Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America

Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America

by Randy Shaw

Hardcover(First Edition)

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Generation Priced Out is a call to action on one of the most talked-about issues of our time: how skyrocketing rents and home values are pricing the working and middle classes out of urban America. Randy Shaw tells the powerful stories of tenants, politicians, homeowner groups, developers, and activists in over a dozen cities impacted by the national housing crisis. From San Francisco to New York, Seattle to Denver, and Los Angeles to Austin, Generation Priced Out challenges progressive cities to reverse rising economic and racial inequality.
Shaw exposes how boomer homeowners restrict millennials’ access to housing in big cities, a generational divide that increasingly dominates city politics.  Shaw also demonstrates that neighborhood gentrification is not inevitable and presents proven measures for cities to preserve and expand their working- and middle-class populations and achieve more equitable and inclusive outcomes. Generation Priced Out is a must-read for anyone concerned about the future of urban America.


Editorial Reviews


Recommended Reading, “101 Books About Where and How We Live”: “This city-by-city examination of the nation’s spreading affordability problem shows how long commutes, housing instability, and decentralized communities have become national issues.


"Full of informative history on urban housing policy, plus useful political advice from a longtime foe of landlords and developers in the much-contested and increasingly unaffordable terrain of San Francisco. Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in The New Urban America also provides detailed community organizing case studies that show how we can keep urban neighborhoods from becoming further devoid of racial, class, and ethnic diversity due to market-driven gentrification. Shaw’s marching orders are simple and sensible. . . .  As tenant struggles become a bigger focus of activist recruitment and training throughout the country, Shaw’s book will be in much demand as an essential organizing guide for people, of all generations, 'priced out' of affordable housing."

Market Urbanism

What I liked most about this breezy, easy-to-read book is that it rebuts a wide variety of anti-housing arguments.

City Lab

In Generation Priced Out, San Francisco tenant activist Randy Shaw paints a picture of a nation beginning to wake up to its housing crisis, but unsure of what to do about it.

Seattle Times

‘Generation Priced Out’ boldly challenges the progressive community to rethink how to achieve greater economic and racial diversity by providing more affordable housing. . . . Shaw’s book adds a thoughtful voice to the national discussion in addressing such questions.

Intergenerational Justice Review

"Written in a lucid and engaging style, the book draws on extensive first-hand experience of tenant organising, activism, and policy-writing as well as interviews with a real who’s-who of housing activists in several high-cost US cities not only to make the case for urban policy to take housing affordability seriously, but also to outline concrete steps to get there."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520299122
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/06/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,254,434
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


Battling Displacement in the New San Francisco

We don't have enough places to live, and too many can't afford the places that exist. ... And communities of color are feeling this impact the hardest. ... If we stay on the path we're on, we'll end up like San Francisco where the average house price is $1,150,000 and only the well-to-do and those being subsidized can live. ... No middle-class, no working class, no creatives and artists.

Austin mayor Steve Adler, State of the City Address, 2017

Can Portland avoid repeating San Francisco's mistakes? The Atlantic, May 17, 2016

Will Seattle really become the next San Francisco? Seattle Times, July 28, 2016

How did San Francisco replace New York City as the poster child for urban unaffordability? Why did the nation's most politically progressive big city become "the US capital of insane housing prices"? A city with a "deranged housing market" where a "one-bedroom apartment rents for more than a 13-bedroom 20th century palace with a pool in Spain"?

These are great questions. I co-founded the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC) in the fall of 1979 to address the growing crisis. In addition to helping Tenderloin tenants, THC became the city's eviction defense center for tenants facing the loss of their homes due to nonpayment of rent.

In those days the daily parade of people clutching their court eviction papers in my office was overwhelmingly low-income. Yet those displaced from their homes could usually find other housing in San Francisco. Now they have a better chance of winning the lottery than of securing non-subsidized housing in most neighborhoods.

Today, working- and middle-class tenants have been priced out of much of the city. It's not just that studios start at $1,800 and one-bedrooms at $3,300; rather, apartments require up-front payments of the last month's rent and a security deposit. Those unable to afford this move-in cost of $6,000–$9,000 cannot meet the financial requirements for living alone in a San Francisco apartment.

