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Success is killing San Francisco. Is Boston next?

The city by the bay has unaffordable housing, impassable streets, and impossible commutes. The city on a hill can still plot a different course.

Taylor Callery for The Boston Globe

I’ve had a nagging kind of worry about the Boston area for a while now. I’d fret as I sat through the third light cycle at what had been a flow-through intersection just 10 years earlier. Or when a friend, a software engineer married to a doctor, told me their rent was rising so much faster than their salaries that they were getting priced out of town. Or when I drove by Alan Dershowitz’s former house — he’d sold it for about $3.4 million in 2013, Cambridge’s priciest sale that year — and saw construction equipment hacking it to pieces. A $3.4 million teardown!

My worry: What if Boston is turning into San Francisco? I lived in San Francisco through the bubble years, working at Wired magazine back when it was a startup on a low-rent block south of Market Street. After leaving in 2003, I kept in touch with friends committed to sticking it out, listening to their tales of clogged streets and rocketing rents. Wired once promised the digital revolution would be “whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon,” and it was right. Only it changed the Bay Area in ways that Silicon Valley’s digital dreamers never envisioned. And now it could be happening here.


When my husband got a job offer in the Bay Area in 2007, just four years after I’d left, my friends warned me the city had changed. Several of them had gone to work for Facebook or Google and spent hours a day on corporate buses commuting from the city to the peninsula. We stayed put.

Housing costs and traffic congestion in San Francisco have only gotten worse in the years since. Last June, the median sale price for a single-family hit $1.7 million, about $1 million more than in Boston. Meanwhile, traffic is “so bad that you don’t want to drive one mile to pick up something from the grocery because of the Ubers,” a friend complained to me in an e-mail. “So you order it online, which means more delivery trucks, which makes you more inclined to order more online and so on.” He was writing from New Zealand, where he’d moved to get away from it all.


A recent survey by the San Jose Mercury News and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group found that 64 percent of respondents say the quality of life in the Bay Area is worse than it was five years ago, and 44 percent say they expect to leave in the next few years.

To be clear: The people who can up and move to New Zealand are lucky, as are the ones that get to ride a free corporate bus to a well-paying job in the first place. The less lucky are the surging number of super-commuters, people who have been priced far out from where they work and who travel at least 90 minutes one-way to get there. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of super-commuters who worked in San Francisco jumped 110 percent. At least those people probably had homes — Bay Area housing costs have led to tent cities in San Francisco, and families with two working parents putting their kids to sleep in a van in a San Jose parking lot.


This is the dark side of living in the kind of hyper economy created by Apple, Facebook, Google, and the rest of Silicon Valley’s tech giants. And it’s a future Boston is speeding toward if we don’t do something soon. The Bay Area “is five or 10 or 15 years further ahead of us. And I don’t say that in a complimentary way,” says Marc Draisen, the executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a public agency serving the 101 cities and towns in the Boston area.

Greater Boston is thriving — as of early 2019, there were more than 300 life science and technology companies in Cambridge alone — and the turnaround from the economic decline of the 1960s and ’70s is a remarkable accomplishment. Nobody wishes that Boston had followed the urban arc of Detroit. But is there a way to avoid choking on our success, as San Francisco has? Can Greater Boston reap the rewards of a booming economy without sacrificing the people who are just trying to live here?

We need to find a way to answer those questions, and within this new decade, because the clock is ticking.

Boston’s skyline, seen from above the waterfront.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston and San Francisco have plenty in common: brainy populaces, a footprint of a little less than 49 square miles, and a chronic shortage of housing approaching anything like affordability. The Bay Area has produced 722,000 jobs over the past decade, yet added just 106,000 new homes. (Boston hasn’t done much better, adding 245,000 jobs between 2010 and 2017 and 71,600 housing units.)


San Francisco’s housing crisis was decades in the making. Now home to more than 880,000 people, it could accommodate far more if planners of yore had allowed more density, says Karen Chapple, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley.

Laws passed in the 1970s to protect the environment were — and still are — used by town councils (and even the Sierra Club) to limit development or make it prohibitively expensive. In 1978, California voters also approved Proposition 13, which capped property taxes at the 1976 rate. The unexpected result: People now avoid selling their homes, even if they’re far bigger than they need, because paying taxes at a 2020 rate on a smaller place would be more expensive.

