Agitating for housing, not against tech, is the solution to San Francisco’s housing crisis

Posted by tobymuresianu on Apr 8, 2014 in Politics, Tech, Thoughts, Travel

Housing prices in San Francisco are insane, and it’s become a large problem. Yet the root cause is that San Francisco is great, and one of the side effects is that people want to move there. As problems for cities go, this is a good one to have.

Where it gets hairy, though, is that while 75,000 people have moved in in the last 10 years, only 17,000 new housing units have been built in the same time. Supply and demand being a phenomenon not unique to San Francisco, the result has been skyrocketing rents, and longtime residents (longtime in San Francisco meaning more than 3 years) getting displaced.

To put it in perspective; when I lived in the city as a semi-professional comedian and app developer (or if you prefer to say it, marginally employed person) in 2009, I paid $800/month for a room at 17th and Dolores that, based on craigslist, now fetches closer to $2000. I won’t tell you how many casino lounges you have to perform in to make that, but it’s a lot.

But I’m a bad financial example (sorry, Mom and Dad). My friend has a decently paying tech job that she’s been at for a few years. She was told that the rent in her shared single-family home in a non-central neighborhood would go from $3500 to $5600. With apartments on craigslist getting hundreds of replies, costing thousands, or charging $250 to live an hour away and sleep with the landlord, she may have to move to a different city. This would be a loss for her and the San Francisco (not to mention the landlord). Not only has she built a life here while being financially responsible, she also runs popular comedy shows and volunteers. Her roommates are similarly financially stable and do things that help make San Francisco an interesting and attractive place to live, but are now struggling to live there themselves. It would be a shame if San Francisco stopped being a diverse and vibrant place, but instead a San Francsico-style theme park where you can kind of experience what the culture was like while paying $6 for a (fair-trade) soda.

Everyone agrees action is needed. What’s been disappointing to me, though, that most of the ire I’ve seen has been focused on the most recent arrivals in the city – tech workers who are able to afford the increased rent.

They are an easy target (we’re dorks), but it’s an unfortunate approach for a number of reasons. One, because it ignores the root of the problem – an artificially constrained housing supply. Two, it at times takes the tone of a simple anti-immigration platform that undermines the tolerance that San Francisco supposedly embodies. And three, if it by some miracle stopgap measures succeed in curbing the growth of the city, it will be at the expense of an opportunity for San Francisco to become a greater than it already is.

First, why is housing construction artificially restrained? For starters, it often takes 10 years for new housing to be approved in San Francisco, and it can be arbitrarily altered by a diverse rainbow of public hearings and planning commissions, with the result being housing policy “based not so much on our city’s dire housing needs but on who can turn out the most people at a public hearing”. In addition to this slowing the supply to a trickle, it also increases the expenses developers take on to build new buildings, which will inevitably result in higher prices when/if the buildings are actually built. The situation is exacerbated by an elevated rate of vacant housing stock whether due to regulations or other reasons but a lack of physical supply is still the greatest long-term cause.

New construction is always something that people moan and clamor about and then forget about after they are actually built. In fact, these housing restrictions have been in place since the 1980s and originated with resistance to skyscrapers that now make up downtown on the grounds they’d spoil the view, though these are now completely accepted if not iconic parts of the skyline.

The good news here is that because the situation with housing permits is so subject to public opinion, if San Francisco activists were advocating for increased construction, they would be able to change things for the better. Unfortunately, they haven’t been. I think this is for two reasons – a deeply intellectual assumption that rich people must be the source of all problems, and because new transplants to the city are simply an easier target than the parts of their own community who are resisting the necessary changes.

So instead activists have focused energy on undermining the Google Bus on dubious environmental grounds (because obviously mass transit is terrible for the environment) and harassing its founder by ripping off Fight Club in order to try and make the city less hospitable for tech workers. Being anti-immigration is the last sentiment you’d expect from San Franciscians. Yet stereotyping the tech community, lamenting how they are taking over neighborhoods and how the “real” San Francisco is getting lost are all sentiments that seem at home in any anti-immigration campaign.

Ignored is are the facts that we as citizens have the freedom to move wherever we want and the basic hypocrisy that all San Francisco residents immigrated at some point, often over economically-rooted anti-immigrant sentiment. Also, this protectionism diminishes the very real contributions of the tech community to San Francisco – where it has lead to world-class technologies, and where many are interesting members of society who also bring money into the city that helps fund social programs and small businesses. Most cities bend over backwards to attract well-paying jobs and citizens who hold them for the money they bring into the community and public coffers. It’s surprising how many San Franciscans best case take them for granted and worst case treat them with suspicion.

