A stunning, deeply reported investigation into the housing crisis
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 history 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 teenaged 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 homeless housing on an assembly line.
Sweeping in scope and intimate in detail, Golden Gates definitively captures a fundamental political realignment in America as it plays out during a moment of rapid technological and social change.
While most blurbs seem to describe this book as a look at the past and present of the Bay Area's housing crisis, it seemed to me more like a modern history of YIMBYism in the Bay Area and how it relates to the history of housing policy, with glancing looks at the crisis from the perspective of its victims. The YIMBY arc, mostly that of Sonja Trauss, is the beginning, end, and the recurring through-line of the book. That seemed like an interesting and informative lens to me, so much so that I almost wish Dougherty had left out the reporting on displacement in East Palo Alto and Sister Christina the real estate mogul nun because without the same depth and historical context that he brought to YIMBY activism, they seemed like a bit of an afterthought. Those stories are important and need to be understood, and I found the magnitude of the rent hikes their protagonists were facing to be important, grounding context, but housing is an enormous issue and probably too big to cover comprehensively, so why not focus on one aspect? To represent a more comprehensive look at the housing crisis, I think he should have talked to homeless people, talked to people displaced from SF to Oakland who in turn displaced black people from Oakland to Antioch and further east, talked to people who have left the Bay Area all together for cities out of state. How did these folks get into these situations? Are there commonalities? What are the magnitudes? Similarly housing technology and the perspective of developers, particularly how non-profit developers work and why there aren't more of them, got limited treatment, despite the fact that they seem like critical players that we mostly just write off as being The Bad Guys.
Regardless, the book's strengths are solid: why don't we have enough housing in the Bay? What are people trying to do about it? What happens when the need to provide housing runs counter to the need to keep people in their homes? On these questions with no straightforward solutions, I think Dougherty provides a lot of context and useful, if complicating, examples grounded in places and issues all too familiar to those of us in the Bay Area.
I should also point out that as a New York Times reporter, Dougherty's work on housing is pretty available without having to read this book, and in addition to illustrative photos, his articles treat many of the subjects I wish he'd included here. That said, combining all the YIMBY chapters provides a nice, coherent history.
What other books should I read about housing? I should read Rothstein's The Color of Law. Matthew Desmond's Evicted was excellent and covered a lot of the ground missing from Golden Gates, albeit in a different part of the country. KQED's American Suburb podcast series was not a book, but was an excellent look of displacement from Oakland to Antioch.
Oh yeah, one more thing I wish had been treated more here: conflict between environmentalists and housing development, and trying to find the right level of compromise between open space preservation and providing housing. This kind of got reduced to "environmentalists did some good stuff then soured into a bunch stingy NIMBYies" even though there's a pretty rich history of "smart growth" advocacy among Bay Area environmental groups. I was particularly irked by a line in the book where Dougherty says Californian's housing crisis isn't for want of space or something, and I was like, yeah, all that open space is part of why this is still a great place to live, and every scrap of it that hasn't been completely screwed over by agriculture was fought over by environmentalists. It's not just empty space. There is no empty space. And yet we desperately need more housing and the cheapest places to build it are often on "undeveloped" land, so is it ever right to pave over some California Tiger Salamanders so people don't have to live in the street?
Oh my, what a Good Book this is if you are of the belief that housing is a human right, but confused about what to do about it in places where there is not enough land, no one seems to agree on what constitutes quality of life, how much is enough, capitalism reigns supreme and is essentially, unquestioned.
