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How to really vote for an affordable city

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In this November’s election, voters have an opportunity to weigh in on six measures that together form an “Affordable City” platform for 2015: Propositions A, D, F, I, J and K.

The phrase “an affordable city” has become very popular in San Francisco, and almost every campaign, whether for or against a housing measure, claims its stance will result in an affordable city. And in some instances, this “affordable city” language is used as a divisive strategy, encouraging voters to pick and choose certain propositions over others for purely political purposes.

The reality is that our housing crisis is complex and, despite what some consultants and development advocates say, an affordable city will not come with a single ballot measure. Rather, there is a need for multiple meaningful measures to address the various facets of our housing problem.

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What’s fascinating is that this November’s ballot provides a comprehensive set of measures that, taken as a whole, allows San Francisco voters to support an affordable city by protecting tenants, preserving neighborhood character and producing an equitable balance of affordable to market-rate housing.

Though complexity is often seen as the ultimate evil in campaign strategy, we think San Francisco voters can handle the complexity of these multiple measures, resist the divide-and-conquer rhetoric and see the ways these measures work together to confront our city’s affordability crisis.

Proposition A, the $310 million Affordable Housing Bond, provides the public resources we need for the production of housing units. A quarter of it will be used for the critically important rehabilitation of our public housing stock, another quarter will go to first-time homebuyer programs and teacher housing programs, and half of it will go to the development of new permanently affordable homes. The housing bond is an important first step toward a funding strategy to fulfill last year’s Housing Balance measure and make 50 percent of all new housing affordable to low-income, moderate-income and middle-income residents.

Proposition K will dedicate underused, publicly owned properties for affordable housing. In addition to funding, a critically important challenge for the production of housing is acquiring sites to build on. One of the exciting aspects of this proposition is that it sets up the possibility of “air-rights” development over existing public uses, which could potentially bring in new revenue to city agencies while providing space for affordable housing above those public facilities. The first example of this might be at the new Central Subway station at Fourth and Folsom streets.

Proposition I, the “Pause for a Plan in the Mission,” creates a much-needed 18-month hold on development approvals to create an antidisplacement plan for the Mission. If we are going to meet the mandated Housing Balance goals in the most hard-hit gentrifying neighborhoods like the Mission, The City needs to begin acquiring private sites for affordable housing and ultimately develop affordable housing strategies neighborhood by neighborhood. Prop. I will give The City time to start this important process in the Mission.

Proposition D addresses the housing balance in private development. The Giants’ Mission Rock project shows that not only is there a new expectation that private development build mixed-income communities, but that it is indeed feasible for large developments to provide 40 percent on-site affordable units and to price these for a broad range of incomes. What if every new development made at least that same commitment?

Proposition F preserves our existing rent-controlled stock, the largest category of housing that is still relatively affordable to most San Franciscans. Maintaining a Housing Balance is not just about producing new affordable housing, but also, and just as critically, not losing existing housing. The latest threat to our rent-controlled housing has come from the profits to be gained by keeping housing units off the rental market and turning them into so-called “short-term-rentals” for vacationers on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. Prop. F creates reasonable regulations that still allow individuals to legally rent out their bedrooms or units for up to 75 days a year, but also allows The City to enforce the rules on short-term rentals and ensures the “platform” companies are accountable for proper business practices of their “host” clients.

Finally, there’s Proposition J, the legacy business measure. The affordability crisis affects not only residential tenants, but also the vital cultural and economic resources
that our neighborhoods depend on. Prop. J creates a program for preserving long-standing neighborhood businesses, arts groups and nonprofits that have served our communities for decades.

There is no single measure that will solve The City’s affordability crisis. But this year, we have the opportunity to consider a slate of measures that work together and lift each other up. Together, Propositions A, D, F, I, J and K provide a platform to the voters for an affordable city.

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

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