How the Times’ Conor Dougherty tells the story of California’s trillion-dollar housing crisis

Behind the scenes, Interviews
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The San Francisco Bay Area is known for tech, liberalism, and now a raging crisis of homelessness. The housing crisis has reached an all-time high with more jobs flooding to the Bay Area, but not enough affordable housing to go with it. Conor Dougherty, a reporter for the New York Times, dived into how the housing crisis has become significantly worse in his piece “California Is Booming. Why Are So Many Californians Unhappy?”

His research as a housing beat reporter for the Times laid the groundwork for his subsequent reporting on the housing crisis in California. As a current resident in the Bay Area, he sees the effects of the housing crisis firsthand and wove some narratives of Bay Area locals into his upcoming book Golden Gates.

Dougherty has been writing about housing in the Bay Area for years, but this piece encompassed the hardships of living in the Bay Area and the effects of high-rent and immense job growth in the area.

“If you look at the kind of traditional questions of ‘are people thriving?’ things have never been better here. But, of course, you look at the streets and you feel like things have never been worse,” Dougherty said. “I thought that it made for an interesting story because in that way housing is just like this fog that is distorting and dampening everything in the economy.”

Storybench spoke with Doughtery about his upcoming book, the future of housing in the Bay Area, and how the housing problem got to where it is today.

Can you tell me what compelled you to write about the housing and homelessness crisis in the Bay Area?

Like you, I am from the Bay Area and I lived in New York for many years, 10 years, and now I have been back for about five or six. Obviously housing is the only thing anybody cares about. You see this in polls, the PPIC, it’s the Public Policy Institute of California, it has done polls asking what Californians are concerned about. Housing and homelessness are higher than concerns about the economy. So this is something that is high on everyone’s mind.

It’s just very hard to say anything about the California economy without talking about housing. We have the highest poverty rate, which is mostly a function of housing. We have huge infrastructure challenges, one of the worst places in America for super-commuting, which is when people travel more than 90 minutes one way for work.

We have rent control fights. There was this recent act of civil disobedience where this group of moms called “Moms 4 Housing” took over an apartment that essentially a hedge fund or some kind of private equity flipper company had bought and was renovating. So, it’s just this pervasive thing. And one of the things that I found so interesting about being an economy reporter was if you looked at the traditional metrics of economic health – unemployment rate, personal income growth, all these things that sort of say “are Americans thriving financially?”– all of them are quite good. The California unemployment rate is, I think, as low as it’s been. It’s definitely a record low. The personal income growth has actually been much stronger here than in the rest of the country and, I didn’t write this in the story, but it’s also been much stronger in Northern California than Southern California. So the place that has really bad housing has had much better income growth.

To some extent, the real genesis [of this piece] was this very simple idea: if everything is so good, why does it feel so horrible? And the answer, of course, is because it costs too much money to live here. And it’s also fascinating to me the degree to which everyone is affected by this problem.

Do you find any truth to, I know a lot of people in the Bay Area say tech companies are to blame for this crisis. Where do you stand on this debate? What do you think is the root cause of the housing crisis?

Well, there are really two ways of looking at that. Has the pressure of all the job growth in the Bay Area, tech job growth notably, been a huge piece of the housing crisis? You would have to be insane to say that’s not true. They’ve added a ton of jobs, they’ve added a ton of wealth. In my book, I have an example of an apartment complex that’s a couple of miles from Facebook’s headquarters. It was full of lower-income, almost entirely Latino families. They were typically doing housekeeping, nannying, construction; these were people who hold up the service economy. The place would fall apart without them. My point is, here is this lower-income apartment complex and an investor came and bought it, evicted everyone, and tried to make it more high end. He said in his investor letter that he was doing this because it was close to Facebook’s headquarters. So even though it’s not like Facebook went and bought the apartment complex, obviously, their influence guided this investor’s decisions almost totally.

The main reason we have such a housing problem in the Bay Area is that we have a lot more jobs and a lot more wealth than we do places to put people. And we have a politics that tries very hard to stop that. There are also things like Prop 13, which encourage cities to add a ton of jobs, but not a ton of housing. So if we look at Palo Alto, their jobs per housing ratio is about 4:1. If you look at Manhattan, it’s like 2:1. So even Manhattan, which we think of as this place that fills up with people during the day and clears out at night, Palo Alto is like, in terms of its actual land-use patterns, considerably more urban than that. There are way more people coming there relative to the size of the place.

The tech industry has been in the Bay Area since the 1950s. You could argue it has been there earlier if you count all of the military contracting and stuff from which the tech industry was kind of born out of. Intel, Fairchild, and Semiconductor, that all began in the ’60s. Apple began in the ’80s. There have been numerous books, various academic articles about how this region essentially created the tech industry.

My point is that this is ours. We made it. It is this region’s fault, it is our responsibility. It’s kind of like Detroit complaining about car companies. It’s just an odd framing because it is so part and parcel of what has made this place this place for so long. Now, of course, the growth might be out of control right now and again these are all great conversations to have. But I think when we talk about tech in isolation as if it is this other thing that suddenly appeared, that is just a bizarre framing to me.