So how do teachers, service workers, and others desiring to live in San Francisco find housing? First, they respond to ads for a vacant bedroom in an already occupied unit. This requires competing with other applicants through an interview process. And if they get selected and the master tenant then moves, the landlord can raise the price of the unit to the current market rate. Second, they can move to a single-room occupancy hotel, or SRO. These typically do not have steep move-in requirements. A typical 140-square-foot SRO room with private bath rents for $1,800 and up. Many SROs appealing to a more affluent market now include microwaves in the rooms and/or common kitchens.

Third — and this has become the most popular option — they can look for apartments outside the city that they can afford. But as I discuss later, Oakland, long the place where those priced out of San Francisco ended up living, is no longer affordable either.

Never in San Francisco's history has it been harder for a working- or middle-class family to get housing. And having been on the front lines of the crisis almost from the very start, I can say that no politician, community organization, or corporate interest wanted this to happen.

To the contrary, as the housing crisis worsened through the 1980s, San Francisco's divergent political camps were unified around one goal: ensuring the city did not follow the path of New York City. While progressives denounced the city's downtown high-rise boom as "Manhattanization," the real estate industry sent out mailings showing fires and dilapidated buildings in the South Bronx as a preview of what San Francisco would become if strong rent-control laws were passed.

Nobody wanted San Francisco to replace New York City as the national cautionary tale for misguided housing policies, but that is what occurred. And it has had a steep human cost.


It seems hard to believe from today's vantage point, but until the late 1970s San Francisco had always been affordable despite its panoramic bay views, striking hills, temperate climate, and historic architecture. San Francisco always had posh Nob Hill and Pacific Heights, but middle-class families had no problem buying houses in most neighborhoods.

At the dawn of the 1970s, there was not a shred of evidence that by decade's end San Francisco would begin the long trajectory of becoming a high-priced city. The Haight-Ashbury was three years beyond the Summer of Love. The neighborhood housed hippies and its rents and home prices were cheap. Bohemian North Beach was filled with poets and artists. The redevelopment agency's notorious urban renewal plans had not yet demolished South of Market's "Skid Row" or the predominantly African American Fillmore neighborhood.

Investment property in San Francisco was incredibly cheap. In 1975, Paul Boschetti, an Italian immigrant working in San Francisco as a United Airlines mechanic, was convinced by a co-worker to invest in apartment buildings. He bought a sixteen-unit apartment building with seven retail spaces in the Hayes Valley neighborhood for $150,000. The building was in the city's heroin hub. Gang killings were so common that one occurred in front of Boschetti's building while he was working inside. Boschetti kept his retail spaces boarded up to prevent having to constantly repair broken windows. He got the property at a low price and charged low rents due to the neighborhood's problems. Boschetti remembers the area was so unsafe "they were giving properties away."

On the other side of town, Latino immigrants were moving in large numbers to the Mission, long a working-class Irish neighborhood. Blue-collar workers had their choice of homes to buy or flats to rent in Noe Valley, the Castro, or Bernal Heights; the Inner Sunset and Inner Richmond were just as affordable.

Yet seemingly overnight, San Francisco's housing market changed.


San Francisco's housing affordability crisis was caused by the convergence of five factors:

• the boost in the city's economy driven by San Francisco's new reliance on tourism and finance;

• a rising gay and lesbian migration into the nation's most tolerant city for those of nontraditional sexual orientation;

• the demolition of thousands of low-cost units due to urban renewal in the South of Market and Fillmore neighborhoods;

• young workers often described as yuppies (young urban professionals) choosing to live in San Francisco rather than the suburbs, where prior generations of white-collar workers lived;

• increased immigration from Central America and Southeast Asia.

Looking back on these simultaneous developments, it is easy to understand how the city got started on a road toward unaffordability. Thousands more people were seeking housing in a city where supply not only did not stay the same but actually declined. It was the perfect recipe for a housing crisis.

