When Climate Activists Target Public Transit

Until Thursday morning, things were going pretty well for the protest group Extinction Rebellion, which has successfully staged a series of effective climate-crisis demonstrations in London since forming in October 2018. Last November, they blockaded five bridges across the Thames, a campaign they stepped up around the climate talks this month. Demonstrators instigated a mass blockade that substantially shut down access to the government district in Westminster, as well as BBC Headquarters and City Airport.

As writer and activist George Monbiot wrote last year, XR aims to foster “a movement devoted to disruptive, nonviolent disobedience in protest against ecological collapse.” More than 1,300 protesters have been arrested in course of this current London campaign, which also included a “mass feed-in” of about 100 breastfeeding mothers outside of Google’s London headquarters.

But then came these chaotic scenes early Thursday morning: Londoners watched as activists glued themselves to, and climbed onto the roofs, of subway trains, forcing transit services to halt on the London Tube’s Jubilee Line and Docklands Light Railway, which shuttle riders to the U.K. capital’s two financial districts. Angry commuters counterattacked, and some demonstrators were set upon violently. There are no reports of medical treatment being needed, but eight arrests of protesters were made.

The Tube protest may have been designed as a wake-up call for a society that the activists believe is speeding towards catastrophe, but the early-morning incident has unfortunately already ended up being something different: a public relations disaster that, against a backdrop of widespread public support among Londoners for Extinction Rebellion’s planet-saving message, has reinforced some of the negative stereotypes about the environmental movement. Right-wing commentators have been quick to damn the protest as “class war” waged by privileged people who have the “luxury of hijacking the underground.”

To understand what went wrong, you need to know a bit about London geography. The stations targeted by activists—Canning Town, Stratford, and Shadwell—are physically very close to the financial district of Canary Wharf. But they are a world removed from it. These stations serve some of the poorest areas not just in London, but in Western Europe. Most commuters shuffling to the train platforms at 7 a.m. (in a country where professionals usually start work after 9) are not wealthy financiers—they’re lower-income workers scraping a living in a notoriously expensive city. Footage of climate protesters with what British people would instantly read as middle-class accents blocking working-class men and women trying to get to their jobs soon after dawn—where they might be sanctioned for lateness—is terrible image-making. It plays into the hands of people who dismiss environmental activism as a hobby for privileged progressives.

That’s a trap that Extinction Rebellion has largely avoided up until now. To a substantial extent, the group developed from the Occupy movement, whose tactics of making protest a permanent public presence they have refined. Elsewhere in Europe, the group has set up a climate camp outside Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office in Berlin, blockaded a shopping mall in Paris, and tried to occupy the canalside outside Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and the gardens of the Royal Palace in Brussels.

As with Occupy protests, these encampments have attracted condemnation from those who resent the disruption, but they’ve been peaceful, and the group’s emphasis on striking theatrical tableaus of costumed demonstrators has generated a lot of powerful imagery and sympathetic media coverage. Their message has been consistent: We are in the midst of a climate emergency so serious that it makes complaining about an interrupted commute vanishingly trivial. These protests served their message carefully by staging demonstrations that try to punch upwards—towards government and big finance—rather than down to the ordinary people whose lives are entwined with them.

Extinction Rebellion protesters in London’s Trafalgar Square on October 16. (Matt Dunham/AP)

That’s why the scuffles on London’s public transit were so counterproductive. Official response has been swift, with London Police banning further demonstrations by the group until further notice (a move that Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg strongly criticized). Mayor Sadiq Khan and rail unions also condemned the protesters, making the obvious point that electric-powered public transit should be considered a climate change solution. Even many members of the protest group itself expressed frustration: The Guardian reported that 72 percent of XR members opposed targeting the Tube, according to an internal poll taken before the protests were carried out.

