By Sonja Trauss
Special to The Examiner
Berlin’s recent ballot measure asking the local government to eminent domain 220,000 apartments, or 10% of the local housing stock, is exciting news for activists all over the world. It also leaves many people, including San Franciscans, wondering: Could we replicate that success here?
Technically, the answer is yes. Berlin’s ballot measure is non-binding, possibly illegal and likely impossible. San Franciscans are just as able to pass symbolic ballot measures as anyone, and we’ve done it several times.
But actually, even in progressive San Francisco, putting aside the practicalities of eminent domain — which is the right of a government or its agent to expropriate and pay for private property for public use — the very idea of social housing is surprisingly unpopular. Most San Franciscans, like most Americans, believe that social housing is impossible. They hew to the idea that governments are not able to be landlords. For some reason, it’s impossible to do, like mixing oil and water.
This stereotype flies in the face of reality. Our local government is a capable landlord. San Francisco’s Real Estate Division is the owner and property manager of seven office buildings: City Hall, 1 South Van Ness Ave., 25 Van Ness Ave., 30 Van Ness Ave., 1640-1680 Mission St., and 555 7th St. In addition, the San Francisco Public Library owns and manages 27 branches across The City and the school district owns and manages 114 school buildings.
San Francisco also has real, live federally owned social housing. About 3,000 people live in 1,100 housing units in the Presidio. The residents pay market rate rent and their landlord, a federal agency called the Presidio Trust, uses the rents and the rents from office buildings, hotels, venues and a golf course in the Presidio to maintain the park.
With so many examples of our local government, and a local branch of the federal government, being successful landlords, why do people persist in believing that social housing is somehow impossible? The answer is that local proponents and opponents of social housing agree on one thing — that social housing should not be available to middle- or high-income people, that it must be rented only to low-income residents. For many people, “social housing” is synonymous with “low-income housing.”
Of course, providing low-cost housing to low-income residents is an important aspect of social housing, but restricting its target residents only to low-income households ensures that social housing remains an entry on a wish list, and not a popular, widespread phenomenon.
You might ask: What does mixed-income social housing look like? And what are its social or economic advantages?
In Vienna, for instance, where 40% of the housing stock is social housing, the property type is open to residents of all incomes. Typically, about half of residents are high income and pay market-rate rents. Their rents subsidize the below-market rents paid by their lower-income neighbors. The main benefit of mixed-income housing is that it is financially solvent. Unlike U.S. public housing projects, social housing does not need long-term subsidies from periodically unfriendly (read: Republican) governments. Another advantage to mixed-income buildings is they promote economic and racial integration.
Liberals and progressives understand that ongoing political support for Social Security, Medicare and rent control all require that these programs be available to all income levels. Efforts to means test these programs — in other words, restrict them to only low-income people — are, rightly, seen as efforts to end them. Somehow, this sound reasoning just doesn’t make it to discussions of social housing. Imagine the political reaction if a public agency proposed building new social housing where half the residents would be tech workers, dentists and executives. What would that political discourse be like?
The Potrero Yard Modernization project is an example of how hostility to market-rate social housing is putting the very existence of social housing at risk. The Potrero Yard project is different from Viennese social housing because instead of using the revenues from market-rate housing rentals to fund lower-rent housing, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency proposed to use the rents to help fund a different, but also extremely important, public good: public transportation.
Initially, the SFMTA planned to build over 500 units of housing, mostly market rate, and use the revenues generated from the rents to pay to rebuild and renovate the bus yard. It seems like San Franciscans would support a plan to create housing with rents that, instead of enriching a private developer, would fund our perpetually underfunded public transit system and improve bus service.
Unfortunately, general public aversion to market-rate housing has put the project at risk. Due to political pressure, the housing project has to be 50% below market rate. The Potrero Yard Modernization project went from a money-making proposal for our public transit agency to a money-losing proposal. Instead of being able to rebuild the bus yard and provide better transit service using funds generated from a housing development on its own timeline, San Francisco Muni now has yet another capital project awaiting funding, sitting on a long list of capital projects awaiting funding.
Hopefully, the more the public learns about how social housing works, and as conversations about means testing for other public programs continue, we will see broader support for social housing for middle- and high-income residents. And it will become a reality in our communities.
Sonja Trauss is the executive director and co-founder of Yes In My Back Yard.