Good Zoning Laws Make Good Neighbors

Three years ago, FT had an article praising Tokyo’s laissez-faire zoning laws. Landowners can build and demolish as they see fit; the rules are set at the national level, so local governments have no say in the matter.

The article suggests that San Francisco could learn a thing or two from relaxed development rules. Ha. Hahahahaha. Why on earth would San Francisco residents want to liberate housing development??

In Japan, a housing development is the developer’s business. In San Francisco, it’s everyone’s business. Neighbors appeal building permits based on traffic considerations, shadow effects, environmental impact, historic preservation, and all manner of other stuff.

Here’s what they really want to preserve:

The upper blue area is North Beach and Little Italy. The red cluster to the right of that is Chinatown, port of entry for Chinese immigrants during the railroad and Gold Rush years. The red blocks on the west are the second, third, and fourth Chinatowns, formed after 1965. The orange area is the Latino Mission District; the dense blue spot down south is the Jewish retirement community. Source: Dotmap

San Francisco is culturally diverse, but the diversity* is strictly segregated. We call this historical character, and character can only be maintained by keeping outsiders out. Neighborhoods can’t exactly come out and impose cultural segregation, but they can enforce zoning laws. By blocking new buildings and preventing the renovation of old ones, residents ensure that the demographic makeup stays the same year after year.

When policy initiatives aren’t enough, diversity can be preserved in other ways. In Chinatown, landlords often advertise vacancies only in Chinese newspapers and sites, ensuring that incoming residents are also Chinese. The Mission District promotes gentrification resistance movements such as the Yuppie Eradication Project and Causa Justa, which tracks the number of Latino households displaced by white residents.

In any other city, we might start slinging the r-word around. Here in San Francisco, it’s a reasonable fear of displacement. I suspect that most of what we call racism today is this same type of fear.

City residents are right to be scared: The Fillmore District used to be known as the center of West Coast jazz, the Harlem of the West, until it was targeted for redevelopment in the 1960s. Urban renewal destroyed the Fillmore’s low rent housing, forcing tens of thousands of diverse residents out of the neighborhood. The development was widely criticized as a “N…. Removal” project. Today, the Fillmore District is just another place where rich tech workers live.

The area formerly known as the Harlem of the West

San Francisco is frequently charged with NIMBYism, in which wealthy landlords are accused of blocking development to uphold property prices. While it’s easy to rip on the landed gentry, low income residents are actually some of the most vocal opponents of new development.

75 percent of San Francisco’s rental stock is under rent control, and many units are priced so far below market rates that no amount of free market development could keep these tenants in their homes. The locals don’t want to compete with newcomers for business and housing because they know they can’t.

It’s these charming pockets of xenophobia that have preserved San Francisco’s historical character and made it such a desirable place to live. If SF were to liberate its zoning regulations, it might turn into San Jose.

Don’t get me wrong; San Jose is a lovely metropolitan area — I practically live there myself. San Jose is an older city with a history that goes back to the 18th century Spanish pueblos, but its historical character has long been displaced by the urban developments that rich hipsters are now trying to shoehorn into San Francisco.

Site of California’s first pueblo-town in downtown San Jose. We have the Fairmont Hotel, a Sheraton, and the Silicon Valley Capital Club, a private club for rich people.

So we can either have a bunch of segregated areas with rich cultural history and strict zoning plans, or a culturally dispossessed Frappuccino. It’s worth noting that, despite offering lower rent and easier access to the likes of Facebook and Google, Silicon Valley tech workers would rather not live in San Jose.


*I realize that the word “diversity” is constantly evolving. Here, I use it in the liberal sense of having representation from racial minorities.

5 thoughts on “Good Zoning Laws Make Good Neighbors

  1. A coworker of mine who is a major yupers would tell horror stories of his car being broken into in the lower nob by homeless people, apparently for the purpose of having sexual intercourse. Since his apartment didn’t have a parking space, one day to spare his window he just decided to just unlock the car. For me this sounded feasible, the homeless are super batshit here, but maybe he was actually just being targeted by one of these yuppie terrorism projects.

    1. That sounds really gross! I can’t imagine sitting in a car that was used as a homeless person’s motel room… why even keep the car??

  2. San Francisco is just another liberal city that has become a caricature of itself. The city no longer welcomes Black people unless they are the type who believe in being dependent on the government and white liberals for their sustenance & survival – Black entrepreneurs or professionals seeking high positions commensurate with their experience are not welcome and will remain unemployed or out of business! Liberal racism on full display! Nor does the city welcome independent thinkers who don’t toe the line and adhere to the Orwellian cult of politically correct Newspeak. The place sucks unless you are one of the following: (1) white liberal (2) illegal immigrant (3) techie millionaire (4) unambitious pot smoking hippie (5) university “professor”. Glad I left that hell hole because as a black entrepreneur I find far more opportunity in conservative states.

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