Creative Solutions to San Francisco’s Housing Crisis — Background

Can news organizations solicit out-of-the-box ideas from the community to make San Francisco a more affordable place to live — without taking sides or advocating?

When covering contentious issues such as affordable housing, it is the custom of journalists to document the minutia of class conflicts, real estate transactions and incremental reform legislation. But this summer, the San Francisco Public Press, along with Shareable and other partners are taking an atypical approach, focusing on solutions instead of just the problems.

Crazy houses of San Francisco

In addition to our online and print coverage of creative new ideas for big-impact, cost-effective and politically feasible solutions, we convened local independent experts, policymakers and community leaders for a daylong workshop on June 13 called “Hack the Housing Crisis,” at the Impact Hub SoMa. The idea is to use principles of design thinking to innovate, beyond the divides of discipline, political camp and vested interest that typify current conversations around the city’s housing policies. Join us and tweet about it: #housinghack @sfpublicpress.

We are doing this because readers have told us over and over that they want to hear more about ways they can help solve problems, not just read about what went wrong with a trusted institution. We look to the example set by the Solutions Journalism Network, as well as Journalism That Matters, for inspiration for how to do solutions-focused journalism that, while it endeavors to be independent and not cross over into advocacy, is still controversial in many newsrooms because it invites the community to help set the news agenda.

Housing is on everyone’s lips in San Francisco these days. What's less apparent to many is that the effects of the housing crisis have been felt unevenly across the income spectrum. Some examples:

  • The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in April — $3,450 — burns up more than half of the average San Franciscan’s wages, according to real estate website Trulia. That rental price is 17 percent higher than it was in April 2013, a growth rate outpacing any other large rental market in the nation.
  • While San Francisco is seeing an influx of the rich, who can pay top dollar for housing, the middle class has been hollowing out: From 1990 to 2010, the number of households earning $25,000 to $100,000 has fallen, while the number earning more than $100,000 has risen, U.S. census data shows.
  • Desperate prospective tenants of affordable housing are mobbing the few options available. Last December, 2,800 people submitted applications for just 60 apartments at a new subsidized development South of Market. Mayor Ed Lee told a crowd at the opening event that the intense competition was a symbol of the incredible turbulence in San Francisco’s real estate market. “That speaks volumes for the quality of the housing,” he said, “but it also speaks volumes to the need for affordable housing.”

Our independent reporting  was the cover story in the summer 2014 Public Press print edition and on the Public Press and Shareable websites. Shareable, whose interest lies in exploring new ways to organize the economy, is interested in new ideas about housing equity as part of its ongoing effort called the Sharing Cities Network.

Below are some of the ideas that have emerged from discussions in the newsroom and from experts in a wide variety of fields we have interviewed. We are looking for more, and invite your participation. Check back for links to stories on out-of-the-box (but not implausible) ideas to make San Francisco affordable again.

— Noah Arroyo & Michael Stoll


What makes a good “solution”?

  • NEW: something that is not already in place, or a new twist on an old idea
  • CREATIVE: big, outside-the-box ideas and insightful mash-ups of current proposals 
  • FEASIBLE: at least conceivable in terms of cost, politics and legal constraints
  • EFFECTIVE: big-impact, adding or preserving hundreds or thousands of affordable units
  • SIMPLE: should be easy to implement without a multitude of policy steps
  • CONTEXTUAL: has some precedent in other cities — or in San Francisco’s own past
  • DATA-DRIVEN: can be backed up by research, data, drawings or other documentation




Creative Commons image by Flickr user Håkan Dahlström