Rents in cities like San Francisco are soaring. Is it just a matter of building more housing?

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Rents in cities like San Francisco are soaring. Is it just a matter of building more housing?
Would making all of this taller actually solve the affordability problem? // Photograph © sage_solar

In San Francisco, pretty much everyone agrees on one thing: The city’s housing is crazy expensive. Apartment-hunting causes its own form of PTSD. The rent, to put it simply, is too damn high.

But even among those who care very much about creating more affordable housing in the city, a split has emerged around the definition of “affordable” itself. And even as rents have increased more than 50 percent in San Francisco since April 2011, leaving 59 percent of low-income people paying more than half their income in rent, it’s fracturing what political will exists to fix the problem.

Here’s how the parties break down — not just in San Francisco, but in other increasingly popular cities like Seattle, New York City and Washington, D.C.

The first camp is mostly composed of anti-gentrification activists and professional low-income housing organizations, who generally view “affordable housing” as something created by the government: either directly owned as public housing, or restricted through the development approval process to people making a certain percentage of the area median income.

The second camp, composed more often of smart growth groups, developers and urban libertarians, believe in “natural affordability”: Prices decline when supply increases. Just the laws of economics. If builders could just be freed to create enough housing, the market would provide enough units to satisfy demand at all income levels. ….