Developing divisions

Thousands of housing units are coming to market, but not many San Franciscans can afford them

The 38 Dolores project, where expensive apartments are quickly being rented, had its grand opening Nov. 14.

With the clink of champagne glasses, kudos to the development team and its community partners, and the cutting of a red ribbon, the new housing development at 38 Dolores St. had its grand opening celebration on Nov. 14, a couple weeks after the Whole Foods on its ground floor opened its doors to Market Street.

In many ways, 38 Dolores is pretty typical of the new housing opening in this part of town these days. It took seven years to complete the project, "on time and under budget in a way this community can be proud of," developer Dan Safier of The Prado Group told the assembled crowd.

That process included countless meetings with various community groups, who successfully pushed for progressive features that include some key pedestrian safety improvements and limiting the number of parking spaces to just one spot for every two units.

"It was an amazing example of a developer working closely with the various neighborhood associations," area Sup. Scott Wiener told the well-dressed crowd at the event, a sentiment also voiced by his predecessor, Bevan Dufty, who said, "They've been the gold star as far as listening to people."

But not everyone agrees with that praise. Peter Cohen, a housing activist who also works for the San Francisco Council of Community Housing Organizations, said Safier broke longtime assurances that he would satisfy his affordable housing obligations by building below-market-rate (BMR) units on site, rather than just paying an "in-lieu" fee to the city, two options under Inclusionary Housing Ordinance.

"They basically did a bait and switch. It was a real bullshit move," Cohen told the Guardian, noting how desperate the city is for more affordable housing now. "The bottom line is they promised to do affordable housing on site and they didn't do it."

"There are so many nuances to how affordable housing works," Safier told us, vaguely explaining why he couldn't do on-site BMR units, including the demands of project funders. He worked with the city on doing a land dedication for off-site affordable housing, but the Mayor's Office of Housing was resistant, and it would have required a change in city codes to do in this part of town.

"They wanted to develop faster than we had to capacity to develop," MOH Director Olson Lee told the Guardian, explaining that his office was dealing with transitioning affordable housing projects under the old Redevelopment Agency and it didn't have the capacity to help Safier build the BMR units now. Instead, it accepted a check for about $5 million.

"We felt there should be more options for developers," Safier said. "But the reality is the city needs the fees."

Yes, over the long haul, the city does need those fees to build more BMR units, which require big public subsidies to build in San Francisco. But those will take many years and much effort to build. Lee said the $37 million now in the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund will eventually translate into 185 BMR units.

"That's why we want the units on site," Cohen said, "because the clearest path is to build the damn units in your building."

By time the party started at 38 Dolores, 40 of its 81 units had already been rented, and the developers expected even more to be rented out by the end of the party, after attendees had toured the open units sipping free champagne or cocktails.

"If you've brought your checkbook, you can even rent a unit," Safier told the crowd.

Prices ranged from $2,950 per month for one of a half-dozen 505-square-foot studio apartments to $4,395 for the two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,099-square-foot units that the event was really pushing up to $8,100 for a few three-bedroom apartments with the balcony and killer views on the seventh floor.