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Owning up to our housing crisis

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When people talk about the dominant news story in The City, the housing crisis is usually the first thing mentioned. The term “crisis” is not even debated as a description — it’s accepted as fact, no matter what side of local politics you find yourself aligned with. No one talks about the “housing situation.” It’s a crisis, possibly a state of emergency, that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a family to find affordable housing in The City.

Housing construction is booming and even though some in city government hold to the magical thinking that building as much luxury housing as possible will trickle down to increase the overall available affordable-housing stock, there is a growing consensus that the current requirement that private developers must make 12 percent of units on site below market-rate (or 20 percent off-site or pay a fee) is far from adequate.

There are encouraging signs that The City is finally paying attention and ready to do something about it. In 2014, voters approved Proposition K, which was non-binding, but had the laudable goal of earmarking 33 percent of all new homes as below market-rate.

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And this year, two major projects — Mission Rock in Mission Bay and 5M in South of Market — have promised to make 40 percent of the units below market-rate, for combined low- and middle-income residents. Last month, city voters approved the first affordable housing bond in San Francisco in decades, allocating $310 million to alleviate the crisis.

And this week, Mayor Ed Lee announced plans to propose a charter amendment for the November 2016 ballot that would require the 12 percent below-market-rate housing mandate to be expanded in new residential developments and vowed to start a working group, like he did in 2012 for the Housing Trust, to explore the details.

At his Tuesday announcement, Lee detailed the steps The City has taken to keep housing affordable, including establishing the Housing Trust, but admitted, “Still, [it’s] not enough. We recognize the crisis commands us to do even more.”

Everyone agrees, what has been done up to now has been insufficient. We look forward to Lee’s working group proposal to raise the requirement of inclusionary units in residential developments, but need anyone be reminded that the Devil is always in the details?

Olson Lee, who the mayor tapped to lead that working group, told the San Francisco Examiner this week that The City should be careful not to scare away developers with too stringent requirements. “If we increase the level too high and we shut down private development because their projects are now infeasible, that’s not a benefit for anybody in The City,” he said.

Peter Cohen, co-director of the SF Council of Community Housing Organizations, is also cautious about the scope and details of the new initiative.

He doesn’t want to see the working group turn the conversation about raising inclusionary housing requirements into an initiative to shift The City’s inclusionary program into middle-income housing at the expense of low- and moderate-income. He further worries that developers might agree to raise the percentage of below-market-rate units if they can win other concessions, such as a “streamlined” road to approvals for projects.

“This process shouldn’t just be the proverbial moving of deck chairs around on the Titanic,” Cohen said, “nor should it be a ‘tradeoff’ of more below-market units for reduction in community accountability from developers.”

The mayor’s announcement made good headlines for a day. We all agree that what we are doing isn’t working. Where we go from here to address this crisis, though, is what matters.

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