After 35 years in San Francisco, I sold my home at a 700% profit, after decades of enjoying the upper-middle-class welfare system that allowed me to deduct my mortgage interest, and my property taxes from my federal taxes (thank you very much). During those years, my beloved city became more famous for its vast and ever-growing homeless population (70% of whom were born in the Bay Area, and did not arrive from afar looking for handouts, but were evicted from their homes locally) than for its crab, drugs, or rock and roll. It became the center of tech, good jobs, and ridiculous housing costs. I have been a local YIMBY, fighting for in-law apartments in SFR zones, like next door - but also a NIMBY when the home across the street quadrupled in size, not to allow another family room to live, but to just Get F*cking Huge for the same 4 people. And as SF filled with rich techies, the artists and immigrants and diversity were priced out, evicted, made homeless or left. SF became mean. More of my friends needed to move in with me - some for well over a year - because, although employed, they were evicted so someone could profit. “...a shortage of housing and growth in high paying jobs leads to rising rents and home prices, leads to outrage about displacement, leads to hatred of developers and calls for more rent control...leads to class and race conflict as people huddle to their sides.”
Dougherty does yeoman’s work, presenting the difficulties of attempting solutions. I ended up more confused, in a good way. I grew to respect Scott Weiner (my state senator - since i still am a SF voter) - who i already loved for having the most effective, responsive staff of all my elected representatives - even more. His moniker as "pro-development” (which can be interpreted as pro-eviction in local SF parlance) became differently shaded as i began to understand the absolute need for more housing, and his creativity in attempting change in the greater Bay Area and California generally.
“How do you stoke the outrage of people who don’t live somewhere yet? And even if you do stoke their outrage, how do you change policy when most of those people can’t vote in the place that is refusing to build housing for them?” Take rent control. An excellent thing if you’re already living where you want to be, but since it decreases rental stock, it hurts future residents, right?
Homelessness used to be associated with cataclysms - by ups and downs in the economy. But now? “This new thing, this literal homelessness, seemed to have little to do with the number of jobs or the level of interest rates or foreign wars or bank runs, and instead served as the most extreme example of how brutal and unstable America...” (the USA) “..was becoming.”
And this summation of folks’ confusion: “... for people to consider what sort of cities they wanted to live in, what it really meant to be progressive, where their kids would live if there wasn't any new housing, how that housing would be built if people were always against it, the terrors of being a tenant, the realities of being a landlord, and the precious gift of knowing that your region's biggest problem was that it attracted so many hopeful people who believed it could be better, and needed a little space.”
Thinking about this needs rebooting how we think about so much.. “...it doesn’t affect our hunger to have someone else eating food at the same time we are. Contrast that with land, whose sustenance and enjoyment are closely tied to how many other people are using it. We inherently want to share space - up to the point we feel it's too crowded, a perspective that varies from person to person and is shaped heavily by when they arrived.” And, well, bottom line: “...a capitalism that creates a business model on eviction and hoemlessness…(is unlikely to)...make us all better off if it were allowed to fully run its course.”
I recently heard Raj Patel (the food activist) say that young people can more easily imagine the end of human life on earth, than an end to capitalism. As an official old person, me too. As possibilities disappear for most young folks, and corporations clearly run the world, it does seem hopeless. Trudeau wants to pipe tar sand oil through pristine(ish) Native American land and water, Biden wants to drill for more oil in the Gulf of Mexico - and they’re our left-oid leaders? We’re doomed.
In his Acknowledgements Dougherty captures how many of us feel - so happy to have lived there when we could openly love it, the sweetness, the generosity, the thrilling diversity, the adventures in art and food and music. And the heartbreak of that ending. The greed. The goodbyes. The homelessness.
“The Bay Area has been through quite a time these past years, and many of the things I loved about it have died. It’s sad, and I have some private angry thoughts about it. But it would have been all too easy, and cheap, to allow the priority of my own experience to act as a substitute for reporting on the complicated forces and long arc of decisions that allowed the housing crisis to happen, and what sorts of actions might realistically help solve it. Besides it was impossible for me to tell the stories of recent Bay Area transplants without thinking about my parents’ decision to leave Philadelphia for San Francisco on a permanent honeymoon in 1967, or how my life might have turned out if a couple of newlyweds with $500 hadn’t been able to find their first apartment and make the city and Bay Area home.” So well said.
