Without a database tracking rental housing, San Francisco will continue to be plagued by displacement and speculation that keep residents…

By Molly Goldberg, Kung Feng and Fernando Martí

The housing affordability crisis in major cities across the country has inspired a variety of creative public policy responses to tackle real estate speculation. For all its leadership on affordable housing, there is one important tool that San Francisco does not yet have: an inventory of all housing in The City. Many cities have thorough information on tenancies, vacancies, unit sizes, housing services and rents, which allows for active community planning as well as enforcement of housing laws.

San Francisco has approximately 400,000 total homes, of which nearly 250,000 are rental units. It’s time for The City to get back out in front with a comprehensive rental housing inventory. This week the Board of Supervisors will take its first vote on legislation, already with nine cosponsors, that will establish just such a housing database.

There are several reasons why we need this.

First, there is legislation that The City simply cannot implement or enforce without a comprehensive housing database. Enforcement is critical to protect tenants and make sure policies have their intended impact.

One example is Senate Bill 50, a proposed bill to incentivize market rate development. SB50’s sponsors have promised it would not apply to properties that had tenants any time in the past seven years, but in the absence of a thorough housing inventory, there is no sure way to identify these properties and protect tenants from displacement. This is a serious and worrisome barrier to incentivizing development that does not trigger potential displacement.

Similarly, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), small rental units added by converting underutilized parking, storage or backyards, cannot be implemented properly. Strict ADU guidelines ensure that construction will not displace existing tenants or threaten housing services. However, these guidelines cannot be followed or enforced, and tenants cannot be protected, without an inventory of existing conditions.

Second, city agencies should have the information infrastructure to provide assistance, support and help to owners and residents in real time and respond to crises.

The City does not currently have apartment-level addresses for most of our housing stock, let alone information about which units are occupied. After a recent fire in the Richmond District, a lack of information about the number of occupied units in a building meant that officials could not determine how many tenants were displaced. As a result, it is unclear how to provide assistance or what the rents should be when tenants are able to return.

Many of San Francisco’s roughly 500,000 tenants are essential workers with a critical role for The City as we all struggle through the pandemic and the economic crisis. Without a housing database, The City is not able to efficiently reach out to ensure those workers have secure housing during this challenging period.

Third, there is a clear benefit to accurately knowing what San Francisco’s housing supply is at any point in time. That in turn can inform efforts to increase housing supply that address specific “gaps” in housing affordability. Without knowing what housing we have and what rents are, or whether housing units are even occupied, housing policy can be like throwing darts with a blindfold and simply hoping to hit the target.

For example, it is widely understood that there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of vacant housing units across The City. With the crisis of housing access and affordability even more acute during the pandemic, it is a lost opportunity to have any housing units gathering dust rather than actively occupied as part of the citywide housing supply. But how do we know where those units are, or how to support them to be brought back on line?

San Francisco can do better to meet its affordable housing needs, and a housing database is critical to the effective housing policy we need.

A comprehensive housing database is tantamount to understanding the nature of The City’s housing supply, and the displacement and speculation which continue to plague our city and put San Franciscans at risk. This new tool will empower The City and the public with an information infrastructure to enforce laws which curb displacement and improve affordability. This housing crisis has resulted in major displacement of renters, extreme income inequality and prices that make it increasingly untenable for low-income and working-class everyday people to remain here.

In this crisis, we need solutions that keep people in their homes. Good solutions start with good information. Our city can start by passing the Housing Inventory legislation this week.

Molly Goldberg is staff director for the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition (SFADC). Kung Feng is director for San Francisco Jobs With Justice (JWJ). Fernando Martí is co-director for the Council of Community Housing Organizations (CCHO).