Think San Francisco’s housing wars are intense? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
On Thursday, the San Francisco Planning Commission will hear an update on The City’s Housing Element, a state-mandated planning blueprint that will guide development over the coming years. The hearing represents a small step forward in a process that promises to reshape the cityscape: California law requires San Francisco to change its zoning to accommodate about 82,000 new homes between 2023 and 2031. A large percentage of those homes are expected to go in low-density west side neighborhoods — the Sunset, the Richmond, West Portal — that have seen little new development in decades.
While the rezoning plans remain largely conceptual, major points of contention are already emerging. A coalition of social justice organizations and housing nonprofits has fundamental criticisms about the role of market rate housing in the draft plan.
A neighborhood association has a different criticism. It says the plan amounts to “re-tenementing,” turning The City into “a crowded, airless, gardenless, architectureless, charmless, mostly viewless location.”
Meanwhile YIMBY groups, who helped shepherd the state law underlying this process, are fighting to ensure the Housing Element will actually produce as much housing as promised.
As it absorbs these divergent perspectives, The City has discretion as to where new development should go, but not whether it should happen. One way or another, San Francisco needs to find room for more than 80,000 homes.
While the Planning Department has gone through this process before — this is The City’s sixth 8-year Housing Element, or Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), cycle — this time around is different in several ways.
Recent state laws from Sen. Scott Wiener designed to combat California’s chronic housing shortage significantly increased the number of homes cities have to plan for, and added real consequences for cities that don’t meet their goals.
Another state law requires cities to actively undo existing patterns of racial segregation and concentrated poverty. Following its 2020 apology for racist practices like urban renewal in the Fillmore, the Planning Department took this anti-segregation imperative even further, adding a formal commitment to advance racial and social equity through the Housing Element.
After soliciting feedback on the current draft of the Housing Element, the Planning Department will release another revised draft this spring, setting in motion final approvals from the state no later than May 2023.
There are dozens of recommended policy actions in the current draft, touching on virtually all aspects of housing in San Francisco, including strategies to reduce evictions, preserve existing affordable housing, and decrease housing construction costs.
However, the most controversial and transformative policies relate to zoning: how many homes can be built where.
Half of The City’s total housing production this cycle would be concentrated in “well-resourced” neighborhoods, which encompass nearly the entire western half of The City, from the Marina down to St. Francis Wood, and stretching out through the Richmond and Sunset to the ocean, according to the draft plan. That would represent a massive change from the development patterns of recent decades when new construction was largely concentrated in eastern neighborhoods like SoMa, the Mission and Bayview.
The draft plan identifies several major transit corridors that could see more intense mid-rise, or even high-rise development, including Lombard Street, Geary Boulevard, Judah Street, Ocean Avenue, Taraval Street, 19th Avenue, West Portal Avenue, Divisadero Street, Castro Street and Van Ness Avenue. It also calls for legalizing up to four units on every residential lot in The City, building off a proposal currently languishing with the Board of Supervisors.
Already, the plan is drawing fierce pushback.
“The Housing Element has an over reliance on market-based strategies and too little emphasis on changing public policy and moving public investment towards solutions that achieve genuine affordability,” said Joseph Smooke, a spokesperson for the Race and Equity in all Planning Coalition (REP), which submitted detailed responses to the Planning Department. The more than 30 organizations in the coalition include prominent nonprofits like Glide, the Chinatown Community Development Center and the Mission Economic Development Agency.
Smooke points out The City fell short of its affordable housing targets in the current Housing Element cycle, and wants to see affordable housing prioritized this time around.
The REP Coalition wants only 100% below-market-rate buildings to be built along major transit corridors. It also wants more neighborhoods to be designated as “priority equity communities,” which would see more affordable housing resources and more limited market rate development. Smooke said those areas were mapped out “without any kind of vetting or participation from actual communities.”
The REP Coalition is currently working with Supervisor Connie Chan to adopt a more comprehensive map of equity communities that would include most of the Richmond as well as large parts of the Sunset and northeastern neighborhoods like Mission Bay and North Beach. There are low-income homeowners and renters in these neighborhoods who need to be protected from market rate development, Smooke said.
“The Housing Element has gone to great lengths to describe the historic issues of redlining, of redevelopment and other mistakes that we’ve made through our government actions,” Smooke said. “We believe that our city and state governments are making exactly the same mistakes now.”
Based on the REP Coalition’s comments and 22 focus groups with members of low-income communities, the Planning Department has agreed to add metrics for measuring displacement to the Housing Element, and to study the equity impacts of market-rate housing development.
Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action, agrees the Housing Element should focus on “development without displacement” and include strong tenant protections. “But we don’t need to be protecting people who own a single-family home from their neighbor building a 10-unit building,” she said. Foote touted other benefits of increased density, like more vibrant retail corridors, and more housing opportunities for people of all ages to live in appropriately sized homes.
Foote also emphasized that allowing market-rate development is legally required. San Francisco’s housing allocation includes roughly 33,000 low- and very low-income units, 14,000 middle-income units and 35,000 above moderate-income units. If the state deems the plan insufficient to reach those goals, San Francisco could be stripped of land use authority, meaning any housing development that complies with basic safety rules could be built.
“You may not like market-rate housing, but in order to comply with state law we have to build a lot of market-rate housing,” Foote said. “So the question is where. The question is not if.”