Golden gates Fighting for housing in America

Conor Dougherty

Book - 2020

"Spacious and affordable homes used to be the hallmark of American prosperity. Today, however, punishing rents and the increasingly prohibitive cost of ownership have turned housing into the foremost symbol of inequality and an economy gone wrong. Nowhere is this more visible than in the San Francisco Bay Area, where fleets of private buses ferry software engineers past the tarp-and-plywood shanties where the homeless make their homes. The adage that California is a glimpse of the nation's future has become a cautionary tale. With propulsive storytelling and ground-level reporting, New York Times journalist Conor Dougherty chronicles America's housing crisis from its West Coast epicenter, peeling back the decades of histo...ry and economic forces that brought us here and taking readers inside the activist uprisings that have risen in tandem with housing costs. To tell this new story of housing, Dougherty follows a struggling math teacher who builds a political movement dedicated to ending single-family-house neighborhoods. A teenage girl who leads her apartment complex against their rent-raising landlord. A nun who tries to outmaneuver private equity investors by amassing a multimillion-dollar portfolio of affordable homes. A suburban bureaucrat who roguishly embraces density in response to the threat of climate change. A developer who manufactures housing for the homeless on an assembly line. Sweeping in scope and intimate in detail, Golden Gates captures a vast political realignment during a moment of rapid technological and social change."-- Jacket.

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New York : Penguin Press 2020.
Main Author
Conor Dougherty (author)
Physical Description
xvi, 269 pages ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Preface
  • 1. Members of the Public
  • 2. Organizing the Unorganizable
  • 3. No Hay Peor Lucha Que La Que No Se Hace
  • 4. Plans of Oppression
  • 5. Sue the Suburbs
  • 6. The Second Housing Package
  • 7. The Old Ways
  • 8. The Value-Add Investor
  • 9. Sonja for Supervisor
  • 10. The Rent Is Too Damn High
  • Epilogue: Neighbors for More Neighbors
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes on Sources
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

Around the world, prosperous cities struggle with outrageous housing prices, and few cities are as moneyed as San Francisco. Dougherty, a longtime economics reporter, explains the conundrum in this sympathetic profile of the city's pro-growth, yes-in-my-backyard movement. Led by the unlikely activist Sonja Trauss, YIMBYs blame red tape and obstinate neighbors for derailing new construction, which squeezes housing supply and shoots up prices. It's a movement of strange, shifting bedfellows. Left-wing affordable housing advocates may join developers and right-wing free marketers to lobby for new projects; to stop them, reactionaries fearful of nonwhite newcomers band with environmentalists. Dougherty probes the fight from multiple angles, recounting the history of housing restrictions, efforts to promote growth under Governor Pat Brown, and contemporary machinations of developers, politicians, and priced-out tenants to cope with a broken system. The author's embrace of YIMBY arguments may leave readers wondering if they're perhaps getting the full picture of a global conundrum: London and Hong Kong, with very different political structures, suffer similar problems. Overall, an engrossing survey of one city's housing politics.--Sam Kling Copyright 2020 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

New York Times economics reporter Dougherty dissects the San Francisco Bay Area's housing shortage crisis and the "antigrowth politics" that caused it in this incisive, character-driven debut. Focusing on Sonja Trauss, who founded the San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation in 2014 (when the region was creating only one new housing unit per eight new jobs), Dougherty charts the rise of the YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) movement as it seeks to reform zoning laws and push for high density housing development in the Bay Area and other communities. He notes that affluent suburbanites, who fear a decline in property values, and low-income tenants of color, who risk losing their neighborhoods to gentrification, both view YIMBY activism skeptically. He also profiles others involved in housing affordability issues, including Sister Christina Heltsley, whose Catholic nonprofit battles real estate speculators in her working-class, Silicon Valley-adjacent community, and Lafayette, Calif., city manager Steve Falk, who quit his job rather than continue to support restrictive zoning measures. Dougherty expertly weaves these individual stories into his overarching assessment of urban policy, and makes a convincing case for "mixed" housing solutions that balance affordability, availability, and profit. Readers who assume there's no solution to sky-high rents in America's big cities should consult this detailed and optimistic counter-narrative. Agent: Melissa Flashman, Janklow & Nesbit. (Feb.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Economics reporter Dougherty's first book identifies housing as a profound American social and economic challenge which also influences other problems, from educational gaps and racial disparity to climate change. The increasing unaffordability of housing in growing, high-opportunity cities represents a decades-long trend, according to Dougherty. While considering issues such as suburbanization and redlining through a national lens, Dougherty primarily focuses on the San Francisco area, with its mix of Silicon Valley megawealth, homelessness, progressive politics, subjection to California's initiative system, array of diversities, and activist culture. The author explores the fate of tenants who organize in response to a rent increase in North Fair Oaks near Redwood City while also looking at local and state politics, both current and historical, along with gentrification, displacement, NIMBYism, the YIMBY movement, and other factors in the complicated issue of availability and affordability of a place to live. The story of activist turned candidate for local office Sonja Trauss bookends this well-reported and well-documented, not to mention fascinating, treatment of a topic that Dougherty convincingly argues is critical to equity and stability in America. VERDICT Recommended for renters, owners, developers, and policymakers alike.--Janet Ingraham Dwyer, State Lib. of Ohio, Columbus

