Within its 47 square miles, San Francisco is home to numerous thriving ethnic groups and cultural districts. While these neighborhoods host global tourists who come to enjoy the foods, arts, and culture, they have also persisted through generations as living, breathing communities where residents can feel at home with groups they identify with. For example, my friend’s parents lived and raised their family in Chinatown for 50 years and still can’t speak English. Before I became an advocate for affordable housing, San Francisco’s cultural diversity and the topic of gentrification were separate topics in my mind – I didn’t believe one had anything to do with the other.
The lack of affordable housing and the city’s prioritization of profit over people is erasing these communities. The irony is that while the cities rake in huge profits from tourism in these neighborhoods, they don’t provide support for these groups to survive. For example, tourists from all over the world come to enjoy the architecture, art, and cuisine of Japantown and spend money at Japanese-centric businesses, all while the city allocates its shopping districts for new Chipotles, Gaps, and Sephoras. How can Japantown make it if the city’s planners and policy-makers choose businesses that maximize profit rather than preserve the spirit of the residents? Also, these neighborhoods need more affordable housing so that families can move in and sustain the community over the long term. Instead, city planners and policy-makers allocate new housing developments for market-rate luxury units that the average family cannot afford. According to a recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an individual needs to earn four times the minimum wage to be able to house their family in a two-bedroom market-rate apartment in San Francisco.
San Francisco’s city planners, officials, and policy-makers must understand that their decisions to prioritize profit over people are cannibalizing the city. They cannot keep boasting of San Francisco’s rich diversity, inviting the world to enjoy Chinatown’s New Year’s Parade or the annual Pride Festival while making decisions that essentially erase the communities behind them.
In recent months, we have seen significant job gains in the Bay Area and unemployment falling to a low 3.4%, comparable to pre-pandemic days. But just as we were looking forward to financial relief for those who lost their jobs and livelihoods during the pandemic, we face another roadblock to affordable housing – inflation.
Inflation has reached 8%, a 40-year high. Inflation cuts into earnings for all workers but has dire consequences for low and middle-income earners. A family that could barely pay for food and housing may no longer be able to meet its basic needs and is thrown back into poverty. Those who don’t have the luxury to work at home may find that the increasing gas prices have left less for food and housing. But inflation is not just about higher gas prices or going to the store and finding that your milk and bananas are a couple of dollars more than you expected – inflation also makes things a lot worse for those seeking affordable housing.
We have heard of the stories of skyrocketing home prices during the pandemic, especially in places like Tampa, Florida, and Austin, Texas, which saw yearly appreciation of 43% and 40%, respectively. Though rising interest rates have reduced the numbers of those seeking homes, sellers still don’t have many incentives to lower prices because one house still receives many offers due to lack of supply. The scarcity of housing also drives up the rental costs, with rents increasing nationally by 15.2% on average. 48 out of 50 states saw overall rental increases, with increases as high as 35% in Austin, Texas, and 39% in Portland, Oregon. These increases would be acceptable if incomes grew at the same rate, but lower-income workers’ paychecks have not even remotely kept pace. As a result, affordable housing has become even more out-of-reach. A popular option for thrifty home buyers had been to purchase a fixer-upper, a cheaper home that needs work. But even this is becoming a less attractive choice as inflation increases costs for materials, and supply chain issues make materials challenging to attain.
The solution to the housing plight is and has always been to increase the supply of affordable housing. As we have explored in a previous post, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) has assigned Bay Area cities the task of building 441,000 new homes and apartments between 2023-2031. Chances are slim they will be able to meet this goal, with a quarter of the cities protesting their quotas for various reasons. Such an enormous task will naturally receive opposition; there is limited space for the many who need affordable housing in the Bay Area. But the mandate is an essential step toward something we have waited a long time for – action.