San Francisco's Super Bowl teaches us about disaster risk governance
Last night 1/3 of America watched the Broncos beat the Panthers in the 50th Super Bowl. Leading up to the event San Franciscans protested the rising cost of living in the beloved city. The protesters claim long gone are the days of aspiring artistry and gentle wanderers with flowers in their hair. Now, if you are going to San Francisco be sure to bring lots of cash... more cash than most Americans ever fathom carrying.
As a desirable place to live- beautiful, progressive, comfortable climate- the wealth wealth flocked there. In more recent years they have flocked in association with the tech industry that pays handsomely.
Thus, as a city and the broader Bay Area region has on the one hand, done well for itself. It has established a productive industry bringing money people to the area that are capable of paying taxes and fostering upkeep of their communities. Real estate is booming which is favorable for the national economy.
On the other hand, it has alienated its residents you call the area home, love it, but are finding it increasingly difficult to live there. This eats away at the culture of SF, exacerbates the image of inequality in America and is very anti- love, flowers and assimilation.
A recent article in The Atlantic covered the protests and reports the San Francisco government seeks to improve the matter by increasing affordable housing in the city. However, their are zoning regulations limiting how the city builds. The Atlantic explains,
In other words, this is a zoning problem. In the early 1970s, a series of decisions were made to “downzone” areas of the city to prevent it from changing, Metcalf said. Those decisions limited where high buildings could be built and restricted where dense office and residential spaces could go up. The below San Francisco Planning Department map indicates that most of the residential lots in the city are restricted to three units per lot.
This was one of the things that first struck me when I arrived in San Francisco. I’d heard about the high prices and lack of housing, and thought the city would be, like New York, finding creative ways to pack in more living spaces and cars and offices and people. But San Francisco isn’t very dense at all. Some of its hottest areas are still taken up by multi-level above-ground parking lots. Its streets are dotted with one-story commercial buildings, even in neighborhoods like the Marina District, where people really, really want to live. Its waterfronts still feature empty warehouses and industrial spaces, and even developers who want to divide Victorian homes into separate units to fit more people are rebuffed. In much of the city, anyone who builds a new unit is required to also build a parking space with it—one of the only ways to get around that regulation is to have a hearing. Stand atop Twin Peaks and look over San Francisco, and it’s hard to see any apartment buildings at all: Most of the buildings are either the tall office buildings of downtown, the colonial Spanish-style churches of the Mission, or the three- and four-story homes that are just about everywhere else.
It’s a big contrast to New York City, where you can’t miss the scaffolding and cranes and construction when you walk down the street, regardless of what borough you’re in (okay, maybe not Staten Island). In New York, parking garages are compressed into small spaces with wacky stacking systems where cars ride elevators to be parked. There, just about every empty warehouse, building, or park is in the process of being converted into something. In San Francisco, everywhere you turn there are empty lots or empty commercial buildings that would make for great spots for apartments.
“We have plenty of room to add housing—but yes, it would mean bigger, taller buildings, it would also mean more people getting around by bike and transit rather than driving,” Metcalf said.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors could change the city’s zoning to allow more tall buildings, but they’d likely face opposition from residents who still don’t want the city to change, Metcalf said. After all, if you own a home in San Francisco, you are likely seeing its value skyrocket as demand continues to increase and supply remains low. And why support new building that might block your view or your sun or bring hassles into the neighborhood?
In another context, some are concerned that San Fran is built up plenty. An earthquake similar to the one of 1906 could, depending on your assumptions, cause damages upwards of $300B. Increasing housing units necessarily increases loss potential and increasing affordable housing increases the number of people in the area that can't afford (almost by definition) volatility in housing costs say, costs in insurance coverage.
While the iconic San Francisco may be the most expensive place in America to live and is therefore most prominent in the affordable housing debate, it is one heard from far and wide: Miami, The Keys, Boulder (CO), New York City and Long Island, Hawaii...and well, pretty much anywhere people want to live that also has a thriving economy.
Thus brings about the important question: Who is responsible for the shared risk of urban development? As is the case for taking risks, their are benefits: real estate profit, jobs, economic growth... Super Bowls. But also the potential drawbacks: loss of culture, loss of "home" for the less well to do, and damage from extreme events.
The common argument that insurance can manage this issue, rates should reflect the "real" risk, and disaster risk must be communicated unfairly oversimplifies the social values at stake. The perspective holds that insurers know best how a city should be zoned, who should rule and what should matter.
I would guess that San Franciscans beg to differ. As The Atlantic quoted one resentful SF local as saying, “Everything they build is for rich people.” Indeed, rich people are a great way to offload public risk.
But where does the rest of America get to live if not in the very places that symbolize the cultural and economic achievement of the nation.