The Chinese restaurant at the end of a long argument about housing

March 7, 2022

Recently, I got into an argument with a relative about zoning, urban density, and what homeowners should be allowed to demand of local government, and the episode made me extremely grateful for my favorite nearby Chinese restaurant.

The relative is nearing 70 years old, retired, married (his wife still works), and a homeowner in San Francisco. Our conversation kicked off when he mentioned that a large vacant property near his home might be developed into multiple-story apartments or a business with a community center component, neither of which he desires. He wants single-family homes built on that property, just like his block, on the grounds that adding denser housing or a reason for people to gather at that particular site will have a negative impact on his quality of life because there will be more traffic and either of those proposed developments would generally change the character of a neighborhood he bought into decades ago.

This relative and I have a fantastic relationship, so I felt comfortable challenging him. Without getting too deep into the blow-by-blow, I asked him if San Francisco should try to reduce the cost of housing; if so, what steps the city should take; and what obligations incumbent residents should have to people who want to live in the city. If you’ve followed these arguments as they’ve played out publicly — perhaps you’re familiar with the terms NIMBY and YIMBY — you can guess where this all went.

My relative brought up the prospect of San Francisco becoming a completely different city, one we might not like. He appealed to existing rules limiting density in many parts of the city, saying that it’s fine and good to build more along transportation corridors, but why build more in a relatively low-traffic neighborhood like his? He suggested car traffic would become a nightmare if we added many more people to San Francisco, and that public transportation would be overwhelmed. He also surprised me (based on his other politics) by saying that there’s plenty of space in California, so if people can’t afford to live in San Francisco, why shouldn’t they just live elsewhere?

Over the years, I’ve progressed into and out of a lot of these positions, too, and I don’t pretend to be certain about the best answer. But I do know that my current politics kind of demand my answer to that first question be that San Francisco has a strong interest in trying to reduce the cost of housing because, as with many other settings and situations, the city is better when it has a more diverse group of people living, working, and going to school within its borders. We know people commute extremely long distances to get to work in San Francisco specifically because housing is too expensive to live near their jobs. It would be better for them, but also the city, if those people could afford to live here, too.

Where my relative really got tripped up, though, was my argument that San Francisco is an unusual place compared to other major American cities in that it is penned in by multiple other municipalities that do not act as if they have any responsibility to help relieve housing price pressure in the wider region, let alone in the city, specifically, and therefore, because of that geographic reality combined with the mild weather and lucrative industries centered here, it must take more extreme measures than other places to address housing costs. That is, even if the NIMBYs suffered stunning defeats and San Francisco mandated that the entire Outer Sunset go from swathes of single-family homes to multi-unit structures, et cetera, the city would probably still have to enact some legal measures to suppress prices because the demand is simply tremendous.

There’s a large body of research (PDF) supporting the view that building more housing in San Francisco would reduce home prices, but as my relative illustrates, this isn’t just a technical issue; it’s as much an emotional one in which his vision of what San Francisco is supposed to be clashes with my vision of San Francisco as a dynamic and ever-changing entity. Because he bought his home, he has invested in not only living on his specific plot of land in San Francisco, but the idea that now he deserves a say in anything that affects his plot. The harshest way to see this is that of a homeowner getting a good deal back before multiple tech booms sent San Francisco housing costs skyrocketing, to the point that the only way one can live here with a family and children is if they pull in exceptionally good money and are extremely lucky in ways ranging from childcare support, to lack of debt, to other connections that may lead to where one lives (*I’m raising my hand*).

I didn’t move him off his position; he didn’t move me off mine. And later that evening, I think I confounded him even more when we talked about climate change and I advocated both greater density in cities, with all the policy changes that would entail, including investments in public transportation, and ending passenger jet service.

It was a few days later, when I walked three blocks to pick up an order of Chinese food, that I realized if I wanted to make an emotional appeal to my relative, I ought to approach it by pitching him this restaurant as a symbol for what the rest of San Francisco could expect with a more inclusive approach to housing.

I live in one of the least touristy sections of San Francisco, and thus one of the least expensive, but even so, we have a reasonably bustling main drag, with the Chinese restaurant, a Vietnamese place, a taqueria, a coffee shop, a sandwich shop, multiple dry cleaners, a public library branch, a local grocery store, a smaller Asian grocery, a premium chocolate retailer, a dog groomer, a bank branch, a 7-Eleven, and a marijuana dispensary all within easy walking distance of our home. There’s also an independent convenience store off the main drag that’s also within walking distance that I sometimes frequent because they sell flowers.

But the Chinese restaurant stands out because it was the first restaurant we tried when we moved to the neighborhood, and because our friends and colleagues are always shocked when we tell them about the menu. Basically, it’s not the best food you’ll ever eat — far from it — but it is certainly some of the best food you’ll get for the price. To give you an idea, this place pointedly does not have General Tso’s chicken on the menu, while it does have a wide selection of clay pot dishes, and it sells dim sum all day, which is what we generally buy. For about $2.30 apiece, we get one order each of siu mai, har gow, bao, rice noodle rolls, and congee, which is a solid meal for our whole family. If we’re feeling indulgent, we’ll order the salted fish and chicken fried rice, or a plate of the eggplant with spicy garlic, or the Chinese sausage in cabbage. If we spend $30, we’re probably getting enough to feed our family plus multiple guests.

I’m not sure how they’re able to make all this work, financially. It’s cash-only. They’ve apparently been in that spot long enough it’s possible they own the property and live upstairs. But I suspect this is precisely the kind of business, alongside those other businesses I listed above, that is possible when there is greater density and lower housing costs for everyone in the area. This restaurant probably couldn’t exist anywhere else in San Francisco absent some kind of wildly unusual circumstance — heck, there might be an unusual circumstance that allows it to operate this way.

I’m fairly certain our neighborhood has a large number of off-the-books residents living in carve-outs within officially single-family homes, in addition to many multi-generational households. That would mean my neighborhood has greater population density than prescribed by city policy, but where my relative might lament the lack of street parking as a side effect of so many people living here, I choose to see that there’s overwhelming demand for more dwellings.

Ultimately, we should all be so lucky as to live this close to an affordable restaurant with perfectly fine food, let alone all the other businesses I listed. My relative doesn’t have that in his neighborhood, and though I’m sure he would proclaim not to care because he has a car that can take him interesting places 10 minutes from his home, it’s just not the same as walking, stopping to talk with people along the way, and waving to the folks at the coffee shop as you pass by.

(Photo: "Insides - BBQ Pork Buns - Dragon Boat" by Alpha. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)