Are those eggplants you're growing in your community garden the reason why the rent is so high? That's essentially what Conor Friedersdorf argued in a recent article in the Atlantic. He thinks it's counterproductive for San Francisco to begin offering tax credits to community gardens, under a new program written into state law by Assemblymember Phil Ting. After all, that land could be used for housing: "Subsidies for urban farming in one of the most dense, geographically constrained, pricey U.S. cities? That's insanity," Friedersdorf writes. He goes on to argue that "sound environmental policy calls for adding density to urban cores, not changing land-use restrictions to discourage building."
His point of view came under a lot of criticism, including from Eli Zigas, SPUR's food systems and urban agriculture program manager, who wrote in City Lab (which, strangely, is also run by the Atlantic) that the new program wouldn't be pulling land away from housing, because most of the lots wouldn't be suited for it in the first place. He points out that the "sites that are oddly shaped, not well-suited for development, or where the owner (for personal or business reasons) does not intend to put up a building anytime soon."
And that's all true, but there's a missing point in this argument: The amount of land under consideration is also vanishingly small. It doesn't matter much what we end up doing with it, because there isn't that much of it in the first place. Consider: San Francisco is roughly 46 square miles. The footprint of urban farms? A 2012 survey by SPUR came up with a total of 23 acres. At 640 acres to a square mile, that comes out to 0.078% of the total land in SF. That's a tiny fraction of the city—but the part that the new tax policy covers is even smaller. The SPUR study found that 20.8 acres of urban farms were located on public land like parks. Only 2.2 acres in total were located on private property.
How many people could you house on those 2.2 acres? Not many. If you were playing SimCity, you could pop down a few bunch of buildings on that space, sure But you can't, because those 2.2 acres aren't bunched up all together. They're scattered around irregularly distributed lots around the city. The largest farm located on private land is Little City Gardens at three-quarters of an acre. It's not likely that many of the smaller plots would be more suitable for building housing on.
But it gets even worse for Freisdorf's case. The state law and the city's tax policy are written in such a way as to encourage farms to locate on land that may be used later for other purposes. To qualify for the tax credit, the parcel has to be used for farming for a minimum of five years. That sounds like a lot, but given how slowly the development pipeline moves in SF, it's the blink of an eye. So if the property can be used for housing, a property owner could conceivably harvest eggplants now and condos later.
Friedersdorf is a smart guy and his instincts on this are right. But he's focusing on the wrong problem. If its poorly utilized land you are after, let's talk about a parking space or two. Or 441,950.