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Planning Commission weighs in on inclusionary housing debate

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Members of the Planning Commission listen to public comment before sending along their recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on inclusionary housing. (James Chan/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The Planning Commission largely sided Thursday with supervisors London Breed and Ahsha Safai in the debate over sweeping changes to San Francisco’s affordable housing requirements.

A proposal from Breed and Safai, which focuses on expanding affordable housing to the middle class, is up against another set of proposed changes to inclusionary housing requirements for developers from supervisors Jane Kim and Aaron Peskin.

The commission recommended that the Board of Supervisors lower the percentage of affordable rental units required by developers of projects with at least 25 units from 25 percent to 18 percent, which is in line with the proposal from Breed and Safai.

At the same time, the commission recommended that 12 percent of those units be designated as low-income rather than 6 percent as Breed and Safai proposed.

“This is not a technical change, this is a sweeping piece of public policy about how you divide up the affordable housing pie,” Peskin said. “I appreciate their recommendations but they’re just that. They’re just recommendations.”

The Board of Supervisors will ultimately approve changes to The City’s inclusionary housing requirements.

The Planning Commissioners were concerned that requiring developers to designate 24 percent of rental units affordable, under Kim and Peskin’s proposal, would discourage them from building housing in the first place.

“We’ve got to look at how we’re supporting housing everywhere, not just inclusionary,” said Planning Commission President Rich Hillis. “We should be pushing the envelope of affordable housing, but we shouldn’t be doing it at the risk of making projects infeasible.”

The recommendations were mostly in line with city planners and the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

The Controller’s Office also recommended that developers only be required to designate 18 percent of rental units affordable unless it is assumed that they take advantage of the state density bonus program, in which case 24 percent is feasible.

The Planning Commission’s recommendation to rent 12 percent of units at 55 percent of the area median income — or low-income — is closer to the proposal from Kim and Peskin, who want developers to designate 15 percent of rental units for low-income individuals.

The commission also recommended the remaining 6 percent of affordable units be split between rentals at 80 percent of area median income and 110 percent of area median income.

“Everybody is being covered now, there’s no missing middle,” said Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards. “It’s just to what extent.”

San Francisco’s area median income in 2016 for one person was $75,400 annually, and $107,700 annually for a household of four.

Planning Commissioner Christine Johnson cast the deciding vote in favor of the recommendation in an odd turn of events, since requiring higher percentages of low-income housing places a greater financial burden on developers.

Whether Johnson would side with developers was called into question after Johnson was hired as the San Francisco director for pro-development think tank SPUR. On Tuesday, the Ethics Commission sent her a strongly worded letter urging her to recuse herself from the vote because of a potential conflict of interest.

“While I was considering taking a role at SPUR, the city attorney advised me that since there was no direct conflict between the two roles I would not need to step down from the Planning Commission,” Johnson said Thursday before announcing she would not recuse herself.

Johnson said she had refrained from working on “any issue related to housing policy in San Francisco at SPUR” so far and plans to transition off the commission. SPUR is also not taking a stance on the inclusionary housing proposals because of the conflict.

Deputy City Attorney Jon Givner also cleared her of legal wrongdoing at the meeting since she is not voting on an issue directly related to SPUR.

“It’s not uncommon, as you all know, for commissioners to be appointed who are employed by nonprofit organizations funded by donors,” Givner said.

The Board of Supervisors will consider the recommendations, alongside a series other suggestions that the Planning Commission voted on Thursday evening, at a later meeting.

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