Behind the housing hype
Newsom slashes new affordable-housing goals – and fails to provide a blueprint for reaching his targets

By Camille T. Taiara

The median price of a home in San Francisco just hit $800,000. More than 25,000 households are on the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers, 30,000 others await public housing, and the San Francisco Housing Authority is about to lose another $5.7 million in federal funds. Yet Mayor Gavin Newsom unfurled a plan Aug. 3 that effectively slashes the city's affordable-housing construction goals by at least 68 percent – and probably by a whole lot more.

The new initiative, dubbed Home 15/5, calls for the construction of 15,000 housing units over the next five years, with a little more than a third (5,400) to be affordable to low- and moderate-income households – currently defined as those earning up to $76,000 (low) to $114,000 (moderate) a year for a family of four.

But the city needs another 12,637 affordable units by next year, according to projections included in the General Plan's Housing Element, a 250-page policy guide developed by the Planning Department and approved by the Board of Supervisors and state officials last year.

"We call upon the Board of Supervisors to hold public hearings on how the mayor can change official city housing goals merely by holding a press conference," April Veneración, of the South of Market Community Action Network, said at a modest noontime rally on the steps of City Hall Aug. 16 called by the Housing Justice Summit coalition, an alliance representing more than 70 groups. The supervisors took heed, approving a resolution later that afternoon, sponsored by Sups. Sophie Maxwell and Ross Mirkarimi, to hold hearings on how to meet the city's affordable-housing goals.

"Not all housing is good housing," Julie Leadbetter, of Homeless Advocates of the Mission, told the crowd gathered on the steps of City Hall that day. "We have to ask, who's this housing good for?"

In fact, these past 5 years have seen the greatest boom in housing construction in San Francisco in 20 years. About half of the new units are studios and one-bedrooms, but only 27 percent (2,284) of the units built from 2001 through 2004 were deemed affordable to even middle-income San Franciscans, and only half of those were affordable to low- and very-low-income residents, according to a report released by the Planning Department last month.

Inclusionary housing quotas, which require that 10 percent of units in new buildings of 10 units or more be offered at affordable rates, only produced an extra 514 such units during those years. Meanwhile, 40 percent of San Franciscans currently fit the definition of low- to very-low-income, according to the Mayor's Office of Housing's own data, provided to the Board of Supervisors' Land Use Committee in May. Two-thirds cannot afford market-rate housing.

As a result, families, seniors, and the working class continue to be pushed out – and San Francisco has gained the lamentable distinction of being the city with the lowest percentage of children of any urban center in the nation.

Despite its bold claims, Home 15/5 simply siphons more resources into the Planning Department and the Department of Building Inspection in order to reduce backlogs. The resources are significant and long-needed, but they don't seem to include any new incentives for developers to build affordable housing instead of more-profitable market-rate units. The Mayor's Office has not released any details of how it proposes to ensure that even the 5,400 "affordable" units included in Home 15/5 actually get built and offered at a truly affordable rate, and it would not comment on the record for this story.

But Matt Franklin, director of the Mayor's Office of Housing, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the mayor's new plan "not only meets the Housing Element's goals for housing for the poor but exceeds it [sic]," according to an Aug. 17 article.

"I'm stunned," veteran San Francisco housing-policy expert Calvin Welch, of the San Francisco Information Clearinghouse, told the Bay Guardian in response. Welch – who reported, ironically, that Franklin had lobbied him just last fall to register his support for the Housing Element with the California Department of Housing and Community Development – pointed once again to the Housing Element's findings that more than 7,000 extra units were needed for low- to very-low-income households by 2006. That figure doesn't include the unmet demand for "moderate" affordable housing. "How 5,400 exceeds that escapes my math," he said.

Compounding the housing crunch has been a slow economy that simply isn't producing the kinds of jobs that pay enough to keep up with the skyrocketing price of housing.

"You cannot talk about affordable housing without talking about income," Welch said. "The Housing Element, by state law, draws a relationship between the workforce and housing." Newsom's plan does not – and therefore essentially reserves the city almost exclusively for the upper middle class, he argued.

Supervisor Maxwell has already been holding Land Use Committee hearings on the discrepancy between definitions of affordability, and on affordable-housing development scenarios. Supervisor Mirkarimi wants to see developers include more low-income units with their projects. "We need a greater inclusionary rate, so we don't have to continue fighting these fires," Mirkarimi told us. "And we need to create more opportunities for middle- and working-class families to own their own homes."

He hopes the public hearings the Board of Supervisors called for will help push such initiatives forward and create a more sensible and inclusive housing policy – with or without the mayor's support.

E-mail Camille T. Taiara at