It’s not hard to see why: These protests not only missed their intended target—the finance companies of Canary Wharf, which are located on private land with ludicrously tight security controls—they ended up creating a false dichotomy, setting up a conflict between the climate movement and public transit users. The optics of the incident end up wrongly implying that working-class London commuters neither care about, nor are affected by climate change.

Extinction Rebellion has also risked playing into the hands of those in the U.K. who dismiss climate change concerns. This is a country with a a bit of bullying, authoritarian streak to its culture; there are those here who really enjoy footage of hippies getting punched, as the ripples of applause for the attacks on protesters on social media  illustrate.

As the urgency for climate action grows, Londoners who support Extinction Rebellion’s broader aims can only hope that the group can learn from this experience and adjust their tactics accordingly. The group suggested as much in a statement it released after the incident: “In light of today’s events, Extinction Rebellion will be looking at ways to bring people together rather than create an unnecessary division.”

If that happens, a vital lesson will have been learned. The U.K. capital is a critical player in the global battle for decarbonization. The climate movement needs victories here, and can ill afford to lose the sympathies of its residents.

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CityLab Daily: San Francisco’s Busiest Street is Going Car-Free

What We’re Following

No cars allowed: With streetcar tracks, bus platforms, and plenty of road traffic to dodge, a weekday bike commute on San Francisco’s Market Street can feel like running an obstacle course for your life. On Tuesday, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency approved a $600 million plan to kick out the private cars and create protected bike lanes and dedicated transitways. The vote to ban private cars was unanimous, with the goal of giving more space to people on what is currently one of the city’s most dangerous corridors. But the change didn’t happen overnight, as “these automotive blockades can be among the most controversial moves a city government can make,” CityLab’s Laura Bliss writes.

As New York City made a similar transformation earlier this month on its 14th Street corridor, it’s worth remembering that these U.S. cities have been eyeing the pedestrianized urban cores of their peer cities like Paris and Barcelona with envy for quite awhile now. Read Laura’s story: San Francisco’s Busiest Street Is Going Car-Free

Andrew Small


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The Great Crime Decline Is Over in Some Chicago Neighborhoods

Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods saw a crime decline, but recently, their violent crime rates have rebounded while other areas continue to improve.

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Charlotte Perriand Emerges From Modernism’s Shadows

The pioneering French designer and architect is the subject of a new retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.

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Elijah Cummings (1951-2019)

(Matt Rourke/AP)

This morning, the political world woke up to the news that U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, 68, died at a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. While plenty of recent national headlines will lead the coverage of Cummings’ death, his career and life leave a legacy in Baltimore as well as on Capitol Hill. From fighting at age 11 to integrate a South Baltimore pool to calming riots after the police killing of Freddie Gray in 2015, Cummings spent his life challenging a historically segregated city to do better for its people.

As Baltimore Magazine wrote in a 2014 profile of the congressman, Cummings was “in no risk of losing sight of what he’s fighting for, or where he’s come from,” noting that the congressman had lived in the same West Baltimore row house for more than three decades. “I don’t live in the inner city. I live in the inner-inner city and there are not a lot of congressman who grew up in the inner city, let alone still live there,” Cummings told the magazine. “It is an important voice to bring to Congress that needs to be heard.”


What We’re Reading

The rise of the city critic (The Guardian)

How four small cities are fighting the effects of urban renewal (Curbed)

Chicago teachers will go on strike (NPR)

Stop using “millennials” when you mean “yuppies” (Slate)

In New York, the neighborhood you’re shot in may determine whether you survive (The Trace)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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The Great Crime Decline Is Over in Some Chicago Neighborhoods

The “Great Crime Decline” of the past several decades is one of the most amazing and laudable developments in modern urban life. Since the 1990s, the rate of violent crime in America has been cut in half, from 750 violent crimes per 100,000 people to about 350 per 100,000 by 2013. New York City is now safer than London on many measures and Washington, D.C. was recently ranked as one of the 10 safest cities in the world.

