The generational feud behind the housing crisis

New book questions boomers' role in restricting housing

If you're looking to point fingers, the Bay Area's housing crisis has plenty of blame to go around.

There are the neighbors who fiercely oppose low-income apartments. And then there are the cities that cling to a halcyon past of suburbia. There are the developers who create new housing only for the highest earners. Sure, even journalists 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.

Randy Shaw
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 playing out in California and a host of other U.S. cities can be pinned squarely on the baby boomer generation.

In his new book, "Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America," Shaw argues that boomer homeowners are the main culprits in severely restricting housing opportunities for the 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.

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 came 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 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. "

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 its 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."

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86 people like this
Posted by Nihilist
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jan 20, 2019 at 10:57 am

What a pile of self righteous bull manure.

41 people like this
Posted by Common sense
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jan 20, 2019 at 11:24 am

Common sense is a registered user.

Given that the "generational" housing-access disparity has been a well-established cliché hereabouts for several years already, inevitably someone would codify it in a book like this. I just wish the author's goal had been to truly, searchingly, examine the familiar notions and assumptions, not just reiterate and rationalize them. In fact, some of the most thoughtful critiques I've seen of the "generational" complaint itself have recently come from -- wait for it -- clear-eyed millennials, not content to complacently accept and repeat appealing-looking clichés. But I guess this book's evident cliché-mongering tone was inevitable. Writing by a self-appointed housing activist, who already writes tendentiously on these issues in his blog (itself, avowedly created from impatience with the SF Chronicle not spinning things as Shaw would like) holds little promise of objectivity.

Just a few examples of typical unexamined notions in the generational-housing-grievance paradigm:

- Spin language, about "cities pricing out" residents, of developers or older residents orchestrating a situation, all deliberately ignores a core element of the reality (as a really comprehensive, responsible analysis could never do): Those housing costs don't rise in parts of the US lacking the intense population inflow, which reflects job creation. I don't know if Shaw looked seriously (it seems unlikely, from the interview) at groups like "Palo Alto Forward" that complain about housing costs, yet in the next breath advocate more job growth. His interview comments on "rent spiking's" causes ignore the demand factor utterly.

- "Millennials" mostly lack the historical perspective to know that Bay-Area cities with job growth were already becoming shockingly unaffordable 40 years ago. In the 1970s, after silicon valley (in the original sense that prompted the 1971 term) really took off, towns like Palo Alto pulled ahead of prevailing Bay-Area pricing. What Shaw says he finally noticed in Oakland just a year or two ago was a diffusion outward of a very longstanding trend.

- The "YIMBY" argument is, like "affordable" Bay-Area housing, a feel-good euphemism to hide a less-palatable reality. (In a high-demand market, housing's unaffordability is inherent because people willingly pay high. You can't "build affordable housing," at most you can subsidize the high-market-value housing from some finite funding source that inevitably limits the beneficiaries to a token few.) Many of the people who like to style themselves "YIMBY" actually advocate "YISEBY" housing construction (Yes In Someone ELSE's Back Yard, not my own).

37 people like this
Posted by @Voice
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jan 20, 2019 at 5:02 pm

What's the matter Voice?

Why do you silence free speech on a topic that you posted?

Are you afraid of LOL? Who furiously hits report objectionable content all the time.

If the debate is thruthful, facetual, respectful, and on topic, why the censorship?

Or you a news site? or a tabloid rag?

Where in the rules of this forum does it state that any topic that references "Illegal's" that that is prohibited.

7 people like this
Posted by ResidentSince1982
a resident of another community
on Jan 21, 2019 at 2:02 pm

ResidentSince1982 is a registered user.

Blame is not as productive in this quandary as would be a serious effort to identify potential solutions. The cause and the effect merit further analysis. I would say that the blame for a shortage of rentals is most appropriately tied to the increase in the proportion of the residents who are seeking rentals versus ownership housing. Provide more housing that can be purchased, and the clog in the flow will be most significantly reduced. For example, the author certainly can't blame the shortage of buyers purchasing condos in these established neighborhoods on animosity of the current residents to renters.

The financial market is the most to blame for the shortage of homeownership and the increase in prices of all types of housing, whether owned or rented. First we have the dot com boom of the 90's. That was driven by the financial markets. It had the effect of beginning the run up on housing prices. Then we had the crash and the big drop in jobs in Silicon Valley. That should have helped but during that recovery the financial market came up with these derivative investment vehicles that increased the demand for housing and both ran up prices further and led to the mortgage crisis and the financial disaster of 2008. After that the extremely low interest rates stimulated the economy but they also caused still more increase on housing prices. That has lasted for 10 years. Besides that we have the George W. Bush tax cuts and the increase in the cost of higher education and educational loan debt. Part of this was undue subsidy to non-productive trade schools that cost the student far more than they were worth. The net result is a generation unable to afford to buy housing or even to live well. At the same time, the government greatly cut the subsidy to encourage affordable housing just as it was needed more than ever. The result is an increase in housing prices, whether owned or rented.

The simple minded idea that existing home owners fought of rental housing that otherwise would have happened is just wrong. What really happened was more complex.

The good news is that governments are finally starting to subsidize housing using state versus federal funds. However it gets done, it will help. The federal subsidies should be increased back to what they once were as well. Although this directly helps low income, the middle income will benefit as well, and it will reduce increases in house values which will makes some more able to buy a home.

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