Bernal Neighbor’s Essay Ponders Housing Prices, Public Policy, and the Future of San Francisco’s Middle Class


Neighbor Hina Shah is associate professor at the Golden Gate University School of Law. She rents in the La Lengua Autonomous Zone, on 29th at Mission — for the moment. Her housing situation has been stressful, and she wrote about that, and some possible solutions, in last Friday’s Chronicle:

The discussion about the housing crisis has focused exclusively on how the burgeoning tech industry is affecting low-income residents. However, middle-class, moderate-income families like mine are also being squeezed out of the city.

My family lives in a non-rent-controlled unit in the Mission-Bernal Heights district. My husband and I moved into our apartment 10 years ago, when we were still dating. Since then, we got married and had two children. When it was time for our daughter to go to elementary school, we chose our neighborhood public school. We occasionally considered buying a place but, with our incomes as nonprofit and public-sector workers, owning seemed like a financial stretch.

In January, however, our commitment to raising our children in the city was severely tested. We were notified that our rent would increase by $600 a month.

So what is to be done? Neighbor Hina proposes:

To ensure economic diversity in our communities, the city must embrace nonmarket solutions, such as:

Increase city-owned land that can be developed into subsidized housing for all income levels. Vienna offers an excellent model for how San Francisco could be a major player in social housing. In Vienna, the city controls 25 percent of the housing stock and indirectly controls another quarter of housing built and owned by limited-profit, private developers. Housing cannot be controlled solely by the private market, as irrational exuberance is once again overvaluing housing and pushing long-term residents out of the city. Here in San Francisco, the city must become a key player by owning and managing housing stock.

San Francisco’s Housing Trust Fund should be used to build affordable housing units, with a mix of diverse price points, limited equity units and rental units.

Induce tech giants such as Google to invest in community land trusts or other funds to help build more affordable housing. Google’s recent gift to fund free Muni passes for youth for two years is inconsequential. The public and the city officials who represent us should demand more from our tech neighbors.

Preserve and expand rent control: Units constructed after 1979 (like mine) are exempt from rent control. The state’s Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act exempts from rent control single-family homes and condominiums where the tenancy began on or after January 1996. The act also removed vacancy controls, allowing landlords to set new rents when a unit becomes vacant.

Change the Ellis Act to stop speculator evictions of rent-controlled tenants. Preserving and expanding rent control will need full public engagement and the city’s muscle, as it did in 1979 when the city passed emergency legislation to stem the tide of quadrupling rents in the Mission District.

There’s a lot to consider in all this, so discuss in the comments if you’re so inclined.

PHOTO: Telstar Logistics

26 thoughts on “Bernal Neighbor’s Essay Ponders Housing Prices, Public Policy, and the Future of San Francisco’s Middle Class

  1. “….the city must become a key player by owning and managing housing stock” All I can say is “pass the dubbie to the left one time.” Has she been to the projects lately, doesn’t the city own and manage that housing stock. Yeah lets get more of that, sorry NIMBY.

    I don’t understand the rational that the government, the most inefficient, most corrupt, most expensive entity is some how the best solution. Where does the money come from to build, own, and maintain this City owned housing? Property owners. San Francisco has 7 billion dollars in revenue and still manages to run a billion dollar deficit. New private housing stock actually contributes to the city coffers.

    Why stop at 25% why not 100%. I have been to Cuba where that is the case, it is a sad site to see. The relics of a once beautiful colonial city lay in ruin because the government sought to provide a “greater good” and affordable housing. It doesn’t work.

    Lastly, her rent went up $600, but to what? Fails to mention as I would guess she is still getting a screaming deal since she has been there 10 years.

    My 2¢, I await my crucifixion.

    • You won’t get it from me. Honestly folks who write this sort of stuff need to speak with people who grew up in communist countries.
      Go visit Russia, Romania, Viet Nam. See what it looks like when the government is left to build housing. It doesn’t resemble anything like say the new construction on Valencia and 19’th(or is it 20’th?)
      Instead of asking private companies like Google to pony up to public funds we should be asking the city what the heck are they doing with all the added property tax these increased home values are generating.
      A home with a million dollar sale on the books is paying nearly $1,000 a month in property taxes.

    • You won’t get it from me either. Good points you made as well. thank you.
      What neighbor Hina didn’t say was whether they could afford the increase or not. She merely mentioned the increase. Here’s my advice:

      Increase your income to pay for the increase. Decrease your expenses.
      Move to a place you can afford.

      • this is a coldhearted response to a person who has given serious thought to her (and others) situation – you’re the kind of person who passes a homeless person on the street and says to himself “musta done something to put himself there – no handouts from me”
        what i can’t abide is when someone compares the US or SF to another country when they don’t have anywhere near the diverse population SF has. but there are some good points…like asking the tech giants to pony up some cash for housing.