But despite this overall drop, violent crime remains disturbingly higher in economically disadvantaged areas of cities, many of which have violent crime rates that are “exponentially higher” than the national average.

That’s the sobering takeaway from a detailed new study of violent crime and urban inequality by Andrew V. Papachristos of Northwestern University, Noli Brazil of the University of California, Davis, and Tony Cheng of Yale University and New York University.

The study, published in the sociology journal City and Community, traces the troubling connection between violent crime and socioeconomic disadvantage in Chicago since the 1990s. It focuses on the change in not just the baseline murder rate but in the relative murder rate in the city’s safest and most violent neighborhoods, and details how those changes are linked to urban inequality.

To get at this, the study charts the change in the murder rate across more than 300 Chicago neighborhood clusters since the 1990s. It examines these changes in violence in light of three key factors: concentrated disadvantage (factors including the poverty rate and unemployment), immigrant concentration, and residential stability (based on the share of owner-occupants and the percent of people who lived in the same house since 1995).

It employs two different measures to gauge the change in violent crime across neighborhoods: absolute change between the city’s most violent 10 percent of neighborhoods and the rest; and relative change, which it defines as “the extent to which the actual homicide rate distribution deviates from a hypothetical distribution in which every neighborhood has identical shares of homicides.”

While Chicago as a whole got considerably safer over time, violence remains heavily concentrated in a relatively small number of less-advantaged, mainly black neighborhoods. The city as a whole experienced a 47 percent decline in homicides in the nearly two-decade period spanning 1991 and 2009. During this period, three-quarters of the city’s neighborhoods saw their homicides fall, including some of its most dangerous communities.

Furthermore, the absolute gap in homicide rates between the most dangerous 10 percent of neighborhoods and the rest of the city also fell by nearly 30 percent during this time. While that gap has ticked up since 2006, it still remains 30 percent below what it was back in 1991.

There’s something of a good news-bad news story here. “On the one hand, these results paint a portrait of progress,” the study notes. “Overall neighborhood homicides have dropped, the absolute homicide rates for most neighborhoods have decreased, and the absolute decline at the top of the neighborhood homicide rate distribution is meaningful and significant. On the other hand, the magnitude of the absolute crime gap is still disturbingly large, and since 2006 seems to be widening.”

The news is even worse when it comes to the measure of relative change. This measure grew by 10 percent between 1991 and 2009. Over the course of a period when most of Chicago experienced a dramatic decline in murders, the drop-off was far less steep in its most violent places.

The initial crime decline of the 1990s tended to include all neighborhoods, including the most violent ones. But then something of a reversal happened. By the early 2000s, the improvement in Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods began to slow and even turn around. At the same time, violent crime continued to decline across the rest of the city.

This neighborhood divergence in violent crime has persisted strongly over time. “The highest- and lowest-crime neighborhoods during the peak of the crime epidemic tended to remain the highest- and lowest-crime neighborhoods relative to other neighborhoods throughout the crime decline,” is the way the study sums it up.

More disturbingly, the city’s most violent neighborhoods remain its most economically disadvantaged and most segregated black neighborhoods. The study finds a sizable connection between violent crime and concentrated disadvantage. And a part of the story is the decreasing connection between concentrated disadvantage and violence in the already safe areas of the city. As the report notes: “[T]he rise in inequality was driven by rapid improvements in safer neighborhoods during the second half of the crime decline, thereby increasing the relative gap between the most dangerous neighborhoods and the rest of the city. “

Neighborhoods that had higher levels of residential stability, with more homeowners and more long-term residents, and greater concentrations of immigrants experienced both lower levels of violent crime and more pronounced declines in it.

Despite its overall crime decline, Chicago remains a tale of two cities when it comes to violent crime: an already safe city that is getting safer and a violent city where violence is starting to increase again. As the study notes, for every one homicide in the city’s safest neighborhoods, there are more than 65 homicides in its most violent.

