Last month, more than ninety corporate CEOs, tech investors and their allies called for quick passage of what the governor describes as his “affordable housing” plan. They assert that this plan would solve a housing crisis that threatens their businesses and the region’s economy. And recently in the San Francisco Examiner, a local politician added a Trump-like promise claiming that the governor’s plan would “make San Francisco affordable again.”
These claims appeal to the desperation of tens of thousands of Bay Area residents who are facing soaring and unaffordable rents and out-of-reach home prices.
What the CEOs and politicians don’t explain is that the plan, Trailer Bill 707, is really intended to accelerate housing construction for the wealthy. Under 707’s requirements, in order to gain one unit of affordable housing most cities will be required to allow the development of up to twenty high-end housing units. Such a policy cannot address the needs of most people.
It is a formula for exacerbating inequality. Building more high-rise mansions than housing for working- and middle-class households is also both socially and environmentally unsustainable.
Aimed at compelling suburbs to build more housing, 707 will actually enable more development in the hottest markets — San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose — while removing the negotiating leverage that these cities now have to win community benefits. It essentially prohibits local governments from considering or controlling for impacts, which is why it is opposed by every major environmental organization in the state including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and League of Conservation Voters.
In a nutshell, 707 gives developers the power to bypass existing environmental protections and public review by qualifying the project as a “by right” development. By meeting certain zoning and tiny affordability requirements, “by right” projects are exempt from environmental impact review and exempt from public scrutiny and comment.
Now unapprovable projects in sensitive locations will, under 707, receive rubber stamp approval, without a public review process or any ability to prevent or mitigate for environmental impacts of potential toxic soils, permanent shadowing of public parks or increased traffic.
The attack on environmental reviews in urban areas is particularly alarming. First, 707 defines “urban” to include sites that are surrounded with developments on three sides. Developments bordering a park or a wetland on the fourth side would be entitled to these exemptions. Even the Coastal Commission is at risk of losing its power to protect the coast. Giving developers an “environmental” free pass will spur inappropriate development on some of the region’s most sensitive locations.
Second, the proposal ignores the reality that many (if not most) sites in cities were zoned without environmental analysis. For example, we have neighborhoods in San Francisco with zoning that theoretically allows for 200-foot projects. But when those neighborhoods were zoned for such heights there was little or no analysis of the full impacts of developing the entire neighborhood at that height level. The “wind tunnel” effects of such development could pose a risk to all but the sturdiest of pedestrians. Yet the governor’s “by right” proposal would prohibit The City from requiring any study of a project, including a wind analysis. Cities would be required to approve projects based merely upon developer applications.
There are many other specific concerns regarding this top down approach to governance and planning. But we close here with a broader objection. As long-time advocates for affordable housing and for environmental protections, we are both deeply troubled by how the governor’s plan pits these core values against each other. We believe that such short-term thinking is wrong in principle and repeats our history of unsustainable, market-driven development. We need leadership that sets our state on a path toward developing truly affordable housing that respects both our natural and urban environments.
Cindy Wu is a member of the SF Planning Commission, and Sue Vaughan is chair of the Sierra Club SF Group.