Column: When Ultra-Dense Isn’t Dense Enough

It will surprise almost no one to learn that San Francisco is the most densely populated city in California. With 18,790 persons per square mile, it is almost three times as dense as Los Angeles and no other California city comes close.

So dense is San Francisco that for several square miles in its Mt. Davidson, Richmond and Sunset districts, single family houses are built cheek by jowl on narrow lots, often sharing walls on two sides with neighboring homes.

It’s also no surprise that San Francisco is the second most dense city in all of America, trailing only New York.

None of that matters much to the ultra-density fanatics now running California state government. With a full green light from Gov. Gavin Newsom (ironically, a former San Francisco mayor), the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) this fall will make San Francisco the object of its first “housing and policy practice review.”

If even the density of San Francisco cannot satisfy Newsom and the fanatical foes of single family zoning who now control the Legislature, imagine how difficult it will be for any other city to mollify them.

The biggest difficulty with San Francisco, if you listen to state officials, is the slow pace of housing construction there. Said HCD director Gustavo Velasquez in a formal statement, “We are deeply concerned about the processes and political decision-making in San Francisco that impede the creation of housing and want to understand why this is the case.”

If he really wondered, he could ask his boss, as most current permitting practices in that city were already in place when Newsom was mayor.

But if you’re really looking for density, how about checking the minds of Newsom and others who are ramrodding this review. They are apparently missing some key points: Dense as it is, San Francisco is a bit less dense today than it was a few years ago: the city lost 6.3 percent of its populace, or slightly over 57,000 persons, in 2020 and 2021. This was largely because of changes in white collar working conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which allowed employees to work from home and not report daily to offices.

Most of the 57,000 in that exodus, the highest percentage population loss in any American city in this century, moved to less dense areas in the suburbs, with a few migrating to other states to carry on their telecommuting.

Many said they moved to get away from San Francisco’s density, the very characteristic Newsom and his allies aspire to impose on every California locale.

Trying to push even more housing on San Francisco, which now may have an excess due to its population loss, represents a different kind of density on the part of Newsom & Co. They demonstrate they have no real understanding of what’s happening in that city or others they are trying to reshape.

At the same time, their entire effort at denser housing is the result of HCD estimates that California has a housing shortage justifying creation of 1.8 million new units by 2030, and hang the expense (which can amount to more than $1 million in construction and permitting costs per “affordable” unit). Trouble is, that figure (just over half what Newsom said in 2018 would be required by 2025), was found to be completely unreliable by the state auditor in a report issued last spring.

The fact its figures are unreliable and based on information the auditor called unverified does not faze HCD, which never stopped pushing cities to revise their housing plans and practices even as it refused to alter anything about its housing estimates, or correct the processing flaws found by the auditor.

It all adds up to a state-sponsored campaign to push ideology over facts, fantasy over reality.

Newsom is fortunate he faces only token Republican opposition this fall, which keeps his laughable investigation of a no-longer-current San Francisco crisis from threatening his political life.

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