Bound up with socioeconomic inequality is a tremendous inequality in violence. As Patrick Sharkey has shown, exposure to violence creates high levels of stress and anxiety, which have extremely deleterious consequences on children’s cognitive ability, progress in school, and prospects for social mobility. And this works to lock both these children and their communities in a cycle of concentrated disadvantage.

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Charlotte Perriand Emerges From Modernism’s Shadows

Few people who have spent time in a college dormitory or studio apartment would describe their experience with the phrase l’art de vivre, or “the art of living.” But for the French architect and designer Charlotte Perriand, that was always the goal.

Each space she created was tailored to the purpose and type of person for whom it was destined. A young professional, an art collector, and a Parisian student hardly had the same needs (or the same amount of space and money), and Perriand acknowledged this. Instead, she sought to give them what we all hope for as we live and work in seemingly ever-smaller urban spaces: some degree of flow and harmony. Where others saw problems, she saw dynamic solutions.

Charlotte Perriand, “House at the Water’s Edge,” 1934. A reproduction of a beach cabin that Perriand designed for a magazine contest—winning second place—but never built. (Artist credit: © Adagp, Paris, 2019 / Photo credit: © Fondation Louis Vuitton / Marc Domage)

For her own apartment in the Latin Quarter of Paris, she designed a table in an irregular hexagon shape that would fit a small space and permit seven attendees of a dinner party to see and hear each other. One of her best-known co-creations is an ergonomic chaise longue, designed around the human body to allow for movement and comfort.

“Living is about bringing to life what is within us,” she once said. “How do we want to live?”

The Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris—a Frank Gehry-designed museum that is sponsored by the luxury-good company LVMH, and opened in 2014—has dedicated a major retrospective both to Perriand’s life and to the way she helped others live, marking the 20th anniversary of her death.

A close collaborator of the architect Le Corbusier and friend to a host of major 20th-century artists (including Joan Míro and Alexander Calder), Perriand spent much of her career in the shadow of famous men. In photos of her with her colleagues in the 1920s and 1930s, she is the only woman (a fact that neither her Josephine Baker haircut nor her garconne style can quite mask). It wasn’t until after her death that her pieces started to sell for higher and higher prices. Today, while she may be known in fine-art and design circles, she’s hardly a household name.

Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World, which runs through February 24, 2020, displays 200 creations from Perriand alongside 200 works of art by the likes of Calder, Míro, and Picasso. In the museum, it is these men who are in her shadow. Even an enormous reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica serves as a backdrop for Perriand’s designs.

Born in 1903 to a tailor father and seamstress mother, Perriand grew up in Paris. She attended a decorative-arts college at the urging of her mother. She had a kind of revelation while reading Le Corbusier’s books The Decorative Art of Today and Toward an Architecture. In her memoirs, she would later describe showing up at Le Corbusier’s studio, portfolio of her designs in hand, hoping to work for the celebrated Modernist. After flipping through a few of her drawings, he said, “We don’t embroider cushions here,” and showed her the door.

It wasn’t until Le Corbusier saw her Bar sous le toit (“Bar under the roof”) at the 1927 Fall Salon that he did an about-face. This was a sleek modern bar in aluminum and nickel, compact enough to fit into her own little attic apartment. He hired her, and she would work in his atelier for the next 10 years; he would routinely take credit for her designs.

Charlotte Perriand, “Work and Sport,” 1927-29. (© Adagp, Paris, 2019 © AChP)

Throughout her long life, Perriand was preoccupied with the question: How do we make the space we have work for us? Across vastly different eras, materials, and designs—from 1920s steel benches to 1950s bamboo recliners—she chased the idea that interior design should make daily life both easier and more beautiful. Emerging from the heavy drapery and furniture that pervaded much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Perriand looked to bring light, air, and space into even the tiniest of spaces.

