Michael Theriault headshot

We have seen for some years now a housing crisis in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

You know what might help?

Pensions. Good pensions.

The YIMBY or “Yes In My Back Yard” movement advocates – rightly I think – for the proliferation near mass transit of multi-family homes at all income levels to solve the crisis. In San Francisco open lots or derelict buildings near mass transit are rare. Single-family homes, though, are common.

If multi-family housing will be built near mass transit in the City, then, it will often replace single-family homes.

Zoning regulations generally preclude this replacement. Neighborhood associations of homeowners defend these regulations ardently, no doubt in fear that as housing becomes more readily available in their neighborhoods their homes will not be as valuable as in a situation of more limited supply. I have often seen or heard YIMBYs whom this defense frustrates accuse the homeowners of selfishness, and I myself have often referred to the homeowners of Telegraph Hill in particular as “landed gentry.”

Human beings being what they are, selfishness can certainly be attributed with accuracy to many a homeowner. Homes, however, are not just the primary wealth of many City residents, but also their security in old age.

This country has encouraged homeownership for generations now by such means as mortgage deductions from income tax and such organizations or agencies as the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae”) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac”).

For a time government support for homeownership favored white neighborhoods over minority neighborhoods through such practices as “redlining,” which designated areas as risky for mortgages. The wealth created through homeownership and the security it grants were thereby distributed unequally, and we see the consequences of that still, because the arc of wealth distribution is multigenerational.

Nonetheless the government – even if unfairly – ensured that a majority of Americans would be homeowners.

Meanwhile its employment-based pension system was left to decay, to the point where our union defined benefit pension plans are much the exception, and if workers have pensions at all they are most often defined contribution plans that do not guarantee a steady payout and are far more susceptible to the risks of markets. Even the very minimal incomes provided by the Social Security system are under threat, as Republicans such as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan have proposed “reforms” that would allow younger workers to pay a portion of their contributions not into the fund that sustains benefits for all, but into private accounts.

Little wonder, then, that a homeowner would defend ferociously the opportunity to maximize a home’s value; the home becomes the best hedge against impoverishment in old age.

Imagine if everyone who had put in decades of good work was guaranteed an income at the end of those decades that allowed for comfort in old age. A long-owned single-family home, then, could be just a minimally expensive place to live, and not the last castle standing against an anticipated onslaught of destitution. Its value would still be a concern, but not the frightening concern it can be now.

Public discussions about rezoning or about the effects a proposed multi-family residential project will have on a neighborhood of single family homes might actually become rational affairs, instead of bitter combats.

There are ironies, then, in recent complaints about the costs of construction labor, especially in the union sector, when much of what is paid us goes into our pension plans, and when so much of the cost of a project is in its tortuous passage through the public approval process. Our pay structure should by rights be considered an example to be emulated as part of a solution to the housing crisis, and not as an element contributing to it.

But there is little hope in the near term of reversing the decline of good pensions in this country, and so we are unlikely to witness a calm take hold in hearings on multi-family projects at the Planning Commission or Board of Supervisors. Some San Francisco businesses are even playing a role in this decline, with their propagation of a “gig economy” with no benefit plans at all for workers.

Nonetheless everyone – YIMBYs, developers, politicians, editorialists included – should always bear in mind what could be, not just in the fights over housing but in the lives of many millions, if only this country valued its elderly and assured them a comfortable and dignified retirement.

Organized Labor


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