Gentrification and Exclusion

Because a conversation on another person’s wall devolved into someone writing “Techies, take your unnecessary, wasteful ‘innovations’ and ‘app culture’ nonsense and just keep it to a suburb, where you won’t be bothering people who do your laundry to pay their rent.” This person is not someone I know, so I don’t intend this as a response so much as a jumping off point for my thoughts on the gentrification issue.

  1. Prices are high in SF and most other high price locales because a) people want to live there, including people with significant money and income, and b) there’s a limited amount of housing there. If you don’t accept this premise, we can discuss your alternate explanations of high prices. (Pied a terres constitute a valid concern with this premise)
  2. It follows that you can reduce prices by either a) directly preventing people from living there or making it less appealing or b) building [a lot] more housing there.
  3. Housing in SF is limited in large part because it’s the tip of a peninsula with some rugged terrain to the south. The bridges, trains, and ferries connect the city to the surrounding area, but there’s a) there is very little undeveloped land in SF and b) getting to SF from the surrounding areas is a pain.
  4. However, SF can be built taller, much, much taller than it currently is, and thereby make room in a very desirable place for more people to live, and perhaps reduce the cost of living there. (Don’t bet on it). Zoning, or, if you prefer like I do, NIMBYism is the primary thing preventing this.
  5. This is not just a problem in SF, it is a problem in the surrounding areas. However within the greater metro area, SF probably the greatest accumulation of non-mobile physical infrastructure per unit area. Bridges, parks, enormous buildings, rail lines for BART, muni, and calTrain, paved roads, power lines, traffic signals, you name it. SF therefore has a unique role. Wishing to kick people different from you out of SF does bear a certain resemblance to wishing to remove native americans from the fertile land you’d like to farm. Wanting to keep them out resembles not wanting to let people different from you have access to the nice stuff in your neighborhood. You know, pools, lunch counters, that kind of thing. The enormous difference here is that it’s the people with less economic power who want to remove the people with more economic power. That is a huge difference, but it’s still excluding people different from you because they’re different from you and you can dress it up any other way you like to.
  6. There are ways to kick out the rich people, or at least control their ability to jack up prices for everyone else. They’re called taxes. Severely progressive taxation of land value, for example, for anyone owning land (note, not property) might accomplish that goal, and if not, plenty to invest in making SF an even more awesome place to live. However, if your goal is to do whatever it takes to drive the wealthy out of SF, I think this is both incredibly hard to do and a terrible idea.  If you drive the wealthy out of SF, you also drive the wealth out of SF. That means that they won’t be hiring SF residents to do their laundry, cook their meals, etc. Nor will they be paying taxes in SF. Be careful what you wish for. Detroit is a poor economic model for anywhere. But generally, if it’s a place people want to live, the rich people will get there, and only stay as long as it’s a place people want to live.  The poor will be stuck.
  7. To be clear, I think there is a great deal to be said for the progressive taxation, and making the people who can afford it pay for the amenities of urban life and making urban life more pleasant for them and everyone else.  I think there’s a lot of room to do that which would not turn SF into detroit and would actually make it a much more pleasant place to live.  I just think “I hate these stupid people with money and wish they would get the hell out of my nice town,” is a ridiculous, impractical, and counterproductive sentiment.

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