Twenty-five years ago, the city was doing equally psychotic planning for commercial development, allowing the construction of millions of square feet of high-rise office space that was overburdening city services, costing taxpayers a fortune, creating congestion, driving up residential rents, and turning downtown streets into dark corridors. Progressives put a measure on the November 1986 ballot — Proposition M — that turned the high-rise boom on its head: from then on, developers had to prove that their buildings would meet a real need in the city. It also set a strict cap on new development and forced project sponsors to compete in a "beauty contest" — and only the projects that offered something worthwhile to San Francisco could be approved.
That, Salomon argues, is exactly how the city needs to approach housing in 2007.
He's been circuutf8g a proposal that would set clear priority policies for new housing. It starts with a finding that is entirely consistent with economic reality: "Housing prices [in San Francisco] cannot be lowered by expanding the supply of market-rate housing."
It continues, "San Francisco values must guide housing policy. The vast majority of housing produced must be affordable to the vast majority of current residents. New housing must be economically compatible with the neighborhood. The most needy — homeless, very low income people, disabled people, people with AIDS, seniors, and families — must be prioritized in housing production. ... [and] market-rate housing can be produced only as the required number of affordable units are produced."
The proposal would limit the height of all new housing to about six stories and would "encourage limited-equity, permanently affordable homeownership opportunities."
Salomon suggests that San Francisco limit the amount of new market-rate housing to 250,000 square feet a year — probably about 200 to 400 units — and that the developers "must produce aggressive, competitive community benefit packages that must be used by the Planning Commission as a beauty contest, with mandatory approval by the Board of Supervisors." (You can read his entire proposal at www.sfbg.com/newpropm.doc.)
There are all kinds of details that need to be worked out, but at base this is a brilliant idea; it could be combined with the new financing plans to shift the production of housing away from the very rich and toward a mix that will preserve San Francisco as a city of artists, writers, working-class people, creative thinkers, and refugees from narrow-minded communities all over, people who want to live and work and make friends and make art and raise families and be part of a community that has always been one of a kind, a rare place in the world.
There is still a way to save San Francisco — but we're running out of time. And we can't afford to pursue moderate, incremental plans. This city needs a massive new effort to change the way housing is built, rented, and sold — and we have to start now, today.* To see what the Planning Department has in the pipeline, visit www.sfgov.org/site/planning_index.asp?id=58508. To see what is planned for the eastern neighborhoods, check out www.sfgov.org/site/planning_index.asp?id=67762.