Her 1950s designs for Parisian student dorms are a triumph in this regard. She incorporated a sleek bookshelf, desk, chair, sink, and bed (with a sliding trundle table underneath) in only a few square meters, without making the room feel cramped. Earlier designs, like the model apartment she helped create for the 1929 Fall Salon in Paris, used open floor plans to maximize space. The sleek desk set (with a modern swivel chair) could fit just as easily in a 1950s, ’70s, or even contemporary apartment.

Charlotte Perriand, Fauteuil pivotant (Swivel armchair) B302, 1927. (© Paris 2019 Courtesy of Vitra Design Museum)

Often the only woman among so many men, she considered with special detail a woman’s place in the home. Perriand collaborated with Le Corbusier on his enormous and influential housing complex in Marseille, Unite d’Habitation (1947-52). Her role in the project is often overlooked, but she was instrumental in its interior design and in particular the plan for the kitchen. Inspired in part by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt kitchen and by new American designs, she devised an open kitchen with a standing bar that separated it from the living room.

“Storage, bookcases, chaises longues … everything was designed in the goal of making women’s lives easier,” Perriand’s daughter, Pernette Perriand-Barsac, told the French newspaper L’Express. “In the Marseille housing unit, she created the open kitchen so that women would not always be relegated to the back of the apartment.”

One object that Perriand returned to over and over was the bookcase. Her bookcases were enormous creations in bright, primary colors (à la Calder or Piet Mondrian) used for storage, decoration, and to serve as spatial dividers.

Charlotte Perriand, Air France travel agency, London, 1957. (© Adagp, Paris, 2019 © Gaston Karquel / AChP)

So many high-quality furnishings—even today—seem destined for the 1 percent of people who can afford to have several bedrooms and a vast dining room. Perriand’s egalitarianism is refreshing. At the same time, a paradox exists in this utopian vision of design as a kind of great equalizer, accessible to everyone. Perriand seemed to mold each creation to its setting, but many of her designs were intended to be replicated or mass produced. How do you make something tailored to one life, and thousands of lives?

Critics have argued that it’s impossible to separate Le Corbusier the designer of sweeping rationalist schemes from his politics, as he was an admirer of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and spent nearly two years trying to win the favor of France’s puppet government under the Nazi occupation. (He also built projects in Soviet Russia.) Perriand’s designs maintain a sense of un-machine-like humanity, and perhaps that’s because she too cannot be separated from her politics. She dedicated her political energies to the Popular Front, a left-wing movement that would produce the first socialist and first Jewish prime minister of France (Léon Blum, who came to power in 1936).

Perriand made large-scale friezes for the Popular Front, including a piece to denounce the reign of fascist Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and another that criticized the deplorable health and living conditions of Paris’s poorest residents. By 1937, she had left Le Corbusier’s atelier altogether.

Charlotte Perriand, La Grande Misère de Paris (Poverty-Stricken Paris), 1936. (© Adagp, Paris, 2019 © AChP)

After spending the wartime years in Japan and Vietnam, which left a deep imprint on her, and following the liberation of France, Perriand returned home to join efforts to rebuild. At her request, artists like Picasso, Calder, and Fernand Léger contributed to her projects for exhibitions and new model homes, and she worked closely with the designer Jean Prouvé. In 1947, Elle magazine named her “minister of the reconstruction” in a project for an imagined women-only government.

As her career progressed over the course of the 20th century, she didn’t stick to domestic interiors, but produced (for example) travel agencies for Air France and a tea house for UNESCO, and master-planned a huge ski resort in the Alps. When asked by journalists, she frequently refused to categorize herself as either a designer or an architect, saying instead, “I don’t define myself. That would be a limitation.” As this retrospective makes clear, we are fortunate that she didn’t.

