Golden Gates

by Conor Dougherty

Cover image

Publisher: Penguin
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 0-525-56022-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 249

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This review, for reasons that will hopefully become clear later, starts with a personal digression.

I have been interested in political theory my entire life. That sounds like something admirable, or at least neutral. It's not. "Interested" means that I have opinions that are generally stronger than my depth of knowledge warrants. "Interested" means that I like thinking about and casting judgment on how politics should be done without doing the work of politics myself. And "political theory" is different than politics in important ways, not the least of which is that political actions have rarely been a direct danger to me or my family. I have the luxury of arguing about politics as a theory.

In short, I'm at high risk of being one of those people who has an opinion about everything and shares it on Twitter.

I'm still in the process (to be honest, near the beginning of the process) of making something useful out of that interest. I've had some success when I become enough a part of a community that I can do some of the political work, understand the arguments at a level deeper than theory, and have to deal with the consequences of my own opinions. But those communities have been on-line and relatively low stakes. For the big political problems, the ones that involve governments and taxes and laws, those that decide who gets medical treatment and income support and who doesn't, to ever improve, more people like me need to learn enough about the practical details that we can do the real work of fixing them, rather than only making our native (and generally privileged) communities better for ourselves.

I haven't found my path helping with that work yet. But I do have a concrete, challenging, local political question that makes me coldly furious: housing policy. Hence this book.

Golden Gates is about housing policy in the notoriously underbuilt and therefore incredibly expensive San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. I wanted to deepen that emotional reaction to the failures of housing policy with facts and analysis. Golden Gates does provide some of that. But this also turns out to be a book about the translation of political theory into practice, about the messiness and conflict that results, and about the difficult process of measuring success. It's also a book about how substantial agreement on the basics of necessary political change can still founder on the shoals of prioritization, tribalism, and people who are interested in political theory.

In short, it's a book about the difficulty of changing the world instead of arguing about how to change it.

This is not a direct analysis of housing policy, although Dougherty provides the basics as background. Rather, it's the story of the political fight over housing told primarily through two lenses: Sonja Trauss, founder of BARF (the Bay Area Renters' Federation); and a Redwood City apartment complex, the people who fought its rent increases, and the nun who eventually purchased it. Around that framework, Dougherty writes about the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the history of California's Proposition 13, a fight over a development in Lafayette, the logistics challenge of constructing sufficient housing even when approved, and the political career of Scott Wiener, the hated opponent of every city fighting for the continued ability to arbitrarily veto any new housing.

One of the things Golden Gates helped clarify for me is that there are three core interest groups that have to be part of any discussion of Bay Area housing: homeowners who want to limit or eliminate local change, renters who are vulnerable to gentrification and redevelopment, and the people who want to live in that area and can't (which includes people who want to move there, but more sympathetically includes all the people who work there but can't afford to live locally, such as teachers, day care workers, food service workers, and, well, just about anyone who doesn't work in tech). (As with any political classification, statements about collectives may not apply to individuals; there are numerous people who appear to fall into one group but who vote in alignment with another.) Dougherty makes it clear that housing policy is intractable in part because the policies that most clearly help one of those three groups hurt the other two.

As advertised by the subtitle (Fighting for Housing in America), Dougherty's focus is on the fight for more housing. Those who already own homes whose values have been inflated by artificial scarcity, or who want to preserve such stratified living conditions as low-density, large-lot single-family dwellings within short mass-transit commute of one of the densest cities in the United States, don't get a lot of sympathy or focus here except as opponents. I understand this choice; I also don't have much sympathy. But I do wish that Dougherty had spent more time discussing the unsustainable promise that California has implicitly made to homeowners: housing may be impossibly expensive, but if you can manage to reach that pinnacle of financial success, the ongoing value of your home is guaranteed. He does mention this in passing, but I don't think he puts enough emphasis on the impact that a single huge, illiquid investment that is heavily encouraged by government policy has on people's attitude towards anything that jeopardizes that investment.

The bulk of this book focuses on the two factions trying to make housing cheaper: Sonja Trauss and others who are pushing for construction of more housing, and tenant groups trying to manage the price of existing housing for those who have to rent. The tragedy of Bay Area housing is that even the faintest connection of housing to the economic principle of supply and demand implies that the long-term goals of those two groups align. Building more housing will decrease the cost of housing, at least if you build enough of it over a long enough period of time. But in the short term, particularly given the amount of Bay Area land pre-emptively excluded from housing by environmental protection and the actions of the existing homeowners, building more housing usually means tearing down cheap lower-density housing and replacing it with expensive higher-density housing. And that destroys people's lives.

I'll admit my natural sympathy is with Trauss on pure economic grounds. There simply aren't enough places to live in the Bay Area, and the number of people in the area will not decrease. To the marginal extent that growth even slows, that's another tale of misery involving "super commutes" of over 90 minutes each way. But the most affecting part of this book was the detailed look at what redevelopment looks like for the people who thought they had housing, and how it disrupts and destroys existing communities. It's impossible to read those stories and not be moved. But it's equally impossible to not be moved by the stories of people who live in their cars during the week, going home only on weekends because they have to live too far away from their jobs to commute.

This is exactly the kind of politics that I lose when I take a superficial interest in political theory. Even when I feel confident in a guiding principle, the hard part of real-world politics is bringing real people with you in the implementation and mitigating the damage that any choice of implementation will cause. There are a lot of details, and those details matter. Without the right balance between addressing a long-term deficit and providing short-term protection and relief, an attempt to alleviate unsustainable long-term misery creates more short-term misery for those least able to afford it. And while I personally may have less sympathy for the relatively well-off who have clawed their way into their own mortgage, being cavalier with their goals and their financial needs is both poor ethics and poor politics. Mobilizing political opponents who have resources and vote locally isn't a winning strategy.

Dougherty is a reporter, not a housing or public policy expert, so Golden Gates poses problems and tells stories rather than describes solutions. This book didn't lead me to a brilliant plan for fixing the Bay Area housing crunch, or hand me a roadmap for how to get effectively involved in local politics. What it did do is tell stories about what political approaches have worked, how they've worked, what change they've created, and the limitations of that change. Solving political problems is work. That work requires understanding people and balancing concerns, which in turn requires a lot of empathy, a lot of communication, and sometimes finding a way to make unlikely allies.

I'm not sure how broad the appeal of this book will be outside of those who live in the region. Some aspects of the fight for housing generalize, but the Bay Area (and I suspect every region) has properties specific to it or to the state of California. It has also reached an extreme of housing shortage that is rivaled in the United States only by New York City, which changes the nature of the solutions. But if you want to seriously engage with Bay Area housing policy, knowing the background explained here is nearly mandatory. There are some flaws — I wish Dougherty would have talked more about traffic and transit policy, although I realize that could be another book — but this is an important story told well.

If this somewhat narrow topic is within your interests, highly recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-05-09

Last modified and spun 2020-06-15