Continuing San Francisco’s community development legacy

New housing leadership brings a new opportunity for responsiveness and transparency

By Fernando Martí and Peter Cohen

This week, the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, the City’s affordable housing department, will be leaving after 5 years.

MOHCD’s leadership transition opens an opportunity to reflect on the department’s roots in community development while also responding to the tidal wave of evictions and exploding housing costs brought on by the tech economy.

We congratulate Director Kate Hartley on her move and success at MOHCD. The City saw affordable housing production go from 200 units/year at the beginning of the decade to 1,400 units/year in 2017, with over 4,000 affordable units in the near-term pipeline. They accomplished this while also rebuilding the City’s entire public housing system.

The public has repeatedly shown its support for affordable housing, from creating a local Housing Trust Fund dedicating Public Lands and supporting new revenue all the way to last year’s Our City Our Home measure.

We can look ahead to this November with another Housing Bond and the Affordable Homes for Educators & Families NOW measure, adding significant new funds and pre-zoning public lands and large lots for 100 percent affordable housing.

These successes were won by the communities that put in the hard work to organize, educate neighbors, and engage the City’s civic leaders. This is the core of the community development model of affordable housing that has been the hallmark of San Francisco. This is how our city has secured nearly $6.5 billion in funding for affordable housing over the past four decades, why we now can boast of 30,000 permanently affordable housing units, and why San Francisco affordable housing is labor-built.

But importantly, housing is more than a collection of units. It is a process of building up communities, with services, economic opportunities, and resident leadership. Here is an opportunity to renew the meaning of this city housing department.

It is also a moment to embark on an equitable land-banking and non-profit developer capacity building strategy in order to expand the range of communities served by MOHCD.

As people are being priced out of our extreme housing market, the neighborhoods seeing the highest displacement and gentrification measures should continue to be prioritized. At the same time, the growing progressive political consensus for geographic balance of affordable housing is an opportunity that should be seized upon. With the cost of urban land increasing by 23 percent annually, a forward-thinking land banking strategy would secure sites now for future building, particularly in outer neighborhoods of the City.

Looking ahead, a focus on creative and collaborative solutions with the City family for deeply affordable supportive housing and senior housing units will be critical. This is in no small part an effect of the disappearance of Federal funding, but also a structural issue we see in many other arenas, from transportation to public health. Resources for building can be found, but the resources to operate a building are much harder to allocate. With the transition of the Housing Authority, it is critical that the department explore creative resources for operating subsidies for supportive housing and very low income senior housing. San Francisco’s low-income residents cannot wait for new buildings to be completed.

San Francisco’s housing movement was built on an alliance of advocates working to protect tenants and community developers. As the crisis of evictions began to explode in the late 90s, anti-displacement activists demanded the preservation of existing units from the speculative market, resulting in the small sites program.

Elevating this program and balancing the department’s production and anti-displacement goals will help ensure San Franciscans are stabilized before they become homeless or displaced. In these efforts, the demands of low-income tenants who created the conditions for these programs should take precedence, with different goals from the multi-million dollar new construction projects.

There have been several ideas for innovative responses to our community’s affordable housing needs. A public bank and other local financing could be the key to developing new and more flexible social housing or cooperatives in addition to the tax credit housing that has fueled the majority of our affordable construction since the 1980s Reagan era. Innovation needs to extend to the core of what the department is and who it serves

A new MOHCD director can take the opportunity of this transition to begin addressing how the department can be more responsive and transparent to the communities it serves and the service providers it partners with.

We urge the new director to play to the strengths of the community development movement, using community-based development and organizing capacity to build the wider base of support for affordable housing that is possible. Thanks again to the hard work of outgoing director Kate Hartley in building a high production affordable housing department. This leadership transition opens new and renewed opportunities to continue San Francisco’s community development legacy.

Peter Cohen and Fernando Martí are co-directors of San Francisco’s Council of Community Housing Organizations.

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