Now i live 10,000 km away from San Francisco, in a new country that guarantees housing, has equally beautiful beaches, and exists at the same latitude as California. But it seriously lacks diversity. As human life’s chapter closes, this book provides tremendous insight into what we could have had, if not for greed.
Highly recommended if this - a roof over our heads - is something you care about.
Really enjoyed this – a narrative, journalistic overview of the housing crisis in California (and beyond)...wonk-y enough to shore up some of my basic knowledge of these issues and the history behind them, but peppered with plenty of characters and some surprisingly bracing commentary from Dougherty. A quick, informative, and very readable intro to a crisis that affects all of us.
I moved to the Bay Area five years ago and the region’s housing politics have mystified me. Is rent control good or bad? What the hell is Prop 13? What are people talking about when they demand “local control”? These questions bothered me because I consider myself politically savvy and even obsessed but I could not make sense of this issue just reading news reports and think pieces online.
No surprise, but it takes something book-length to even begin to unpack this complicated issue. And this book provides an excellent overview of the politics of housing, mostly focused on the Bay Area and California but with federal and national implications as well.
So all that’s to say that If you’re looking for a concise overview of this complex issue, Golden Gates is a must read. Having read this book I feel much more informed as an SF resident and voter. I know the background on the previous legislation and California history that led us to our present moment. I also understand the key figures and organizations who are leading the debates today.
No single book could ever provide all the solutions to such a complex issue, so don’t read this book if you’re looking for easy answers or a comforting roadmap out of this crisis. And don’t read it if you’re expecting the author to reaffirm your own views on housing since he is giving an overview of all the different sides and not advocating for any single solution.
A surprisingly engaging story about the push to build more housing. Traces the deep roots of the anti-development & NIMBY phenomenon, and then the story of the current YIMBY movement. Told through an interwoven set of individual narratives. Being close to this issue and knowing some of the people involved, overall it seems pretty on target to me. I thought it glossed over the actual gentrification/displacement distinction, and wish it had made a stronger point about how lack of housing is a root cause of displacement. Also I thought the epilogue was off-target, bringing in an odd libertarians-vs-the left framing, which is irrelevant when everyone involved here are basically some form of liberal Democrat. But on the whole, worth a read.
Dougherty is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal reporter who has been working on housing issues in America for quite some time now and this book is an excellent summary of the progress that is beginning primarily in the Bay Area of California. The YIMBY movement is grounded on the idea that there simply isn't enough housing to go around and the way to alleviate that is to build more housing. Sounds simple, right? Yet the difficulties arise quickly when confronted with NIMBY's and local policies that restrict the construction of new housing through delays and additional costs that no longer make is feasible. Dougherty primarily follows the YIMBY movement in the Bay Area by providing a brief history over the past several years along with commentary on some of the policy changes that have been attempted or enacted to allow for more housing to be built. This book was very interesting to me because, as a demographer in California, the shortage of housing is front and center when it comes to the analysis of demographics shifts in the state. As housing becomes more and more unaffordable, that will continue to drive more middle class families out the state. The author here is liberal, and the stories and people he tells and interviews are all primarily liberal as well. Due to this, the solution to the lack of housing that is presented in the book is the lack of density in the Bay Area. While this is certainly true in many places due to NIMBY restrictions, that only addresses half of the issues in the state. This strategy for higher density living also comes at a bad time when the COVID pandemic has shown the increased risk people take on by living closer together. The telework revolution that will likely take place in the next couple of years will also break down the argument that the solution we need is more high density living. The other half of the coin on housing issues that is ignored by the Left is the environmental constrain placed by climate change proponents that want to shut down all suburban and exurban expansions into the periphery. This belief falls a little flat when you learn that only 5 percent of the state is urbanized. Overall a very good book to those interested in housing both in California as well as in general. The conversation on the lack of new housing needs to be continued and this book helps with that conversation.
