San Francisco needs more affordable housing — not a housing moratorium

The Bay Bridge, with San Francisco behind it. Image: Getty.

Recently, five of my colleagues on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors proposed a moratorium on privately produced housing in the Mission District, as a response to the undeniable housing crisis confronting our entire city and impacting the Mission with particular intensity. Under the moratorium, no housing development of five units or more would be permitted.

The only exception would be developments with 100 per cent below market rate subsidized units. Even projects in which half the units were affordable to low or moderate income residents would be banned.

The districts of San Francisco. Source: WikiTravel.

Proponents spin the moratorium as a mere “pause on luxury housing” – but it’s much more than that. It will stop pretty much all housing production, including projects with a significant percentage of affordable units, group housing, single room occupancy buildings, and student housing.

Moreover, if this “pause” passes, there will undoubtedly be intense pressure to make it permanent and extend it to other neighbourhoods. Sadly, some of the moratorium proponents have taken to labeling anyone who opposes it, even those of us with long track records working to increase affordable housing, as mere advocates of “luxury housing”.

While the moratorium has provided a significant rallying point for some people by tapping into our shared frustration with the insane cost of housing, the moratorium isn’t the answer to our housing crisis, and it won’t do what its proponents claim it will do. Rather, it gives people a false sense of hope. The moratorium won’t stop a single eviction. It won’t slow the pace of displacement. It won’t make housing cheaper. And, it won’t generate a dime to accelerate funding and construction of affordable housing.

Indeed, a moratorium is likely to have precisely the opposite effect by increasing the housing pressure cooker that’s triggering displacement and reducing the resources available to build affordable housing. New residents aren’t moving to the Mission because of new development; rather, they’re moving to the Mission because of the Mission, amazing as it is. People who want to move to there will do so with or without new development. And, without additional housing, they will put more and more pressure on the existing housing stock. Evictions and displacement are the inevitable result of that pressure.

San Francisco housing stock and population over time. Source: Michael Rhodes/@michaelprhodes.

A moratorium will also reduce production of affordable housing at precisely the time when we need to accelerate production. Privately-built housing is a primary source of funding for the creation of affordable housing in San Francisco, via our “inclusionary housing” program. Private developers of 10 or more units either pay an affordable housing fee, build affordable units as part of mixed income developments, or build affordable units within a short distance of the projects.

This inclusionary housing program has produced nearly 1,800 affordable units as part of mixed income developments, with thousands more in the pipeline, and more than $100 million in fees dedicated to building affordable housing. Heightened development activity in San Francisco has increased affordable housing development fees from $2m in the 2011–12 fiscal year, to about $23m in the 2013–14 fiscal year.

Take away privately produced housing, and you take away a very significant source of affordable housing production, in the form of both mixed income developments and fees dedicated to building affordable housing.

Moratorium proponents’ core argument appears to be that building new privately created housing has raised housing prices and increased displacement in the Mission. This argument, however, ignores a crucial piece of data – namely, that the Mission has been at the low end of housing production, ranking 10th among San Francisco neighbourhoods.

In 2014, a grand total of 75 new units were produced in the Mission, out of nearly 4,000 citywide — approximately 2 per cent of San Francisco’s total housing production. Compare this to 1,193 in South of Market, 800 in Mission Bay, 188 in Hayes Valley, 164 in Potrero Hill, and 117 in Upper Market.

2014 Housing Production in San Francisco, by neighbourhood. Source: Socketsite.

In other words, we’ve seen significant and unacceptable displacement and explosive rent increases in the Mission with very little “luxury housing” being built in the neighbourhood. If the housing situation is this dire with a mere 75 units built last year, can anyone seriously argue that reducing that number from 75 to zero is the magic fix that will reduce displacement and stabilize or reduce rents?

No way. Housing development isn’t what’s causing the highly problematic housing situation in the Mission. And, eliminating that housing production isn’t going to help anyone, other than existing property owners whose property will become more valuable.

During my tenure on the Board of Supervisors I’ve advocated aggressively to fund affordable housing. I campaigned for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which will generate $1.5bn for affordable housing over time. I’m a co-sponsor of the proposed Affordable Housing Bond. I’ve obtained funding for affordable housing in the budget as well as funding to help counsel people how to navigate the affordable housing system. I’ve now authored three pieces of legislation allowing for the creation of new in-law units, which are the most affordable type of non-subsidized housing. And, I’ve authored multiple pieces of legislation to help tenants remain stable in their housing.

