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Is San Francisco so liberal that it’s actually conservative?

One of the things I’ve always found funny about San Francisco is that, despite being a bastion of liberalism, it’s a city that’s incredibly anti-development. From the outside, it seems like a city filled with NIMBYs. Doesn’t that seem odd given its reputation as one of the most progressive cities in America?

Of course, many would argue that part of the reason so many people love San Francisco is because it’s done such a great job of preserving its history. And don’t get me wrong, I think that’s important. But as I’ve argued before, development should be about a balance. We should be looking to the future, while not forgetting the past.

Let’s put some numbers to this discussion.

According to Atlantic Cities, San Francisco has produced on average 1,500 new housing units each year over the past decade. Seattle does about 3,000. And in the Greater Toronto Area, we’re probably around 30,000. I’m not sure if the Atlantic Cities numbers represent only the city proper but, either way, the spread seems massive. Even still, market analysts, such as George Carras of RealNet, have argued time and time again that the Toronto region needs 40,000 new housing units a year just to keep pace with demand!

So what happens when supply doesn’t keep up with demand and you have a robust economy that continually draws in people from around the world? You get San Francisco. And you get expensive real estate and high rents that relatively few people can afford. San Francisco regularly tops the list of most expensive real estate markets in the US.

This is a phenomenon that I don’t think many people appreciate: When you fight development you restrict supply and when you restrict supply you hurt housing affordability. This is the argument that economist Edward Glaeser makes in his book, the Triumph of the City, when he talks about why housing is so affordable in Houston.

Now, if you think about it for a second, this actually means that it’s entirely contradictory to be a NIMBY and, at the same time, an advocate for affordable housing. The two are at odds with each other. Do you want an exclusive city with only enough housing for rich tech moguls? Or do you want an inclusive city with enough new housing supply for the middle class?

When asked, I’m sure many liberals would choose the latter of those 2 scenarios. But in practice, at least in San Francisco, it would appear that many are opting for the former. And it’s happening because residents want their perfect community to remain unchanged. However, in the process, the values that supposedly underpin that community are being threatened.

Which makes me wonder: Is San Francisco so liberal that it’s actually conservative?

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