Bryant Street project offers model for faster, cheaper affordable housing construction

A supportive housing project in San Francisco has become a case study in how to build affordable housing significantly faster...

A supportive housing project in San Francisco has become a case study in how to build affordable housing significantly faster and cheaper.

A study from University of California, Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation released last week found that the 833 Bryant St. project is being built 30 percent faster and at a 25 percent lower price than the norm. In other words, an affordable housing project that would typically cost $600,000-$700,000 per unit in San Francisco over a lengthy development period will cost an estimated $382,917 per unit.

As a result, the project developed by Mercy Housing will be able to provide 145 units of permanent supportive housing — the next step up from chronic homelessness — to shelter about 70 more people for the same amount of money. The modular housing construction is expected to be complete in July 2021, less than three years after the land it’s built on was acquired.

“833 Bryant’s quick timeline means that 145 homeless people will be housed months or even years sooner than if the project had been developed through the typical processes,” the report said. “Their focus on cost and time efficiencies is applicable nationwide, as the scarcity of affordable housing coupled with limited subsidy dollars is a major issue across the country.”

Success for the Bryant Street project did not come by accident. A major catalyst for the efficiency came from a $50 million contribution from Tipping Point to launch the Homes for the Homeless Fund after partnering with the San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund to develop a model that speeds up construction and costs.

The uniquely flexible funding, which acknowledged there may not be a return on investment, allowed the Housing Accelerator Fund to quickly buy the privately-owned site in 2018.

“There’s a big takeaway here in terms of how catalytic that capital can actually be to transform the industry in really positive ways and develop housing faster, which is tied to how flexible it is,” said HAF CEO Rebecca Foster. “The less time that an affordable housing developer has to spend on uncertainty and the entitlement process, the less risky it is for everyone and the more they can focus on just getting the building constructed.”

Senate Bill 35, authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, played a key role in speeding up the entitlement process. Under the bill, cities that fail to meet regional housing goals — which are up for debate — must streamline qualified infill projects.

Applications filed for the 833 Bryant project in December 2018 resulted in entitlements by April 2019, allowing construction costs to be locked in early. The report compared that to a project known as Parcel O, a 108-unit development in Hayes Valley, which came before SB 35; estimated delays cost that project another $500,000. Other reviews cost another $800,000.

Construction was also more efficient for 833 Bryant, as Factory_OS built the units as modular housing offsite in Vallejo.

The Terner report noted that each innovation results in savings “greater than the sum of its parts,” and offers lessons for approaches to housing moving forward.

Foster points to Project Homekey, which offered millions in state funds during the pandemic to jurisdictions that quickly could complete applications for plans to acquire hotels for permanent supportive housing.

“People are dying when they are not housed and this is absolutely a crisis and everybody knows that in the Bay Area,” Foster said. “We have to all align around this sense of urgency and the need to really put delivering units of housing as quickly as possible by many different means in order to address this problem. It has to be at the top of the list.”

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