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Thoughts on San Francisco (perell.com)
26 points by andrenth on Dec 2, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments

Pretty on the nose, IMO. I've lived in SF since 2010, and the Bay Area since 2004. I've seen the change even in that amount of time, not even the longer time scale of the OP, who grew up here and later moved away.

In my mind, it all comes down to housing policy. Prop 13 needs to go. Restrictive zoning needs to go. The right of residents to complain and lawsuit development projects out of existence[0] needs to go.

In the shorter term, while all this plays out, we need to invest heavily in sheltering our homeless population, getting them off drugs, and getting them help with any mental health needs. Acceptance of this needs to be mandatory: once we have sufficient services in order to help the entire homeless population, I actually do want to "criminalize homelessness". It should not be an allowable choice, and those who are homeless and need help getting back on their feet can get that help, every last person.

Of course, I don't expect any of this to happen. I agree with the OP that the next 15 years aren't gonna look great for the city. I just wonder what it will take. Will people actually wise up, see the actual roots of the problem, and fix them; or will there be a backlash that results in a giant exodus that crashes home prices and leaves the city in shambles?

[0] This one is especially insidious. Often a housing developer will be delayed multiple years before they're able to break ground. The extra money that they have to spend on legal fees, as well as being paid to sit on land they own but can't make money on, drives up the cost of the finished product. I hear so many complaints that all the new development is "luxury housing" -- well, duh. Because of all the anti-housing activism, high-end housing is the only way developers can turn a profit.

> I actually do want to "criminalize homelessness". It should not be an allowable choice

How about people who are an utter nuisance on their neighbours? Do we just say tough luck to the neighbours?

Have you ever experienced that?

People who have zero respect for their neighbours and just do whatever they want at whatever time they want?

How many noise complaints will the neighbours be forced to tolerate because I have zero doubt given SF's governance that putting these people in jail will not happen.

Should people just tolerate their lives being disrupted until all avenues of addiction/mental health/other treatment are exhausted?

Pretty sure this is an edge case. Sure, one that needs to be handled, but I don't think it invalidates my thinking.

Fines are obviously not a great option, since someone who has been recently homeless likely can't pay them. Maybe jail time is the right answer? I agree that SF wouldn't reach for that solution, but I wasn't talking about things that SF likely would do, just what I think it needs to do in order to get us out of this hole.

> “Prop 13 needs to go.“

Prop 13 permitted my grandmother to stay in her home on SS as a widow into her 90s.

Four generations of my family have lived in the Bay Area.

I’ve lived in the Greater NYC/Long Island Area for going on 13 years and it’s a much different story here. Property taxes essentially force retirees to move south. Away from their families, grandchildren and the homes they own, but can’t afford to keep because of high property (plus school taxes).

People here never heard of Prop 13. And why should they? The East Coast is completely different—-older, tighter geographic communities, and years of aging adults moving away from the freezing north.

Before people in CA decide to make Prop 13 the scapegoat, you should look at what property taxes do for all home owners here on the right coast.

And BTW, luxury housing? You said it, ‘turn a profit’. Americans have too much ‘stuff’ to live in the smaller units that would also turn a profit. IMHO

With regards to schools:

It's not really true that California is ranked 50th out of the states on spending per student. Here's a detailed explanation: https://www.politifact.com/california/statements/2018/jan/17...

The low-ranking cost per student depends on a quality-of-life-adjustment and is also now several years old.

Also, SF public schools are a very mixed bag, they aren't uniformly terrible. The lottery system rewards parents who are willing to do a bunch of research and not just pick their neighborhood schools. Places that are neighborhood schools for neighborhoods that include a lot of low-information parents are likely terrible, other schools are much better.

> Without the protests, the Bay Bridge would be connected to the Golden Gate Bridge via the Embarcadero Freeway, and other freeways would extend to the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods. Say what you want about people who block new modern housing projects, but I believe San Francisco is a better city because these big developments have been blocked in the past.

Well, that makes one person who thinks San Francisco is a better city because at least two of its surface streets are clogged with "freeway" traffic 24/7.

Not building a freeway doesn't change the fact that people are driving Highway 101 (and Interstate 280) through it. It just reduces the average speed, lowers the efficiency of the trip, and increases pollution.

Highways aren't the only solution to traffic. You can also move that traffic underground (though hopefully without all the graft and pain of something like Boston's Big Dig), or build more and more frequent public transit.

Sure, there are people whose sole reason to be on Van Ness/Lombard (101) or 19th Ave (280 to Golden Gate Bridge) is to drive through the city and not to it, but I'd guess the majority of it is local traffic that could be replaced with better transit (and even if not the majority, certainly enough to make a difference).

People drive in and through SF because the alternatives suck. As much as I love using Uber/Lyft, they've undeniably made traffic in SF worse.

Sure, in fact I'd welcome an underground freeway through SF.

Has anyone introduced you to the concept of 'induced demand'? https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/09/citylab-unive...

