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E.T. San Francisco

SF’s Housing Snag

E.T. versus City.

•••••••••• August 2023 ••••••••••

Pretend you're an alien (E.T.) come to earth in human form to live and learn and even to rationally guide humans who have lost their way. You land in San Francisco.

You learn that San Francisco has committed to develop 82,000 housing units in eight years. What to do? 

You’ve learned that to accomplish something, incentivize; reward it. Provide rewards for what is wanted. 

But, frown, you find that SF disincentivizes the development of housing, piling on rules and costs and meetings and permits. Surely this is not the way to accomplish the goal.

Okay, how much can SF spend to accomplish the goal? Let’s say $1.5 billion per year. That’s a lot, but the goal is said to be very important. Also, SF spends heavily for its failure to provide sufficient housing: it spends on homeless, mental illness, hospital, street clean-up, crime and more, in part because of the lack of housing. These expenditures can be saved, and the avoided costs will offset a portion of the $1.5 billion. 


This is San Francisco. When does the rational thing happen? We avoid that dullness; we’re here to celebrate the irrational and emotional, to tilt dramatically at windmills, and to experiment with the radical and risky.”

So, with $12 billion (1.5 x 8) and a goal of 82,000 units, SF’s got $146,000 per housing unit. SF offers that for each added housing unit. Incentive. Reward. Prize. That’s how humans motivate. Eliminate disincentives (punishment), supply incentives (reward). 

This is not rocket science, nor even difficult. E.T. could and would figure it out. So the question is: why hasn’t the City Family figured it out?

Well, of course, the City Family has. It’s not stupid. It chooses not to incentivize housing because it wants to play both sides. It’s for both sides, the Yimbys and the Neighborhood Protectors. Which are you for? Like Chevron, the City Fam says “Yes!” 

Perhaps this is the way of the 21st Century. Haven’t we all learned that the answer to a difficult choice is “Yes!” 

Even an extraterrestrial could figure out how to motivate humans to get what’s desired. And so can the City Family–if it truly wanted to. 

Got one old house on one lot? Put four housing units on it, and earn prize money of 3 x $146,000 — 438k. Or, you’re a developer with a property that now doesn’t pencil out. Build ten units and earn a prize of $1.46 million when the new units open. Just add an ADU (accessory dwelling unit) and earn $146,000 when the tenant moves in.

Even the housing nonprofit that now plays the affordable housing game — CEO with bloated salary, nonprofit in control of allocating housing occupancy — could play for prize-money in addition to its present games.

Now, your correspondent isn’t suggesting that the above might happen. This is San Francisco. When does the rational thing happen? We avoid that dullness; we’re here to celebrate the irrational and emotional, to tilt dramatically at windmills, and to experiment with the radical and risky. No, we won’t go all E.T., will we? 

Steve Lawrence is a Westside resident and SF Public Utility Commission stalwart. Feedback:

July 2023

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