Last week, San Francisco District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim and Mayor Ed Lee both released measures to address the city’s affordable housing crisis. Both plans would put this pressing problem into the hands of the voters in November, but San Franciscans should not be voting on either item. Instead, the two sides should come together and work on a legislative solution.
Kim’s ballot measure aims to change the way San Francisco builds housing. The Housing Balance Requirement, as it’s called, would meter the production of new housing according to the city’s historic production ratio of 30 percent affordable to 70 percent market rate. To maintain that balance, the measure would require any new development that tips the affordable housing threshold below 30 percent to file for a conditional use authorization, another barrier that adds time and money to what is already a strenuous entitlement process. Certain projects would be exempt from this, including those with fewer than 25 units. The goal of the measure is to increase the production of affordable housing, but all it is likely to do is restrict market-rate development.
Land use and politics go hand-in-hand in the city. This was evident last November, when a small incumbent of San Francisco residents killed a proposed luxury condo development that would have been built across the street from the downtown waterfront because it was a little too tall for their liking. Their slogan was “No Wall on the Waterfront,” and it was effective. Then earlier this month, that same group used a similar campaign to pass a measure that requires any proposed development on port-owned property that would exceed zoning height limits to go to the voters for their approval. Fewer than 30 percent of the city’s voting population showed up to vote on these issues, but their decisions resulted in the loss of thousands of new homes, including permanently affordable apartments, and millions of dollars of funding for affordable housing. Some may call it democratic, others see it as savvy politics.
Kim’s measure may sound like it coincides with a 2013 directive from the Mayor to prioritize the production of new housing, in particular affordable housing, but her proposal would backfire. The Housing Balance Requirement would slow the production of market-rate housing, thus resulting in a loss of inclusionary housing and in-lieu fees that fund affordable housing. To achieve the Mayor’s goal, the city needs to make it easier to add to the supply and find new sources of funding for low and middle-income housing. Kim’s measure does neither.
In anticipation of Kim’s proposal, the Mayor introduced his own competing measure on the same day. (In San Francisco, Lee is seen as pro-growth while Kim has been supportive of tenant advocates.) The Mayor’s measure, eloquently titled Build Housing Now, is well crafted and shrewd. The measure requires the city to set policies and goals that enable the building of more than 30,000 new units by 2020, with more than 50 percent of those priced for low- and middle-income residents. How this would be achieved is unclear, but the language is appealing. Another component of the measure would require an amendment to the Planning Code that would prohibit additional land use requirements, such as conditional use authorizations and other variances, to housing developments that are within existing Area Plans or former Redevelopment Plan Areas. This part is significant because the heavy majority of new housing is built within these Plans. If the Mayor’s measure were to pass, Kim’s proposal would most likely become ineffective.
The next steps for both sides are a bit hazy and a few people may have to play the waiting game. Neither measure is officially on the ballot yet. Kim has until the end of July to edit or withdraw her proposal. It seems unlikely the Mayor will do either, unless a compromise can be made.
In any case, tensions centered on housing affordability are immense, and the issues are far too complex to be reduced to simple campaign slogans. Already, the November ballot promises to be one filled with a slew of public policy and land use items, ranging from a minimum wage spike to a transportation bond to an anti-speculative housing flipping measures. Putting either housing measure on the ballot will only add unnecessary complications.
This is a matter for San Francisco’s elected leaders and city staff to make the final call on, not the voters.
Rob Poole is a San Francisco resident and is an active blogger, writing about urbanism and smart-growth practices
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