What Vancouver can learn from San Francisco on housing

San Francisco affordability | BCBusiness
Mike Buhler, executive director of San Francisco Heritage, warns the city’s character is at risk

Unlike Vancouver, the local incomes in San Francisco are soaring—and it’s changing the very fabric of the city

Vancouverites aren’t the only West Coasters to find themselves pushed farther and farther outside the urban core by high real estate prices. San Francisco is also feeling the heat of hyper real estate values. But while the extreme wealth that has descended on the Vancouver market is mostly foreign, in the city by the bay, the demographic fuelling the fire is homegrown tech workers.

Almost every major tech corporation and startup of note in the last decade—Twitter, Google, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, plus dozens of more low-profile companies—has come out of the Bay Area: a new generation of wealth that’s putting new demands on great swaths of the region’s urban core. These are workers who are young and want a walkable, urban lifestyle—and not just in Lululemon-wearing neighbourhoods like Cow Hollow (San Francisco’s answer to Kitsilano). Once-bohemian neighbourhoods like The Mission—where Mark Zuckerberg reportedly paid in the order of $10 million for a home—are also being transformed, with long-time locals, no longer able to afford their city, driven out.

Not surprisingly, the invasion of the digerati hasn’t been without its share of conflict. There’s growing resentment toward what’s derisively called the “Twitter crowd”—and it’s not all about housing.

“Much of the discussion is on the need to provide more housing, and somewhat lost in that is the need to protect businesses and nonprofits and arts and cultural groups that define the character of the city,” says San Francisco Heritage’s executive director, Mike Buhler.

Beloved old businesses and cherished landmarks have been knocked down in the name of change. Last year, one of America’s oldest bookstores, Marcus Books in the Filmore District, closed after the owners were evicted. Other quirky institutions, like All Star Donuts, the Gold Dust Lounge and Woodward’s Garden, have had to either move or shut down for good. And just recently, the rooftop restaurant of the iconic, five-storey Empress of China closed shop when the building was sold. The closings have inspired the city to create a registry of legacy businesses and create financial incentives for property owners to encourage their preservation.

Buhler worked on the legislation, which includes tax credits to landlords who lease to legacy businesses. The hope is that they’ll extend their tenant’s leases. “The displacement is happening throughout the city,” says Buhler. “I went to get my haircut last week, and when I got there, they were dismantling all the equipment because their rent has doubled.”

While preservationists like Buhler strive to protect low-income tenants and the city’s culture, there are others who argue that the city needs to physically accommodate the changing demographic. It’s a familiar refrain in Vancouver, where there’s a pro-density push to rezone pockets of character neighbourhoods into mid-rises and townhomes in the name of affordable housing. Neighbourhoods like Grandview Woodlands and Dunbar have vociferously fought back.

According to Gabriel Metcalf, CEO of SPUR, a nonprofit policy group that lobbies for better urban planning around the Bay Area, the wealthy have been moving into the urban core of major cities for several decades. “But now the process is getting to an unprecedented place—it’s going much further than anyone thought it would.”

Wealthy people want walkability and diversity so they gravitate to urban areas, he says. And people with less money get forced into the suburbs. That’s the big pattern: “I think certain cities are on the leading edge of that, where it begins to look like there won’t be any way for middle class people to be in the cities. That’s what we’re staring at in places like San Francisco and Vancouver.”

So what is the solution? Whatever it is, according to Metcalf, it involves a readjustment in the way we think about our cities that could be painful for many. Some of the old physical character must make way for mixed-use and higher-density buildings in walkable, diverse neighbourhoods, he says. Think of recent Vancouver projects such as the Woodward’s Building in the Downtown Eastside or the Olympic Village on former historic industrial land.

“One way or the other, it is not possible to retain the physical character exactly the way it was and also keep cities affordable—that’s just wishful thinking.”