San Francisco, land of people who make $200,000 a year and still can’t afford decent housing, has just been granted the puzzling distinction of being the first city in the country to offer tax breaks for urban farming. That’s right: the city that has the greatest affordable housing crisis in the country, the place with such byzantine construction laws that new condo developments dotting the skyline aren’t nearly enough to lower the $3,200 median rent, is giving people an incentive to leave precious land open for farming.
As the San Francisco Chronicle tells it, people with empty lots could save thousands of dollars if they allow their land to be used for agriculture for at least half a decade.
On the one hand, this is ridiculous. San Francisco needs every open slice of land it can get to satiate its housing demand. In an article entitled How Urban Farming Is Making San Francisco’s Housing Crisis Worse, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic : Urban-farming credits are an additional incentive against new construction, which makes the city’s wealthy property owners better off, but cuts against the interests of renters from all income groups who’d like to live there.”
It’s true–there will certainly be wealthy landowners who take this opportunity to sit on valuable land under the pretense of doing good for the community. But we have already seen how policies like this can benefit residents.
Nearly five years ago, former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom allowed a group of urban farmers to take over a desolate piece of land–home largely to drug users and the homeless–and turn it into a farm. This farm was never intended to be permanent. It was only there for three and a half years, until developers took it over to build condos. But in those three and a half years, Hayes Valley Farm became a community hub–a place to learn about sustainable agriculture and see it in action. When it closed, residents lamented the end of urban agriculture in San Francisco.
If developers are going to keep land untouched for years anyway, why not create more Hayes Valley Farm-like projects? There are other cities, even in Northern California, that could benefit from an urban farming tax break more than San Francisco (in fact, a number of California cities may soon enact similar tax breaks). But other housing laws–like the aforementioned building restrictions–are more damaging to San Francisco’s housing stock than an urban farming incentive that could help build up community in an increasingly fractured city.