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Planning Commission favors maintaining conditional use process for below-market-rate developments

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Legislation that could speed up the production of below-market-rate housing projects by up to a year will still continue to wend its way through The City’s approval process, despite rejection of the planning code amendment by the Planning Commission on Thursday.

After a lengthy discussion, commissioners voted 3-3 in favor of recommending approval of the legislation to the Board of Supervisors, with Vice President Cindy Wu and Commissioners Dennis Richards and Kathrin Moore as the dissenting votes. Commissioner Christine Johnson was absent.

The legislation, however, will still be heard at the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting in January and is not constrained by the commission’s vote, said Supervisor Scott Wiener, who introduced the legislation in September.

But the meeting served as an opportunity for commissioners to dissect legislation, pointing out what some consider potentially detrimental results of allowing projects that propose to build 100 percent below-market-rate homes to bypass the conditional use process.

Currently, conditional use requirements are needed for developments that are proposed on lots over 10,000 square feet, exceed certain height limits, demolish grocery stores or movie theaters, or request exemptions from various features like parking, among other construction changes. Such requests must be approved by the Planning Commission.

The legislation would amend the planning code to allow projects that will offer 100 percent below-market-rate homes for at least 55 years to skip the need for conditional use permits. The homes must be affordable to households that earn up to 120 percent of the area median income.

“This legislation focuses on expediting the production of low-income and moderate-income [housing], which are the two categories that we really need,” Wiener told commissioners at Thursday’s meeting. “It does so in a way where neighbors still receive notice…and still have an opportunity to provide feedback and engage with the developer and planning staff.”

But Commissioner Kathrin Moore said eliminating the commission’s approval of conditional use requirements would shortcut the public process, because the commission hears such requests from developers during publicly held meetings.

“Any claims of increasing efficiency is not increased by taking the public’s right to hear a [conditional use] or this commission to deliberate on one,” Moore said. “It’s not going to make it more efficient.”

Wiener countered that residents may still request a discretionary review of any project, which would trigger a public hearing.

“To suggest that not having a conditional use means there’s no public process is not accurate,” Wiener said.

Peter Cohen, co-director of the nonprofit SF Council of Community Housing Organizations that champions for below-market-rate housing but has not taken a stance on Wiener’s legislation, said there must be a balance between increasing efficiency of building such homes and maintaining community engagement.

“For affordable housing…the relationships that are built through the public approval process are important,” Cohen said. “The accountability that we hold for affordable housing is important.”

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