      • @Jaime San Francisco spends $165 million a year on services for homeless people there are…6,436 homeless adults(would love to audit that number but we’ll go with it) counted during one night last year, a separate daytime count specifically of homeless youth found 914 children and young adults living in San Francisco. That is $22,000 per person and child. Is that not enough? What should we spend?


        People do do something to put themselves that position, they choose to be homeless. There are millions of immigrants who cross the boarder in the cold dead of night and create better lives for themselves living in the shadows. Why can they make a better life for themselves, but not the people who are born here and speak the language? Choices, bad ones. #sorrynotsorry

      • Not everyone is as mobile as you think. Some people work here but lack the resources to both move and find new work. Some people don’t grow up with the educational opportunities that people born in the US have. I believe that if you work in a city, you are contributing something and you should be able to live in that city. It’s unsustainable to expect that someone working in retail in SF should move to Antioch and commute every day. How is someone making minimum wage going to afford that commute in the first place? How many job opportunities are there in Antioch? Stockton? etc?

    • You must listen to Mark Levin, you sound just like him with your “the most inefficient, most corrupt, most expensive entity” hyperbole.

      San Francisco is in the unenviable position of trying to be compassionate to a problem that needs federal management. I’m not a fan of the homelessness industrial complex here, but what’s YOUR alternative? Conservatives like you don’t have any new ideas, just criticism for people trying to do the right thing.

      Your comparison to Cuba is a stretch – don’t hurt yourself. You know what keeps Cuba poor? International sanctions. If Cuba was allowed to have a legitimate tourist trade, it would likely prosper. If Cuba prospers, it sets a bad example for capitalist ideals. Better to keep the people of Cuba down than to legitimize socialist ideals like those that benefit social-capitalist countries.

      A $600/month increase in rent is significant whether one is paying $600/month for rent or $2500/month. Were you born without the gene for compassion?

      The quote is “pass the DUTCHIE,” dittohead.

  2. And that’s the flip side of Prop 13. I couldn’t afford to live in the modest house I bought in 1996 if the taxes reflected its current value. I would be selling out (thus accelerating gentrification) and transferring to my company’s Florida office, which I have absolutely no desire to do!

    • If taxes were based on market value, the rate could be lower. As it is, folks who have owned the same place for decades are getting essentially a free ride from those who recently purchased a home.

      • Sorry to continue exploring this tangent, but;

        Property tax in California and SF still rises at a small but steady rate, but since the home isn’t subject to reassessment unless it is either sold or had significant improvements made to it (I believe they have authority to reassess value when you receive your building permits), it allows a home buyer to make an informed decision as to what they can afford. Without those protections, anyone that couldn’t be described as affluent would risk losing their home in a real estate market like we’re experiencing today (and have experienced before, and will again).

        My retired parents are experiencing that exact issue in Washington right now.

      • that’s true but the real free ride is given to owners of commercial property. Since a corporation can never die and reassessment is only triggered when a majority stake in a building is sold (at least 51%) all the major owners of downtown skyscrapers are paying tax based on 70’s property values. They simply sell a minority share to keep the tax rate.

  3. Community Land Trusts and Limited Equity Units are a good idea because they decouple housing from speculation/investment.

    In the former, units remain affordable because the city owns the land while a buyer purchases a unit. When the unit is sold, it must be sold back to the CLT for a price that gives the owner a small return on investment, but allows the unit to be resold at a below-market price.

    Limited equity units are basically BMR units that cannot be sold for a profit. They give a family a great deal on a house/apartment but in return, the family can’t rent it out to anyone else or sell the unit for more than a specified price that allows the unit to be resold at a below market price.

    Definitely don’t agree with expanding rent control but speculation/ellis acts/omis have to be dealt with – people are abusing the system in order to make a fast buck and the ones who suffer are those who lack mobility like the elderly, disabled, or someone with limited education/language skills who can’t exactly pick up and move and find a new job. Ideally new construction would take the heat off but that takes time and we need some immediate stop gaps in the meantime.

  4. I get very frustrated by the “get a better job or move” sort of comments that sprout up on this board and others when people talk about the housing crisis, market, etc. Do people really want a city where the only people who live here are either super rich or residents of public housing? I work at her daughter’s school and live here in Bernal. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is for the community, that many of the teachers and staff members live and work in the neighborhood – for the creation of a sense of home. In all sorts of uncommodified ways it is important for the culture of a place for there to be economic as well as social diversity.

