A beloved neighborhood cafe owner recently confided his anxieties to me: “Did you know that the owner of our building is refusing to renew our lease? Did you know I’m not the only one — all the commercial tenants on the ground floor are now month to month?!”
When I asked him why, he elaborated that the building’s property owner had told him plainly that he was waiting for the Planning Department’s Density Bonus Program to pass, so he could demolish the entire building and build up three stories, even if it meant displacing the existing ground floor commercial tenants — most of whom have anchored the building for decades — and the long-term rent-controlled tenants on the upper stories.
Similar concerns from residents and small business tenants were echoed over and over at a Feb. 25 Planning Commission meeting that lasted well past midnight, as they debated the Planning Department’s proposed “Affordable Housing Density Program” introduced last year with virtually no community input. The program would give developers incentives to demolish existing buildings in order to build taller and denser housing on the condition that some of the new units be affordable. Moreover, none of the “bonus” units would be affordable for households making less than $100,000 a year, and less than half the units would be family-sized, excluding thousands of everyday San Franciscans and their families from program eligibility.
The proposal also all but eliminated community input in the planning approval process and covered more than 31,000 sites across The City, including the block-long building where the unnamed coffee shop is located.
A broad-based coalition of small businesses, tenants, faith organizations, homeowners and neighborhood activists began organizing around an alternative that would provide tangible solutions for affordable housing creation without leading to displacement and speculation. Surprisingly, at their Feb. 25 meeting, the Planning Commission listened and ultimately recommended several of the core components suggested by these community leaders. Now, it is time for the Board of Supervisors to consider these key elements in its own approval process, which will take place next month.
I call the community’s solution “density done right.” It includes the following essential elements:
• One hundred percent affordable housing projects would be allowed to increase project density and increase building heights by two stories over existing zoning.
• The developments would be located on specified “soft sites” across The City, and there would be no demolition of existing housing or commercial space with existing neighborhood serving businesses.
• To ensure community participation and input, projects would be approved through The City’s existing conditional use public process.
• The affordable housing would be priced for low- and middle-income households up to neighborhood median income levels, ensuring that families and seniors in the local community can afford the housing provided by each project.
The “100 percent affordable alternative” proposal would apply to approximately 200 plus sites across The City that the Planning Department has identified as vacant or underutilized “soft sites” for potential development.
The legislation I have drafted with Supervisor Eric Mar is meant to move this once-contentious policy forward under one overarching premise: The creation of affordable housing does not have to come at the expense of tenant security, and density does not have to be divorced from affordability. Furthermore, it is a hallmark of a reinvigorated progressive housing agenda that is diverse, solution-oriented and strategic.
As evidenced by the energy at last week’s “100 percent affordable alternative” rally and press conference, people are excited to tackle a new vision for housing creation and preservation. They want development done the right way and are garnering real victories for the majority of San Franciscans.