Muni has struggled to hire and retain bus and train operators, in part because they cannot find affordable housing within San Francisco. (Ellie Doyen/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

Muni may provide transit operators needed housing — on Muni-owned land

Since 1915, Muni’s Potrero Yard at 1899 Bryant St. has played home to hundreds of transit vehicles — first streetcars, now buses.

But in the coming decade, it may become home to Muni operators themselves.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is investigating options to build housing for Muni operators on land the SFMTA owns, the agency told the San Francisco Examiner.

That effort comes on the heels of an operator shortage that has left Muni buses undriven systemwide, slowing the commutes of 720,000 daily Muni riders.

“We will work with the City Attorney’s office to explore how we can prioritize operators for housing in conjunction with our facilities upgrades that do include housing,” Jeff Tumlin, the SFMTA’s director, told the Examiner in a statement.

Publicly, the only such housing planned for a Muni facility is above the century-old Potrero Yard. Since last year the SFMTA has been holding public community meetings to deliberate on what that development should look like. Details are scarce, but the agency has said it hopes to build roughly 525 housing units, half of which should be affordable housing, though specifics on what level of affordability — a target that shifts in San Francisco — have yet to emerge.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency officials are working on a proposal to build housing on top of the Potrero bus yard. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner)

SFMTA employs some 2,000 operators, about 42 percent of whom live within San Francisco, according to 2019 SFMTA data.

That’s higher than the percentage of all city employees who live in San Francisco — about 37.8 percent — but comes with a particularly unique challenge: Muni operators have claimed that increased driving time for their personal commutes lessens their ability to drive buses safely for hours in San Francisco.

Because some Muni operators are forced to live outside San Francisco, in order to drive The City’s buses they must, ironically, drive to work. That’s often because they start work in the early morning hours before regional transit like BART begins running.

Roger Marenco is president of the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents Muni operators. He said bus drivers and train operators need more housing in San Francisco immediately.

“Operator housing is definitely a necessity, a tremendous necessity,” Marenco told the Examiner.

Last year The City convened a “Muni Reliability Working Group” chaired by SFMTA Board of Directors Vice Chair Gwyneth Borden and former City Controller Ed Harrington, who also headed the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. That working group identified the need for SFMTA to “accelerate operator hiring and training so that Muni achieves its goal of stabilizing current service levels by summer 2021.”

Muni drivers have been leaving the agency in droves, driving the need to hire 525 new operators by summer 2021.

During those working group meetings, Marenco tried to convince city officials that operator housing would go a long way toward meeting those goals. The working group then suggested the Potrero Yard housing as potential space for operators to live, he said.

Harrington described the discussion as necessary, not just for the operators, but for the safety of Muni riders.

“We are making operators drive more because we can’t figure out a way to house them,” Harrington said. People often ask Harrington, “Why can’t they take the buses?” he said. “Well,” Harrington said, “they’re not driving them yet” because they often start work so early in the morning.

Marenco wasn’t moved by the working group’s discussions.

“The talk is going fast, in terms of talk. But the action isn’t as swift,” he said. “They left it up in the air.”

This isn’t the first time The City has moved to house its workers, who are increasingly priced out.

The Mayor’s Office and the Board of Supervisors passed two measures to help house educators. Proposition A was a $600 million housing bond that will in part fund educator housing, and Proposition E rezones San Francisco’s large lots and public sites to allow 100 percent affordable housing or educator housing to be built.

Increasingly, city workers are asking for a piece of the pie. Marenco wants Muni operators to have a helping, too.

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