San Francisco’s Housing Crisis, Exactly as Planned


Plenty of discussion has centered around the California housing situation, especially the prices and lack of availability in the bay area since the tech explosion brought enormous wealth to one of America’s most unique cities, San Francisco. Demolishing the California Dream: How San Francisco Planned Its Own Housing Crisis by Hunter Oatman-Stanford is a detailed examination of the history of that great city, and how it came to be the go-to example of the modern housing debate.

So it’s somehow fitting our national housing crisis would peak in San Francisco, since the city was one of the first to introduce this idea of “local control,” via land-use zoning, more than 100 years ago.

San Francisco’s first street grid, encompassing 12 blocks around the nascent port, was laid out by Swiss sea captain Jean Jacques Vioget in 1839 when California was still governed by Mexico. After the community, then known as Yerba Buena, was occupied by American forces and became San Francisco in 1847, the new alcalde or mayor commissioned Jasper O’Farrell to create a new city survey. O’Farrell slightly corrected the North-South Vioget street grid, establishing regular lots around 46 yards wide with their southern boundary at a new wide boulevard called Market Street, extending perpendicular from the wharf all the way to the hills of Twin Peaks.

South of Market Street—known as SoMa today—was given a separate grid with wider blocks around 92 yards each and streets running parallel to Market and the previously established route to Mission Dolores, now named Mission Street. Though no zoning regulations were established with these surveys, SoMa’s extra-long blocks of marshland, which were less desirable than the more stable ground north of Market, eventually became the default location for industrial uses like manufacturing, wholesale distribution, and warehousing.

However, the push to legally separate noxious pollution from San Francisco’s residential and business districts led to one of the country’s earliest attempts to restrict land usage: In the 1850s, city leaders created a new licensing system for slaughterhouses that forced these businesses to relocate south of Harrison Street in SoMa, with additional regulations in 1864 pushing hog yards and slaughterhouses even further south to Islais Creek.

A few years later, in 1870, San Francisco leaders passed Order 939 Regulating Lodging Houses, also known as the Cubic Air Ordinance, at the urging of anti-Chinese labor groups that formed in response to the Gold Rush immigration boom. The new law required 500 cubic feet of space per occupant of any lodging room in the city, but it was only enforced in areas housing mostly Chinese residents, resulting in hundreds of arrests.

It is a long and detailed article. Notable is that the City of San Francisco had a unique opportunity to re-invent itself after the almost total destruction of the 1906 earthquake and fire that leveled the downtown area, and how those decisions or lack thereof set the stage for decades of controversy. It is interesting what has and hasn’t changed in how planning and zoning are implemented. Read, discuss, and decide for yourself.

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3 thoughts on “San Francisco’s Housing Crisis, Exactly as Planned

  1. …after the almost total destruction of the 1906 earthquake and fire that leveled the downtown area, and how those decisions or lack thereof set the stage for decades of controversy.

    It’s only a matter of time before they’ll get another opportunity.

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  2. During the 19th century, San Francisco was called the Paris of the United States. Both are about the same size in land area. Paris has over two million people. Few would doubt its’ beauty as a city. San Francisco can be denser and still inspire awe.

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