Editor's Notes

The real issue in the Housing Element isn't density — it's affordability
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Tredmond@sfbg.com

The San Francisco City Planning Department is revising its housing plan, and there's a lot of indignation on the west side of town. See, the Housing Element of the city's General Plan calls for a little bit of increased density in some of the neighborhoods that have fought density for years.

The unwritten law of San Francisco housing politics is that you don't even talk about density west of 19th Avenue, and it's pretty hard to talk about it anywhere beyond the western borders of Districts 3, 5, 8 and 11. So all the new housing gets pushed into the eastern neighborhoods — and all the rational planning people agree that the other side of town should absorb at least some of it. Density doesn't always mean big, tall buildings, by the way — legalizing in-law units would create more housing, and more density, in single-family-home areas. But you run into the problem of everyone wanting a car — and turning garages into apartments means more cars fighting for that almighty parking space. Housing cars in this town sometimes seems more important than housing people.

So we're going to hear some squawking — and a lot of it's going to be misplaced. Because the real issue in the Housing Element isn't density — it's affordability.

The city acknowledges, in its own documents, that based on local needs, more than 60 percent of the new housing in the city has to be available at below-market-rate prices. The planners also admit they have no idea how to make that happen:

"The city will not likely see the development 31,000 new units, particularly its affordability goals of creating over 12,000 units affordable to low and very low income levels projected by the [city's needs assessment] ... [But] realizing the city's housing targets requires tremendous public and private financing, [which] given the state and local economy and private finance conditions, is not likely to be available during the period of this Housing Element."

Translation: we can't afford to do what everyone agrees we have to do.

San Francisco city planning has been driven for decades by the needs of the private sector. It's made good money for the developers (building housing in SF is still highly lucrative). But as public policy, the model has failed.

Until we set clear policies saying that the needs of local residents come first — and that high-end housing isn't meeting those needs — we're going to keep living with a serious disconnect.