Planning Commission calls for city to address racism in housing policies

Resolution includes apology for urban redevelopment, redlining

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, the San Francisco Planning Commission on Thursday directed staff to develop a strategy to address institutionalized racism in housing.

The Planning Commission unanimously approved a resolution calling for the Planning Department to center racial and social equity in its work by developing strategies to counter structural racism in collaboration with communities of color. It also instructed staff to alter its hiring practices to reflect The City’s demographics and to build establish metrics to track accountability.

In addition, the resolution apologized for past housing policies like redlining that intentionally segregated and forcibly removed communities of color, like black residents from the Western Addition during a period of urban renewal, while failing to intervene and course-correct moving forward.

Commissioner Milicent Johnson, who developed the resolution with Commissioner Deland Chan, recounted being followed by a man a couple years ago while walking home to the Inner Richmond from Pacific Heights. Johnson said she feared for her life, both as a woman and a black person recalling the murder of Trayvon Martin, but worked up the courage to turn around and ask him why he followed her.

“His words to me were, ‘What are you doing here? What are you doing in my neighborhood?’” said Johnson through deep breaths. “That is not an isolated incident. He knows the unsaid rules of living in cities, even in culturally liberal or progressive cities. He felt that boldness because he knew he had the backing of generations of laws and government to make a statement like that.”

The item drew more than two hours worth of public comment — often invoking the Black Lives Matter movement and acknowledging being on Ohlone land — to the surprise of commissioners who expressed gratitude for the level of passion on the matter.

Several speakers acknowledged the importance of the effort but called for it to result in action.

Highlighting the difficulty in implementing such ideals, however, those speakers often fell into two distinct camps. Some called for an increase in density in neighborhoods not facing displacement like the Marina or Pacific Heights, or while others called on planners to work more directly with communities to plan projects.

“We should start looking to aggressively rezone wealthy neighborhoods,” said Sara Ogilvie, a San Francisco native and YIMBY Action member who experienced homelessness. “My concern with community process is that communities in those district are going to actively opposed and reject projects.”

But for commenters in neighborhoods like SoMa, Chinatown, Bayview Hunters Point and Excelsior, lack of community engagement is a sensitive subject. Some called for a community oversight committee and mechanism with teeth for accountability.

“Planning must be re-centered around community needs and take an equity approach,” said David Woo, a land use organizer with SOMA Pilipinas and San Francisco native. “Stop looking to the private market for solutions. We need real, substantial changes, not empty words.”

Johnson added that The City needed to work at decoupling market-rate housing from the fate of affordable housing, while working on policies that actively bring back communities of color. Indigenous residents went from making up .5 percent of the population in 2006 to .1 percent today, while the percent of black residents declined from 11 percent in 1990 to five percent in 2008, according to the resolution.

“I’m just sitting here with a wave of grief and excitement and hope and gratitude,” Johnson said after public comment.”Healing begins first with naming. I know this is the first step and we have so much more work to do.”

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