Dollars or sense?

Few San Franciscans can afford the market-rate homes developers plan to build — so why doesn't the city have a plan to house its workers and low-income residents?


It's no secret that San Francisco is a particularly costly place to live. It consistently ranks in the top 10 most expensive cities nationwide, and it isn't uncommon to see people renting out their walk-in closets as makeshift bedrooms to make ends meet.

There's ample evidence that the city's market-rate housing is out of reach for many families, middle-class workers, and low-income populations, particularly during the recession. Yet the shortage of affordable housing is a problem that is going largely unaddressed at City Hall.

The city's General Plan estimates that a full 61 percent of new housing would have to be affordable to satisfy the housing needs of city residents, but even the most demanding development standards fall far short, producing only about half that amount. And while most new affordable housing is built for low-income people, a sizable portion is intended for first-time homebuyers with salaries at the highest threshold of affordability. In recent years, about one-third of new "affordable housing" was built to sell to people with "moderate" incomes.

So as big plans are mapped out for new residential developments composed of mostly market-rate units, what's the strategy for addressing the underlying affordability gap? And will it ever be enough to keep from further turning San Francisco into a city of rich people while its workers are forced to live elsewhere?

This map, which appears in San Francisco's Five-Year Consolidated Plan, charts concentrations of low- and moderate-income households in the city using HUD 2000 income data. Under federal guidelines, people with low and moderate income could be eligible for affordable housing.

A San Francisco Unified School District proposal to create new housing for San Francisco teachers underscores just how mismatched housing prices are to income. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) estimates that San Francisco renters paying market rate in 2010 would have to earn $56,240 to afford rent a one-bedroom apartment, $70,400 for a two-bedroom unit, and $94,000 for a three-bedroom unit, assuming they spend no more than about one-third of their income on housing.

A starting teacher's salary in San Francisco is $50,000, so early-career educators may feel the squeeze. A survey of teachers conducted for the proposal found that 81 percent of respondents were renters, most living with unrelated roommates. More than half had plans to relocate in five years to a city where they could afford to be homeowners.

Housing was a hot-button issue at the Sept. 16 Planning Commission hearing on the environmental impact review for a hospital and housing complex that California Pacific Medical Center wants to build near Van Ness Avenue.

"The CPMC EIR fails miserably to analyze the income of the CPMC work force, and where it's supposed to be housed," affordable housing advocate Calvin Welch told the Guardian. "It's a profoundly important question. If they are [providing] jobs that produce incomes that are insufficient to pay for average market-rate housing in San Francisco, who's responsibility is it going to be to build housing for that workforce?"



San Francisco has a reputation as a diverse, politically engaged hub that supports emerging artists, independent thinkers, and advocates for youth, workers' rights, healthy ecosystems, protections for the most vulnerable segments of society, and hundreds of other causes. Without economic diversity — which is only possible when housing is available to people with a range of incomes — it might be a different place.