When did things go wrong in San Francisco?

How one vote in 1978 stunted San Francisco

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A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked when things went wrong in San Francisco:

Flo is right to see housing as the original sin, but 2016 is far too recent. In fact, things started to go wrong in San Francisco in 1912 when voters established a central planning commission by a slim 50.4% majority. But the mere existence of central planning isn't necessarily to blame — after all, infrastructure like plumbing, streets, and electricity are all best planned at a high, centralized level.

So, while central planning was the original sin, I think we can trace back nearly 100% of San Francisco's current problems to a single day: September 18, 1978.

On that day, Supervisors Dianne Feinstein, Ron Pelosi, Harvey Milk, Dan White, Ella Hutch, Gordon Lau, John Molinari, and Carol Silver voted to massively downzone San Francisco. The three votes against it from Supervisors Lee Dolson, Robert Gonzales, and Quentin Kopp, were not enough to stop it.

What is downzoning?

Downzoning is government regulation to limit the number of people who can live in a city. It may also limit the number of new businesses, types of businesses, or types of housing allowed to be built.

Before the first zoning codes were established in San Francisco, developers could build apartment buildings of any height anywhere in San Francisco. It was part of the original liberty of America: if you owned your land you could build whatever kind of home you wanted.

In 1921, the first zoning map was produced, which made apartments illegal in some of the outlying areas of the city (the bottom edge of the Sunset, Balboa Park, and the Excelsior). By 1948, we had outlawed apartment buildings on roughly one third of the residential land (the lightly shaded area in southern SF):

On September 18, 1978, apartments were made illegal in all but a few places.

The legacy of this decision still stands: apartments are illegal in about 76% of San Francisco, and today 54% of the homes in San Francisco are in illegal buildings.

It's the cause of our housing shortage

The extremely strict rules on height, density, and use enacted in 1978 resulted in exactly what experts predicted at the time: a debilitating shortage of homes and skyrocketing prices.

The proposed amendments would reduce the allowable density in many neighborhoods, so that, approximately 180,000 estimated fewer housing units could legally be built in San Francisco. As a result the demand for housing in certain neighborhoods may not be accommodated. Prices and rents may be bid upward as a result of limited supply in some neighborhoods.

If housing prices and rents are forced higher than would normally be expected, adoption of the proposed amendments may displace low- and moderate-income and elderly households.

- Environmental Impact Report for the 1978 downzoning

Homebuilders and advocates said the same thing:

Vincent Walsh, president of the builders association, called the plan an attempt "by an elitist group to deny others the ability to live in San Francisco."

Speaker Samuel Schneider said additional multiple housing is the only way to relieve the city's housing shortage that he said causes inflated rents and costs for all housing.

- 1978 San Francisco Chronicle article

Dianne Feinstein, who would become mayor two months after the vote due to Supervisor Dan White assassinating Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, justified her vote on purely aesthetic grounds:

Supervisor Dianne Feinstein, however, called the new zoning controls "the single most important neighborhood issue of the 1970s."

"The nitty-gritty of this legislation is to protect single-family housing," Feinstein said, claiming its adoption meant that "the trend of higher zoning has been entirely reversed."

- 1978 San Francisco Chronicle article

She was right, of course. Downzoning existing single-family home areas did protect single-family housing. It just did it at the expense of an affordable city. I guess housing abundance and affordability just don't matter when you live in a 16 million dollar single family home like Feinstein does.

This single downzoning decision, more than anything else, can be credited with the ignoble title of "when things started to go wrong in San Francisco."

They never wanted us here

The 1978 downzoning was designed to make San Francisco less attractive to people. Dianne Feinstein and the other Supervisors only wanted to keep the current residents of San Francisco in the city and hoped that these changes would keep you away:

The proposed amendments were designed to maintain the existing character, scale, and density of San Francisco's residential areas. It is hoped that such action would help stem the out-migration of current residents without attracting large numbers of new residents.

- Environmental Impact Report for the 1978 downzoning

San Francisco's leaders have made their opinion clear for literally 40 years: "We don't want you to come here." This attitude remains today. We keep electing people who blame newcomers for the city's problems while refusing to fix the very things that caused them.

This post would not be possible without the tireless work of Eric Fischer to document the history of land use in San Francisco. His epic tweet thread documents the creation of the San Francisco Planning Commission in 1912 and the downstream effects of that fateful vote which won with only 50.4%. Thank you for all of your hard work, Eric!