Meanwhile, cities and towns prioritized commercial development, which generates more tax dollars than residential development. And that means NIMBYs can dominate local politics. “You just have so many bad actors at the local level working to preserve what they think is neighborhood character or quality of life,” Chapple says.

Boston doesn’t have the Proposition 13 problem. But we, like California, do have a housing market stymied by “home rule,” which gives local government the ability to approve or deny most development. Massachusetts, like many places, also suffers from zoning laws that can become the land-use equivalent of gerrymandering. Towns and cities can use zoning, height restrictions, and environmental concerns to limit construction. If local leaders decide to emphasize commercial development, or limit residential development to one- and two-bedroom units, a town is less likely to see families with school-age children move in. Policies that encourage single-family houses discourage lower income residents.


Such policies are widespread in Massachusetts, Draisen says. Between 2010 and 2018, one-third of the new housing units in Massachusetts were built in just 10 cities (with about one-fifth of the total in Boston). To meet our projected housing needs, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimated in 2010 that Eastern Massachusetts needed about 435,000 more housing units by 2040. But we’re still tens of thousands of units behind where we should be to meet that target.

The good news is there is potential for change, thanks to some significant properties that are opening up for redevelopment. Suffolk Downs, Wonderland dog track, Widett Circle near the South End, the Volpe transportation center parcel in Kendall Square, all could be (or already are being) rethought to better serve the area’s housing needs. “If you take a . . . run-down eyesore, or nonproducing piece of land, and do something useful with it, that is pretty much a win-win,” says Alicia Sasser Modestino, a professor of urban studies and economics at Northeastern University and associate director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

Unless, that is, the proposal affects certain people’s backyards. Last September, while the Cambridge City Council was debating a zoning change that would let developers build affordable housing anywhere in the city, a letter arrived in my mailbox. It came from an organization that represented small property owners — the kind of landlord whose income potential would be threatened if a developer bought the Victorian next door and replaced it with a less “charming” multifamily. The letter was posturing, intended to scare my neighbors and others, but it worked. Under pressure, the City Council tabled the zoning change for now.

To be fair, Cambridge’s affordable housing trust, established in 1988, has received more than $200 million in funding from developers and other sources, leading to the preservation or creation of 3,075 affordable units. There are similar trusts in dozens of other Massachusetts communities. As for Boston, it was an affordable housing leader for the region even before Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s recently announced plan to put $500 million into low- and middle-income housing over the next five years. But no matter how much Boston and Cambridge do, the problem is that 70 of the 101 communities that make up the Metropolitan Area Planning Council aren’t building much affordable housing at all. And it’s often a deliberate choice. “There is a very explicit perception on the part of local leadership that they don’t want more affordable housing,” Draisen says. Generally speaking, “they don’t really want more poor people. And they do not want more schoolchildren.”

Boston area gateway cities such as Malden used to have lower rents that drew newcomers. Today, however, nearly half of residents in Malden would be considered “cost-burdened,” meaning that they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to the city’s 2019 housing assessment (which proposed creating an affordable housing trust fund). That means people, especially at lower- and middle-income levels, are being forced to move even further out. Lynn, Lowell, and Salem are three options — they all scored high on affordability in the 2019 Greater Boston Housing Report Card — but they also aren’t building enough affordable housing, based on permitting data. So unless something changes, there will soon come a time when they aren’t affordable, either.

A row of tents in San Francisco, in June 2019. San Francisco’s homeless population has jumped 30 percent since 2017.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

In at least one respect we’re already worse off than San Francisco: driving. Boston drivers spent an average of 164 hours in rush-hour traffic in 2018, according to Inrix. The transportation analytics firm ranks Boston’s rush-hour traffic congestion as the worst in the country.

But we can at least console ourselves that Bay Area public transit is probably worse. “Few people would say it, but we are lucky to have the MBTA,” says David Block-Schachter, a former chief technology officer at the MBTA who now works for Transit, a Montreal-based transportation app company. The MBTA is old and creaky and undependable, yet it is a single entity responsible for public transit across 176 communities in the metro area, and that’s important. Public transit across or around the Bay Area is controlled by some two dozen agencies that don’t even want to talk to one another about fare transfers.