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A New York Times economics reporter illuminates why affordable housing is scarce for tens of millions of Americans, with a focus on the San Francisco metro area.As Dougherty explains in his first book, the cost of buying a single-family home or even renting a small apartment in a convenient, desirable location is one of the most pervasive conundrums facing Americans today. Perhaps no other phenomenon drives income inequality as starkly as housing. In addition, the price and location of housing affects quality of education from preschool through high school; exposure to clean air and drinkable water; racial and ethnic segregation; crime rates; and, perhaps most significantly, the availability of employment at a livable wage. While Dougherty provides plenty of macro-level research about housing across the nationand especially in San Franciscothe major strength of the narrative occurs at the micro level. The author located individual players on various sides of housing debates, and he compares and contrasts their advocacy from diverse perspectives. The most memorable protagonist is Sonja Trauss, a young Bay Area resident who surprised everybody, including herself, by emerging as the leader of an aggressive, innovative affordable-housing coalition, the San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation (SF BARF). As Dougherty notes, Trauss never opposed expensive homes for the wealthy as long as low-income residents could find affordable rental units that were at least somewhat convenient to their places of employment. If Trauss is considered a hero, the author understands that few of those battling her should be considered fully evil villains. What occurred to cause the unconscionable housing gap, writes the author, "was less a calculated conspiracy than it was best-laid plans." After all, zoning restrictions and other factors can be viewed as one person's protectionor another's exclusion. The narrative will be especially poignant and thought-provoking for readers who rely on nannies, home health aides, construction workers, landscapers, and other low-paid occupationswhere will they reside?A readable, eye-opening exploration of "what is fast becoming a national housing crisis." Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter 1 Members of the Public The political revolution known as BARF began during a seven-hour-and-fifty-two-minute planning meeting inside San Francisco City Hall. It was half a century in the making and in the space of two years would upend California politics and help to spawn a national uprising of angry, millennial-aged renters. But there on that first day you almost had to squint to see it. The meeting was in the judicial-looking chambers of the San Francisco Planning Commission, and it had been going for about three and a half hours when the commissioners turned their attention to a proposal for a new building that would have eighty-three subsidized apartments reserved for low-income households in the impoverished Tenderloin neighborhood. When it was time for public comment, a nervous young woman in a striped sweater and shorts walked from her seat to the audience microphone and addressed the semicircle of commissioners sitting on the platform in front of her. "Hi, my name is Sonja Trauss," she said. "I'm just a member of the public, and I'm here because there is a housing shortage in San Francisco. And, um, I look forward to as much new housing being brought to market at all levels, uhh, as possible. I mean, quickly as possible. Thanks." Whoever this Sonja was, she was obviously not alone. Over the next hour, she and a bearded friend kept using the public comment time to say they were in favor of every project in the pipeline, as well as more housing generally. It began with the 83 subsidized apartments in the Tenderloin, then continued with the 111 units at 650 Indiana Street and the 259 units at 1201 Tennessee. Through hastily prepared comments that she strung together with a surplus of "ums" and "sos," Sonja proceeded to lay out a platform that would make her a housing celebrity and inspire a run for city office: how expensive new housing today would become affordable old housing tomorrow, how San Francisco was blowing its chance to harness the energy of an economic boom to mass-build housing that generations of residents could use. She wasn't there to complain about shadows over her yard or a lack of parking on her street. She didn't care if a proposal was for apartments or condominiums or how much money its future residents had. It was a universal platform of more. Sonja was for anything and everything, so long as it was built tall and fast and had people living in it. "I decided to come speak in support of large housing projects when I realized that the entitlement process is biased against beneficiaries of new building," she told the commission when the Indiana Street project was up. "So neighbors around the projects, with valuable opinions, um, you know, get notified, but the potential probably two hundred new residents have no way of giving input into whether, like, this project or any similar project gets to be built. . . . Sooooo, I'm part of the general community of renters in the Bay Area, so I'm affected by the lack of housing through high rent and lack of options, so I'm here on behalf of myself as, like, a general part of the public. So yeah, so, in general, I'm here to remind the planning commission to consider all the people that will benefit from this once it's built. Because they don't exist yet as, you know, as renters." The rhetoric wasn't new. The term "NIMBY," developer shorthand for "not in my backyard," had been around for at least four decades at that point, and there were numerous books, countless news articles, and an entire sub-specialty of economics to show that the Bay Area was the national capital of NIMBYism. Had she been a man with white hair or identified herself as the employee of a real estate developer, chances are nobody would have noticed. But for a young adult with no obvious signs of intoxication to show up at a midday city meeting to say she was just generally in favor of housing because San Francisco didn't have enough of it? That made no sense. Nobody attended eight-hour city meetings if they didn't have to, and while the planning commission was a place of arguments and strange behavior, it was also a place where people at least knew where each other's lanes were. The people who showed up to speak in favor of new projects were the developers who'd proposed them, the trade organizations they paid to shill for them, the unions who worked for them, and the community organizations whose wheels they had successfully greased. The people who showed up to oppose new projects consisted of environmentalists, angry neighbors, and community organizations that felt their wheels hadn't been greased enough. Sonja claimed to be none of these-"just a member of the public." After the meeting, people walked up to her in the marble hallway to try to figure out if someone had sent her. What's your name? Sonja. What do you do? I'm a high school math teacher. What brought you here today? I'm just a member of the public. The sorts of people who were usually against things asked Sonja questions that were designed to figure out which developer she secretly worked for. The developers she secretly didn't work for tried to figure out if the opposition had recruited her as a reverse-psychology trick. Whichever side they were on, bystanders wanted to know where she had come from and if she had a hidden angle. Sonja was a grad school dropout who had moved to the Bay Area because she was too embarrassed to move home. She was originally from Philadelphia and ended up in California after bailing out of the economics PhD program at Washington University in St. Louis. Technically speaking, she'd left with a master's, but school had not gone well, and because she was too proud to go back to Philadelphia after telling all her friends that she was off to become Dr. Sonja Trauss, she continued west to El Cerrito, a few miles north of Berkeley, to help her dad's cousin Myrna while she went through chemotherapy. It seemed like a good thing to do for family while she figured out what to do with herself, although that figuring was a lot easier when you had someone you could stay with. After Myrna's treatment, when Sonja went looking for work and an apartment, she joined the long line of people who'd discovered that the Bay Area was an easy place to get a job and an impossible place to afford rent. She and two friends got a West Oakland apartment that cost $3,000 a month, and Sonja started teaching math at a pair of across-the-bay community colleges for $20 an hour, before quitting to make $10.50 an hour at a nearby bakery that didn't involve commuting. It made sense: once she subtracted the cost of all the buses, trains, and ferries that sat between her place and the two teaching jobs, the bakery's take-home pay was the same. It was also depressing: working the night shift twisting pretzel dough was not what she'd expected to be doing at thirty. She'd never really had it together in the career department. Sonja graduated from Temple with a philosophy degree, then went to law school and dropped out. Later came the economist phase that sent her to the Midwest before she left. She'd been a bike messenger, a window washer, and a legal aide. She worked at a neighborhood association and answered the phones at a mortgage hotline in the throes of the financial crisis. Sonja liked reading and school, and her mom was a nurse and her dad was a lawyer, so the professional expectation was there. She just could never throw herself into the pursuit of a real job or credential the way she could so totally throw herself into the new hobbies and activist side projects she picked up whenever some problem or perceived injustice appeared along the way. This had started early. In seventh grade Sonja got sent to detention after she and a friend persuaded their science class to be dead silent for an entire class period to punish the teacher for telling the class to shut up. No questions, no greetings, nothing but eerie preteen stares for forty-five straight minutes. She'd been arrested for protesting a city plan to renovate a popular park so that it wouldn't be so attractive to skateboarders, and later spent a year organizing friends and sewing spandex costumes as part of the founding of a thirty-person comedy troupe, the  the Vaudevillains, that marched in the New Year's Mummers Parade. When the owner of a printing press across the street from her house in Philly started operating at all hours, Sonja turned it into a months-long war that began with a noise complaint to the city, escalated to more complaints about the city's lack of responsiveness, and ended after she started calling the owner of the printing press's cell phone and leaving messages that consisted of nothing but the sound of his press in the background while she held the phone out of her bedroom window, then kept calling, over and over, until the voice mail ran out of space and the owner asked a judge for a restraining order. In Philly, you could afford to be a marginally employed rabble-rouser because