Public Comment

Commentary: Guardian Sounds Alarm on ‘Housing Psychosis’

By Zelda Bronstein
Tuesday September 25, 2007

I stopped reading the Bay Guardian after the paper endorsed Tom Bates in Berkeley’s 2006 mayoral election. I’d thought the Guardian stood for neighborhood integrity, affordable housing and democratic governance. Also, for in-depth, pre-endorsement research of political candidates. But its editors embraced Bates—the big developers’ back-room buddy—without bothering to send me so much as an e-mail about my own candidacy. That experience made me wonder how much I should trust the Guardian, especially when it ventures outside San Francisco. 

Last week, however, a friend told me to check out the current Guardian’s cover story, “San Francisco’s Housing Psychosis.” Having done just that, I now urge Planet readers to run out and pick up a copy of the Sept. 19-25 Guardian before it disappears from the newsstands on Wednesday. What you’ll find is a cold-water-in-your-face account of how speculative, high-end housing development is ravaging San Francisco’s economy, society, culture and its environment. Scaled down to Berkeley dimensions, the story could be about the irrational exuberance that’s deforming our own fair city. 

From the Guardian’s lead editorial: “As many as 23 new complexes of 250 units or more, soaring from five or six stories to more than 1,000 feet, are on the drawing board, working their way through the city planning system, and more are almost certainly on the way.” In contrast to San Francisco’s high-rise building boom of the ’80s, these projects are for housing—to be precise, expensive condominiums. But that’s not the only difference: In the ’80s, environmentalists fought overdevelopment in the city. By contrast, the editorial observes, today’s environmentalists vigorously advocate the condo craze. Preaching the virtues of “densification” and transit-oriented-development, new urbanists and smart growthers ignore the fact that “[i]n many cases these new condos are creating more car trips: People who work out of town are buying them—and people who work in San Francisco are so badly priced out of the market that they’re moving farther and father away.” Nor are fans of sky-high density talking about how to fund the infrastructure and amenities—parks and open spaces, schools, new bus lines, police stations—that are necessary to maintain the city’s quality life and public safety in the face of explosive development. 

The Guardian does more than sound the alarm; it proposes a three-part remedy. First: Preserve existing rental housing. Second: Find a new way to fund affordable housing construction. Third (from “green policy wonk” Marc Salomon): Put a measure on the city ballot that establishes an equitable, comprehensive housing policy by capping new market-rate housing—in other words, housing for the rich—and requiring developers who want to build such projects to compete with each other in offering substantial community benefits such as affordable set-asides, green buildings, neighborhood-friendly design, money for parks and schools. In 1986 San Franciscans passed a similar measure, Measure M, limiting commercial office development and mandating the preservation of neighborhood character for all new projects.  

These are all commendable ideas, regrettably as appropriate for today’s Berkeley as for San Francisco. But they need to be accompanied by a large caveat: Laws are only as good as the officials who administer them. The Sept. 19-25 Guardian also includes an op-ed by neighborhood activist Dan Hoyle recounting how he and his neighbors recently waited until 11:45 p.m. to get their three minutes apiece to ask the San Francisco Planning Commission to respect Prop. M and deny “giant, five-story luxury condo blocks” that would remake Valencia and “our beloved Mission” District into something unrecognizable. By that time, Hoyle writes, “two commissioners were literally asleep. The gavel swung. Approved. It was like the people of San Francisco never showed up. Like Prop. M never passed. Like the Mission didn’t exist as a real neighborhood.” Sounds like a night at Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board.  

Ultimately the only way to make our cities equitable and livable is to elect officials who respect official policy, law and—most important—constituents other than big developers, and who demand that their appointees do the same. To that end, alerting and engaging a largely distracted electorate—and redirecting environmentalist energies—should be the top priority on both sides of the bay. 


If you missed the hard copy, you can read the Bay Guardian online at  


Zelda Bronstein is a former chair of Berkeley’s Planning Commission.