How Sacramento can make San Francisco affordable again

San Francisco is too small to build or legislate its way out of our housing crisis. In a region of more than 7,000 square miles — creating more than 500,000 new jobs a year — San Francisco’s 49 square miles only produced 1,943 market-rate homes and 529 affordable homes in 2015. San Francisco can only become affordable again if we find a way to get the rest of the Bay Area to massively increase its production of market-rate and affordable housing.

Gov. Jerry Brown has given us just that opportunity, with a two-part proposal that would: 1) allow new homes to be built much more quickly through a process known as “by-right development,” and 2) add $400 million to the state’s budget dedicated to affordable housing production. If implemented, by-right development would prevent cities from micromanaging individual construction projects that already comply with existing city zoning and other development standards. It would also limit the endless lawsuits brought by individuals that can stop new home construction in its tracks without good reason. Importantly, the governor’s proposal would only grant by-right development authority to new homes that devote a significant portion of the new housing units to lower-income families.

The true significance of this by-right proposal for San Francisco is not its effect on new home construction in The City. San Francisco — unlike most Bay Area cities — already has strong inclusionary requirements that now mandate that at least 25 percent of new home construction is affordable to lower-income residents, and dedicated funding sources to fund the construction of 100 percent affordable housing developments.

The greatest impact on San Francisco will be the affordable and market-rate housing that gets built throughout the rest of the Bay Area. By imposing de-facto inclusionary requirements on all the Bay Area cities that do not already have them, and providing a dedicated $400 million funding source for affordable housing, the governor’s proposal would significantly increase how much affordable housing will get built in our region. And by knocking down the barriers to new market-rate home construction, the governor’s proposal would also dramatically increase regional construction of market-rate housing. Other states, like Massachusetts, that have adopted similar by-right legislation have seen swift and quick increases in housing production for folks across the income spectrum.

Gov. Brown’s proposal will make our region’s housing more affordable, but needs additional safeguards to ensure we add housing that builds vibrant communities and enables sustainable lifestyles. If we were to add hundreds of thousands of new auto-dependent homes in the Bay Area’s low-density exurbs, we would be compounding the traffic congestion and air pollution that is already threatening to suffocate our communities. Moreover, the cost of building the transportation and other infrastructure to these new homes would run into the tens of billions. Conversely, if we add car-lite homes to our existing urbanized areas such as downtown Oakland, Fremont and Palo Alto, which are located near schools and jobs and already served by transit, folks will spend less time stuck in traffic and produce far fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

The governor’s proposal would unlock our region’s potential to build the affordable and market-rate housing San Franciscans so badly need. It’s time to lean on Sacramento to make San Francisco affordable again.

Nicholas Josefowitz serves on the BART Board of Directors.

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