This is a fantastic book. Dougherty gives a fascinating account of California's housing crisis, with memorable characters and vivid storytelling. But what really impressed me about this book was its thoughtful, well-researched, and even-handed treatment of the economic and political issues underlying that crisis. True, the overall orientation of the book is very pro-development. The heroes are YIMBY (YES In My Backyard) activists who believe building more housing is the way to address problems of affordability and homelessness. But Dougherty gives fair hearing to anti-gentrification activists as well. And the chapter on rent control (which tells the story of California's failed Proposition 10) lays out the arguments both for and against the policy in a way that I think both sides would regard as fair and accurate. I teach courses in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, and this book would be a great supplementary text. Rent-seeking, supply and demand economics, the difference between good policy and good politics, the relative merits of vouchers, subsidies, rent-control and other policies at achieving the shared goal of more affordable housing - it's all in here, and presented in the context of one of the country's most pressing public policy issues. What I especially loved about this book, though, was the way it demonstrated how libertarian supporters of free markets / skeptics of government regulation can find common cause with supporters of social justice. Zoning and land use regulations in California are an example of crony capitalism at its worst - of the sordid partnership between state power and the economic power of the privileged classes to mutually support each other, to the detriment of the poor and disenfranchised. Left and right will still disagree on a lot when it comes to housing policy - taxes for new affordable housing and rent-control laws being two obvious examples. But Dougherty's book makes a strong case for YIMBYism as a cause with broad, bipartisan appeal. It's a movement that, despite the wonkishness of the issues involved, has attracted a surprisingly broad and devoted following. This book will at the very least help you to understand its appeal, even if not to embrace it yourself.
I would disagree with the author’s conclusion on capitalism, racism, and inequity but he does an excellent yeoman’s job of tracing, delineating and highlighting the various strands of the housing debate.
Though SF is a particularly virulent mix of left wing political groups, the author is fair and balanced in expressing the competing claims.
Conclusions: your faith in govt action should be sorely tested by this book. The ridiculous hyper factionalism, the torrent of regulations at all different levels, the inability to solve problems past the power point stage should be damning.
My take: the city of Houston has no zoning laws, zero. Last I heard it hadn’t sunk into the sea. How about some of these cities try to stop the sclerotic, growing bureaucratic rot and let a free people decide the shape of their city.
Also, this 400 years of growing prosperity the western world has experienced is from capitalism, and capitalism’s life blood is private property.
Rent control is an attack on that private property. No one has a right to someone else’s property. A renter has a lease as protection. If after the lease expires the owner chooses to raise the rent then pay it or move. Also, if the Bay Area cost of living is too high then move. The author memorializes his father but seems to forget his own dad exercised his own economic liberty and moved the family from philly to SF.
I wish I could give this book 4.5 stars. Golden Gates is a series of vignettes that together reveal the grand scope of the housing crisis in California. While it centers on the Bay Area, the challenges are really a magnified version of our national problems, made even more pressing in the Bay. I’m a housing policy wonk and I think that in a couple sections, the writing suffers from trying to be too accessible. But otherwise, really enjoyable, depressing, informative read.
I can’t recommend this book enough. I initially picked it up as a part of my desire to learn more about the deeper history of the city I no longer just temporarily call home, and it absolutely delivered. Housing is an issue that every single person in San Francisco is affected by, and one that not a single person in San Francisco has the complete answer for, and this book does a great job of untangling all of the different complexities that make this the case. Sharing these complexities in the form of personal stories that rotated through rather than sharing in one long narrative or even complete bite sized end-to-end chunks really kept the book moving; I definitely did not expect to read a book about housing and so enjoy the pace. (I’ll also note re: complexities that I’ve read other reviews that thought the author leaned too far YIMBY, but I personally thought he took a more balanced approach as he definitely didn’t hold back in describing all of their failures and flaws). I’ve known that pretty much every election ends up boiling down to housing as the Great Divide, but this book gives deep historical insight into how and why that’s the case, which was super helpful as — as the book mentions — politics in SF can be so incestuous that it’s hard to keep track of who aligns with what if you don’t know their full backstories. In any case, this is another one that I’ll be thinking of a lot even after I’ve set it down, and while it may resonate the most with other San Franciscans, would still very much encourage readers from other cities to do the same.
