For all of the talk surrounding the Bay Area’s housing crisis, I have found it difficult to understand not only the scale, but also the geography of the problem. Although we can get a decent sense of where development is happening via Census data on housing, this is at best polygons at the county or MSA level. The housing crisis is a problem at the most local levels of government. While the market would probably supply more housing if allowed, local land use controls at the municipal level have time and again blocked development.
So where can we find data on residential development at the municipal level? This is much harder than I initially thought. Most cities do seem to collect this information in their planning departments, but few have this information publicly available. One of the few planning departments that does publish such data is San Francisco’s. Through what’s known as their development pipeline reports, we can identify and map all development projects in the city that would add residential units or commercial space. This consists of all developments which have at least submitted applications to the planning department or department of building inspection. Furthermore, this data excludes projects that do not add residential units or commercial square footage (e.g. roofing upgrades). Within this data, we can group projects by different stages in the development process, such as planning review, building permit review, or construction. Furthermore, we have information on the number of net units added, which can be negative if a project adds less development than the previous residence had.
To start with, let’s take a look at a map of current projects by net units added. This data comes from the development pipeline’s second quarter 2016, which is the latest data available. For all intents and purposes, we can consider this the current state of new housing development in San Francisco.
A few notable points. First, the South of Market (SoMa) area stands out for both the overall quantity of development and the size (in terms of net units) of those developments. This has not gone unnoticed, as some have even called SoMa the “next phase of San Francisco’s urban history.” Second, the overwhelming majority of new residential development (over 80%) is less than 50 units. Although large luxury apartment buildings in SoMa may grab the headlines, these are definitely outliers in a city that is still mostly zoned for low density. Thirdly, there is a lot of development in low-density areas of the city (e.g. Richmond or the Sunset District) that have relatively restrictive zoning. People don’t seem to shy away from building there even if small developments are all that is allowed. Finally and perhaps most importantly, look how well the map above corresponds to a map of the zoning code! Pretty much all of the big developments seem to be outside of standard residential zoning.
Overall, the above points signal that the market is not the problem. At first glance, residential development seems to be happening fairly uniformly across the city. On the other hand, there is tremendous regulations as to how this development can take place. At least in terms of units per development, zoning is king.