Should the MBTA be better? Yes. The $8 billion capital improvement plan that kicked off in 2017 should have happened years earlier, but at least it’s happening. The Green Line extension into Somerville, swaths of which are public transportation deserts, is good news. And those new higher-capacity Red and Orange line cars will surely work — eventually. But our congestion and gridlock can’t be solved solely by extending subway lines and upgrading cars. It’s just too expensive. Remember the once-promised Red-Blue connector that Boston dusted off in its bid for an Amazon headquarters? The 0.4-mile link was estimated to cost as much as $750 million.

What would help is a better, more efficient bus system. Block-Schachter says that could relieve traffic congestion, as well as keep down housing costs near subway stations. “If I can take a quick bus to the Red Line from three miles outside of Quincy Center, where housing is cheap, then there’s equitable access to all of these jobs in Kendall Square,” he says. The lack of efficiency isn’t just frustrating for riders, it has carryover effects — Uber and Lyft logged 81 million trips in Massachusetts in 2018, adding to traffic and costing the MBTA an estimated $23 million in fare revenue.

The MBTA promises its planned cashless payment system will make buses run up to 10 percent faster, eliminating boarding bottlenecks caused by riders with wrinkled bills. It’s also revamping its bus routes for the first time in more than 10 years. By the agency’s own assessment, just one-third of jobs in its service area are within a half-mile walk of a bus route that has frequent service during the morning commuter rush.

Boston’s rush-hour traffic is the worst in the nation. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The biggest lesson we can take from San Francisco is to think even more regionally. The Bay Area has nine counties and 101 independent jurisdictions. The strength of home rule there makes regional cooperation challenging, ineffective, or nonexistent. Worse, there were two competing planning agencies for decades: the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, focused on transit, and the Association of Bay Area Governments, concerned with questions of land use, housing, water resources, and environmental resilience. The two were often at odds until they were finally merged in 2017.

The Bay Area’s declining livability comes from decades of politicians and voters failing to take a regional approach to how land and roadways are developed. In the Boston area, those decisions are also being made town by town, “by hard-working and very well-meaning folks who are entirely focused on the few square miles of their community,” Draisen says. That means the sum of the parts will inevitably be less than the whole.

Boston has some advantages over San Francisco — for one, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council has pulled together Boston and 14 municipalities in the core of our region, and gotten them to work together on housing problems. In 2018, this coalition pledged to add 185,000 housing units by 2030.

Massachusetts also has Chapter 40B, a state law that gives developers an exemption from local zoning laws, if they’re proposing a development with at least 20 to 25 percent affordable units, and the municipality doesn’t already meet the goal of having 10 percent affordable housing stock. In other words, it’s a way to bypass a NIMBY city council. If California had a similar statute, Berkeley’s Karen Chapple says, it could have lessened the Bay Area’s affordable housing crisis.

Since the 40B exemption was passed 50 years ago, it’s allowed 60,000 units across Massachusetts to be built. That’s certainly better than nothing. Yet some 56,000 more could have been built, to achieve that 10 percent threshold. The catch with 40B is that developers have to use it. “It’s not like the state can say ‘thou shalt now build more affordable housing’ if you’re below the 10 percent level,” Northeastern’s Modestino says.

That’s one of the reasons housing advocates are backing Governor Charlie Baker’s Housing Choice initiative. It would let cities and towns make zoning changes or approve special permits through a simple majority vote, rather than the super majority currently required, and make it harder for vocal NIMBY factions to block developments. So far, though, Baker’s initiative has languished through two legislative sessions. His administration has had to resort to a series of executive actions that let approved communities apply for incentive grants to build affordable housing.

Urban development looks different today than 20th-century urban renewal projects like the initiative that razed Boston’s West End in the late 1950s. That plan displaced 2,700 families to make space for five high-rise buildings that contained merely 477 apartments. There’s little public appetite these days for state-funded large-scale destruction of neighborhoods.

Instead, today’s urban developers often look to underused parcels of land. In San Francisco, that’s meant rethinking former shipyards and industrial lots south of the city that total 940 acres. The redevelopment of The Shipyards and Candlestick Point — the onetime home of both the San Francisco Giants and the 49ers — promises to add 12,100 housing units, along with retail, corporate offices, and green space.