To address this housing crisis — one that threatens our city’s cultural fabric — we need actual solutions, not slogans. The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) recently issued a report outlining the steps we need to take. According to SPUR — and I agree — we need to protect rent control, double our supply of subsidised affordable units, stabilise our existing public housing, allow for different types of housing, such as in-law units and “collaborative housing,” and increase the overall supply of housing.

And, yes, in addition to the need for affordable housing, the overall supply of housing matters. If your population grows by nearly 100,000 people over a decade (as it has in San Francisco) and you add a bit more than 20,000 units of housing (as we have), housing prices are going to go up.

Earlier this year, I authored a piece positing that the law of supply and demand applies to housing in San Francisco. While some melodramatically attacked me as channelling the ghost of Ronald Reagan for making that basic point, it really isn’t controversial. New York City Mayor Bill DiBlasio recently proposed a housing plan to add huge amounts of both market-rate and affordable housing units, based on his belief that housing supply at all income levels will stabilise and reduce prices. Cities that have produced significant new housing — even cities with growing populations — have seen reductions in rents. Locally, students at John O’Connell High School in the Mission argued against the proposed Mission housing moratorium as counter-productive and won a contest for their analysis.

I was fortunate to move to the Castro in 1997, back when a young guy could come here and rent a relatively affordable place. I would struggle if I were to move to the Castro today. I know too many people who’ve been evicted or are at risk of being pushed out. And, I know too many people who have given up finding new housing. When it comes to housing, we’re at a crossroads in San Francisco. Let’s focus on actual solutions. The proposed housing moratorium is not a solution.

Scott Wiener is a Democrat, representing District 8 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. 

This article was originally reposted on, and is reposted here with Wiener's permission.


Why is it acceptable to kill someone? On the mysterious history of Britain’s road death toll

A London speed camera, 2004. Image: Getty.

A decade ago I became fascinated by a graph. This one:

I had been tracking the underlining data for years. The figures were easy to remember. Every year it was 3,500, plus or minus a percentage point or two.

Yet when the 2008 data was released, it had fallen to 2,538. This was 1,000 less than the figure in 2003. I plotted the above graph, and as I said, I became fascinated.

Because this is a really important graph. This is a plot of the number of people killed on Britain’s roads each year.

In Great Britain, collectively, we used to kill nearly 3,500 people on our roads every year. Consistently or, dare I say it, boringly: 3,500 deaths a year, 10 a day. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the deaths mounting up, as they do with knife crime.

Meanwhile a train crash would be front page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which 4 people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, as the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about those deaths. Nothing changed.

In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.

Here are those figures again.

1997 – 3,599 people killed on our roads

1998 – 3,422

1999 – 3,423

2000 – 3,409

2001 – 3,450

2002 – 3,431

2003 – 3508

But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.

2006 – 3,172

2007 – 2,946

Below 3,000! This was change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.

2008 – 2,538

2009 – 2,222

When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.

That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.

This was a major story that deserved a ton of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.

At any rate, the graph had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?

The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.

My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me, because I expected them to go up. Obviously I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.

I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.

Sometimes, being right is shit.

The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.

The number of people killed on our roads has remained stuck in the 17 hundreds. 

2013 – 1,713

2014 – 1,775

2015 – 1,732

2016 – 1,792

2017 – 1,793

2018 – 1,782

We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. Road deaths flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.

This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in 2007.

It was time to figure out the answers to two questions. Why did the death toll fall? And why did it stop falling?

The obvious reason for a reduction in deaths on the road is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40 per cent fall over a 4 year period.

There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the rest of the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.

So I found the EU figures for 2000 to 2017, indexed for 2000 and plotted the graph for multiple countries. It was a busy graph. For clarity the following graph only includes Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy along with a straight line drop for comparison.

The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.

One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.

So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40 per cent safer between 2006 and 2010.

In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for a government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.

That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to hospital, this became the priority. Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominate message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.

RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.

Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law breaking motorist.

The golden age of the speed camera had begun.

There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.

The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946

The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857

So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.

The second question: why did the death toll stop falling?

In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.

When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.

The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers, and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.

Soon after the election the coalition government said that “Labour's 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27 per cent. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.

And the golden age ended.

Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.

Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.

Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink- and drug-driving messages. It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.

Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in average speed of 1 km[h typically results in a 3 per cent higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5 per cent increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.

So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.

Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?