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Demolishing the California Dream: How San Francisco Planned Its Own Housing Crisis

Today's housing crisis in San Francisco originates from zoning laws that segregated racial groups and income levels.
853 map of San Francisco by the U. S. Coast Survey

If you want to understand San Francisco’s self-inflicted housing crisis, look no further than the city’s very first zoning law, commonly known as the Cubic Air Ordinance, which set a disturbing standard for the city’s eventual missteps. Proposed in 1870, during a time of rampant real-estate speculation in a boomtown renowned for its lawlessness, the new law required boarding houses to offer a minimum amount of space per tenant. Officials claimed this would promote safer housing and improve residents’ quality of life, a noble cause for government intervention.But the law’s true purpose—to criminalize Chinese renters and landlords so their jobs and living space could be reclaimed for San Francisco’s white residents—set an ominous precedent. With the Cubic Air Ordinance, city leaders laid the groundwork for 150 years of exclusionary zoning or land-use policy designed to protect the status quo, rather than responsibly manage growth. Often fueled by racism and greed, the dark history of San Francisco urban planning is a story that’s still being told, its latest chapter being the city’s current housing crisis.

For visitors and locals alike, part of San Francisco’s allure is its seeming incongruity: Victorian houses perch on hills near glass skyscrapers, antique cable cars clank up the same streets where new technologies debut. Few realize how profoundly the city’s physical form has been shaped by its planning department, whose best intentions have been overshadowed by efforts to appease the city’s wealthy, well-connected homeowners.

“It is no accident that land is called real estate,” Kenneth T. Jackson wrote in his influential 1985 book Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanziation of the United States. “For many centuries, ownership of land has been not just the main but often the only basis of power.” This power was on full display earlier this year, during the debate over California Senate Bill 827, which would have “upzoned” or raised height limits near frequent transit stops. Many neighborhood groups, city councils, and politicians decried the loss of “local control”— “local” being a positive, vaguely artisanal-sounding buzzword used by city progressives who derided the bill as a “one-size-fits-all” solution that would hurt low-income residents.

However, American cities have consistently asserted so-called “local control” to increase inequality, establishing exclusionary zoning laws to prevent the construction of denser multifamily housing, redevelop low-income neighborhoods, and push poorer residents from their communities. In San Francisco, residents have exploited “local control” to make development as difficult as possible by lowering building-height limits, expanding zoning regulation, and increasing the veto power of homeowners. These privileged neighbors have often appropriated low-income residents’ fears of gentrification and eviction to block any new housing, despite the fact that studies have repeatedly shown that in markets with high demand, adding housing of any kind typically helps decrease displacement.