Book Review from the Journal: Golden Gates, Conor Dougherty

This week, we are featuring another book review from Volume 46 of the Carolina Planning Journal, The White Problem in Planning. Nora Louise Schwaller reflects on Conor Dougherty’s Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.

Book Review by Nora Louise Schwaller

There is no state where an individual working a full-time minimum-wage job can afford a one-bedroom housing unit without paying in excess of 30% of their income, the standard benchmark for affordability. While stagnant wage growth has contributed to this issue, an increasing imbalance between supply and demand in the housing market is a major feature of the problem. In Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America, Conor Dougherty focuses on the ever-growing housing shortage by sharing stories from those living in the cities of the Bay Area, California. In doing this, Dougherty lends insight into the economics, laws, history, and human experiences behind the rising housing prices and reasons why ‘The Rent is Too Damn High’.

Dougherty is well suited to this task. He is both a Bay Area native and current resident. He works as an economics reporter for the New York Times, focusing on the West Coast, real estate, and wage stagnation. His experience allows him to write with both the sober perspective of a researcher and the insight of someone who has lived in the midst of this evolving crisis. This background gives him credible authority to note that he has never seen it quite so bad.

In San Francisco, the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment is $2,650. Dougherty delves into the history of how we got here with clear-sighted nuance. The real-life characters in his book veer to polarized ends of the debate (e.g., affordable housing advocates who don’t want to see developers make a profit, or local residents who use racist dog-whistle comments to discuss the “horrors” of new housing construction). However, Dougherty balances the risks of displacement and homelessness with the practicalities of having the means to make money in and from a competitive housing market. In doing so, he gives fair consideration to those who often become the local villains of housing scarcity – the techies in their Google Buses, the developers, and suburban natives – by contextualizing them in the biases and incentive structures of local governments that often limit dense construction.

Dougherty anchors his book with Sonja Trauss, the founder of the Yes in My Back Yard (YIMBY) activism movement. The book begins with her first appearance at a public hearing where she spoke in favor of more housing just about anywhere in the Bay Area. She was nearly 30 then, an economics PhD drop-out oscillating between teaching math and working at a local bakery. At this time of her life, she was long on passion but short on concentration – with a list of discarded hobbies that included weight lifting, role playing games, and participating in comedy troupes. Affordable rent advocacy focused her, and before long, she was showing up at any public hearing on residential construction, from affordable mid-rises to high end apartments, asking them to build anything so long as it was more.

Her organization, coined San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SF BARF), gave a voice to the disparate group of people who were hurt by the non-building of homes that they could have lived in, or that could have at least put downward pressure on rents. This was a marked shift in housing advocacy that expanded the conversation around new construction far beyond local residents and the project developers, the typical stakeholders. Her ‘build everything’ position, habit of inserting herself in local fights, and colorful comments put her at odds with traditional affordable housing non-profits, local residents, city councils, and developers. But her movement was designed to get attention, and she succeeded in attracting local reporters and big time donors.

While Dougherty does an admirable job noting the privilege of the YIMBY movement, which is predominantly white and often funded with tech money, this is not the main focus of the book. Still, he contrasts SF BARF with an impactful chapter covering advocacy by and for low-income service industry employees, who are often at the greatest risk of displacement. This includes an in-depth story centered on an apartment building that was bought and flipped in a majority Hispanic neighborhood. Through this process, Dougherty describes the actions and perspectives of the developers, the residents who suddenly found themselves faced with $1,000+ increases in monthly rent, the residents’ children, and local activists and charities. This chapter is reminiscent of influential reporting from the turn of the 19th century, such as the work captured in How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, or mid-century activism work, such as The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. However, in this ending, the Robert Moseses of the world carry the day.

Dougherty makes clear that the housing shortage, and the displacement, homelessness, and inequity that follows it, calls for a human rights discussion centered on the conscience of the nation. While he discusses solutions such as imposing rent control, reducing building restrictions, changes to the building industry, and increasing multi-family zoning, they do not form the central thesis of the book. Instead, Golden Gates ends on how the housing crisis is, in many ways, about what we are willing to provide for those of us who have the least when it comes at the cost of those with more affluence and power. These moral questions are contrasted with the mismatch of incentives for addressing wide-spanning issues at the local level when the responsibility for the problem is diffused across states, countries, or even the global population. This point is captured by Steve Falk, a city planner for Lafayette, California, who resigned in the face of resident outrage during discussions on increasing density near a BART (light-rail transit) stop: “All cities – even small ones – have a responsibility to address the most significant challenges of our time: climate change, income inequality, and housing affordability” (116).

Golden Gates is on Time’s list of 100 Must-Read Books of 2020, is an Editor’s Choice of the New York Times, and is on Planetizen’s list for Top Urban Planning Books of 2020. These accolades are well deserved. The book is accessible to readers working outside of this subject area, and interesting to those, such as planners, working within it. Even housing scholars will find new insights and unfamiliar stories, while those without such a background will be able to pick it up and find themselves invested in the intricacies of local planning and the friction of the democratic process.

Buy Golden Gates here.

Find Volume 46 of the Carolina Planning Journal online here.

Nora Louise Schwaller is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in the Department of City and Regional Planning, and a registered architect in the state of North Carolina. Her research interests focus on migration, climate change adaptation, and equitable recoveries.