span of a few months.

And the proliferation of tech companies in the city has led to a plethora of tone-deaf computerised solutions to the city’s rent woes. An app launched to combat homelessness has made little headway, and has been criticised as simply a way to “snitch” the location of the homeless. And last year, AirBnB took it upon itself to launch a snarky ad campaign criticising the city government for wasting its tax money, in hopes that loosening restrictions for them would somehow lower housing costs for locals.

Game designer Alfred Twu had a different idea. Instead of looking for a high-tech solution to the solution, he would try a less technological, if equally unorthodox, solution: a board game.

Like monopoly, only backwards. Image: Alfred Twu.

Twu has already built something of a name for himself as a designer of board games tackling somewhat wonky subject matter, releasing games such as “California Water Crisis” and “The US High Speed Rail Game”. But in late 2015, he decided to set his sights on the housing crisis that, as a resident of nearby Berkeley, hit close to home for him.

On 6 December, Twu launched a Kickstarter campaign for his new game, “Bay Area Regional Planner”. The campaign immediately began drawing favourable media coverage, getting picked up by both Curbed San Francisco, and then by Citylab the following day. This attention helped make his campaign a success, far surpassing his initial goal of $500, for a total of $18,361 by the end of December.

Given the game’s subject matter, it’s no surprise to find its objective framed in unconventional terms. Instead of being asked to plop costly houses and hotels on top of colourful tiles and nab “get out of jail free” cards, their goal is to “Get ready to compromise and make coalitions!”

The game, which is now in production, can be played by 2 to 12 players, and takes roughly 60-90 minutes to play through. Played on a board formed into a large grid resembling the Bay Area, it asks players to work together to up-zone various squares on the grid, representing Bay Area cities, to provide housing to meet the demand from 2m hypothetical new residents.

Though housing is the main goal, players also have to worry about other goals, including traffic and historical preservation. They will also have to deal with the overall economy; turns begin by drawing economy cards (including “recession”, “boom”, and “bubble”) that may constrain zoning options.

On the game’s Kickstarter page, Twu details the planning principles that went into the game’s creation. He lays out the connections between zoning for greater density and increased traffic congestion (while also offering a hypothetical transit map of a densified San Jose), as well as a discussion of the effects of retail space on housing costs. He also talks about how his own experiences at planning meetings fed into the creation of the game.

Will the game make a difference? Critics point out that, at the end of the day, it may be no more effective than the apps that have drawn fire from activists. And its steep price tag of $44.99 might be offputting to those Bay Area residents, struggling to get by, who would benefit the most from more housing options.

Despite these drawbacks, however, the game may serve to bolster one element often glossed over by apps and AirBnB ads: collaboration, something sorely lacking in Bay Area regional planning.

Many of the area’s current housing woes are due in no small part to the rampant NIMBYism that runs the length of the San Francisco Bay. Though residents are proud to point out that this once had positive effects – San Francisco’s property owners banded together back in the 1960s to defeat freeway plans that would have plowed through the city’s neighborhoods – today it is a major obstacle to desperately needed new housing. All too often, existing property owners stand in the way of new building, fearing its negative effects while conveniently increasing the value of their own homes at the same time.

To put it in board game terms, many in the area still see housing as a game of Monopoly. Perhaps a few rounds of Bay Area Regional Planner might help to change their minds. 

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.