Sure, but the 2 major components I can think of -- building more housing that would use that freeway, and shifting trips from transit to cars -- are not things that are likely to happen with trips from the Peninsula to Marin, where there are no transit options, and where housing is already restricted.

While a freeway may have increased throughput it doesn't tackle the main issue: Public transport is lacking and could reduce traffic drastically if planned well.

"The Housing: San Francisco has deeply conservative tendencies for such a liberal city. Its housing supply isn't growing fast enough to keep up with rising demand."

Restrictive housing is more of a liberal phenomenon than a conservative one, wouldn't you say?

"There's a group of people I don't like. There's a policy I don't like. Therefore, the group of people I don't like are responsible."

I'd say that's the extent of deep thought and analysis on this one.

It doesn't appear to be a statement of political alignment but of risk-aversive behavior.

The left stereotypes the right as willing to build, build, build with no thought to consequences as long as the dollars continue to flow.

The right stereotypes the left as standing in the way of progress, where "progress" is defined as commerce.

So I'd say both parents are correct, and the author of the "Thoughts" on SFO is letting his politics cloud his objectivity.

The author gives a shoutout to Palladium mag, whose EIC has some "heterodox" opinions on certain ethnic groups[1], as a cool SF philanthropy project. If the author is a liberal, strange bedfellows indeed.


"For such a liberal city?"

"Everyone is conservative about what he knows best." - Robert Conquest, apocryphal.

I would guess that the overwhelming majority of SF homeowners would self-identify as liberal / Democrat voters. But on the topic of local housing policy, they would like to conserve the status quo.

Yes, and from what I can see, the desire to conserve the status quo has little to do with political conservatism and everything to do with ordinary self-interest.

I don’t think you can really personally blame someone for wanting maintain the character of their neighborhood (and inflate the value of their home). It’s perfectly rational behavior. The problem is that the preferences of this relatively small cohort are overriding the social and economic health of the city as a whole. Ideally, a democratic majority would overrule these narrowly self-interested concerns and force more development, more homeless shelters, etc., but for whatever reason this doesn’t seem to be happening in SF.

I don't think of this as a matter of politics in the traditional "left vs. right" sense. Merely that a lot of homeowners in SF have an "I got mine, screw you" attitude that extends into policy decisions in order to protect and increase the value of their property. It's conservative only in the literal meaning of the term, that they're resistant to any change that they fear could cause their home values to decrease. I expect this phenomenon is quite bipartisan in general, but yes, obviously there are more people on the left than right in SF, so likely many "liberal" people are "conservative on housing".

The literal meanings of conservative and liberal: conserve and liberty. Which one would you apply to SF housing?

As a conservative here on HN:

I think the author is using conservative in the more direct sense: the people are fighting to keep things the way they are in terms of housing. This is at odds with the way the city is normally thought of in terms of being "liberal" (more accepting of change).

I don't think it's a statement on whether or not left or right wing policies contribute more to the issue.

I also thought that's what conservative meant in politics too, but you can correct me here.

If you go back far enough, it's where the term comes from, but it doesn't make sense today. That would nominally make it an oxymoron for a "conservative" party to ever propose any kind of change, but clearly they do.

It's a fairly common outcome for political words to get stuck to changing movements rather than identifying unique positions and policies over the course of decades and centuries.

Restrictive housing is literally people trying to keep things the same. That seems like a definition of "conservative" if I have ever seen one.

You can argue that "Conservatives" (note the capital letter, denoting that his means an actual group) would be against rules on housing, but if you actually look at the rules in Republican leaning highly urban areas I bet you will find similar rules.

People dislike dealing with the effects of large scale changes. That really is not a Liberal or Conservative thing (note the capital letters).

Overall good summary, and that growth chart explains a lot of SF's problems over the last decade. Every city must have a capacity based on space available, SF is tiny at around 45 square miles, which is a fraction of most other large cities, yet the amount of people that want to live here is probably disproportionate, and obviously the current administration of the city has not been able to keep up.

While square mileage is certainly a limiting factor, we've hardly scratched the surface in vertical height. SF's population density is embarrassingly low for a city with such demand.

It's due to earthquakes I assume, since the building safety codes are probably super strict. I was just recently in the Saleforce tower, and had the chance to visit floor 55. Yeah, fuck that, the wind was making the office sway very slightly but noticeably. I can't imagine being on floor 55 during an earthquake!

It’s ridiculous that US cities are spread into so many different “cities” for historical reasons.

It seems to me that the whole Bay Area metropolitan area would be much better off if there were a single city government.

"San Francisco has the best coffee of anywhere I've traveled." Did anyone else LOL on this when reading it? Then I realised he must haven't travelled overseas...

Having traveled all over the US and “overseas” not only do several US cities have the best coffee (outside of maybe Japan) but LA, SF, and maybe Seattle have the best coffee in the US.

Talking to other coffee enthusiasts who have traveled globally they also expected better coffee elsewhere given this prevailing feeling that “coffee is amazing in Europe” but found it wanting.

