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San Francisco’s most massive housing construction era since urban renewal

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The narrative in the mainstream media and from popular think tank organizations over the last several months is that San Francisco is dramatically “underproducing” housing and that this is the reason for The City’s growing unaffordability. We are evidently expected to believe this assertion just because it is, well, asserted. But this argument raises key questions, which have remained unanswered: Underbuilding relative to what norm? And, even more importantly, underproducing housing for whom?

Fortunately, San Franciscans are willing and able to see through the hype. Here are some facts:

San Francisco is currently experiencing its highest level of housing production since the 1960s’ Urban Renewal. According to the City Planning Department’s Housing Inventory, almost 3,500 units were built in the year 2014, and we can estimate another 3,500 homes were completed in 2015.

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The last time we reached such levels of production was between 1963 and 1965, during the heady and controversial days when entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for new construction.

Thousands more units are currently midconstruction, or have been approved and are simply waiting for developers to start construction. According to the City Planning Department’s “Pipeline” data as of October 2015, there are almost 9,000 units of housing in various stages of construction and another 4,300 fully approved homes that have yet to begin construction. (This does not include the 23,000 units approved in the huge Hunters Point Shipyard, Treasure Island and Park Merced projects, which will be built in the coming years).

These numbers defy the notion that housing production has been at the anemic pace that the “build, build, build” boosters would like us to believe.

That said, our current challenge is to produce new homes that serve San Franciscans as the population of The City continues to grow. This is not just about the volume of construction, but about building homes that are actually affordable at the full range of income levels for The City’s residents.

While some may argue that 3,500 new housing units per year is “not enough,” the truly important question is: Who can afford those homes?

Here are some more facts:

More than half of what we are building should be affordable housing to keep up with job growth. According to the San Francisco General Plan Housing Element, about 4,100 total homes should be constructed annually to fully meet The City’s growing population needs at all income levels. Of that total, 57 percent of new homes (about 2,330 units per year) should be affordable to low- and moderate-income San Franciscans (aka, below market-rate).

San Francisco has a dramatic imbalance between market-rate housing and affordable housing production. According to the City Planning Department’s Housing Balance Report released in September 2015, the citywide production of net new affordable housing over the 10-year period between 2005 and 2015 was only 15 percent. Looking at the City Planning Department’s Development Dashboard for 2015, only 18 percent of the new homes built were affordable to low-, moderate- and middle-income households. The other 82 percent of units constructed were market-rate housing.

And the future looks the same: Of the already-approved projects yet to be constructed, 87 percent of the housing is market-rate (13,179 units).

Those are sobering numbers in contrast to San Francisco’s official housing policy, which calls for more than half of all new construction to be affordable for a wide range of households.

Those who claim we are simply “underbuilding” housing are off the mark. Though our current totals of housing production are at a historical high point, we are effectively overbuilding expensive market-rate housing in proportion to affordable homes for low-, moderate- and middle-income San Franciscans. It’s more about balance than totals, and San Francisco today is dramatically out of balance in producing affordable housing.

Let’s solve that problem first and foremost, and dispense with the false assertions about underproduction.


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

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