Dollars or sense? - Page 2

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?

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NLIHC estimates that 65 percent of San Francisco households are renters, and a significant number are what the Mayor's Office of Housing (MOH) calls "cost-burdened," shelling out more than a third of their incomes on rent. To get by, tenants have been known to cram roommates in like sardines, or cling tenaciously to a rent-controlled unit.

In a thick report outlining affordable housing goals for 2010–14, MOH and two other city agencies clearly articulate the housing challenges facing low-income renters. For one thing, the report says rents are going up despite the economic recession and declining home prices. And most people's salaries don't stretch far enough to cover those high prices. Even though there are 16 billionaires and some fabulously wealthy CEOs residing in San Francisco, the majority of people work in more mundane occupations like waiting tables, retail, office work, nonprofit jobs, teaching, health care, or public service.

The MOH report notes that despite the city's relatively high median income, there's a widening gap between top earners and people on the lower end of the spectrum, so few households actually wind up in that middle zone. "In fact, over a quarter of San Francisco's population earns under 50 percent of [area median income]," the report states. For individuals in 2010, this translates to one in four people earning $34,800 or less. Compounding that problem are recent unemployment figures indicating that nearly one in 10 is jobless.

About one half of San Francisco's population is considered low- or moderate-income, the housing report notes, using the standards used to formulate affordable housing prices. MOH uses a tiered income matrix, calculated using federal guidelines, to determine who could qualify for housing below the market rate. If you make $20,900 or less, you're counted as "extremely low income." You're "very low income" if you make between $21,000 and $34,800, "low income" if you earn between $35,496 and $55,700, and if you make between $56,376 and $83,500, you count as "moderate income." Even these figures are skewed higher because they include data from wealthy Marin County. As a point of comparison, U.S. Census data estimates that the median income for American workers was $29,530 over the last several years.

Most of the new affordable housing constructed in San Francisco is aimed toward people in the lowest ranges, but in recent years one-third was built for those with moderate incomes, which could gentrify some parts of the city. "Supervisorial Districts 3, 6 and 10 had rates of more than 40 percent extremely low and low-income," the MOH report notes. "These three districts make up the entire eastern part of the city."

A Guardian analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics occupational and wage estimates for 2009 suggests that about 71 percent of people who work in San Francisco (many commute from less expensive places) earned less than that highest "moderate" salary limit of $83,500. It suggests that the vast majority of the workforce could not afford market-rate housing unless they sought it in pairs or groups.

"A big issue is the inability of San Francisco's employment market to produce jobs that pay people enough to afford housing," Welch says. "There's a mismatch between market-rate income and market-rate housing costs. We're housing somebody else's workforce."

Another stab at assessing the affordable housing need gazes into the future. The Housing Element of the San Francisco General Plan includes an estimate for the city's future housing needs for the better part of the decade. The city should build 31,200 new housing units to meet its need, the General Plan says, and "at least 39 percent of these new units must be affordable to very low and low-income households. Another 22 percent should be affordable to households with moderate incomes."

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