An Urban Exlorer in SF: Thoughts on a Housing Crisis

I have always been something of a pedestrian urban explorer, but it seems my voyages have become far more frequent and thought-provoking since I started doing geographic data analysis in the San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. Indeed, there is something about playing with maps all day that makes one want to get outside and see those streets and neighborhoods for oneself. Also, since SF’s affordability crisis is due in part to the staggering demand for and relative shortage of housing in the city, I figure I should see for myself why so many people want to live here. So, rather than beeline down Market Street from my office building to the Civic Center BART station, I’ve been detouring to different neighborhoods around San Francisco, making observations, and trying to get a feel for this fascinating, dynamic, and rapidly changing city.

My most frequent lunchtime excursion takes me to Hayes Valley, the trendy, village-like neighborhood east of City Hall. Home to tree-lined streets of boutique macaroon shops, artisanal ice cream stands, purveyors of five dollar coffee, and some of the most expensive shoe stores you could possibly want to imagine, Hayes Valley is one of those places that give San Francisco its well-known reputation for bougieness. Walking up Hayes Avenue, guiltily clutching my Blue Bottle New Orleans-style cold brewed iced coffee, I wonder how much it cost to rent a one bedroom apartment in this neighborhood twenty years ago and how many moderate-income civil servant jobs I would have to take to afford one now. When I get back to work, I am pleased to discover that there are a few city-subsidized affordable housing developments and permanently below market rate inclusionary units in the neighborhood. However, my hopes are dampened when I discover the hundreds of applicants waiting to get a spot through a lottery. Like much of San Francisco for much of the lower middle class, Hayes Valley will remain for me a destination and not a place to call home.

When I want to get a little further away from work, I like to catch the Muni Metro N Train out to the Sunset District. The vast Sunset, stretching from Twin Peaks in the center of the city westward to Ocean Beach, has an entirely different energy and pacing from downtown. It’s mostly residential and majorly down-to-earth. It’s also home to some of the most delicious Chinese food you can find anywhere. My favorite spot to observe this part of the city is from above, in the aptly named Grand View Park. From the top of the hill, you can count the dense blocks of houses and low-rise apartment buildings that make up the west side of San Francisco. Absent are the skyscraping apartment buildings that have become infamous on the other side of the city. While this is something I love about the neighborhood, the housing enthusiast in me sees the challenges here. With increased demand and little to no opportunities to build dense developments (due to lack of land and adamantly slow growth resident), prices will keep rising. What will this mean for the neighborhood’s middle class character? I don’t want to find out.

While I enjoy exploring the far reaches of the city, the neighborhood that has been the most fascinating is the one nearest to my office. Although my office building is technically located in the Civic Center Historic District, most people would refer to the area as the Tenderloin. With the highest concentration of poverty in the city, including a sizable homeless population, the neighborhood is a service hub and home to the city’s large stock of emergency and transitional housing. Truly the last low-income neighborhood in the city, the Tenderloin landscape is the city’s clearest image of inequality and gentrification. High-rise luxury condos rise along central Market Street behind encampments of homeless folks, replacing the single room occupancy hotels vital for the lowest income San Francisco residents. As tech companies follow the lead of Twitter and set up shop and drive up property prices in the (reasonably) affordable Tenderloin, we can expect that housing specialists will have an even harder time finding a place for the homeless and displaced people to live, and the inequality will grow even more pronounced. Should I work at City Hall again in ten years, I wonder how different my walk to work will look.

By exploring San Francisco and seeing its changing face, I have developed a stronger appreciation for the work I’m doing in the Mayor’s Office of Housing. Developing and preserving affordable housing is a challenge in San Francisco, but one that my co-workers are proving is not impossible. Their work to make affordable housing happen across the city, in places and ways you wouldn’t even expect, gives me hope that the soul of San Francisco will not be lost amid a high-priced housing market.

Denim Ohmit is a UC Berkeley junior studying Urban Studies, Public Policy, and Geospatial Information Sciences & Technology. He is currently interning in the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development.