Charlotte Perriand and Guy Rey-Millet (AAM). Les Arcs ski resort, Arc 1600, La Cascade (north facade), 1968-69. (© Adagp, Paris, 2019 © Charlotte Perriand / AChP)

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San Francisco’s Busiest Street Is Going Car-Free

A weekday bike commute on Market Street is like running an obstacle course for your life. For the unprotected 1.5 miles between Eighth Street and the Embarcadero, cyclists must swerve around streetcar tracks and bus platforms, negotiate with clots of crossing pedestrians, and dodge cars, delivery trucks, and buses weaving in and out of lanes. Little wonder that Market is part of San Francisco’s “High Injury Corridor,” the 13 percent of streets that make up 75 percent of the city’s severe and fatal collisions.

Prepare for some big, structural change. On Tuesday, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board of supervisors approved the Better Market Street project, a $600-million plan to kick out cars and make space for people. When the work is complete, center lanes will be the sole province of Muni’s historic streetcars and rapid buses. Cyclists will enjoy a continuous bike lane, separated from the much-widened pedestrian sidewalk by benches, bike racks, planters, and railings. Taxis will be allowed, but Uber and Lyft vehicles will have to use dedicated loading zones on side-streets. No personal vehicles will be allowed, at all.

A rendering of the future Market Street. (Better Market Street)

In the U.S., these kinds of downtown automotive blockades can be among the most controversial moves a city government can make. Just look at New York City’s brand-new 14th Street busway, which survived two lawsuits and a court injunction. But not only did San Francisco’s board of directors approve the Market Street plan unanimously, endorsements for it also came from the mayor, several city agencies, elected officials, business owners, and the very ride-hailing companies that would be affected. “We support the Better Market Street project because it is deeply aligned with Lyft’s vision: reorienting our cities around people, not cars,” a transportation policy manager at Lyft wrote in a Medium post this year. Uber was also on board.

Even Aaron Peskin, a San Francisco supervisor who had previously criticized the cost of the project and leads the county’s transportation authority, ultimately supported the plan. There was virtually no opposition this time around.

How is that possible? It helps that this is San Francisco, one of the most socially progressive cities in the United States. But the city isn’t exactly a blueprint for brilliant urbanismlook no further than its struggles to build adequate housing. And the vote on the Market Street plan had been pushed back for years by bureaucratic delays since its inception nearly 10 years ago, when a pilot project by then-mayor Gavin Newsom gave rise to the idea of prohibiting car traffic entirely. At that time, the radical-seeming idea put off plenty of residents. “[A] dead city center affects the entire region, including encouraging sprawl, a sluggish economy, poverty and crime,” warned one San Francisco Chronicle reader in 2012. In the late 1990s, under Mayor Willy Brown, local headlines about a Critical Mass ride that got ugly (“S.F. Bike Chaos—250 Arrests”) painted a picture of the kind of cyclist-driver antipathy that’s so familiar in other cities.

Renderings of pedestrians enjoying the widened sidewalks and seating areas on the Market Street of the future. (Better Market Street)

Better Market Street’s success this week is a testament to a number of factors. One is the work of advocacy groups such as Walk S.F., the S.F. Bike Coalition, and the S.F. Municipal Transformation Agency, which has staged “human bike lanes” around the city for years. The fight for safer streets has moved further into the mainstream in large part because of their insistent attention-calling, which also helped push the SFMTA to make incremental changes that laid the groundwork for this plan. Waves of turn restrictions on Market Street probably made this total car ban go down easier, and it also provided proof of how much faster buses can travel when not impeded by traffic.

It also can’t be overlooked that San Francisco has some heavyweight car-free peers. Once, pedestrianized urban cores were largely the domain of enlightened mid-sized cities in northern Europe. But now Paris and Barcelona have expanded the concept, and Toronto is mulling a car blockade for multiple downtown corridors. London charges a pricy fee for vehicles entering its busy streets, and New York City will follow with its own congestion pricing scheme in 2021.

