Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

I read Generation Priced Out by Randy Shaw on

Review

This is a good book. It blends history, commentary, anecdote, and statistics at all the right levels. It describes systems as functional, and looks at their problems through a lens that’s both hopeful and honest about what’s going wrong. And, admittedly, it affirms my previous viewpoints with respect to city housing and affordability.

In stark contrast to other writing on the topic, it doesn’t resort to mentioning ‘gentrification’ every few sentences. When he discusses displacement, it’s called displacement. Using the right words for things helps us think. And it doesn’t latch on to a catchphrase: you won’t hear him repeating and that was Generation Priced Out every chapter. All of the tropes that go with bestseller-fodder books are thankfully absent, and instead good writing and research comes first.

This book is clear about its enemies: people like Dianne Feinstein, who during her tenure as mayor was responsible for the rezoning that’s currently eating the real estate market. Large nonprofits like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who have supported anti-growth measures. Even activists, who picked their enemies carelessly and fought against all kinds of newcomers and new building. But it takes each person and incident into consideration: even folks who play the hero, like Ed Lee, made mistakes.

My gripes with the California left were adequately inflamed. I was a DSA member for a while after moving to San Francisco, but after one prominent member ran for the SF Bicycle Coalition Board on a platform of calling the (city-owned, city-run) Ford GoBike system a “neoliberal takeover of public space” and another wore a shirt that said “Stop Building Ugly Condos” as they platformed a protestor of the so-called Monster in the Mission, well, I was out.

Transit and housing matter to me, and matter to the world. Transit is the number one source of carbon emissions in the United States, and as we’re constantly reminded, cars take lives in much more immediate ways, too. And I hopefully don’t need to explain why quibbling over architecture is absolutely nothing more than a lame disguise for obstructionism. And then there were moments when, even when they were rallying for things that I support, like Proposition C, they would be framed with rhetoric about ‘young tech workers using SF like a playground’ - these words spoken by a late-20s guy, possibly without realizing that they were using boomer talking points that try to shift responsibility from the selfish landowners to the people at the business end of the crisis those boomers created. What I saw as an organization that narrowly defined ‘capital’ as money, conveniently avoiding the discussion of housing. They aimed to support and establish the working class but – in the case of transportation and housing – landed on a populism that ends up being normative and reactionary.

It feels good to vent once in a while, doesn’t it?

My gripes with it are pretty minor.

It discusses the application & politics of rent control, but cover its context or history. Rent control is one of the issues that – in SF – you’ll hear people vote for but argue against, that it’s a useful temporary measure but research indicates that it has a potentially toxic effect on rents as a whole, and that it increases the rate of evictions. And reading the formulation of rent control laws – that they tend to track inflation or consumer prices indices – explains why they lead to wildly-below-market rates. Which, again, doesn’t really mean that rent control is bad, but I wish that I could find a full accounting of how it’s supposed to work and what its goals and definition of success is.

The effect of transit on housing is discussed briefly but isn’t analyzed very deeply: for example, it talks about the Mission District in San Francisco receiving two BART subway stations early on, and how merchants protested the impact on business. Was this, in the long term, accurate? The overblown response of merchants to any non-car infrastructure is a recurring trend, and I think it’d be worthwhile to ask whether their claims were borne out.

Despite these quibbles, I highly recommend Generation Priced Out as an introduction to the housing crisis.

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