Where America’s Fight for Housing Is an All-Out War


Locking down the city, however, is what brought California to the crisis in the first place, Dougherty argues. During the Great Inflation of the 1970s, when living expenses became unstable, factory jobs disappeared and C.E.O. pay began its exorbitant rise, home prices also spiked and, for the first time, outpaced stock performance. According to Dougherty, two things happened to homes: They became not just dwellings but strategic investments — ones that represented the bulk of American household wealth. As a result, cities, driven by “homevoters” — essentially single-issue voters who wanted to protect their property values — began passing zoning ordinances to limit growth and “protect neighborhoods.” Because stunting growth leads to higher property taxes, a vast number of suburbs and neighborhoods incorporated in order to control local land use and zone out poor people (whose social services raise property taxes). And in 1978, homevoters passed Proposition 13, capping property taxes. The result? By 2018, the Bay Area created eight new jobs for each one unit of housing and in California, 130,000 were without a home.

Would San Franciscans rather drive out the tech industry than build more houses? Some, like the activist who jumped onto the hood of a Yahoo bus and vomited down its windshield, certainly would. Tech, with its pseudo-utopian airs and surveillance-profiteering, is a tempting scapegoat. But cities that oppose growth will fall apart or have cripplingly high property taxes. A bill like Wiener’s, Dougherty argues, is the solution. But stakeholders — cities, construction unions and environmental groups (some of which aren’t actually concerned with the environment but are skilled at using California’s environmental laws to thwart construction) — all fear that if building is easier, they’ll lose their leverage. “A complicated process was full of political profit,” Dougherty writes.

“Golden Gates” is essential reading for every Californian, new or native. But will outsiders care? Dougherty’s introduction lays out why they should. “You can’t talk about educational inequities or the shrinking middle class without talking about how much it costs to live near good schools and high-paying jobs,” he writes. The carnivalesque land-use battles that ensnare San Francisco and its semirural suburbs, he points out, are a microcosm of the exasperating land-use issues threatening other thriving economies, like Seattle, Austin and Denver; Vancouver, London and Berlin.

I wish he had continued to connect what’s happening in California with what’s going on elsewhere. But after the introduction, the borders mostly close, and so “Golden Gates” can feel, well, a little local. Perhaps that’s the point. At the moment, housing policy is primarily dictated by local jurisdictions that act like fiefs. Local jurisdictions are made up of idiosyncratic individuals — but, given the will, they can slowly be changed by idiosyncratic individuals, too.