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Density done right in The City

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As San Francisco’s affordability crisis continues unabated, there is almost universal consensus that we need to expand housing opportunities that are affordable to working-class residents in all neighborhoods of The City. One way to incentivize new housing and compel developers to provide more onsite affordable units is through altering density limits.

For the last two years, San Francisco’s Planning Department has been developing its own version of a “Density Bonus” program, with tons of staff and consultant expenses and practically no community input until the last few months. However, this program and the approach to altering density it represents, leaves San Franciscans with a zero-sum game: Either accept redevelopment-scale rezoning — which potentially destroys existing homes and community-serving businesses, builds predominantly single-bedroom and studio units and streamlines development through the approvals process — or conversely oppose all development proposals of any kind. It does not have to be this way.

Last week, the Planning Commission faced more than five hours of public testimony about the program, most of it serious and substantive concerns about the negative implications of the legislation. It was a bruising hearing, and the planning staff barely afforded a continuance of a few weeks. The clear message was: We can do better.

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We’ve all seen the abandoned gas stations in the avenues and vacant corner lots in Excelsior neighborhoods and one-story buildings facing the wide canyon of Geary Boulevard. Why can’t The City encourage desolate sites to be developed with real homes for working-class families that our neighborhoods so desperately need, as a counter to the current predominant “housing” model of developing unattainable luxury towers along the Bay? As a starting point, we propose several principles for doing density right:

Protecting residents, homes and neighborhood businesses

Any discussion about development must start with preserving what makes our beautiful, walkable, human-scaled and diverse neighborhoods: Protecting our existing residents, our existing housing and our community-serving businesses. At minimum, any program that creates new “incentives” for development should exclusively apply to sites with no existing rental homes — a precious resource — and should clearly be mapped that way. And in our commercial districts or light-industrial areas, any program that needs to relocate small business tenants should provide the same full relocation benefits, within the same general neighborhood area, that our affordable housing developers are already required to provide.

The right amount of ‘incentive’ and the right affordability

The proposed “Density Bonus” program offers developers increased density and additional heights in exchange for more on-site affordable housing. This basic principle is good, but two key questions need to be asked.

First, how much in additional profits will The City give to developers, and how much of that value should be recaptured by the public in terms of increased affordability or other public benefits? The proposed program uses a “one-size-fits-all” approach that doesn’t make sense, and would give some developments huge additional profit for very little additional affordable housing.

An example of this kind of giveaway is what recently happened with projects on Divisadero Street, where development capacity (and profit) more than tripled when The City simply eliminated the density limits (and that was without adding extra floors). Making sure generous incentives are reciprocated by ample affordable housing will require the type of financial due diligence analysis that has yet to be done.

Second, what should our affordability goals be in exchange for developer incentives? What income levels need to be served in order to keep our neighborhoods affordable and diverse? A straightforward approach would figure out how to house our city’s residents earning salaries from minimum wage to teacher salaries, and for a full range of family sizes. Translated into the “Area Median Income” levels, that would be housing from 45 percent to 85 percent AMI for single-income earners, and up to 60 percent to 120 percent AMI for two-income families.

Moreover, the affordability should be relevant to the local incomes within the community. When neighborhoods like the Bayview, Chinatown, Mission and the Western Addition have median household incomes well below the citywide average, how then does The City’s current proposal for all “bonus units” to be priced between 120 percent and 140 percent of the median income level benefit the residents of those communities? The City must be careful in picking who wins from Density Bonus.

Getting real family housing

Increasing density often means increasing heights and diminishing unit sizes, regardless of whether or not small units meet community needs. Instead, we can increase density while still requiring that developers provide predominantly family units and minimum unit square footages, or that building heights be appropriate to cost-effective building types. In any case, decisions about unit types should not just be set by planners, but also in thoughtful consultation with people in those neighborhoods.

Linking community improvements to new housing

As new development is financially incentivized for The City’s neighborhoods through increased density, there should be attention to the transportation infrastructure and other community improvements that may be needed to support that growth. The City’s recently adopted “Transportation Sustainability Fee” is a start, but only applies to large projects, and fees aren’t directed to help with the local transit impacts related to development in particular neighborhoods. To do density right, The City needs to decide how to hold increased development accountable for increasing transit service and other improvements.

Affordable housing not a ‘trade-off’

Finally, in the quest for “density done right,” the role of the public should not be diminished in some kind of “trade-off” for increasing affordable housing requirements. That is another zero-sum game. The process of building housing should also be about building relationships with the local communities that will live with new development for the many years to come. Design matters, ground floor retail matters, and transportation matters. Ensuring that the public has a role in shaping those outcomes and that developers are accountable is not unreasonable. San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods, and any density bonus program should approach it as a landscape of neighborhoods, not just a real estate map for expediting development.

How do we get there?

Few if any of the questions raised here are addressed in the Planning Department’s “Density Bonus” proposal — which is too bad, as The City really does need a viable program to create affordable housing for a mix of working-class households. The Planning Commission seems to still be struggling, and soon the Board of Supervisors will have the opportunity to weigh in. We hope they begin fresh and create a program that starts from a vision of what truly enhances communities.

Peter Cohen and Fernando Marti are co-directors of the Council of Community Housing Organizations.

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