Interview with Randy Shaw, Author of Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America

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GenYration had the pleasure of sitting down with housing activist and author, Randy Shaw. In this interview, Randy answers questions about his book and details opportunities in the Austin housing market. Generation Priced Out tells the story of Millennials that are unable to afford living in cities and the Baby Boomers that believe they are to blame for a national urban housing crisis. The book is a must read for all Millennials, builders and developers looking to extend affordability to America’s greatest cities.


Generation Priced Out


Randy, thank you so much for sitting down with GenYration. You are the Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and author of multiple books including The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century; Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century; and The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime, and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco. How is Generation Priced Out different from your other works and what compelled you to write it?

When the Ghost Ship fire incident occurred and thirty six people passed away with a sole survivor, it highlighted that there are so many people living in situations that are uninhabitable in San Francisco. This incident propelled me to write the book and understanding that Millennials are facing similar issues of seeking uninhabitable spaces due to being priced out in various cities across the country.

How did you get your start in the housing industry and what does your day to day look like as Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic?

I have always been involved in housing but the population we serve at Tenderloin housing are generally homeless individuals. These individuals need federal assistance to afford rent. We are the major provider for housing homeless adults. We currently lease 21 SRO hotels and we are about to lease 2 more. We have over 2,000 people we house and we also have a law office helping tenants facing eviction. I am also very personally involved in the Tenderloin neighborhood where I have worked for 38 years.

What can the technology industry do to be more responsible regarding housing development and price appreciation in San Francisco?

I just did an event with Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, based on him donating $6 million dollars to my organization to house homeless individuals. He has been a great example and challenged tech leaders to donate more to the cause.

My book is a real defense of the Millennial tech worker who has been unfairly maligned by Boomers. There appears to be a misunderstanding that although these young tech workers come out of college making $100,000, having to afford a $3,500 one-bedroom apartment is truly impossible. Millennials were blamed by San Francisco home owners for the housing crisis. I believe the tech worker has been in the vanguard of helping solve the housing crisis, and the tech companies in Silicon Valley have not stepped up to meet the challenge.

But, the housing crisis is really coming from the cities, such as Cupertino or Palo Alto, that refuse to build more housing. I really blame the city, we cannot keep opening these 10,000 worker campuses and not provide housing in connection with this influx of workers. By not building new housing, we raise prices and rents for everyone else.

What is interesting, is in most cases, the city doesn’t require the company to make any allocation in housing. I describe in the book that Oracle just launched a new office space in Austin and tore down a building for low income families. No one said they needed to replace these 244 units. Again, it is easier to blame the tech companies but the cities are not requiring them to do anything and the cities are often opposing housing. We need the cities to take more responsibility—even in the case of New York City and the Amazon relocation, Amazon wasn’t required to commit anything to the housing in the area. It’s just so easy to blame tech, but Boomer homeowners need to understand municipalities can do better which is the thesis of my book.

In Chapter 4, you discuss issues of diversity in Austin. Austin is a market our firm serves. How can inclusivity be better met in a city where many are being “priced out?” How can others join YIMBYs to advance their cause especially in light of Apple recently announcing a 1 billion dollar campus expansion?

I think we are very fortunate in the recent Austin elections because we now have a pro-housing majority in the Austin city council. I ended my chapter suggesting Austin is at a crossroads because at that time I was waiting to see where the election went. I think that the election really sent a message of inclusivity. Even with all of the divisiveness around CodeNEXT—when push came to shove—the voters spoke. They passed a 250 million dollar housing bond, they opposed a measure that would require public voting to approve any housing measure on increasing density, and the mayor’s race showed that the pro-housing candidate won by 40%.

Then we had the run-off election in December, which I was very concerned about, because low turnout elections disproportionately benefit homeowners. However, all the pro-housing people won. So, I think that the majority of the voters in Austin clearly recognize that this notion of only building single family home restricted neighborhoods and of not increasing density is a recipe for failure. It is a recipe for exclusion and losing diversity. The voters want to keep diversity. I would say for the builders you work with—this was a great election result. It would be great if the building industry could get a little more active in Austin. The residential builders in Austin have not exerted the clout they have had in other cities. The grassroots housing activists and Millennials can do their part, but builder groups often have a lot of political connections and now is the time to start using them.