That city is also currently marveling at the immediate effects of its first car-free artery—a quieter 14th street, “massive” time savings for bus riders, and a doomsday for drivers that never materialized. Rather than flood adjacent streets, vehicle traffic seems to have dissipated overall, just as traffic experts predicted. Those are the kind of results that San Francisco can look forward to experiencing first-hand in the coming years: The first phase of Market Street’s car-free transformation is set to kick off in 2020.

Pedestrians walk in newly car-free lanes on 14th Street in Manhattan. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

The support and passage for the Market Street plan is also a sign that local transportation leaders have grown more emboldened in the face of climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles have already overtaken other sectors of the U.S. economy. Yet even in hyper-liberal cities like San Francisco that have invested in walking, biking, and transit infrastructure, driving has gone up, not down. According to an analysis by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, total vehicle miles traveled in the city grew 13 percent between 2010 and 2016. And this week, the thick smoke plumes and hazardous chemicals filling the air from an ethanol tank fire on the other side of the Bay served as a powerful reminder of the cost of oil dependency, something to which even this progressive region is tightly tethered.

Local leaders have laid much of the blame for increased driving at the feet of ride-hailing companies. But population growth and high housing costs also mean that more commuters are driving into the city from farther away. Reserving Market Street for everything but cars should make transit, biking, and walking more attractive ways to get around. It is also a declaration of how the urban future will need to look. “This is about the kind of city we want to be,” tweeted Amanda Eaken, one of the SFMTA’s directors. “Let’s make sure this is just the beginning of creating more car-free spaces in San Francisco.”

And it is: Already, the SFMTA is developing an experiment to remove cars from parts of the nearby Tenderloin, the city’s skid row. There, as on Market Street, many people live outdoors and congregate on the narrow sidewalks. The streets are at maximum capacity. Now, what’s giving way are the cars.

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A Breakdown of San Francisco’s Affordable Housing Crisis

You’ve undoubtedly heard by now that there is a housing affordability crisis in many cities across the United States.

In high cost cities like San Francisco (and New York, and Los Angeles, and Boston) housing affordability challenges have left  low-income families  with minimal discretionary income after their rents are paid; pushed first responders out of the communities in which they serve; forced teachers to face hours-long commutes, or leave the profession entirely; and led to people experiencing homelessness camping in tents on the sidewalk. Long a simmering problem, the region’s housing costs have escalated so dramatically over the last decade that nearly half of Bay Area residents struggle to afford their housing.

If it’s no secret that the high cost of housing is our state’s most pressing challenge, and the crisis is so well documented, why haven’t we fixed the problem? I have yet to see a single silver bullet (and I’ve spent years looking for it), but as with most public policy issues, it helps to break the issue down into smaller bites. In the simplest terms (and recognizing that I’m focusing on one specific housing type: multifamily rental housing), to build affordable housing, you need three things:

  • Land: A piece of dirt on which to build new housing
  • Political Will: Approved and entitled architectural plans for the new homes
  • Funding: Money to fund land acquisition, construction, and maintenance and operation of the newly built housing

There is a tried-and-true roadmap to build affordable housing. It’s expensive; particularly in coastal California, but it’s not a secret: a developer secures financing to acquire and develop the land, an architect designs a project that the city approves and grants entitlements and permits, and tenants pay an affordable rent, which provides revenue to pay off the construction loan and keep the building in operation.

But what happens when land is hard to come by, or existing residents resist new housing construction, or when the cost to build exceeds what a development project can reasonably charge in rents? This is when developers, advocates, bureaucrats, and elected officials need to get creative to ensure that low-income families, people experiencing homelessness, teachers, nurses, and first responders have access to safe and decently affordable housing.

Housing for Whom?

Identifying and quantifying housing needs in the community is a key – and often difficult – step in laying out an affordable housing policy platform. With finite funding available to subsidize new affordable housing, it’s almost always the case that there are needs left un-met. In California, state law requires that every eight years, the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) determines the specific number of new housing units each city must plan for that are affordable to very low-, low-, moderate-, and above-moderate-income households.  The goals are ambitious, and rarely achieved.

