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Displacement and gentrification: San Francisco’s new vision for SoMa

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The Central SoMa Plan would remake the South of Market neighborhood with new offices and housing. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco is, right now, planning to increase displacement in neighborhoods like the Mission. It is taking steps to invite high-income workers to The City but refusing to build housing for them, ensuring rising rents and gentrification in neighborhoods from the Excelsior to North Beach.

None of this is intentional, but it is wholly predictable. Mayor Mark Farrell, Supervisor Jane Kim and various city planners are ecstatic about a development proposal called the Central SoMa Plan that would remake the South of Market neighborhood with new offices and housing.

It would also increase gentrification and displacement throughout San Francisco by adding thousands more jobs than housing units.

This imbalance is stark: According to the Planning Department, the plan would add 50,000 new jobs but only 7,000 new housing units — an unacceptable 7-to-1 ratio in a city that has added eight jobs per unit since 2010. It’s the equivalent of dropping Amazon’s HQ2 in the middle of San Francisco with no housing for 80 percent of its workers.

There are about 1.25 workers per household in The City, which means 41,250 of the highly paid workers planned for in Central SoMa will be looking for housing nearby.

Where will those workers go? It’s obvious: They’ll go into existing housing — where people live now — in neighborhoods where it’s easiest to muscle-out tenants. That means the Mission, Tenderloin, Bayview, North Beach and SoMa itself — all areas suffering high levels of displacement and gentrification, according to the Urban Displacement Project from UC Berkeley. When the rich and poor compete for scarce housing, the rich usually win.

The Central SoMa Plan will also cause thousands of workers to commute from Oakland, which in 2015 saw its rents increase the fastest in the nation and which has seen its black population plummet to 25 percent from 47 percent in 1980. San Francisco is planning to do to Oakland what the Silicon Valley peninsula suburbs have done to it: Shepherd in high-income workers, refuse to house them and usher in displacement.

The calculus here is simple: When cities build offices, they need to house the incoming workforce. This plan began in 2011. It wasn’t exactly a surprise then that the tech boom was adding more workers than San Francisco was adding housing. Why did no one notice that there was a jobs-housing imbalance baked into this plan? Why did no one seek to plan for housing, either in SoMa or elsewhere?

There’s no reasonable answer to this. The entire rationale for such plans is to anticipate and address the consequences of development. The failure to do this in Central SoMa, from the mayor on down, is a complete fiasco.

This mistake is, unfortunately, too far gone: Any significant revision to the plan would require a new Environmental Impact Report, meaning another three to five years of process and millions of dollars in city funds.

No one wants that. The plan has substantial benefits: It will bring in $2 billion in public goods — from affordable housing to transit improvements — and 33 percent of its units will be below market rate. Those benefits should not be delayed.

There are some mitigations we can make to the plan without delaying it — from adding another 1,000 units of housing in Central SoMa to expediting the housing currently planned — but none are sufficient.

We need to plan for 33,000 housing units in San Francisco to meet the demand generated by this plan, and if that housing can’t go into Central SoMa, we need to look elsewhere.

We could upzone Glen Park, St. Francis Wood or Forest Hill to add more housing. All are single-family home neighborhoods surrounding major BART and Muni stations that could absorb thousands more homes if we legalized apartments there. If city officials were truly bold, they would propose a Western Neighborhoods Plan to upzone neighborhoods like these that sit on acres and acres of low-density land.

Let’s be clear: No one is seeking to lower the office space in this plan. Without building more offices, we gentrify the existing space, increasing rents and forcing nonprofits to leave for greener pastures in droves.

Pro-housing arguments are not anti-office ones; we just cannot accept the current jobs-housing ratio. Mayor Farrell, Supervisor Kim and city planners should immediately work on a proposal to add at least 33,000 units to San Francisco neighborhoods, like those on the Westside. Doing anything less will send a clear message to the Mission, SoMa and Oakland: Rich workers are coming for your housing, best of luck.

Joe Rivano Barros is a Mission District resident who works for YIMBY Action, a housing nonprofit with a list of specific mitigations that should be made to offset the jobs-housing imbalance in the Central SoMa Plan.

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