By Jason A. McDaniel
The housing affordability crisis in many of America’s most successful and ideologically liberal cities raises some important questions for those who are interested in the politics of urban America. How will the political coalitions that govern these cities adapt to the politics of growth? Is it possible for liberal-progressive urban political coalitions to challenge local NIMBYism and break away from slow-growth politics? A recent debate in San Francisco about whether progressive politics is to blame for the housing crunch illustrates the difficulties that many liberal-progressive governing coalitions will face in adapting to an era of urban growth.
The debate was kicked off in CityLab by Gabriel Metcalf, the President of SPUR a San Francisco urban planning organization, who argues that progressives are to blame for the crisis primarily because of an “enduring alliance” they made with local NIMBY homeowners to prioritize historical preservation and neighborhood character rather than growing the supply of housing. Understandably, self-identified progressives reject the idea that they are the cause of the current crisis. Robert Cruickshank recounts some of the history of progressive opposition to specific redevelopment projects, arguing that the goal was to stop displacement of existing tenants, and that several progressive political leaders were actually “pro-supply.”
Although there are several major areas of agreement between the two, they seem to be talking past each other; a not uncommon situation when it comes to debates grounded in political and ideological disagreement. One reason may be that Metcalf does not share a common understanding of what it means to be ideologically progressive in local politics with those in San Francisco he criticizes. Deeper insight about what it means to be progressive in San Francisco illustrates that support for limiting growth and development was key to the emergence of the progressive movement in local politics. Understanding this in the context of the underlying institutional structures of urban politics can help explain the conflict over the origin of the housing crisis and point towards potential solutions that are consistent with progressive ideology.
What does it mean to be progressive in San Francisco?
Most people would suggest that being progressive means having a commitment to a certain set of values and beliefs about the world, and applying those values to political realm by supporting specific policies and politicians. Problems arise when conflicts inevitably emerge about which specific values, beliefs, and policies should be prioritized. There is no Pope of Progressivism who possesses the authority to enshrine certain ideas into a Progressive Canon.
Hans Noel, whose work traces the development of liberal and conservative ideology in America, argues that it is better to think of an ideology as a coalition of ideas forged by interested groups, activists, and intellectuals. These ideological “coalition merchants” are highly motivated and engaged in a competitive process to shape the meaning of an ideology in order to influence public policy. The progressive ideology in San Francisco brings together several ideological streams.
Which groups form the core of the progressive ideological coalition in San Francisco?
In the essential book Left Coast City, political scientist Rich DeLeon shows that the modern progressive movement in San Francisco is a coalition forged by three core ideological tendencies: liberalism (commitment to civil rights, social equality, and economic redistribution), environmental protection (support for greater controls on growth and development), and left-wing populism (a theory of power that is distrustful of elites and entrenched interests). DeLeon argues that the alliance over slow-growth policies was key to the emergence of the progressive movement because it provided a common agenda that appealed to all three strands of progressivism: environmentalists interested in historical preservation and neighborhood quality, liberals interested in economic justice and opposition to residential displacement, and populists animated by opposition to the power of developers and corporations.
Left-wing populism is a theory of power that is concerned with identifying political opponents, such as corporate and political elites, that are responsible for corrupting the political system and oppressing the community. Populists tend to be distrustful of “establishment” politicians, preferring to utilize majoritarian democratic procedures, such as ballot initiatives, to enact their preferred policies, such as campaign finance reform and non-partisan elections, which they believe will remove the corrupting influence of entrenched elites.
The populist component of progressivism provides the key to understanding the specific ways that the progressive coalition has pursued its goals, and the specific role that the coalition played in creating the conditions for the current crisis of housing affordability. According to DeLeon, the 1986 passage of Proposition M marked the revival of the progressive movement following the tragic assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Proposition M sharply limited office space development, required increased citizen participation in the planning process, required developer linkage fees, and created specific policies to prioritize neighborhood preservation.
The politics of land use was the essential fulcrum of progressive politics in San Francisco. Ideological activists organized to include opposition to growth as a defining element of the progressive ideological coalition. Identifying as a progressive in San Francisco means aligning oneself with a political coalition that includes activists who fight to preserve tenants rights and prevent evictions and displacement as well as local NIMBYs who oppose increased housing supply out of a desire to preserve neighborhood character.
The Problem is Left-Wing Populism
The cause of the current crisis of housing affordability can be located in the specific arrangement of political rules and planning procedures that govern land-use decision-making, as Matt Yglesias recently pointed out. Those rules and procedures largely emerged as a result of the coalition of liberals, historical preservationists, and left-wing populists that forged the modern progressive movement in San Francisco.
More recently, groups and politicians aligned with the progressive movement in San Francisco have doubled down on left-wing populism through their willingness to use “ballot box planning” to overturn previously approved development projects and threaten future proposals. The so-called “Mission Moratorium,” a ballot initiative that slated for the November ballot, would place a halt on the issuance of new building permits for housing projects that exceed five units in the Mission neighborhood.
Although motivated by a sincere desire to protect existing tenants from displacement and preserve the quality of neighborhoods, the progressive “ballot-box planning” agenda reflects populist distrust of development “elites” that they view as self-serving, and of public planning and land-use decisions that they view as inevitably corrupted.
In opposing new building and development, progressives invoke populist critiques of “luxury” development, arguing that it is “gentrification” that displaces existing tenants and corrodes the quality of existing communities. Moreover, progressives argue that such “luxury” development cannot possibly be a solution to the crisis of housing affordability because it increases the demand for high-priced housing. Only publicly subsidized “below-market rate” development can be truly affordable according to this perspective. Because of the populism at its core, the progressive ideological coalition sees the problem of housing as a crisis of displacement of existing tenants and disruption of existing neighborhoods, rather than a crisis of available housing that is affordable to all who want to live in San Francisco.
The populist impulse towards identifying political enemies and its distrust of legislative politics and planning bureaucracies makes it difficult to craft political solutions. Adherence to left-wing populism makes it more difficult for progressive politicians and activists to possibilities for compromise with their political opponents. Being willing to compromise requires challenging the populist impulse to stand athwart all attempts to increase housing supply and yell “stop!”
Progressive Politics Without Populism
The progressive movement is an ideological coalition shaped by political activism rather than an inflexible commitment to specific ideas and values. Left-wing populism does not have to be the animating principle of progressive politics in San Francisco. The progressive commitment to slow-growth policies will erode if the groups and activists within the progressive coalition change their stance on the benefits of those policies. Environmental activists and organized labor might organize to shape progressive ideology in San Francisco in a way that is more accommodating to increased supply of housing. For instance, environmental groups are increasingly likely to extol the virtues of urban density, especially with regards to increased energy efficiency, reducing water usage, and as a means of combating global climate change by reducing reliance on cars. As the environmental movement in America concentrates more on the dangers of global warming, it may lead environment groups in San Francisco to abandon their previous support for historical and neighborhood preservation in favor of increased density of housing and development.
The politics of housing and development can change if progressive-oriented groups alter their perception of the benefits and costs for the people that they represent. Such a change in one of the core elements of the progressive ideological coalition may give local elected representatives a reason to resist the NIMBYism, and make major reform at the state and municipal level more likely.
Jason McDaniel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at San Francisco State University.