Finally, resisting construction robs San Francisco of an opportunity to become greater than it is. San Francisco is a case study for why liberal capitalism can work. You have educated people who move to a city, create successful businesses, and are willing to pay high taxes and create a good social support network. Despite right-wing talk nationally of cutting taxes and social programs to boost the economy, SF has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. If it was allowed to grow, with fair and standardized requirements for mixed income or eco-friendly construction, it could be even more of an example for other cities to emulate. And if you think San Francisco is a great city – as I do – isn’t it selfish to keep it for yourself, rather than wanting other people to move there and enjoy it, simply because you moved there first?

Further, while the specter of inequality features prominently in much writing about the housing situation, a construction boom would bring with it lots of construction jobs that would benefit the working class and the businesses they support. If the goal is honestly to help the working class, and not just try to appropriate them as moral justification, a curb in construction that pushes rent prices higher for cosmetic purposes does much more harm than good. I know it’s shocking to think that people who dress up in lycra circus suits to block the Google Bus might not actually be that connected to the working class, but I have my suspicions.

It is not manifest destiny for San Francisco activists to complain about inequality and then when the city becomes increasingly gentrified anyway blame the powerful while ignoring the fact they could have prevented it. The truth is that construction is beneficial and vilification of tech workers isn’t. It’s my hope that sooner rather than later consensus becomes that allowing the city to grow is the best solution to the housing crunch, and that not only is gentrification reduced because of it, but hostility and inequality are as well.

And you know what? People can still make fun of tech workers. As people who grew up on math team, we’re used to it.


Which arguments about Healthcare.gov are wrong

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 25, 2013 in Politics, Tech, Thoughts

For the record, as an engineer with (an unfortunate amount of) experience with delayed software projects:

Using a “tech surge” to fix the problems with HealthCare.gov is a terrible idea, and every time I read about them “shipping some of the best and brightest minds” to Washington to fix these problems I cringe.

The more significant reason it’s a terrible idea is that you can’t solve software problems by adding more people or money. This is most famously illustrated by tech industry gospel The Mythical Man Month – a book describing the phenomenon of how adding people to a delayed project makes it more delayed.

Basically, what ends up happening is that you pull programmers who are building the product off and have them “bring up to speed” people that have just been brought in. They spend time training them, and then fixing the problems that the new people create, rather than working on the actual delayed product. The more people you add, the more overhead, and the less efficiently the project goes.

That said – I’m sure the experts brought in to fix the problem are aware of this phenomenon – and hopefully will be able to work around it, or maybe it’s all a bunch of hoopla to buy the developers time. At the end of the day – this product is just a website. It should not take that long to build. Obviously there’s important back-end stuff happening, but apparently that’s been functioning okay as the state exchanges have been using it.

You’ll hear excuses like “tech projects are often delayed” and “many websites have glitches” or “the traffic was more than what was estimated.” These are all ridiculous. Yes, tech projects are often delayed and time costs poorly estimated. However, this project is cost $170 million. $170 million. For a website. A website. $170 million. And Sebelius told the Wall Street Journal that ideally they should have had five years to work on the website. If every website took five years and $170 million to develop, there would be like three of them. No, designing an enterprise-class website is not easy, but the truth his that thousands of enterprises do more complicated things every day and manage to pull it off. As did the 14 states that managed to build their exchanges correctly.

People are saying Sebilius should be fired. I don’t know how responsible she is personally or not. It’s so easy to point fingers and I don’t think you should fire people just for vengeance.

I can’t say what the particular causes are – people are citing things like late requirement changes, which are the bane of many a software engineer, but in a well managed project should be prevented from happening.

But at the end of the day people are responsible for this. Anyone who didn’t raise alarm bells at a $170 million price-tag for developing a website should be fired, twice if possible. Obama and Sebilius both should have been told, if they weren’t, about the current status and risk associated with the project before launch and given the chance to delay it; and if they weren’t, whoever was responsible for not telling them should be held responsible. People who are bad at their jobs should not be given the chance to do new ones. I want to say that CGI Federal should not get more government contracts, but regardless after this debacle I’m not sure government agencies will be lining up to get some of that sweet HealthCare.gov magic.

Anyway, just wanted to share some thoughts I had – I had a little time to kill while I was trying to buy health insurance.

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