A 1979 relic of a state law permitting developers to add height and bulk if they set aside 13 to 20 percent of units for “affordable housing” has our Planning Department ready to push through a flawed local Affordable Housing Bonus Program (AHBP). The Planning Department’s argument for what is essentially a plan to up-zone most of San Francisco is a 2013 court ruling that Napa County’s local density bonus ordinance placed unfair burden on developers by setting a higher threshold than is allowed by state law. Napa had a 20 percent inclusionary housing requirement, and its density bonus program required even more. The court sided with the developers, upholding their right to cough up less affordable housing in exchange for significant height and bulk increases.
Our Planning Department is worried that San Francisco will be challenged next, because we are subjecting developers to “unfair” affordability requirements with the 12 percent inclusionary housing requirement. After 37 years without a peep regarding the state’s density bonus law, the sudden fear of legal action for not doing enough to incentivize development density seems more than a little bogus.
WHERE’S THE FIRE?
According to the Association of Bay Area Governments’ 2015 housing progress report, our tiny 49 square miles have taken on the lion’s share of regional housing production in the last decade. To give you a sense, between 2000 and 2009, San Francisco averaged about 2,892 new housing units per year, compared to 605 units in all of Napa County. For all of SPUR’s caterwauling about how “progressives” created the housing crisis, the decade I was first in office saw a tremendous amount of housing production, mostly as a result of up-zoning in eastern San Francisco, enabling us to create some 10,000 new units. The reality is that other counties are not pulling their weight when it comes to building housing for the Bay Area’s growing population. In fact, the growth has not been in San Francisco; the city’s chief economist recently submitted a report highlighting the real impacts of gentrification and displacement: a stunning outmigration of 62,757 San Francisco residents in 2014.
No, San Francisco’s issue is not that we haven’t built enough housing — it’s that most of the housing that is being built is out of reach for over 60 percent of the population. Even with the passage of lofty policy goals and studies galore, the city is still building at 150 percent of its market-rate development goals and only 30 percent of its affordable housing goals.
THE AFFORDABLE HOUSING DISPLACEMENT PROGRAM
For starters, more density cannot come at the expense of our existing renters and small businesses. Recently, while enjoying coffee at a local cafe, I was stunned to hear from the proprietor that he and his fellow merchants were relegated to month-to-month leases after the landlord declined to renew their long-time agreements. The reason the owner gave? He was eagerly awaiting passage of the proposed AHDB program so he could tear down the building — rent-controlled units above and commercial retail below — to build anew and up. This is just one troubling tale in a chorus I’ve heard from people citywide, reinforcing my belief that any incentive program that applies to existing housing and commercial sites is a recipe for displacement, not density.
TIME FOR DENSITY EQUITY
To be clear, I support density, but I think it’s time we had a real conversation about who we are building for and who is absorbing the burden of that development. District 3 has some of the city’s densest neighborhoods — you can find it easily on the AHDB map, bathed in color indicating it’s ripe for up-zoning. The Planning Department claims the program will net 15,000 units on 240 potential “soft sites,” yet it’s not targeted those, and the potential impact on historic rent-controlled neighborhoods where tenants and small businesses are already struggling to survive is clear.
My office is working to refresh an old piece of legislation I introduced during my first term, allowing the construction of accessory dwelling units citywide. Though we didn’t have a majority to pass the citywide law then, Supervisors Scott Wiener and Julie Christensen each passed district-specific versions last year. With the Planning Department projection that the District 3 legislation alone will net 3,000 units of rent-controlled housing stock, this is a far better citywide alternative than passing wholesale up-zoning of a city still struggling with concerns about incentivizing displacement. When the Planning Department’s projections are applied to all 11 districts, we’re looking at a minimum of 33,000 potential new units with tenant protections. This is just one tool to tackle the affordability crisis in San Francisco, and I haven’t even gotten to June’s Fair Share and Feasible Affordable Housing Charter Amendment or Rent Stabilization Act. Let’s pick this conversation up next month.
As we kick off the Year of the Monkey, we’re hoping the city benefits from some of the monkey’s best traits: cleverness, shrewd business sense, magnetism, and most important, mischievous fun. Gung Hay Fat Choy from District 3.