This book did a good job at firing me up to be a YIMBY (yes in my backyard) i.e. the build anything, everything, just fucking build, we-are-so-fucking-desperate camp.
I also have a better understanding of SF politics. However, I found something about Conner's writing style impossible to stay interested in for 200+ pages. I think he would have benefited from playing around with the form more (harness a little Gladwell), editing out some of the backstory (I don't give a fuck about the childhood of the 3rd random white man we are introduced to), and providing a fresh angle to compare (i.e. a chapter on an international housing success story and failure).
Like Randy Shaw's Generation Priced Out, this books is about the housing crisis in northern California. and about the efforts of the Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) movement to increase housing supply . But while Shaw's book is a polemic, this book is a work of journalism, describing some activists and their points of view rather than making a detailed argument. Some chapters are primarily about the YIMBY movement, but one is about the efforts of suburban Hispanics to prevent increases, and others are about city planners who are pro-YIMBY but who want to appease their town's homeowners. Another chapter explains the roots of the region's unwillingness to allow new housing; as inflation made homes more expensive in the 1970s, homeowners realized they were sitting on a gold mine, and became afraid new housing would threaten this status quo. In addition, environnmentalism led to a mass phobia of development. Finally, Proposition 13 (a 1970s law limiting property taxes) reduced cities' incentive to allow new houses, since new houses no longer meant rising property tax revenues.
Dougherty also explains the special-interest politics that slows down the housing production process: layers of government review mean that unions can bargain with developers to hire more types of union workers per project, and community groups of all types can bargain for more concessions. For example, unions sometimes oppose modular housing, because even if factories pay union wages, they might not employ as many different types of workers represented by as many different types of unions.
Excellently written. I likely know more about housing policy than the average Joe, thanks to reporting on it for a good while now, but I think this is a really accessible book even if you know nothing. It's engaging and entertaining. It has a strong point of view convincingly told. I'm grateful for this context about housing fights elsewhere in the US because I know I'll be reporting on housing policy in Cincinnati for years.
Way too many highlights to include them all. Here are a couple:
"Affordable housing shortages brought on by NIMBYism are the result of a mistaken belief that a society can grow even as its neighborhoods look exactly the same."
"...these cities effectively opted out of paying for expensive social services by zoning out poorer people. A city that is run primarily to reduce costs is a city that does everything it can to draw in things and people that generate the most taxes while keeping out people who are likely to need affordable homes or financial help."
"There’s a good deal of mythos around the idea that America is an “ownership society,” and an important part of maintaining that mythos is a politics that regards [a] request to build public housing to alleviate crowding as a communist plot yet considers the federal government greasing the sale of single-family houses as free-market forces at work."
A worthy read detailing a number of the factors leading to the housing crisis, focusing largely on the Bay Area but touching on California as a whole and even the rest of the United States at times.
I'd be interested to hear the take of someone who hasn't spent time in the Bay Area, as the book follows issues in a number of Bay Area communities (Oakland, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Lafayette). Case in point: There's a new building going up next to the Del Norte Bart station in Richmond, built by Factory OS, a company featured in the book, so the book has an added layer of relevance to me as an East Bay reader.
Overall, it helps to put in perspective the challenges of building new housing and how decades of failures to meet housing needs have lead to the housing crisis as it is today, giving a nice foundation in the developments leading to the current situation, stretching all the way back to the Depression and post-World War II boom.
I experienced it as an audio book read by the author. It's pretty good for an author-read audiobook. I hope his voice change for certain characters does them justice.
