SF housing official says middle-income units have not been focus of government programs

Mike Koozmin/The SF ExaminerMayor Ed Lee

On the heels of a poll showing San Franciscans are worried most about the cost of one of life’s necessities — shelter — Mayor Ed Lee’s housing adviser says The City has not done enough to aid the middle class as rents and housing costs increase.

“Is there more that we can do for this band in the middle?” Director Olson Lee of the Mayor’s Office of Housing said rhetorically. “There’s clearly a demand for affordable housing we need to address.”

A majority of people polled in a recent survey blamed the increasing price of housing, including rents and home prices, for San Francisco’s lack of affordability. But the blame cannot all be laid on the steps of City Hall, Lee said. Economic cycles, housing policy focused on the poor and funds linked mainly to construction of low-income units have all helped exacerbate the problem.

Much of The City’s housing policy in past decades has been focused on creating housing for the poor, not the middle class, said Lee, because people at the bottom are by far the most in need.

Of the roughly 20,000 affordable- and low-income units in The City’s portfolio of housing — not including Housing Authority units — about 15 percent are part of homeownership programs for the middle class.

That program is The City’s main way to help those people find housing, he said. The yearly income level to qualify for the aid is between about $45,000 to $86,000 for one person.

“I think the homeownership has been a much smaller portion of the goal of this office over the last 20 years,” Lee said.

Recently, he said, The City has committed to doubling the down-payment assistance program. That would amount to about $15 million from the Housing Trust Fund.

But more than anything, construction is what will have the largest impact on housing costs, he said.

The City can incentivize the building of more housing, but new construction is subject to the whims of economic cycles. During the Great Recession, middle-class housing was not an issue since no one was building, Lee said.

“Every cycle has their ups and their downs. This is a cycle just like any other cycle. We are experiencing a spike in rents and prices based on a demand,” he said.

Right now, there is a building boom and it will impact prices, he said.

According to the Planning Department, there are 6,000 new units under construction and roughly 32,000 entitled units ready to build. What’s more, planning has been completed for roughly 72,000 units for larger projects in The City, including Treasure Island, Parkmerced and Hunters Point.

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