Measuring displacement

It's time for official reports for planned developments that "could lead to significant displacement of existing San Francisco residents."
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EDITORIAL You can't build much of anything substantive in San Francisco without doing an environmental impact report. You can't pass significant legislation without doing an economic impact report. But the most important issue facing San Francisco today is largely ignored by those studies — and is only rarely even discussed as part of the city's economic development and planning policies.

At a press conference and rally Dec. 19, housing activists decried the huge upswing in evictions in San Francisco this year. At least 26 buildings are facing Ellis Act evictions — where every tenant must go so the landlord can sell the place vacant — "and those are just the ones we know about because a tenant has sought help," said Housing Rights Committee organizer Tommi Avicolli Mecca.

In every case, longtime San Franciscans — many of them low-income, disabled, families, or people of color — are being displaced from their homes, and probably from the city. Nobody at City Hall even measures the full numbers year by year, but the Tenants Union reports that Ellis Act evictions have tripled since 2011.

These aren't just random acts by individual property owners; they're part of a much larger trend created by city policies. And they ought to be tracked, measures — and mitigated — the same way environmental or economic impacts are.

Let's call it a Displacement Impact Report.

The outline could be exactly the same as an EIR. A designated city official, either in the City Planning Department or working for the city's economist, would analyze every piece of legislation and every proposed development of more than a certain size to determine if it "could lead to significant displacement of existing San Francisco residents." If the answer is no, the project or bill gets a green light to move forward; if the answer is yes, the sponsor, or the city, has to prepare a DIR.

A DIR would look, for example, at the impact the Twitter tax break would have on Ellis Act evictions. Not an impossible task at all — environmental and economic consultants do this sort of work all the time. You look at how many jobs the tax break will create, how many of those jobs will go to people who are not current SF residents, how much they'll be paid — and what the residential vacancy rate is for apartments and houses in the range they can afford. Add into the mix current plans for housing construction in that range, and plans for low-income housing for people who might be displaced.

Historical data could easily create models for how many new highly paid employees it takes to create one individual or family displacement. It would be at least as accurate as a lot of the economic and environmental models used every day in city and regional planning agencies.

If an environmental impact report turns up significant and unavoidable effects, the project sponsor is required to look at mitigations — and decision-makers can be held accountable for whether that happens. For example, a tax break that is expected to lead to the displacement of 50 low-income San Franciscans would have to be accompanied by the construction of 50 new permanently affordable rental units, or the creation of rent subsidies adequate to protect the vulnerable populations facing the loss of their homes.

Politicians and business leaders routinely complain that some legislation will lead to job losses — but the loss of people's homes isn't in the mix. It should be.

Someone on the Board of Supervisors ought to draft and introduce a bill adding DIRs to the list of requirements before major policy and development changes are approved. It could be the most important bill of 2013.