Hundreds of protesters gather at San Francisco's City Hall asking lawmakers for a moratorium on evictions and luxury-priced housing development in the Mission District. (Mike Koozmin/2015 S.F. Examiner)

SF planning director calls gentrification ‘undeniable, and of serious concern’

The head of the Planning Department acknowledged in a letter Friday the severity of gentrification occurring in San Francisco amid the years-long development boom while also outlining measures underway to address it.

“The reality of displacement and gentrification across all of San Francisco — and the entire region — is undeniable, and of serious concern,” Planning Director John Rahaim wrote in a Dec. 9 letter to the Board of Supervisors.

SEE RELATED: SF looks to combat gentrification amid ongoing economic boom

The letter was in response to the board opposing last month a major residential development in the Mission amid community opposition centered on gentrification.

The board’s vote also created uncertainty for other proposed developments in the Mission District, seen as ground zero for the impacts of the technology boom, as well as projects planned for other communities.

Rahaim said in the letter that his department will address the gentrification concerns by imposing a new set of special development and land use rules in the Mission as well as also other vulnerable neighborhoods, like South of Market and the Tenderloin.

“We know that there is simply not enough housing regionally or in San Francisco to meet our needs. We know that producing housing at all income levels is critical,” Rahaim wrote. “We also know that it will take a broad set of smart, bold strategies to address the totality of the causes and effects of high housing costs and displacement.”

The concerns over gentrification also come as city officials have declared homelessness a crisis. Federal officials last month said the region’s strong real estate market is a reason why homelessness increased in West Coast cities like San Francisco but declined overall throughout the nation by 14 percent since 2010.

Rahaim said that the Planning Department is specifically addressing the concerns of gentrification in the Mission through the development of Mission Action Plan 2020, which he said would result in 1,000 affordable housing units in the Mission, and through the interim land use controls currently in place before that plan is finalized next year.

“We believe that MAP 2020 represents a national model for how urban neighborhoods might address issues of gentrification and displacement,” he said.

Since the technology boom began in 2010, encouraged by the tech-friendly policies of Mayor Ed Lee, gentrification has been at the heart of contentious political debates on a myriad of issues, including the “Google Bus,” transportation services like Uber and Lyft, Airbnb regulations, affordable housing requirements and eviction protections.

While San Francisco has greatly transformed during the past several years and many have left The City for more affordable locales, the debate around gentrification continues to unfold in community meetings and at City Hall.

Rahaim’s letter was prompted by the Board of Supervisors’ Nov. 15 vote to oppose a 159-unit development, of which 39 units would be affordable, at 1515 S. Van Ness Ave. in the Mission by Lennar Multifamily Communities. The board opposed the development by upholding an environmental review appeal filed under the California Environmental Quality Act.

The appeal was filed by the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District’s Executive Director Erick Arguello and argued the review was flawed by failing to address the impacts of gentrification, an argument that has been made previously without success for other projects.

The Nov. 15 vote was particularly charged. Arguello’s attorney Scott Weaver referred to how Mission gentrification had ushered in the era of the $6 croissant, the $100-per-person meal or the $350 handbag for sale on Valencia Street.

“The gentrification we’ve seen on Valencia and on Mission [streets] is the beginning. What is to come is an overwhelming economic force that will change the face of the Mission and of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District,” Weaver said at the time.

It was the comments of Sonja Trauss, founder of pro-development group San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation, that backfired and seemed to hand opponents a win when she likened the Mission advocates’ opposition to the project to politics akin to President-elect Donald Trump.

“I’ve always been disturbed by nativism in San Francisco,” Trauss said at the time. “And when you come here to the Board of Supervisors and say that you don’t want new, different people in your neighborhood you’re exactly the same as Americans all over the country that don’t want immigrants.”

Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Mission, called out Trauss’ comments specifically when saying he was planning to reject the appeal but changed his mind.

The Calle 24 Latino Cultural District is a 14-block area, wherein the project is proposed, created by The City in 2014 to officially acknowledge the Latino legacy in the area and support regulations to protect it.

Many of the same opponents of the Lennar project also backed a previously proposed moratorium on market-rate housing for the Mission neighborhood.

In 2015 Campos proposed the moratorium to create a “pause” of development of market-rate units – the proposal would have allowed 100 percent affordable housing development – to buy some time to create a long-term plan to combat gentrification.

The moratorium proposal inspired countless debates around supply and demand in the housing market. After the board failed to approve the moratorium, it was subsequently placed on the ballot and rejected by voters.

Moratorium opponents argued that The City needs housing of all income levels and that market-rate development is a vital funding source for affordable housing. Developers are required to include a percentage of units onsite or pay in-lieu fees to The City, which then uses them to fund affordable housing projects.

In his letter, Rahaim cites several statistics to illustrate socio-economic challenges residents face.
“In 2013, 45 percent of renters paid more than 30 percent of their income for rent; that means that nearly half of renters in San Francisco are rent burdened,” the letter reads. “Evictions are taking place across The City, with the Mission, Richmond, Sunset, Excelsior, Tenderloin, and Lakeshore neighborhoods having the highest eviction notices in 2015 and 2016. The Latino population in the Mission had declined to 39 percent in 2014, down from 50 percent in 2000.”

Rahaim also vowed in the letter to announce in spring 2017 “how we undertake a broader socio-economic analysis of displacement, gentrification and growth with a focus on equity” that he said currently isn’t covered under the California Environmental Quality Act.

It remains to be seen whether Rahaim’s letter will prompt the board to reverse its decision on the 1515 S. Van Ness Avenue development.

At the time of the vote, Supervisor Malia Cohen said The City needs “a sea change” on how it handles development. “Development should not be about displacing people,” Cohen had said.

Mission advocates have been working with the Planning Department and other city agencies for more than a year to develop anti-gentrification plans like MAP 2020.

“We are encouraged by the director’s public acknowledgement of the gentrification problem facing the Mission and other neighborhoods of color,” Weaver told the San Francisco Examiner on Monday. “The political will to take the steps necessary to address this problem now lies squarely with the Board of Supervisors and the mayor.”

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