I had no idea that the old Embarcadero Freeway ran directly in front of the ferry building, before it was rebuilt in its current location in South Beach. The article includes a great photo that really highlights how different the city must have felt then. Contrast this to the measure that residents just recently passed to entirely forbid vehicles (except buses and taxis) east of 10th St.

Are you referring to the vote of officials to ban cars on much of Market street? As far as I know, there was no measure passed by residents to ban cars on streets east of 10th, so your comment is misleading. That would be a very large area, something like 1.7sqmi of downtown SF, to restrict cars.

The Embarcadero freeway was never rebuilt. What are you taking about “its current location in South Beach.” Do you mean approaches to the Bay Bridge which have been there forever or do you mean the ramp to the bus depot which was realigned? None of the roads in the area are the Embarcadero freeway.

Edit: I suppose OP means I280 which was repaired and realigned after Loma Prieta. The neighborhood is called China Basin. South Beach is an adjoining neighborhood.

"From a sociological perspective, you won’t find a more interesting city to study." "San Francisco has the prettiest natural surroundings of any city in America."

Statements like this make it clear that the author hasn't really seen must of the world or even America.

> "San Francisco has the prettiest natural surroundings of any city in America."

I'm open to disagreements, but I'd say SF has the prettiest surroundings of any US city. The only place I've lived I think was prettier was Rio de Janeiro. I can think of other places that are also very beautiful though, such as Salt Lake City or Jackson Hole.

I like to say the worst thing about San Francisco is San Francisco - everything around San Francisco is gorgeous! Muir Woods, Half Moon Bay, Sausalito - those are within a ~30 minute drive from where I live. The coastal drive north once you get to Stinson Beach might be my favorite road to drive on because of the views.

As for the city itself, I would absolutely give the edge to Chicago for their architectural designs.

What places do you find the prettiest?

Salt Lake City is what immediately came to my mind as well, if we're limiting it to "major" US cities. There are, of course, small towns that are basically known for having ludicrously beautiful surroundings, like Telluride. And I assume we're just not counting Hawaii since that obviously wouldn't be fair?

You think San Francisco is in Jackson Hole's class? I disagree, strongly. I would also consider places like Breckenridge to be above San Francisco.

But I would accept "not a major city" as ruling out Jackson Hole and Breckenridge, because in fact they are not major cities.

I might accept San Francisco as being above Salt Lake, but not by much. I might consider Seattle to be as good as San Francisco.

The problem I have is the hyperbole and broad sweeping generalizations of the article which really reduce America and the world down to tech, SF, and New York when there is a much more to the world out there. Almost every line about the uniqueness of SF is really just a comparison to NYC. Is America really just SF and NYC? It is so myopic that it's hard to take it seriously.

San Francisco is a city with beautiful natural surroundings but so is Denver, Boulder, Seattle, Jackson, Honolulu, Kahului, San Diego, Los Angeles, Anchorage, Salt Lake City, Sedona, Carmel, etc. Even if by city they mean a large city or metropolis, I would still argue that Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle would be in the same tier of beauty.

> "San Francisco has the prettiest natural surroundings of any city in America."

I don't think it's an unreasonable candidate for someone's favorite, but it's pretty surprising for the author to not recognize that this is both subjective and highly controversial. If I had to predict what people in America would describe as "the American city with the prettiest natural surroundings," I think cities with large mountains would score very highly.

Or beaches. The author clearly hasn't been to Hawaii.

Baker Beach in SF is quite picturesque.

Immediately these bits made me think of the "San Francisco smug" South Park episode

From a sociological perspective, you won’t find a more interesting city to study.

I can see this argument. There are certainly enough interesting sociological issues in San Francisco regardless of whether you think it deserves the "most" qualifier.

San Francisco has the prettiest natural surroundings of any city in America.

I think this one is very hard to argue. It's highly subjective, so I don't doubt that the author believes it, but if someone were asking me where to move and told me that they prioritize beautiful surroundings, San Francisco wouldn't make my list of recommendations.

I don't live in CA, and have been to many places both in and out of the US. I 100% agree with the statement that San Francisco is in a uniquely beautiful natural setting. Yes I saw the encampments, the people shooting up in the street, and some of the negative stuff you hear about, but I also saw the bridges on the bay, Twin Peaks, Lincoln Park, Golden Gate Park, Hawk Hill, and I could go on.

On the other hand, I kind of understand the sentiment of not appreciating a place if you grew up there. I'm originally from Miami, FL, and it took moving away + a few years to be able to appreciate the beauty of that place for what it is.

Yeah, I grew up in the north bay and find many places at least as beautiful if not moreso. Kauai, anchorage, death valley, cascade range, Ozarks, high desert, Smoky Mountains. I guess I appreciate nature in all its forms unlike the blogger?

The OP was presumably talking about areas around major cities, which in your list I'd guess only Anchorage qualifies?

But yeah, this is a hugely subjective metric, and I think we should allow the author his biases there, even if we disagree.

With or without the opening statement being true, which is a matter of opinion, it's a pretty interesting city sociologically.

Well, he has been to NYC...

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