At first, San Francisco's liberal political establishment ignored rising concern over rent hikes and evictions. Supervisor Harvey Milk was the only elected official to back a pro-tenant measure on the November 1978 ballot, in an election held less than a month before Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated at city hall.

But by the spring of 1979 public outrage over rent hikes forced the hand of Mayor Dianne Feinstein and the politically moderate board of supervisors. In April 1979, the board, which included two Republicans, found "there is a shortage of decent, safe and sanitary housing" in San Francisco, "resulting in a critically low vacancy factor." After declaring a moratorium on rent increases, in June 1979 the board unanimously adopted an emergency rent stabilization ordinance regulating rents and evictions.

San Francisco's housing crisis had officially begun. And forty years later it has gotten even worse. Today, working- and middle-class people are priced out from renting or buying in most San Francisco neighborhoods. The city also has a persistent and visible homeless crisis despite providing the most permanent housing for homeless persons per capita of any major city.

On June 9, 1981, the New York Times reported in "Changing San Francisco Is Foreseen as a Haven for Wealthy and Childless" that San Francisco "was crowding out middle-income people and could soon become a place only the elite can afford." Yet San Francisco's then-mayor Dianne Feinstein promoted policies that encouraged this trend. Rents for two-bedroom apartments more than doubled during the Feinstein years, rising from $435 a month in 1979 to $900 in 1987. Rising housing demand actually led to bigger rent hikes in the decade after the passage of a weak rent-control law in 1979 than in the preceding decade.


San Francisco's affordability problem went from bad to extreme around 1996, when the tech-driven dot-com boom began impacting housing prices. The city suddenly faced a real estate explosion that remains unprecedented.

Between 1990 and 2000, the median monthly rent jumped from $643 to $977 a month, a 52 percent increase. Over that period, the number of units renting from $250 to $749 a month decreased by over 50 percent, from 132,278 to 63,849. Meanwhile, the number of units renting for $1,000 or more a month skyrocketed from 24,070 to 90,247, an astronomical 275 percent increase.

From 1995 to March 1997 alone, rents on vacant apartments in San Francisco rose 50 percent. The number of owner move-in evictions more than tripled in 1997, rising from an average of 400 per year in 1990–1995 to over 1,300 that year (the rise was partially attributable to owner-occupied buildings of four units or fewer being exempt from rent control until 1995). The vast majority of those evicted for owner move-in and other no-fault evictions during these years were long-term tenants paying well below market rents.

The dot-com boom brought thousands of affluent Silicon Valley workers into a San Francisco housing market whose supply remained relatively fixed. Most of these tech workers lived in San Francisco because the South Bay cities where they worked were not building housing for their workers either. This failure negatively impacts the San Francisco housing market to this day.


San Francisco's housing prices rose steadily from the mid-1990s until the national financial crisis put a stop to most real estate activity in the fall of 2008. But the respite was brief. The national economy's revival in 2011 and San Francisco's new tech boom brought back the rising prices and evictions of the dot-com era.

Most San Francisco residents are tenants. The displacement of long-term tenants has come to define the city's housing crisis. The impact of these evictions goes far beyond those actually displaced; tens of thousands of renters fear that one day they will come home to an eviction notice that seeks to remove them from their home, neighborhood, and the city they love.

The stories of Teresa Dulalas and other San Francisco tenants set forth below reveal the human costs of a city in which renters are continually priced out. I've been touched by many of these stories, as THC attorneys represent the vast majority of tenants in San Francisco's high-profile eviction cases. I sometimes feel akin to an emergency room physician as the victims of rising unaffordability and civil strife come to our office seeking help. Their experiences are also stories of resistance and show the power of fighting back. Contrary to what many believe, displacement can be stopped. And San Francisco can still increase housing opportunities for the working and middle class.

San Francisco tenants will not be moved. Those targeted for removal, like Teresa Dulalas and her family, never gave up fighting to stay in their homes. They always insisted that they had the same right as rich people to live in San Francisco.

This resistance has kept the dream of a more affordable San Francisco alive.

It's a question of political will.


