Can San Francisco afford Gov. Brown’s ‘by right’ housing bill?

As an attorney, I have raised environmental challenges to housing projects. I have also represented low-income San Franciscans facing eviction. I understand the importance of state environmental laws and local oversight, but I am frustrated when I see good, desperately needed housing being delayed. I don’t want to say goodbye to any more of my friends who simply can’t afford to live here. Is it time to say good-bye to San Francisco’s housing approval process?

Gov. Jerry Brown says yes. To alleviate the state’s housing crisis, his controversial “by right” housing bill would allow developers to build homes in San Francisco without worrying about environmental review, local approval and NIMBYs. If the Legislature passes the bill, new residential buildings would presumably sprout throughout The City, and San Franciscans would reap the harvest of more affordable housing. But what would this promised buffet cost?

The Board of Supervisors recent approval of 395 new, residential units in Potrero Hill offers some insight into how Brown’s bill may affect San Francisco. Although The City has exempted more than 2,400 units in San Francisco’s eastern neighborhoods from the state environmental review process, the Planning Department was concerned this specific project would impact historical architecture, traffic and safety. People were also concerned about degrading open space in the booming neighborhood.

Before the project was approved, The City required the developer to address these concerns. Supervisor Malia Cohen also got the developer to contribute $1.8 million to Jackson Park — $800,000 more than what the developer originally promised to contribute. Through the local process, San Franciscans will not only received 395 new homes, but also preserved historic buildings, safer streets and more money for open space.

“A $1.8 million contribution to improve our Park is nothing to sneeze at,” said Jude Deckenbach, of Friends of Jackson Park. “The developer community has committed a little over $4.4 million so far to our Park renovation project.”

There are numerous similar examples of the local process yielding homes and community benefits. In June, the Planning Commission approved a large development in the Mission, dubbed the “Beast on Bryant,” after the developer increased the mix of affordable units and provided art and retail space. Last November, the developer of a 133-unit residential building at 75 Howard St. “voluntarily” increased its payment of affordable housing fees from $9.7 million to $15.7 million before the Board of Supervisors hearing.

Gov. Brown’s bill may give San Franciscans new homes faster, but The City and community won’t be able to work with developers to ensure San Franciscans also get the benefits they need, like more green and art space, high percentages of affordable housing, historic preservation and safer streets. It would be a serious blow to San Francisco’s ability to shape our city. Do we have to lose this power to address the housing crisis?

“You have to break eggs to make the omelet for more housing. This is one of the eggs,” Sonja Trauss of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation told me. Unsurprisingly, she is “drastically in favor” of the bill.

I agree with Trauss — we do need to break some eggs. San Francisco leaders need to break their habit of holding developers to unrealistic requirements or encouraging development paralysis by overanalysis. San Franciscans must break knee-jerk opposition to waterfront development and neighborhoods like the Mission Rock project. We need more infill housing.

But breaking the whole system is too extreme. How will we be prepared for tomorrow’s crises, if our response to today’s housing crisis doesn’t support wisdom and discretion? Just because we’re hungry for housing doesn’t mean it’s healthy to eat anything developers and Sacramento throw our way. We must think about the long-term effects new buildings will have on our city.

Although the local process is time consuming, it is essential. The best way to improve it is by electing supervisors and supporting laws that speed housing and healthy communities.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.

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