everything was cheap. Sonja had a cheap four-bedroom house that had open walls with exposed wiring, and she packed it with cheap artist and musician roommates who turned the place into a subcultural melting pot of punks, rappers, artists, zinesters, graffiti writers, Hollertronix DJs, and grad students. Years later, the people who lived and hung out there would describe it with strange vignettes, like how Spank Rock and Santigold once filmed a music video in the living room, or how there was this one period when Sonja got really into weight lifting and another when she was all about role-playing games, and how on occasion these interests would overlap and one day you'd come home and find her in a circle with a bunch of buff dudes drinking protein shakes while playing Call of Cthulhu. Bargain rent was the backdrop, the freedom that brought these scenes into existence. And it was 180 the experience of the Bay Area, where art seemed to be defined by political activism and the struggle of just being there. This was never more true than it was during one of the region's periodic tech booms. During the late 1990s dot-com boom, a group called the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project started encouraging residents of San Francisco's Mission District to vandalize parked SUVs on the logic that this would prompt young professionals to move to neighborhoods where their cars were safer (and the restaurants who catered to them to go out of business). Two decades later, when Sonja arrived at the beginning of a new boom tied to smartphones and social media, the yuppies had traded their SUVs for Ubers, so activists had instead taken to spray-painting the sidewalks with phrases like "Tech Scum" in nicely stenciled lettering. Things started escalating in 2013, when a group calling itself Heart of the City descended on the annual Pride Parade with a white bus emblazoned with a banner that read "Gentrification & Eviction Technologies OUT" (GET OUT) in Google font and coloring. Later that year, on December 9, 2013, the same group created a human blockade that prevented one of Google's employees-only shuttle buses from leaving a stop in the Mission en route to the company's headquarters, which sat thirty-five traffic-choked miles away in the Silicon Valley city of Mountain View. Anyone in search of a meme-ready example of the "barbell economy"-bulges of rich and poor separated by a rail of middle class-would have a hard time doing better than the Bay Area tech buses. They were hulking double-deckers with velvety seats and fast Wi-Fi and tinted windows to hide the private lives of software geeks. It wasn't just that tech jobs paid well and came with a ride to work. They had good health care and free lunch and gyms and laundry, and the people who got them were "talent." The spectacle of a bus full of talent being protested by several dozen people holding signs that said things like "Stop Evictions Now" and "Warning: Two Tier System" seemed to encapsulate America's vastly more unequal direction, and within a few hours the story, which had been heavily chronicled on Twitter, was splashed on newspaper home pages around the world. Sonja was plenty bothered by rising rents but had a different view on what the problem was. Having spent most of her life in Philadelphia, a city with blocks of empty property that had lost about half a million people from its 1950 peak, she knew what a troubled city looked like and was not going to blame anyone for moving to a region that to an outsider felt like an economic wonderland. It had been only a few years since the Great Recession. Most of America was still grappling with what the pundits called "a jobless recovery" (whatever that meant), while the Bay Area lived in a bubble of exuberance and self-satisfaction. Google had just revealed its self-driving car project, Facebook was gearing up to go public, and the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen was coining the phrase "software is eating the world." Sonja thought it was exciting to live in a place with so much optimism and easy employment, and when she heard people complain about how San Francisco was being murdered by runaway growth, she regarded them as ingrates who didn't know or didn't care what places like Philly and St. Louis looked like. So, no, the problem was not too many jobs, which is fundamentally what the tech protests were about. The problem, as Sonja saw it, was too little housing. She was two years removed from economics school. The law of supply and demand was still fresh in her mind. She'd also found it shocking just how flat Bay Area cities seemed to be given how much it cost to live there. There were some skyscrapers and a few Parisian-height neighborhoods around the core of San Francisco and Oakland, but most of the rest was single-family houses, and the region's two major commuter rail lines, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and Caltrain, were surrounded by empty fields and sprawl of the sort Northern Californians supposedly scoffed at LA and Orange County for. The mythical Silicon Valley, charter of America's future, was a land of unremarkable cul-de-sacs with unremarkable $2 million houses, surrounded by a bunch of office parks and strip malls that could be mistaken for the suburbs of Phoenix. And yet seemingly anytime someone talked about building a duplex or triplex, let alone a five- or six-story building, it was tarred for having too many shadows or being "out of character." Excerpted from Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America by Conor Dougherty All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.