Teresa Dulalas's tenancy began in 1979, soon after San Francisco's housing crisis started. She moved with her parents to an apartment in a South of Market Victorian in 1979. Theirs was one of three flats located at 1353–1355– 1357 Folsom Street. The three-story 1912 building is above a garage that has two parking spaces and storage. There is a communal backyard. The three flats are quite spacious; each has four large bedrooms and hardwood floors.

Dulalas and her family had previously lived one block away. The family liked their new home because it was bigger and still part of the neighborhood's active Filipino community. Two years earlier, the mass eviction of elderly and working-class tenants at the International Hotel in the heart of the city's Manilatown had garnered international attention. As many as 10,000 Filipinos had once lived in the five-block stretch of Kearny Street from Bush to Jackson that included the I Hotel. The evictions were the culmination of a process that led to the disappearance of the Manilatown neighborhood, and the center of the Filipino community shifted south of Market Street.

Dulalas's flat was located in a section of the South of Market (SOMA) neighborhood that was still very affordable. On the eastern side of SOMA, adjacent to downtown, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency had demolished thousands of similar Victorians as part of its urban renewal efforts in the 1960s and 1970s. But western SOMA was a different world. Filipino immigrant families lived in alley flats and along the major thoroughfares that ran through the neighborhood. Western SOMA had a strong sense of Filipino community identity that continues to this day.

Unlike many San Francisco tenants, Teresa Dulalas and her family faced no steep rent hikes or eviction threats through the 1980s. They had such a good relationship with their Italian-American immigrant landlord that they called him Uncle Randy. Parts of SOMA were becoming trendy, but theirs had yet to be targeted by the speculators who had begun transforming other longtime working-class neighborhoods like Noe Valley, the Castro, and Haight-Ashbury. These communities were already seen as gentrified by the end of the 1980s.

In 1991, the Dulalases were joined at the three-unit building by Ricardo Samaniego. Samaniego's brother, Carlos, had moved into the unit a year earlier (their mother, Maria, would join them in 2001). Samaniego was a tow truck operator, a busy profession in San Francisco. The Samaniegos, like the Dulalases, were working-class families with multiple generations living in the same flat. Having multiple generations under one roof is quite common in San Francisco's immigrant communities. It helps explain why so many immigrant tenants never move once they find a family home, and why their potential displacement is so wrenching.

No Heat, No Water

In 2001, after the death of the longtime owner, a speculator couple named Hung and Judy Cheng bought the Dulalases' Folsom Street home. The tenants' problems soon began.

The Chengs owned six buildings in the city. Hung Cheng was a licensed contractor in the business of demolishing buildings and/or renovating them for resale. Cheng's practice was to buy only vacant buildings. He bought the Folsom Street building because he was in a rush, for tax reasons, but went on to treat the property as if it were vacant. The Chengs did not even bother to tell the Dulalases or the other tenants how to contact them.

From the very start, tenant complaints about lack of heat, plumbing leaks, a pigeon infestation, and other problems were ignored. In October 2001, Teresa Dulalas called the Public Utilities Commission and asked why her building suddenly had no water. She was told that the owner she knew as Uncle Randy had called to shut the water off.

"I was shocked," Dulalas remembers. "I told them Uncle Randy had died and I didn't know that someone who died could rise from the dead and call the PUC to turn off the water." The person she was talking to hung up.

Dulalas then followed a pattern she would continue for the next decade: she turned to SOMA's tight-knit Filipino community for guidance. "We didn't know about tenants' rights so we asked community people what to do." She met with the South of Market Community Action Network, known as SOMCAN. Angelica Cabande, SOMCAN's longtime leader, referred her to the Tenderloin Housing Clinic for legal representation. THC Attorney Dean Preston met with Dulalas and advised her to address the immediate crisis by opening an account in her name and paying the water bill for the entire building. It worked. This began over a decade of THC's legal representation of Dulalas and her building, first by Dean Preston and then Raquel Fox.


Excerpted from "Generation Priced Out"
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Copyright © 2018 Randy Shaw.
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