This book is an informative and engaging read that will be enjoyable for die-hard YIMBYs / HousingTwitter veterans and housing newbies alike. In one chapter I learned that most of today’s debate was anticipated 40-50 years ago when the decisions preceeding it were made, but many prescient voices were ignored. “The Environmental Protection Hustle” called out environmental objections to infill as encouraging sprawl. In another I learned that greedy real estate speculators are not just a stereotype, with explicit investment strategies including lovely euphemisms like “re-tenanting.”
I really appreciate his ability to pull together big policy ideas and great human stories.
Timely commentary on housing crisis in bay area (and other cities) that holds no blue or red color. Speaks about pure tribal instincts to keep housing segregated play what role in policymaking and how it affect lives of those who cannot afford housing. Also adds commentary about power of markets and anticipated role of governments. Due to covid, workforce is going remote and people are leaving expensive cities in hordes in the search for affordable living. This would serve as wake up call to some and abolish single family housing regulations.
I think this is a must-read for anyone who is currently living in or is thinking about living in the SF Bay Area. I think many of the cautionary tales are applicable to other metropolitan areas like NYC as well. The author does an excellent job of story telling that really convinces you how all the stakeholders make housing policy so complex and thorny.
This book was rather too simplistic and limited in scope, as it fell back to trope-y personal story reporting, which, while poignant, is entirely too specific. I felt like the author attempted to use the Bay Area as an example of the US-wide housing crisis, which failed mostly because there is no way to make one area representative of a nationwide problem with strikingly different causes, demographics, political battles, and financial issues to easily sort. I am not overly fond of personal stories such as what Doughtery utilizes here. They tend to ignore larger socio-structural issues, but also ignore or under-emphasize the questionable choices made by the person being profiled. It is entirely too easy to find an ideal case for sympathetic reporting, but what if I fail to sympathize? I often find people blame "the system" when their own choices are less than stellar. (Yes, the system is rigged for the wealthy, that is hardly new. Whence your poor choices?!?) Capitalism is absolute fucking hell and should be pitched in the refuse bin posthaste. The housing crisis will never be "solved" as long as current institutions of control by white, straight, propertied males maintain their positions. And as long as so many others not of that group cannibalize their humanity to join it, things will only get worse. This book's only value seems to be garnering sympathy for those disadvantaged by the systems and those running them by "getting personal". I have seen/read/heard enough of these and tire of them greatly. When citizens accept that the solution to the housing problem is revolting against Capitalism and replacing it with something more just and humane and community-oriented and inclusive of the many, THEN we will have change. Until then, books such as this just retell an oft-told tale. And poorly at that.
The housing crisis is a slow-moving disaster that's been eclipsed for now by the Covid-19 epidemic, the BLM movement, and the opioid epidemic, among dozens of other crises the media feeds us.
I've been lucky living in the Midwest to have been able to find affordable housing my entire life, and this book was an eye-opener to see what others are facing in large cities all over the country. Conor Dougherty tells the story of the San Francisco area, ground zero of America's housing crisis. He interviews several of the main players in efforts to create more housing and shows what a huge, complex problem it is with this book.
The home that the Tanner's lived in on the show Full House now goes for about $6 million- a bit above the level of most middle-class single parents like Danny Tanner. Rents in the bay area have climbed near $3,000- $4000 per month, and for those not employed in the high-paying tech industry, they are impossibly high. California has over 100,000 homeless at any one time, and has multiple families sharing houses and working multiple jobs just to pay the rent. During the age of Covid, those pressures have only gotten worse.
The star of this book is a housing advocate, Sonja Trauss, who goes from a lonely questioner at public meetings to a leader of a movement to build more housing units in her area. Dougherty follows her progress and the obstacles that block her way, as well as some other advocates for alleviating the housing crisis in the bay area.
