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The old affordability-displacement switcheroo

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Affordability and displacement are two crises, but only one requires the creation of more homes. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)


The Board of Supervisors reached a rare consensus on housing, resolving both the affordable housing requirements of Proposition C and Supervisor Katy Tang’s Home-SF housing density bonus program, in negotiations characterized by an intensity that might lead a casual observer to believe it was Arafat and Rabin in Oslo.

The Chronicle celebrated the agreement on implementation of last year’s Prop. C, which raised affordable housing requirements in new development. The editorial described the proposition, backed by a landslide 68 percent of voters, as “ill-advised,” and expressed relief that the weaker brainchild of supervisors Ahsha Safai, London Breed and Tang “deservedly” thwarted the outcome of the election.

The editorial openly chided the electorate for having the moxy to demand more affordable housing, while cheering the moderates for standing up to stupid voters, rather than piling coverage on the political perils of defying the will of the people. Obviously, if progressive supervisors championed a policy at odds with the express will of the voters, the Chronicle would proclaim them out-of-touch flakes.

It is our flawed system that the legislator where a project is proposed generally makes the deal. All legislators, regardless of political stripe, have to fear backlash from constituents over allowing unpopular developments in the district. Typically, moderate supervisors don’t have enough development proposed in their quasi-suburban districts like the Sunset, Marina or Corona Heights to practice building consensus to get concessions that allow a development to proceed. Supervisors from Districts 3, 5, 6, 9 and even 10 have enough projects that they learn how to negotiate.

On the other hand, almost nothing has been built in Districts 2, 4 or 8, because those supervisors’ primary constituency is affluent homeowners. Former Supervisor Scott Wiener rezoned 341 Corbett Ave. as a park to stop it from housing the homeless, and Supervisor Mark Farrell turned the Francisco Reservoir into a park, despite offers from developers to build housing there. Which is why it’s notable that Tang navigated Home-SF passage to allow higher density development along commercial corridors on 200 soft sites.

The Examiner article about Home-SF quoted Todd David, the rookie head of the pro-development Housing Action Coalition, declaring victory for those who “think San Francisco’s affordability and displacement crisis requires more home creation.”

Except that affordability and displacement are two crises, and only one of them requires more home creation.

The affordability argument is that San Francisco didn’t build enough for decades and now housing growth isn’t keeping pace with population so we need to build more housing to meet the demand. Affordability boosters tend to dismiss the role of wealth inequality, loss of state and federal funding for affordable housing, speculative finance, transit and infrastructure, etc. But most of us agree that California needs to build more housing, which is still a long-term solution to a long-term problem. It does not solve displacement.

Home-SF is projected to add 5,000 units over the next 20 years, which will be worthless to all the people, including members of my family, forced to pack up and leave the state right now. Home-SF and Prop. C, and any other supply-side solution, at best slow the rate of growth in housing costs over years. They don’t house the homeless or stop evictions. The answer to displacement is expanding rent control, restricting evictions, restricting Airbnb, funding legal defense for tenants, public funding for homeless services, and so on. Those policies keep people in their homes.

Affordability is more attractive politically because there’s money to be made from it. There’s no money to be made stopping displacement. That’s not to say that a public debate over how much, where and on whose dime housing should be added is not worthwhile. It absolutely is, but using affordability as the answer to displacement is like giving a bike helmet to someone after they get hit by a car. That person needs a doctor, not a condescending lecture about why they should have worn a helmet.

Nato Green is a San Francisco-based comedian and writer. Pester him on Twitter @natogreen or see him live at Verdi Wild Things Are at the Verdi Club on June 8.

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