    If a professor at a University can’t afford to live in the city they work in and the neighborhood they call home there is something really wrong. Teachers need to live near their schools and students in order to be able to do the most good. If we lost our current apartment my family would not be able to rent anything in Bernal Heights because it is impossible for a teacher and a non-profit worker with two kids to pay 3500 a month in rent. Impossible. It is a terrifying prospect – to lose everything we have spent so much time building because of real estate speculation and greed.

    • not to mention if you did move somewhere else how hard it would be to find a similar job elsewhere! That or endure hours commuting.

      • Lots of people endure hours of commuting exactly for that reason: to afford a large house that they could never afford in SF.

        There are still plenty of (relatively) inexpensive places to live in SF still, they’re just not as desirable. I moved to Bernal when I got priced out of Dogpatch 13 years ago. There are still good deals on apartments in the Excelsior, Silver Terrace or (gasp) Bayview.

  5. I definitely don’t agree with the point about rent control. Rent control pretty much did the opposite of what it was intended to do for my mother in law. We couldn’t figure out why every time she would go to an open house the agent would tell her it had already been rented as soon as they looked at her. After nearly a year of this, an agent she met in passing told her it was because she was clearly over 65 and landlords were afraid that once in, they would never get her out. One person told her point blank that she was going to hold out for a student because she depends on the rental income to live and wanted someone she knew would leave so she could keep up with inflation. Rent control IMHO is a bad solution to a real problem that needs to be readdressed in a different way.

  6. Buying a home is no easy task. When we bought our first home it meant not being able to join our friends for dinners out, or movies, concerts, etc. We weren’t very fashionable (which was hard for me as the women around me we shopping and dressing fashionably and I felt so frumpy in comparison. They weren’t paying a mortgage and had plenty of cash or and credit to dress well). It sounds like I, we, felt sorry for ourselves, but other than the occasional stab of envy, we were ok. We were younger and we continually reminded ourselves that these sacrifices were going to be the way toward a solid future. We never questioned this, it was the way our parents went about setting themselves up, it was what you had to do. We were never going to inherit anything from our folks so our future was up to us.
    This was years ago and since then we were able to fix up that first home and sell it for a modest profit and reinvest that in a bigger home for our growing family. All the while they money we were paying into our home was allowing us to save, save, save and stay in the community we love. I’m sorry for those who didn’t make that choice when they were younger, it’s so much harder to sacrifice as you get older, but I also feel like they were having a lot more fun than we were then. Why should I have to subsidize you now? Why should I have to pay for you to play catch up because you didn’t want to “stretch” (I call it sacrifice) back when you should have? We all know that home ownership has been a good investment in California. The writing was on the wall, you just chose to ignore it.

    • I just got a publicity Email from Paragon Real Estate which includes MLS data (from 3/1/13 and 2/28/14) showing that 25% of the house sales in San Francisco were for less than $750,000. (715 houses – 2+ bedrooms, not listed as fixers)

      $750,000 is a lot of money, but not that out of line with the $400,000 I spent for a 2BR in Bernal in 1999. Just like today, it was a stretch financially and my friends and family thought I was crazy for spending that much on a old rundown house in what they considered to be part of Daly City. The main reason I bought in Bernal was I wanted to own something and Potrero (where I was renting and thought was great) was too expensive.

      If you want to own in SF, ignore the hype and go explore some other parts of the City. There are other future Bernals, Dogpatches, Missions, and Potreros out there. Or just continue to complain and wait for the next big earthquake!

    • Because not everyone was in your exact same situation years ago with the choice to scrimp and save for a house or have fun and spend money shopping all day long. I am like you – I was lucky enough to have that choice so I understand not having sympathy for others who didn’t make the sacrifices I did. That said, some people just do not have the same opportunities we did. Some people have to make sacrifices and live modestly just to keep afloat. They’re not just sitting there picking their noses and waiting for someone else to foot the bill – they are contributing to the city and the economy, just not in a way that’s rewarded monetarily as well in our society.

      • I was responding to the particulars of this article, not to the population in total. The author said they considered buying many times but it was a stretch.

  7. There have been many valid comments and experiences expressed, too many to reply to individually. To do so would seem like excessive trolling. So I will only troll modestly, selectively. Thanks for joining me.

    In order to really grasp the author’s situation, I agree it would be better to know more about the particulars. I bet that she can be contacted, however, if people are truly concerned and would like to know more of her plight—or even if they just want to rail on her further from their perch, such is the wont of some.

    Many on this blog have encountered the Rapture and screeched “Get Used to It!” towards long-term residents in our community who have expressed deep sadness, heartache, and desperation about real estate prices and values in Bernal. Such a posture, which often is pitched with great derision and arrogance, is no less mean and cruel than words attacking some of our newest neighbors.