The book introduces the term YIMBY, which is the counter to the NIMBY set of opponents to any and every housing proposal. People who already have housing that they are happy with will more often than not block proposals that threaten to transform their neighborhood. This is the not in my back yard (NIMBY) philosophy. YIMBY says yes to building, especially larger, taller structures near jobs and transportation that can hold more people.
America's housing since the end of World War 2 has been centered around the single-family home idea, which led to suburbs and sprawl of multiple housing developments. That all peaked in the 20th century and the housing industry hasn't kept pace since then - thus severe affordable housing shortages in our largest cities. We are over 2 million units short in the US, and more new households are being formed every year.
Because of rising inequality, much of the new home building today is for bigger homes for the wealthy. Salaries are not keeping up with the rising cost of renting or buying a home. Thousands of people in California are living in their cars and RV's, or putting up with 4 hour or longer commutes. New housing units need to be built near where the jobs are,and in San Francisco that hasn't been happening.
Golden Gates tells the fascinating story of how good people like a Catholic nun who became a real estate mogul made a difference, and how well-meaning politicians have tried to make a difference. It's a tale of small cities and their restrictive zoning laws and protective tribes that keep things from getting better, and of how a 1978 ballot initiative named Proposition 13 made things harder for everybody.
Probably the best thing I found from this book was its assertion that the housing industry hasn't progressed in productivity in 50 years. Homes today are mostly built the same way they always have. One house at a time, one contractor at a time, tons of inspections and building codes, and not much innovation. Dougherty talks with a home building factory that would cut down the costs significantly, which is one of the biggest roadblocks to affordable housing. Money is being spent- just not very efficiently.
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out in the future. Rent controls are good temporarily, but how do you keep landlords in business? New construction is good, but how do you get the right mix and make the zoning zombies happy? Subsidies are helpful for those who are the poorest of the poor- but how do you find the money?
If you have a roof over your head tonight- give thanks. A lot of people don't. And that needs to improve. Dougherty's book is an important discussion of this crisis, a tale of people on the front lines trying to help, and some suggestions on how to make a difference.
"Patterned on the American mind, in ways we rarely stop to notice, are layers of zoning and land-use rules that say what can be built where. They are so central to how American cities look and operate that they have become a kind of geographic DNA that forms out opinion of what seems proper and right....In America, zoning was often used to raise or at least protect property values, and over time this cause people to see office and residential neighborhoods as rigidly distinct and to treat single-family homes and apartment buildings as alien forms of living...Does zoning protect property rights or restrict them? Does it promote economic freedom or hamper it? Is it capitalist or socialist? There is no single answer, which is why zoning says a lot about who we are and who we are becoming. At least at the local level, zoning is democracy, and democracy is zoning."
A few years ago I was talking to someone and I said, if you told me I had to move to San Francisco tomorrow I would not be excited I would be very upset and have no desire to go. Mostly because of what I know of the housing market, paying too much to live too far away. No thanks. It's less glamorous in the rust belt Midwest, but also I might be able to afford to buy a home someday. This book just confirmed that feeling.
It's also a very readable discussion of developments in California specifically that lead to a housing crisis, and the reasons why there is no clear path out of that crisis. It covers both the NIMBY and YIMBY contingents, as well as other political factions. It's written journalistically, so we come to know the personalities behind some of these fights, in a way that is sharp and well observed (like, “To watch San Francisco politics is to watch a pair of twins argue passionately about which is better looking and has superior DNA.”).
Conor Doughtery's "Golden Gates" analyzes the housing crisis in the Bay Area (and, through it, the country writ large) through the stories of different advocates (often accidental advocates/activists) trying to tackle the complexity or the immediacy of the crisis.
