Who gets to live here?

Renewed debates about housing policy will shape what kind of city San Francisco becomes



Housing policy — which determines who will be able to live in San Francisco — has been a hot topic at City Hall these days.

At a Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee meeting on Feb. 13, representatives from the Mayors Office of Housing (MOH) reported on the state of middle-income housing in San Francisco, at the request of Sup. Scott Wiener. "Middle class" people make up 28 percent of the city's population, a 10 percent decrease in the past two decades, and to reverse that decline would cost about $4.3 billion in housing subsidies, or more than half the city's annual budget.

Wiener, who insists that "middle income and low income housing are not mutually exclusive," said he's raising the issue because the needs of the shrinking middle class are not being addressed. But during the public comment period, a long procession of low-income residents say city housing policies have kept them on the brink of homelessness. The takeaway message was: don't embark on new housing efforts until you can enforce the ones that are already in place.

Also underscoring the desperate state of many San Francisco residents, Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting released a report Feb. 16 that contains shocking statistics about invalid foreclosures and illegal evictions in San Francisco. Ting found that 99 percent of all foreclosure proceedings in San Francisco in the past four years have contained paperwork irregularities, and in 84 percent of cases, banks or lenders have committed fraud or broke other laws.

With the loss of the redevelopment agencies, Mayor Ed Lee's proposal for a housing trust fund, renewed calls for more condo conversions, and a new focus on middle income housing incentives, the conversation on housing in San Francisco is heating up.



San Francisco's housing market is 64 percent rentals and 36 percent ownership, according to MOH. So despite the focus of politicians and developers on homeownership, housing policy in San Francisco mostly involves renters, many of whom face myriad threats.

Rents can be so steep that market-rate rental housing is becoming increasingly accessible only for parts of the middle class and the highest income brackets in the city. People in San Francisco tend to pay a huge chunk of their income towards rent.

The federal Housing and Urban Development Agency considers it reasonable for a households to pay 30 percent of their income towards rent; but for the city's very low income households, rent is typically nearly 60 percent of income. For middle income households, the average percent paid toward rent has increased since 1990, but remains below 30 percent.

Those people fall mainly into the middle-income bracket, those earning 80-120 percent of Area Median Income (AMI.) Planning Director John Rahaim said that for the very low-income population (0-50 percent AMI) all rental housing is "virtually off-limits."

So, for the middle class, renting a place in San Francisco is tough. For the low and very-low income, it's next to impossible. And that reality threatens the city's diversity.

"The highest rent burden still falls on lower income residents, many of whom pay 70 percent of their income as rent," Sup. Eric Mar, who also sits on the Land Use Committee, said at the hearing. "In my district, people have whole families living in their living room or extra bedroom."

But things may be looking up for renters. MOH' Brian Cheu said developers believe that the market trends are heading towards construction of new rental housing after being almost exclusively owner-occupied units for many years. Cheu said there are 725 rental units in the pipeline for the next five to ten years, more than twice the new housing units meant for ownership slated for that time period.

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