I know that there is a desire to separate “tech” from “all that makes this place great” and I would say that you simply can’t do that. Again, having a larger conversation about the rate of growth, what is the appropriate level of housing – those are all great questions to have. But it’s pretty clear to me that this industry has been a part of this place for a long time.

Do you see any solutions to the housing crisis?

I always say to people that one of the things that make the housing problem so vexing is that everyone is right. When people say that we don’t have enough housing, they’re right. When people say that Airbnb is taking some units off the market and turning them into hotels, they’re right. When people say there is a flood of capital into lower-cost rental buildings that big capital used to not be concerned with, they’re right. The situation is so messed up that pretty much anything you point to is a problem. Long term, we need to build a lot more housing. However, the housing we are building right now is not terribly affordable. That has kind of always been true. There was not some time when new unsubsidized housing was super cheap for everyone. It is true that some of the more hardcover suburban stuff might fit that description. We dug ourselves into this hole and like all holes, once you’ve dug yourself into the hole it is harder to get out than to not have dug yourself into this hole in the first place.

But we are here now. Many of the people who helped make these decisions are dead. To really solve housing and homelessness in the country we need funding that starts with a T, meaning trillion. That’s going to be a federal type thing. I am not super optimistic that is happening any time soon. But at some very large level, if we really wanted to make housing a national priority, it would require that level of effort.

Recognizing that we have a huge problem is step one and we are at least at that point now.

How did you go about reporting on “California Is Booming. Why Are So Many Californians Unhappy”?

I cover housing, so a good amount of that story I could just write in my sleep and that’s because of beat reporting. Beat reporting is obviously key and I think one of the best forms in the newspaper is what we call the “Q-hed” at the Times. A “Q-hed” is kind of the new analysis piece. It’s kind of a voice piece that you write on deadline so you are right on the news, but you’re also writing a piece that has some of the features of a feature or a column but isn’t exactly an opinion either. You need to have been on the beat for some time and to really understand the issues of the beat to establish that freedom. Once you have established that knowledge and that kind of experience on your beat, then it’s probably one of my favorite forms in the entire newspaper. This piece wasn’t exactly a “Q-hed,” but at least shares some DNA with it. Number one is I have been on the beat for a long time. I picked up a lot of it by osmosis; I knew all the data, I knew all the experts, I knew the basic underlying issues. So then the question comes how do you find people that illustrate your story? I guess I don’t have an answer for that other than being on the beat for a long time and asking a lot of questions. I talk to real estate agents, and there are a lot of national real estate agents.

The lede of the story is this woman, Christine Johnson, who I had met when she was running for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. I was very impressed with her. I mean, whether or not she would be the best supervisor was not my thing, but she used to be an engineer, she knew all this stuff about planning, and she loved the city, she had been there for 10 years. So then I heard after the election from someone I knew that she had moved to Boulder. I guess I thought she was a really compelling anecdote because in my mind she is exactly the kind of person California needs. She’s this really knowledgeable, but really dedicated person. This is a person who despite having this demanding career and a family is spending all this time going to commissions for no pay, just to make her city better. I don’t want to completely deify her, she had some political ambition, but that ambition was basically rooted in the fact that she thought she could make a difference. I guess my thought was here is exactly the kind of person who California says they want. Here is exactly the kind of person whose values are supposedly our values, so why are we creating policies that are telling people like this that they should go somewhere else?

What angle are you taking with your book and how does that differ from your beat reporting for the Times?

My book is full of characters, full of stories. It’s very complicated, but it doesn’t feel complicated – at least I hope not. It’s a lot of different stories that all kind of lock together. That was one narrative, then there was a 15-year-old girl whose building has been purchased by an investor and he raises her rent $830 or something. Her dad is a construction worker and the mom takes care of elderly people and cleans houses. They don’t have any kind of capacity to absorb an $830 rent increase. She organizes, after school, two apartment complexes to fight the landlord. Then there is the city manager of Lafayette who is trying to deal with a developer who has proposed a very high-density development in his city and the neighbors are really upset about this.

All of these different stories interlock. They all end up interacting with each other in different ways. So sometimes somebody is a main character in one chapter and then they’ll be a bit character in another chapter. The reason I did this is I think the power of narrative, the power of telling stories through your sources is the most powerful thing in journalism, and housing is pretty complicated. I didn’t want to write a book that felt complicated, but I wanted to have a lot of different viewpoints. If you wrote that story in a kind of traditional journalistic way, it would look like you were contradicting yourself because you’d be like “oh this person said that ” and “this person said that”. My solution to that was to kind of give lots of different people their own chapter, kind of see their journey and see how they are helping the housing crisis.

I think we need all these people even though sometimes they hate each other because they have competing goals. But that’s okay because that’s how democracy works.

When people get that up and arms about something, I feel like it kind of becomes the best part about democracy. And so, watching them all kind of go at it, even if you don’t always agree with them, I would call that the spirit of showing up. Most people don’t show up, but the people in my book are the people who do show up. In that sense, I hope that it feels like a giant celebration of people who show up.

Photo: Aaron Wojack for the New York Times. Used with permission.

Eliana Tallarida studies journalism at Northeastern University.

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