Given the ways in which fights around housing in some cities can often turn into flame wars that mask significant areas of agreement, I appreciated Dougherty's attention to nuance. He is broadly sympathetic to the YIMBY crowd in the Bay Area, but he is willing to point out their blindspots -- the self-defeating arrogance, racism, whiteness, and quickness to smear tactics that undermine their ability to build coalitions in support of an "every tool in the toolbox" approach to the housing crisis. If a city is growing, it will need more housing, but the promise of the market's lowering rents through new construction can take years (perhaps decades) to fully manifest, and the YIMBYs, who want to block the ways in which affluent homeowners often exploit every community process available to defeat new housing projects, have failed to build real trust with low-income communities of color whose communities have a history of being sidelined in process.
Dougherty's book demonstrates just how complicated the process can be to build new housing or to take it off the market.
The book is worth reading because Dougherty's a good storyteller and raises a number of important points, but two quotes capture the thrust of the argument:
“If there is a rhyme to postwar history, it’s that whatever system we use, and whatever level of government is orchestrating it, when we think of cities as buildings and markets, and not collections of people, we are doomed to make the same mistakes.”
“There is no way to rectify a housing shortage other than to build housing, and there’s no way to take care of people whom the private market won’t take care of other than subsidies or rent control, or both. The details are democracy.”
That last point is so important. Building more housing and protecting current tenants need not be pit against each other as goals. Affordable, thriving, diverse communities will need both (plus a lot of investment).
Golden Gates educates us on the housing crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dougherty dives into the muck of local politics, mostly over the last decade:
- San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation (SFBARF), it's history and involvement, which leads to... - Sonja Trauss running for district 6 board of supervisors, in the "(Yes/Not) in my backyard" aka yimby vs nimby fight - Relationships between renters, developers, and local politicians, with a particular focus on... - Scott Wiener and his activity in the state senate for district 11 - The politicization of low income housing development
I enjoy Dougherty's writing. It's very informative, and it's at a level that's the level of specificity for both the bay area active resident or the random citizen. I also really enjoy his reading (I got this as an audiobook), and hearing him describe David Chiu's speeches was very funny, and he has a lot of inflection to make this an easier listen.
My problem's with this book are represented in the title. The bay area housing problem is not representative of the US housing issue. In fact, the bay area is one of the least representative due to the extremely high speed of property value increases due to the demand in software engineering in the area, unique zoning laws, and a political body that is more organized than the average. Although the book doesn't work extensively to tie in the concepts to American housing on the whole, I think the attempts to do that don't make sense here, and also, national efforts on housing are not discussed whatsoever.
Then, the book also attempts to incorporate the bay area homelessness issue, which nominally seems related, but is definitely not. Dougherty states himself in the book that homelessness is a result of mental health, disability, and substance abuse. Why are we discussing the bay area homeless in a educational book on housing policy then? There is only a surface level connection between the concepts. The bay area homeless need a different sort of legislative help altogether.
Lastly, the book could have picked a couple of the narratives better. There was a mix of personal narratives, locals that Dougherty has us meet through the writing, but I actually disagree with including too many personal narratives for the housing issue, because unlike other recent issues-oriented books that have injected personal narrative into their story well, like Dopesick by Beth Macy, or Evicted by Matthew Desmond, increases in rent price don't conjure an emotional response in readers.
This book would've flowed better if it was focused purely on the bay area housing local political fighting. Seems dry, but people who are trying to read this book are already interested in that subject, and Dougherty has showed ability to make that subject entertaining.
New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty takes San Francisco as his lens and looks at one of the biggest problems we face in this country: that of homes for everyone to live in. It is a hugely complicated economic issue and he lays it out, almost in story form, clearly and thoughtfully. It's a marvelous read, funny at times, with many startling moments for those of us just beginning to think more about the subject. This reader learned a ton about politics. Recommended for sure, it doesn't matter what city you live in. I loved this quote from his epilogue: "There's no easy remedy or off-the-shelf ism for solving problems that cut to the very nature of being human. And yet we see through the lens of our biggest and most complicated cities that a lot of things get worked out, messily and imperfectly, once we accept that the hardest problems are everyone's to solve, and actually decide to try."