Building more housing in S.F. requires another look at approval process

Mayor Ed Lee in his State of the City address on Friday laid out a bold goal to build housing in The City: 30,000 new and rehabilitated units by 2020, which averages out to 5,000 per year — way more than San Francisco has built annually in recent history.

It is clear to all in the debate that there needs to be more housing in The City, but that debate often breaks down over talk of housing for what income level, where and how it is planned. Lee's proposal definitely at the very minimum moves forward the debate about San Francisco's housing stock, which has become the focus of national attention as a recovering economy in the past year drove up sale prices and rents to make The City one of the most expensive places to live in the country.

And though Lee has set a goal line, the real focus moving forward should be a true reform in how projects are handled, including a possible overhaul of the bureaucracy and funding needed for every project, spanning the spectrum from luxury houses and condos to rental units for very-low-income residents.

San Francisco is well-known in the architecture and building worlds as one of the most difficult places to get a project approved and built. The complaints often revolve around the number of hearings and approvals needed for each project, along with the possible appeals that opponents of any building can use to drag out the process for years.

But another factor is the administrative staff that must handle the paperwork of each process and how The City pays for those positions. As it stands, fees San Francisco receives from the permitting and building process fund the staff who work in the needed departments. When the economy slows and building construction slows — or nearly ceases, as was the case during the last economic downturn — the departments may have to lay off employees. The economic recovery this time boomed faster than The City could hire, leaving projects waiting for up to six months just for an environmental planner to be assigned.

Lee issued an executive order that may speed up the beleaguered process, but his order is not a structural fix to the process or the funding, and it leaves open the possibility that San Francisco could be in just as serious of a housing pinch in 2020 even if all of the 30,000 units are finished.

There should be robust discussion and community input about developments, especially large ones that will change a neighborhood. But merely moving the administrative paperwork through the system would move projects along to the hearing stage quicker so that they can be vetted by officials and the public.

It does not appear that the economy will slow down anytime soon, and that likely will mean more people moving here for jobs. There is a need for more housing for all income levels, and there are projects lingering that could, if approved, help ease the housing pressures that are leading to displacement of current residents.

Fixing the structural problems of the approval process would also help keep The City on a sustainable path of building appropriate housing moving forward, since the population is expected to continue growing. Leaving the system as is or using only short-term fixes may be OK now, but it only will help ensure a problem farther down the line.

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