It is good to see that ”Family Housing” is getting a flash of interest in the media. It’ll be even better to see some substantive policy changes come out of all this attention. Because San Francisco’s need for family housing is not a new story.
In the 2000s, family housing was a critical component of the rezoning for the eastern neighborhoods. Those new plan areas eliminated density controls — allowing developers to shrink units to as small as legally allowed by building codes. In response, housing and community advocates fought for mandated family-sized units. As might be expected, developers strongly resisted, saying that this would distort “the market” and make development infeasible. The compromise was a reduced proposal of 40 percent two-bedroom units in some areas of the rezoning. As can be seen by the cranes all around the eastern neighborhoods, the family housing mandate did not stop construction at all.
Nonetheless, more and more developers today are concentrating on micro-units, studios, one-bedrooms and one-bedrooms “plus” — meaning that as The City’s new housing development becomes increasingly unaffordable, especially in the downtown and eastern neighborhoods, it is also increasingly unfriendly to families. This is in stark contrast to San Francisco’s historic housing stock, which is mostly units that are two-bedrooms and larger. According to last week’s report from the Planning Department: “Between January 2005 and June 2015, 61 percent of the 23,202 units of new market rate development has been studios and one-bedroom units, predominantly in larger buildings. New market rate housing produced relatively few units with three or more bedrooms.” Even in areas that require two-bedrooms, developers are barely meeting this requirement, claiming backroom dens with “borrowed light” as family bedrooms.
The current development market is “naturally” inclined toward building small units that cater to households without children. This is not because there is no market for family-sized units. (There is — in fact, this has been at the center of the demand for more middle-income housing in The City). It’s because the financial incentives for building smaller units are far greater. Real estate developers are not in the business of building housing to serve public policy needs — they are in the business of building for whatever “market demand” returns the best profit on their investments. More units per floor means more units to sell, each with higher per-square-foot prices, which means greater profit. This isn’t meant as a slight against developers; it is just the way the development market works.
By contrast, it’s our affordable housing developers who have been the primary provider of high-density family-friendly communities in the city. The typical affordable development provides units for a range of households, including single adults, couples and larger families, with approximately 40 percent two-bedrooms and 20 percent three-bedrooms and larger. We know that affordable family units actually go to families, rather than the extra bedrooms being used for home offices or entertainment rooms. Affordable developments typically have family-friendly open space, and many include on-site childcare.
If we want to keep opportunities for families in San Francisco, then it’s time for real action. The City needs to make bold policy moves, following the model set by affordable housing, not simply nibbling around the edges.
One way to achieve more family housing is a citywide unit mix requirement, beyond just the eastern neighborhoods plan areas. Emeryville, for example, has a 40 percent requirement, expecting each development to have at least 25 percent two-bedrooms and 15 percent three-bedrooms, and a maximum allowance of 10 percent studios. San Francisco could certainly match or surpass that standard. A unit mix requirement won’t necessarily guarantee that market rate units will be sold or rented to families — but if family units aren’t built, then it’s guaranteed that families won’t live there. Recognizing that neighborhoods are unique, the Planning Commission could come up with criteria for modifications to accommodate other community priorities, such as housing for seniors or single adults.
We need better standards for the design of family units, as homes that are designated “family” must actually function for families. Affordable housing already meets size and layout standards that have been derived from an empirical understanding of needs for households raising children. But in market rate housing the only “standard” is the minimum required by building codes, leaving the actual size and configuration of those two-bedroom units to each project developer. Without family unit standards, we are seeing inadequate two-bedroom units that are presented as “family” housing but realistically are marketed for singles and couples more likely to use the small second room for an office or media room.
At a minimum, the low- and middle-income inclusionary units that private developers build, which we do know will go to families, should incorporate an appropriate unit mix. This could be in line with what we already do with our 100 percent affordable housing: 40 percent two-bedrooms and 20 percent three-bedrooms, and minimum unit sizes to serve families.
Family-friendly buildings aren’t just about unit mix and size, but also about the overall design and amenities. The City could encourage developers to build units designated for family-based childcare, as Supervisor Norman Yee has recommended, which ideally would be designed to allow for better childcare sightlines and direct access to outdoor space. Open space should be designed to be family-friendly.
Finally, unlike affordable developments which often build in ground floor for childcare programs, private developments tend to fill these ground floors with parking or boutique retail. While The City charges fees to help subsidize much-needed childcare centers, there are few appropriate spaces on which to build. Instead of a fee, projects on large lots could be required to provide inclusionary childcare space.
The last few decades of development have shown us that the real estate market, left to its own devices, will not make this city family friendly. To do that will require bold policy interventions and, yes, regulation. And the developers will still build, and they will still make money. Let’s not let this flash moment of media interest go by the wayside — now is the time to refocus development on keeping families, at all income levels, in San Francisco.
Fernando Marti and Peter Cohen are co-directors of San Francisco’s Council of Community Housing Organizations.