I got a tour of Austin when I was there. I drove around for four hours, and I couldn’t believe how much open space exists. There is so much buildable land in Austin—get to it!

What do you believe Millennials look for in housing compared to Baby Boomers?

I think the key thing is that really since the late 1970s, young people wanted to live in cities. The movement to cities really spawned from the Yuppies (Young Urban Professionals) and now their kids are not moving to the suburbs. When we look back at urban history, it was perceived that people with money tended to live in the cities. Then there was a brief period with World War II and the rise of the suburb, where those folks left the city and moved to the suburbs. But this was a thirty year period and change has come. The new generation wants walkability, no cars, to ride bikes, and enjoy the urban scene. This idea is not reversing and we need to plan for it understanding this is not a temporary lifestyle. For example, the workers who are going to be coming to Austin from Apple are the ones who even if they end up with jobs in Cupertino they want to live in San Francisco because they don’t want to live in the suburbs—they want to live where the action is.

How do you believe stigmas of affordable housing can be broken down? How can affordable housing be integrated better into cities and is there a city that comes to mind that has done this effectively?

The challenge with affordable housing—again these bonds keep passing—so voters know we need affordable housing. But then, in places like Los Angeles, the question becomes where are we going to build this affordable housing and the neighbors resist it. It really just takes more organizing and politicians who stand up and do not get intimidated by the small group of neighbors that suggest “we don’t want it in our neighborhood.” I think the trend is moving in the right direction. Los Angeles wants every district to take on affordable housing. The notion of geographic equity is the phrase I would use. This idea is picking up momentum and you can’t put all the low-income housing in one neighborhood. You have to spread the responsibility around the city.

I even describe in the book the stigma senior housing faced in New York City, which is a progressive city. Changing the dynamic of how neighborhoods also perceive seniors is important. We are moving in the right direction but it just takes continued work.

Who are the true agents of change in increasing density? Is voting the strongest way to influence change in policy? How can more Millennials be encouraged to vote?

It is a combination of having political leadership and grassroots movements—people like the YIMBYs. When there is political leadership— which they have in Minneapolis, Austin, Seattle, and San Francisco—you see progress. Los Angeles is an example where there wasn’t a strong political leadership, although the Mayor is now doing more, the city struggles. You have to have both and the key is that elections matter. Had Austin elected a different group of people then no matter what the Millennials did it wasn’t going to make a difference. Now there is a real opportunity in Austin because of the recent election and what happens is the politicians realize, “Hey— I no longer have to be relying older votes”— and it shifts the whole momentum. Austin will be interesting to watch in the next two years to see what they get done with this new pro-housing majority.

The real take away from Austin and a lesson to disenfranchised Millennials is seen through CodeNEXT. The viciousness over the land use that caused the Mayor to get rid of it manifested itself in an interesting light during the election. When a small minority voice of pro-housing was heard and reflected in the results of the recent election—Millennials should feel encouraged.

With Metrostudy being involved in the home building and development business, what are suggestions you would have to builders and developers looking to create more affordable product for the millennial generation?

This is what my whole book is really about. You have to build apartments. They are more affordable. The Millennial generation can’t afford most San Francisco neighborhoods, Los Angeles neighborhoods—they can’t afford houses in those neighborhoods but they can afford a unit in a fourplex.

In San Francisco, I work very closely with a group called the Residential Builders. They are very frustrated because what has happened in a lot of markets which is also true of Denver is that you can build high rise towers in downtown areas and achieve financing. But  fourplexes which cater to Millennials are not being built or approved. This is called the “missing middle housing” in many places. There is a huge pent up demand for this kind of housing but builders can’t build it.

The notion that single family homes are great architecture no longer exists. The development industry in places like Austin is ripe for product like this. Minneapolis tried to get fourplexes into the zoning code but they were only able to get triplexes through. Portland is trying for fourplexes and this is what Millennials want to buy and can afford. I think your industry gets it but I would like to see a little more laying on the political influence to the extent they have it. We need to be able to utilize more innovative product to capture Millennial buyers. We need to see this occur in the next two years.

For more information about Randy, please click here.

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