On Guard: Why not look to westside to build homes?

Go west, the saying goes.

When it comes to building housing in San Francisco, though, the saying only goes as far west as the Panhandle. Try to develop anywhere west of the center of The City, and another saying comes to mind: Fat chance.

Most of our construction boom has been concentrated in the eastside of The City, leading to a boom in protests of just about any new development in the Mission. Now the resistance may up the ante.

On Friday, news hit that Supervisor David Campos may propose a moratorium on market-rate housing development in parts of the Mission.

Construction may be booming in some parts of San Francisco, but as Housing Action Coalition head Tim Colen told me, roughly 80 percent of development in The City is on 20 percent of its land. For those not following the housing war with bated breath, construction in the Mission is hot, and has been for a while.

The neighborhood is transit-rich, culture-rich and just plain old rich. Studios can go for $1,800 a month in the Mission. One-bedroom apartments reach $4,000 a month.

That's why, even for a proposal of a proposal, the reaction from the development community to Campos' moratorium idea was swift and negative.

“We need more housing in San Francisco,” Supervisor Scott Wiener said simply, “as we have a housing shortage.”

Wiener, and others, argue density is the only pathway to housing affordability. Still, Campos' proposal hasn't yet been formalized.

“It's funny that these folks are saying the sky is falling,” Campos told me.

Many defending the Mission boom argue for density. But dense multi-unit housing developments are sprouting like weeds in the Mission, while the Sunset and Richmond host seas of single-family homes.

It's no surprise the Mission's residents might say, “Enough! Go build out west, for once!”

So, then, why don't we?

“We're not innovating, we're just not,” Colen said. “Why is there no construction going on of cheaper, smaller-scale housing outside of the urban core? I'd say it's mostly political and financial disincentives to building it.”

The financial award for building in the western neighborhoods is not high enough, Colen said. It lacks BART, which draws so many Oaklanders to the Mission every weekend. And the Outer Sunset and Outer Richmond aren't in walking or biking distance to jobs and nightlife. So the prices remain (relatively) lower, and few build out there.

“We're in a cycle where it's easy to justify building high-end, high-cost housing,” Colen said.

When you look at the sky-high rents for apartments in the Mission, you can see his point. If a developer thinks it can charge out the nose on the eastside, why would it build out west?

But this ramps up the pressure: New development brings more people, more people drive up nearby rents, the businesses become more expensive (and upscale), and longtime Mission residents are priced out of their homes.

Supervisor Eric Mar said there is hope for future housing equity.

“The growth can't just be on the east side,” he said. As the Richmond sees the completion of new, faster bus lanes as part of the Geary bus rapid- transit project, he said, new federal subsidies for construction near transit may be easier to attain in the west.

Mar and Supervisor Katy Tang, who represents the Sunset, each have their own proposals to look at soft sites, places like parking lots or derelict buildings, where The City can quickly and easily spur development of dense housing.

The discussion isn't coming soon enough. According to a report from Plan Bay Area, which studies the region's population, transit and housing needs, San Francisco will need 90,000 new housing units by 2040 to meet the need to house new workers.

But developers piling into the Mission chasing the almighty dollar won't get us there. We need to have a discussion about development equity, and that means westside construction, while also keeping an eye to affordability.

The City's current plan for affordable housing “falls way short of the huge need for affordable housing on the westside and throughout The City,” Mar said. “The City must be preparing now.”

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

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