There should be a word for "entirely predictable unintended consequences". The Germans have come up with some good words for complex ideas, like schadenfreude, so maybe we can outsource the task to them.
Anyway, I just finished a book called Season of the Witch, about San Francisco in the 1960's and 1970's. Churchill once said that “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume” and I am reminded of this quote when reading about San Francisco in these two decades. Written by a Progressive sympathetic to San Francisco's bleeding leftist edge (the author cannot mention Ronald Reagan without also expressing his disdain), it is never-the-less pretty hard-hitting when things go off the rails (e.g. the enablement of Jim Jones by the entire leftist power structure).
Much of the narrative is about the great influx of lost youth and seekers of alternative lifestyles into the city; the attendant social, crime, and drug issues this created; and a quest for tolerance and social peace. As such, it is not a book about political or economic policy per se, it's more about the people involved. But we do get glimpses of the policies that key players like Harvey Milk, Dianne Feinstein, and Willie Brown were advocating.
What struck me most were the policies these folks on the Progressive Left had on housing. They had three simultaneous policy goals:
- Limit San Francisco from building upward (taller). San Francisco is a bit like Manhattan in that the really desirable part where everyone wants to live is pretty small. There was (and I suppose still is) a desire by landowners to build taller buildings, to house more people on the same bit of valuable land. Progressives (along with many others across the political spectrum) were fighting to have the city prevent this increased density as a threat to San Francisco's "character".
- Reduce population density in existing buildings. Progressive reformers were seeking to get rid of crazy-crowded rooming houses like those in Chinatown
- Control and cap rents. This was the "next thing" that Harvey Milk, for example, was working on just before he was shot -- bringing rent controls to San Francisco.
My first thought was to wonder how a person could hold these three goals in mind without recognizing the inevitable consequences, but I guess it's that cognitive dissonance that keeps socialism alive. But it should not be hard to figure out what the outcome should be of combining: a) some of the most desirable real estate in the country with b) an effective cap on density and thus capacity and c) caps on rents. Rental housing is going to be shifted to privately owned units (coops and condos) and prices of those are going to skyrocket. You are going to end up with real estate only the rich can afford to purchases and a shortage of rental properties at any price. Those people with grandfathered controlled rents will be stuck there, without any mobility.
So I was reading this the other day. It turns out there is a severe shortage of affordable rental properties in San Francisco, and lately there have been a record number of conversions of rental properties to private ownership.
With the area economy rebounding, San Francisco is in the midst of a housing crisis as many residents are evicted from their apartments. With rents strictly regulated, an increasing number of San Francisco owners are getting out of the rental business and cashing out their properties to turn them into co-ops. Steven Greenhut argues that rent control actually forces prices upward, especially over the long term, by diminishing the supply of available rental housing.
Update: One recurring theme through the book is that progressive elements in SF saw their government and particularly their police force as "bullies". They used this term a lot -- and they were right. So it is interesting today to see all these progressives and how they act with power. Turns out, they are all bullies too, just on different issues.
By the way, the Dirty Harry movies are way more interesting after reading this book. Season of the Witch is what all this looked like to a progressive. The Dirty Harry movies are what the same events looked like from a different perspective.