Supervisors seek to prioritize affordable housing in the eastern neighborhoods
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San Francisco's eastern neighborhoods — the Mission District, Potrero Hill, Showplace Square, Dogpatch, the Central Waterfront, and SoMa — are shaping up to be a prime battleground in the fight over who will determine the city's future.
Can city officials, working with community groups, set development standards that will create adequate housing for all income groups, protect the job-generating businesses that use light-industrial property, and include enough open space and other community benefits? Or will the community have to, for the most part, simply accept what the market forces are willing to provide?
This is the basic dichotomy at the heart of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which has been in development for years and will be unveiled by the Planning Department sometime in 2007. In anticipation of that release, members of the Board of Supervisors are attempting a preemptive strike in the form of a resolution demanding the plan prioritize affordable housing and other public needs.
The 11-page resolution — which was sponsored by Supervisors Sophie Maxwell, Jake McGoldrick, Aaron Peskin, and Tom Ammiano — restates policies from the city's General Plan, particularly its Housing Element, and emphasizes the need for the Planning Department to ensure those policies are reflected in land-use decisions for the eastern neighborhoods.
The problem is that the city isn't meeting its goals, particularly in the realm of affordable housing. The resolution notes that the Housing Element calls for 28 percent of new housing to be affordable to people with moderate incomes, 10 percent affordable to low-income residents, and 26 percent affordable to those with very low incomes.
Yet the city's inclusionary housing law calls for developers to offer only 15 percent of their units below market rate, and a study associated with that law's recent update indicates most developers won't build if asked to contribute more (see "Homes for Whom," 6/18/06, at www.sfbg.com ). The vast majority of what's now being built isn't affordable to even middle-class San Franciscans — a far cry from the 64 percent of such housing called for in city policies.
"We do not have a housing crisis in San Francisco," Maxwell declared during a Dec. 12 hearing on the resolution. "We have an affordable housing crisis."
Most of the progressives who constitute the board majority agree with Maxwell's statement, which has been made before by housing activist Calvin Welch and some of the community groups pushing the resolution. They all want the eastern neighborhoods, where a disproportionate number of low-income San Franciscans live, to be where the city begins to correct its housing imbalance.
"We need land specifically set aside for affordable housing, and the best place to do that is in the eastern neighborhoods," Maxwell said at the meeting. "Let's make this official city policy."
Or as McGoldrick told the Guardian, "What we're talking about here is a paradigm shift of major proportions." He sees the eastern neighborhoods as the ideal place to create and protect working-class housing with aggressive affordability goals, and he said, "Those developers who can't meet those goals will have to build in other parts of the city."
But real estate speculators and developers who have spent years waiting to move forward their projects in the neighborhoods have attacked the resolution and its goals. The stakes are extremely high. The plan will set standards for the 4,800 housing units already proposed in the eastern neighborhoods, including 11 projects in the Showplace Square area that total 1,800 units, and more on the way.
"Our projects are being held hostage," Residential Builders Association president Sean Keighran told us, saying of his members, "They were speculators, but they were playing by the rules."
Keighran insists RBA builders will help bridge the affordable housing gap if the city works in partnership with them and uses incentives like density bonuses and height variances rather than strict limits and set-asides. But the resolution, he said, "will be interpreted as a tool to stop market-rate housing."
That's something even progressive Sup. Chris Daly doesn't want. Daly emerged as the primary critic of the resolution during the Dec. 12 meeting, blasting it as unnecessary and offering a list of confusing amendments that set the stage for Sup. Bevan Dufty to successfully continue consideration of the resolution to Jan. 9, 2007.
Welch and community leaders such as Tony Kelly of the Potrero Hill Boosters were unhappy with Daly's maneuver. Kelly told us, "It's the community groups of the eastern neighborhoods who pushed for this." He felt it was important for the board to give planners specific marching orders. "It's meant to say this is what we'll accept."
Daly said he supports the basic goals of the resolution — and even said at the meeting that he will ultimately vote for it — but he told the Guardian he would rather find creative ways to work with developers on increasing the amount of affordable housing than draw bright lines that might block market-rate housing.
"I'm not sure it's the right resolution at the right time," Daly told us.
During the meeting he also questioned city planner Ken Rich on what impact this nonbonding resolution would have and concluded that it's merely symbolic, although Rich did say it might spur planners to investigate and present more mechanisms for meeting affordable housing goals.
Daly then suggested a complete revision of the Housing Element to overcome the "balancing act" Rich said planners must perform between competing imperatives, such as facilitating jobs, open space, and housing.
"The General Plan asks us for a lot of different things," Rich told the board.
"If that's a weakness in the General Plan, we need to work on that," Daly said, making the motion that the resolution also require planners to develop a list of "contradictions in the General Plan that will require them to balance conflicting mandates."
"That could be a thesis topic in itself," Peskin responded.
Daly's motion was discussed among the supervisors, clouding and sidetracking the discussion, but it was preempted by Dufty's motion to delay the matter until the next board meeting. Maxwell said she's not giving up on the measure, which she sees as necessary to focus planners who feel constrained by market forces.
"Affordable housing seems to be last on the list, and we want it to be a priority," Maxwell said at the meeting.
It's an open question whether she has enough votes to win approval and what kinds of pressures and distractions the RBA and its allies will bring to the debate. But the heated division over this simple resolution is a harbinger of what's to come next year, when the real fight over San Francisco's future socioeconomic makeup begins.
Or as Peskin said at the hearing, "This is just a preamble to our receipt of the plans themselves." SFBG