“They completely messed up. In a city that’s getting browner and more diverse, you build a neighborhood that’s 80 percent white? They did that. They own that," says City Councilor Lydia Edwards (right), speaking of the Seaport District.David L. Ryan/Globe staff

Our closest equivalent might be Suffolk Downs. It’s been six months since the last horse galloped across the finish line of the 84-year-old track. The property, roughly the size of the North End and spilling across the East Boston border into Revere, will be the largest redevelopment parcel in Boston history. “It’s a rare opportunity,” says Lydia Edwards, a city councilor whose district includes the Boston part of Suffolk Downs. “We could create one of the best neighborhoods in the country.”

On the table is a 20-year plan to add a 10.5 million-square-foot neighborhood consisting of apartment buildings, townhouses, retail and corporate space. Renderings created by the developer, the HYM Investment Group, show landscaped wetlands and tree-lined streets. The plan, which proposes 13 percent of the units be affordable, could be approved by the Boston Planning and Development Agency this year.

It’s an opportunity, yes, but Edwards is worried. The planning agency messed up a similar opportunity once presented by the Seaport, she says. “In a city that’s getting browner and more diverse, you build a neighborhood that’s 80 percent white? They did that,” she says of Boston planners. “They own that.”

If Edwards were in charge of the redevelopment, she’d build “the opposite of the Seaport,” she says. A neighborhood that is economically and racially diverse, with half of the 10,000 planned units appropriate for families. She’d also boost the proposed 13 percent affordable units to 20 percent.

In talks with the developer, Edwards has made some headway. There is a tentative agreement to support additional income-restricted units, though some of them in other parts of the city. It’s too soon to know if the Suffolk Downs redevelopment will be any better by Edwards’ measure. Unlike the Seaport, it’s an entirely private development — an urban version of a suburban gated community and mostly owned by a Texas billionaire. More will be known in February, at the next public hearing about the project.

Commuters crowd into South Station in July 2019. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

While speaking with Edwards, I was reminded of an uncomfortably hot morning last July, when I’d stood in Somerville’s Union Square, taking in a neighborhood in transition. Over the jackhammers and hum of cars, local neighborhood advocate and activist Ben Bradlow, an urban planner and an elected member of the volunteer board that leads the Union Square Neighborhood Council, was talking about the changes to come. One corner will get the new Union Square Green Line stop, scheduled to open in 2021. That will be good for the neighborhood, but Bradlow points to some nearby businesses — Ricky’s Flower Market, a string of automotive supply stores, a CrossFit gym on Prospect Street — that are all slated to be seized by eminent domain as part of a 15-acre redevelopment.

Neighborhood groups pushed back against the initial deal Somerville had made with US2, the Chicago-based developer, and demanded concessions — it got many of them. The agreement they struck, signed in December, touches on everything from employing union labor, to supporting existing neighborhood businesses. And the developer promises that a higher percentage of affordable units than required by law will be part of the first phase, an important concession: It means fewer residents who need affordable units will be forced out of the neighborhood.

Cities are always changing. There are problems that are hard to solve at the city or regional level. The challenge for metro areas like ours is that some of the region’s jobs pay extraordinary amounts of money, while others pay minimum wage or a salary that’s not even keeping up with inflation. No MBTA investment or affordable housing trust is going to fix the Boston area’s staggering income inequality.

But the concessions that the Union Square Neighborhood Council pushed for give me hope that the Boston area won’t become a region of luxury condos, pricey restaurants, super-commuters, and tent cities. That a decade from now, the people controlling our patchwork of cities and towns will routinely think beyond the square miles they were elected to represent.

Must we become San Francisco? In our favor: We have neither the rabidly anti-growth lobby that hampered that city for decades nor regulations like Proposition 13. Add to that our regional advantages of the MBTA, 40B, and — if the Legislature ever passes it — Housing Choice. But more cities and towns around here need to start doing their part, developing more affordable housing and working with neighboring towns, rather than just trying to pass along “undesirable” residents. If we don’t, we could very well end up like San Francisco, just with worse weather.


Jessie Scanlon is a writer in Cambridge. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.