Our three-point plan to save San Francisco - Page 4

A radical new approach to affordable housing isn't just an option anymore — it's imperative

There are three elements of a new housing strategy emerging, not all from the same people or organizations. It's still a bit amorphous, but in community meetings, public hearings, blog postings, and private discussions, a program is starting to take shape that might actually alter the political landscape and make it possible for people who aren't millionaires to rent apartments and even buy homes in this town.

Some of these ideas are ours; most of them come from community leaders. We'll do our best to give credit where it's due, but there are dozens of activists who have been participating in these discussions, and what follows is an amalgam, a three-point plan for a new housing policy in San Francisco.

1. Preserve what we have. This is nothing new or terribly radical, but it's a cornerstone of any effective policy. As Welch points out repeatedly, in a housing crisis the cheapest and most valuable affordable housing is the stuff that already exists.

Every time a landlord or real estate speculator tries to make a fast buck by evicting a tenant from a rent-controlled apartment and turning that apartment into a tenancy in common or a condo, the city's affordable-housing stock diminishes. And it's far cheaper to look for ways to prevent that eviction and that conversion than it is to build a new affordable-rental apartment to replace the one the city has lost.

The Tenants Union has been talking about this for years. Quintin Mecke, a community organizer who is running for mayor, is making it a key part of his platform: More city-funded eviction defense. More restrictions on what landlords can do with buildings emptied under the Ellis Act. And ultimately, a statewide strategy to get that law — which allows landlords to clear a building of tenants, then sell it as condos — repealed.

Preserving existing housing also means fighting the kind of displacement that happens when high-end condos are squeezed into low-income neighborhoods (which is happening more and more in the Mission, for example, with the recent approval of a market-rate project at 3400 César Chávez).

And — equally important — it means preserving land.

Part of the battle over the eastern neighborhoods is a struggle for limited parcels of undeveloped or underdeveloped real estate. The market-rate developers have their eyes (and in many cases, their claws) on dozens of sites — and every time one of them is turned over for million-dollar condos, it's lost as a possible place to construct affordable housing (or to preserve blue-collar jobs).

"Areas that have been bombarded by condos are already lost — their industrial buildings and land are already gone," Oscar Grande of People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights told us.

So when activists (and some members of the Board of Supervisors) talk about slowing down or even stopping the construction of new market-rate housing in the eastern neighborhoods area, it's not just about preventing the displacement of industry and blue-collar jobs; it's also about saving existing, very limited, and very valuable space for future affordable housing.

And that means putting much of the eastern neighborhoods land off limits to market-rate housing of any kind.

The city can't exactly use zoning laws to mandate low rents and low housing prices. But it can place such high demands on developers — for example, a requirement that any new market-rate housing include 50 percent very-low-income affordable units — that the builders of the million-dollar condos will walk away and leave the land for the kind of housing the city actually needs.

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