Eligibility for most federal, state, and local housing assistance programs is determined by how a household compares to the jurisdiction’s Area Median Income (AMI).  A city’s AMI is the household income for the median (middle) household in a defined area; that is, line up all the households in the city from lowest to highest income, and the median income is right at the center. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) calculates the AMI for each metropolitan area of the country each year, and jurisdictions may apply filters or screens to adjust that calculation in a way that takes into account local factors.

While no one needs to memorize the complex income chart for their jurisdiction, it’s critical to keep in mind who you are trying to house when you contemplate a new development. Is the goal to build housing for:

  • People experiencing homelessness?
  • Working families with young children?
  • Seniors on fixed incomes?
  • First responders?
  • Teachers and paraprofessionals?

Different local, state, and federal funding sources serve different points on the income spectrum.  Traditionally, publicly funded affordable housing programs have served households earning up to 60% of AMI, with the general assumption that people earning more than that could at least afford market rate rents, if not homeownership.

In San Francisco, in 2019, the median income for a family of four is $123,150. A low-income family of four earning 60% AMI earns $73,900 per year. With market rate rents averaging $3,700/month, that low-income family faces a monthly housing affordability gap of more than $1,800, and would need to earn at least $133,200 in order to afford the average market rate rent.

Solutions

There is a definitive need for affordable housing programs for low-income households. But there is also clearly a need for housing assistance for people earning up to and beyond the city’s median income. When available funds and programs don’t align well with defined needs – and there is simply not enough money to solve the problem, the housing affordability challenge can seem insurmountable.

If there is a silver lining to the current state of housing in the Bay Area, it’s that the affordability crisis has served as a much-needed call to action. Under a regional framework known as the 3Ps (production, preservation, and protections), new programs that seek to facilitate new housing construction, preserve existing affordable housing, and to enact tenant protections have been tried, tested, funded, and legislated at the local, regional, and state levels.  A few highlights include:

  • Land: at the State level, the Surplus Land Act clarifies that unused public land should be activated for affordable housing development. At the local level, San Francisco voters will consider a ballot measure in November 2019 that will allow affordable housing on most sites that are publicly owned. In order to better attract and retain teachers, San Francisco has funded the first educator housing development on school district property, and the San Francisco Unified School District has identified three additional parcels as future sites for employee housing.
  • Political Will: Senate Bill 35, authored by Senator Wiener, passed in late 2017 paved the way for by-right, streamlined project approvals and shaving years off of the entitlement timeline for new affordable housing developments. Efforts to upzone in order to encourage transit oriented development, increase density, and add affordable housing to the region have been hotly debated at the regional level and at the State legislature. While Senate Bill 50, also from Senator Wiener, stalled at the end of the last legislative session, it will be considered in the 2020 session.
  • Funding: In San Francisco, voters passed a $350 million housing bond in November 2015; on the upcoming November 2019 ballot San Franciscans will have an opportunity to pass another housing bond – this time in the amount of $600 million. Public-private partnerships such as the San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund are focused on market-paced anti-displacement strategies and innovation in new housing production.

Regionally, private funders are coming together around housing in efforts such as the Partnership for the Bay’s Future and Kaiser Permanente’s initiative tackling housing insecurity in Oakland.  And at the State level, Governor Newsom signed a budget that includes $500 million in new low income housing tax credits, which are scheduled to be allocated in January of 2020 to spur new housing production.

Optimism matters, but pragmatism and focus are required, along with a commitment to focusing on the 3Ps for the long term. California has not kept pace with housing production needs for decades, and housing construction has been particularly slow in coastal communities, where jobs have been added at breakneck speed. It stands to reason that solving, or making a dent, in housing affordability challenges will also take decades. We can’t afford not to try.

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