    Speaking of all that: For discussions on this hallowed blog regarding the real estate market, we seem to have a healthy abundance of Reagan Democrats or even Ayn Rand fans in our Bernal midst. (I’ll see you at the next meeting. Underground, again? Text me the address, k?) I hope you’re not too bothered that there is a 5-day workweek, a minimum wage, and a social security system. Are we going to picket SF General again next month? (See?)

    The economic realities go something like this: Housing is significantly more expensive in SF than it was few years ago, especially in a few places (like Bernal), in basic terms and relative to the rate of pay increases (unless you work in certain industries that cannot be named on this blog, we have learned, lest one suffer great wrath–heck, maybe even a dose of pestilence for good measure). In order for many to buy a home in Bernal right now, even the best intentions–and good planning, massive sacrifices, and Scrooge-like saving–also have to be tied to things beyond one’s control, like timing, one’s age, where they are in their careers, and a growing influx of “competitors” for housing that materialized like a tsunami in just a few years’ time.

    For some, home ownership here (in Bernal or even in SF at all) is just not in the cards. The brutal realities faced by some who are scratching by in the City–including thousands who are “middle class” but live under very insecure circumstances–also leads to a hard-edged recommendation: If one cannot afford to live in a place, they should indeed leave it.

    The model for our idea of “public housing” does not have to be Vietnam, China, or Cuba or some other overwrought place where bottom-of-the-barrel “public services” are doled out by dysfunctional governments rife with corruption and nary a hint of interest in its citizenry’s welfare. It seems overly pessimistic to jump to the conclusion that “public housing” or government-subsidized housing going forward in SF–not to speak to what has been badly erected even in Bernal’s back porch, The Place of Which We Do Not Speak!–would replicate such locales’ monstrosities. Of course, for this to be truly actualized, our public servants would need to have learned lessons of poor decisions made in the City many years ago, and live up to the reputation of anywhere named after St. Francis and treat its people with more tenderness. Some vision is there, but the political motivation and financial will seem still in development. Instead, how about talk about public housing in some European countries, where extremely innovative and very comfortable “projects” are built by the state? That would seem to be a better parallel, or at least a goal to shoot for.

    In the mid 2000s, I read a comment in SF that has rung true for a while now in Bernal, and its cling-clang is mightier than ever: “Somebody who owns a house in some parts of SF is a millionaire [since their house is “worth” that much], while everyone else is SOL.” This was at a time when housing prices were far lower in Bernal than they are now, before Bernal’s market became hot for the influx of cash, if not hot for (public school) teacher. The house around the corner from me just sold for about 300K over asking–for a total of more than 1.2 million, and about 500K more than it was sold for about 7 years ago. It’s a nice place inside and all, but…I am speechless, and rarely am, if anyone who has read this far will agree.

    Let’s level with each other: It’s generally true that if your bid for a home is not the highest and you can’t put cold cash on the table, you better be a magician to secure a place you try for in our neighborhood. Sure, there are some Houdinis out there, but many home-bidders remain tied up in knots, and those restraints are not only of their own making.

    Market forces act both to fracture communities and also re-construct them, but I will not go all Rebecca Solnit on you. Along with this reconstruction in Bernal is the inevitable pushing out of folks who have lived here a long time and who have become community leaders and contributors. Just because someone will occupy the places where they once lived does not mean they will be replaced; they are not replaceable, and the neighborhood suffers in particular ways for their being dispersed. A muralist’s home is bought after decades of occupancy, and those living there are evicted. A non-profit worker and his public school teacher wife are outbid for a home, one where they have lived for more than a decade. They are absolute treasures—first responders to a fire (on a different block from them, mind you), among possessing many other glowing attributes. “Community” means, in some circles, that someone will come to your aid when you need it.

    There is also much “new” to embrace in Bernal, and those of us who remain will grow accustomed to such losses as part of the evolving reality. Among the new neighbors in Bernal are surely treasures, too. Sometimes, it’s the simple fact that the chest cannot hold all of the jewels, and some are cast away, flickering a distant light, like stars.

  8. One thing in the article that bugs me:
    “Not even the increase in down-payment assistance from the mayor’s office will beat out all-cash offers.”

    If you are pre-qualified for a loan; and the house will appraise for what you’re offering; the fact that it’s an all-cash offer is irrelevant.

    The only things that matters to a seller is how fast it will close, and what the selling price is.

    • That’s nonsensical since an all-cash offer can close weeks faster than one incorporating a loan.

  9. It is really a pity and a serious concern that some people were being forced – albeit by several unexpected factors – to become homeless. I know some people who were really desperate to find a decent home, only to be turned away by the high costs of rent or by high mortgage rates. It is not easy to find a good place for a new home, especially if there is not enough income to look for such a place. It is normal to be burdened by the thoughts of having no home to come into after spending a day at work.

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