Local author Randy Shaw maps how a generational divide in progressive cities is shutting out a younger population

By Mark Noack

Original 650 Illustration by Kaz Palladino/Awkward Affections

If you’re looking to point fingers, the Bay Area’s housing crisis would appear to have no shortage of blame to go around.

There are the neighbors who fiercely oppose low-income apartments. And the cities that cling to a halcyon past of suburbia. There are developers who create new housing only for the highest earners, and journalists who are guilty for sometimes blowing petty grievances out of proportion, ignoring the larger housing shortage. Throw in feckless politicians, government funding cuts and poor legislation, and you now have a full cast of villains.

But what if the real story of the housing crisis actually comes down to a conflict playing out between generations? Author Randy Shaw makes the case that the severe housing shortage happening in California and a host of other U.S. cities can be pinned squarely on the baby boomer generation.

(Author Image via University of California Press)

In his new book, Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America, Shaw argues that boomer homeowners have severely restricted secure housing for younger generations, particularly for millennials. He believes this generational divide hangs over the housing scarcity in countless municipalities throughout the country, but it is particularly pronounced in large left-leaning cities along the coast.

“When did it become acceptable for America’s politically progressive and culturally diverse cities to price out the non-rich?” he writes.

In contrast to many other post-mortem accounts of the Bay Area’s housing woes, Shaw does not agree that gentrification and steep rent increases are inevitable outcomes. He presents a variety of measures that cities could have taken to preserve their working and middle-class populations.

Shaw, who lives in Berkeley, has been involved in Bay Area housing politics for nearly 40 years and co-founded the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and the San Francisco news site Beyond Chron. He will be speaking about his new book at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 24, at Mountain View’s Books Inc.

(The following Q&A interview of Shaw was lightly edited for style and clarity.)

(Book cover via University of California Press)

What led you to pursue this book?

It was really the Ghost Ship fire where 36 people died. I was stunned. Oakland used to be the affordable alternative to San Francisco, but now Oakland has even priced out the bohemians and artists. The fact that so many people were living in an unsafe situation said to me that there’s something seriously wrong with how our progressive, blue cities are dealing with their housing policies. The same problem could be said for San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin or Portland.

Why are rents spiking across the Bay Area and across the U.S.?

All these cities have similar exclusionary zoning policies. What I mean is in most of these cities, you can’t get an apartment building built in many if not most neighborhoods. And if you can’t build apartments, then you can’t build housing for the working or middle-class.

All these cities artificially restrict their housing supply. This drives up rents and home prices. Neighborhood groups in most of the over dozen progressive cities I write about in the book fight vigorously to prevent new housing from getting built. And they have long been successful at the expense of pricing out a new generation.

You describe the Bay Area’s housing crisis as largely being a generational struggle between the boomers and millennials. How did you come to this conclusion?

In virtually every city I write about, it’s the boomer homeowners who bought homes when it was cheaper who now want to prevent new renters from living there. A lot of these neighborhoods now have this incredible anti-renter bias. The irony is that apartments were built in these neighborhoods prior to zoning changes starting in the 1960s, and it wasn’t perceived that they were hurting the neighborhood character.

Today, a millennial in San Francisco has to pay $3,500 for a one-bedroom apartment, and that’s on top of their student-loan debt. So it’s really become a generational conflict, and it’s true for almost every city I came across.

Why do you believe boomers resist new housing development?

Boomers are looking out for their self-interest. They don’t want more cars parking on the street or more people. They engage in this make-believe thinking that if they prevent people from living in their neighborhood then they don’t have to be concerned with where those priced out end up living. Even if that means a long daily car commute to their jobs.

That’s the hypocrisy, especially in cities like Berkeley. Most residents consider themselves environmentalists but they don’t account for the long car commutes they are causing by denying infill housing. One hundred-twenty thousand people commute daily from Sacramento to the Bay Area, as they have moved 90 minutes away from their jobs in search of housing they can afford. Yet many boomer environmentalists do not account for these anti-green impacts of opposing infill housing; they feel that as long as they drive a Prius they are doing their part.

(Via Getty)

How did it happen that U.S. cities in the 1970s almost simultaneously began restricting new housing?

There’s two reasons. Many neighborhoods created zoning barriers to non-white families after strict racial restrictions were struck down by courts in the 1960s. For example, Austin changed zoning to limit development to large lot sizes so that African-Americans couldn’t use their G.I bill to buy property there.

The second reason was a backlash to the urban renewal projects that bulldozed neighborhoods in the 1950s and ’60s. It led activists to demand a say in what happened in their neighborhoods, which as I describe in the book was a very good thing at the time. Looking back now, in Berkeley, which passed the nation’s first Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance in 1973, residents said they didn’t want “ticky-tacky apartments.” Today, neighborhood “input” is used to prevent any apartments from being built.

There’s a number of new top-down remedies to the housing crisis being proposed by the state — the CASA Compact or mandatory approval for housing near transit — what’s your take?

Localities have failed to alter the exclusionary zoning laws that are so destructive to the younger generation. Given that situation, I would say the state has no choice but to come in. When I hear localities complain about losing local control, my response is that this local control is worsening our housing and homelessness crisis.

In Silicon Valley, you have many cities that approve very little housing while still adding thousands of jobs. They’re not making any effort to prepare for where these workers are going to live, and it’s caused housing prices to rise in San Francisco and Oakland. When cities continually export their housing demand to other cities, the state has to step in.

What role do you see for development fees, zoning restrictions and environmental rules in restricting housing construction?

I wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle about how the city’s housing approval process delays and even kills many projects. The process takes years and subjects builders to multiple public approval hearings before very political bodies. Any member of the public can pay $617 to delay a project for discretionary review, and they don’t have to even have to live nearby. In Seattle, projects do not require Planning Commission or City Council approval; it gets projects approved twice as fast and Seattle builds twice as much housing.

But don’t these fees and regulations make housing more expensive to build?

Anytime you set financial exaction without a proper study, it could be a wrong number. And changing economic times can require an increase or decrease in exaction amounts. Some believe inclusionary housing — which mandates a percentage of affordable units in private developments — discourages housing. But as noted above, the approval process and rising construction costs are far more impactful. I promote inclusionary housing in “Generation Priced Out” because such laws give the working and middle-class their only chance to live in high-opportunity, already gentrified neighborhoods. This promotes diversity and inclusion, which progressive cities say they support.

Why is this issue important for you?

As a boomer who supports more infill housing, I’m in the minority. Unfortunately, many boomers that were able to afford cities now deny similar opportunities to a new generation. There’s something really wrong when teachers cannot afford to live in the cities where they teach, and where working people must commute long hours because they are priced out of cities with the best jobs. We have given homeowners way too much power to control what happens in their neighborhoods. My hope is that boomers increasingly realize they can’t say ‘not in my backyard’ without very negative environmental implications; many are also realizing that banning housing prevents their children and grandchildren from living nearby.

I wrote “Generation Priced Out” because I feel that cities are failing young people by maintaining elitist zoning policies that reduce rather than expand housing affordability. Cities can open up housing opportunities for the working and middle-class — it is a question of political will.

Randy Shaw will be speaking about his new book at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 24, at Mountain View’s Books Inc.

Email Mark Noack at [email protected]

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