neighborhood explorations: this view of density

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This View of Density FAQ

But isn't dense housing expensive?

It often is; San Francisco's densest, most convenient neighborhoods are so popular, with renters and buyers bidding up the prices. They call it the free market. Ironically, apologists for sprawl often claim that no one wants to live in dense areas, even while they are arguing that families are moving out to sprawl to get affordable housing. Hello?

However, the cheapest housing to build, per square foot or per unit, is 3 to 4 stories -- sticks above concrete foundations. Above that, at least in California, seismic considerations require more reinforced concrete or steel, raising the costs. Similarly, land per unit is cheaper at high densities even though the land costs more. For instance, 100 units on a $500,000 acre is $5000 per unit; whereas 3 units on a $100,000 acre in sprawl is $33,000 per unit. So why are the prices for new city center condos so expensive? Profits! So high that San Francisco was the only place in the Bay Area still building condos when defect liability insurance went thru the roof.

Doesn't the market tell us that a solution to exaggerated prices is to construct much more smart growth housing in San Francisco neighborhoods, especially in warehouses and on other underused land, and to create smart growth areas around transit centers even outside San Francisco. Use competition to bring down rents and prices.

What about gentrification?

Gentrification threatens many present central area residents, especially renters. But it also brings benefits to residents, including better schools and parks, more choice of markets, restaurants and jobs, better policing, cleaner and safer streets, and income and ethnic diversity.

Existing residents can be protected from excessive rents or evictions:

  • rent stabilization, limiting rent increases to 50% (or so) of inflation. Exempting vacant units and new construction from these ordinances prevents them from retarding construction of new housing.
  • eviction controls protect renters from sham evictions to empty apartments and allow higher rents.
  • owner move-in protections prevent bogus evictions so owners can quickly move in and out, to rent at higher rates.
  • conversion limits keep rental units in the rental market.

Construction of additional “affordable housing” in popular dense areas can relieve pressure on rents and real estate prices. Inclusive zoning ordinances can make newly constructed housing affordable to low-moderate income teachers, nurses and store clerks.

Which density is best?

None, in fact the question doesn't make sense. An exciting, viable city has a wide range of densities, as San Francisco does. That affords renters and buyers choicees of housing, convenience, neighborhoods and transit accessibility.

Don't we have enough high-density housing?

High housing prices in convenient, dense areas show that we could use much more.

But hey, don't we need more single family housing for families? In the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, 24% of households are adults with children, those for whom sprawl is presumably necessary. However, 54% of Bay Area housing units are single family detached, so we have over twice as many as are “needed”. And nevermind that the 16% of San Francisco households that are adults with children do quite well in dense areas, thank you.

Our demographics are changing: our population is aging. Do most empty nesters need 4 bedrooms, or to be stuck in an area where they have to drive every time they want a loaf of bread? Four old guys were talking, and one said: "You know, it's getting so bad I can't recognize faces 10 feet away, can't turn my head quickly, can't understand my wife, or bend over. The only thing I have to be greatful for is my drivers license." Convenient neighborhoods, with good public transit, allow these folk to age gracefully and safely. Our tax laws should facilitate selling a big house and moving to a convenient community.