Pragmatic progressivism, illustrated

This week’s Bay Guardian provides a textbook definition of the difference between pragmatic progressives and old-line liberals. Here’s SFBG editor Bruce Brugman’s approach to solving the local housing crunch

“Only rent control – strong rent control – can keep apartments affordable in this market.”

As useless as conservative market-fundamentalist based arugments against rent control are, there are other arguments that do make some degree of sense. Rent control does tend to deflect the market in some unpleasant ways, such as biasing the market strongly against new and young residents (Mr Brugman would see this as a benefit, unfortunately), discouraging improvements to properties and focusing landlord’s energies on exactly the people who need the most protection.
San Francisco Planning and Urban Research association ED Gabriel Metcalf gives the perfect, thoughtful response. Mr Brugman sidestepped responding to Mr Metcalf’s primary solution, which is increasing strengthening the currently feeble inclusionary housing ordinance. I’m tempted to excerpt a huge chunk of it here, but the whole thing is good, so go read it. A moratorium would make things worse and inclusionary housing works because it aligns the power with the market with answering a very real need. SFBG: old school liberal. SPUR: pragmatic progressive.
Mr Brugman mentions but skips right over the interesting part, which is that demand for San Francisco property is basically infinite. That’s an awfully interesting observation if you think about it! The reason why it’s true is that our society hasn’t generated built environments that support the kind of neighborhoods and sense of community available in San Francisco since World War II. Pragmatic progressivism is about curing these difficult, root problems, not applying band-aids and quick fixes.
Mr Brugman’s thinking is a good example of how trying to dice an environmental problem into little pieces to solve it is a failed strategy. The idea of “preserving” San Francisco under a bell jar without looking at the broader, statewide issues and the real effect these efforts have on people just doesn’t make sense. Apparently I’m going to have to quote John Muir on here until I’m blue in the face: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” The only real, long-term solution is that we have to build more cities.