How the state can help cities plan for density with affordability

Think global, act local –

By Fernando Marti, Peter Cohen and Maya Chupkov

California cities need equitable, place-based planning, and we are hopeful that bills coming from the state legislature will help promote local community planning, and not undermine it.

In January, the legislature will be going back to two such proposals, Senate Bill 50 and Assembly Bill 1279. SB 50 increases density and heights in “transit-rich” areas focused on urban core neighborhoods, while AB 1279 looks at low-density and “high-opportunity” neighborhoods and suburbs. Both bills have been heavily discussed within housing justice circles across the state.

This past Thursday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors heard a resolution calling for significant amendments to SB 50.

Why should we care in San Francisco?

State intervention bills like these have gotten criticism from conservative suburbs wary of any change, and that is what has captured the most media attention, but also from progressive communities concerned with fueling gentrification and displacement, giveaways to private developers, and the stripping away of local opportunity for pro-density community planning. This kind of blanket intervention by the state, if not done right, could be terrible for our San Francisco communities.

The SB 50 sponsors already made one practical compromise, incorporating amendments to merge the bill with another bill from Marin/North Bay, effectively excluding smaller towns.

Similarly, potential negative impacts on urban communities could be dealt with in bills like SB 50 and AB 1279. Addressing these impacts could pull them through with support from pro-affordable, pro-density, and anti-displacement advocates. For the moment, many months of advocacy since last spring has not yet resulted in necessary amendments, and housing justice advocates from Los Angeles to San Francisco and Fresno to Sacramento, have taken positions opposing the bill unless it is amended.

Is there a fix?

What amendments could bring urban communities to drop their opposition?

The bills need to protect at-risk communities. This can be done by exempting “sensitive communities” permanently from market-rate development incentives in the bills. In San Francisco, the working class and communities of color facing gentrification and displacement are in some of the most rapidly developing neighborhoods. This would in no way exclude new development in poor neighborhoods ­— in most cases these are already “hot” real estate areas. But it would keep the state from giving away bonuses and incentives to promote luxury housing in at-risk neighborhoods. How these communities identify themselves, and how they are mapped is critical: people live in whole communities, not census tracts.

The bills need to ensure adequate “value capture” for affordable housing. Upzoning should be a tool to increase affordability, not to simply increase real estate value. That’s how HOME-SF was built in San Francisco, starting with The City’s existing inclusionary housing requirements and increasing the affordability based on how much density or heights are added.

These state bills should build on pro-density measures that local communities have won, like the HOME-SF policy, the recent Proposition E citywide rezoning in San Francisco, and the “TOC” Program in Los Angeles, creating a net increase in affordability along with density.

Cities need to plan for growth. This can be done by allowing communities to organize and prepare local plans to increase housing development while preventing displacement. Excluding sensitive urban neighborhoods from the market-rate development incentives of these bills should in no way be an excuse for cities to stop density: communities do need to expand mixed-income housing. State laws like AB 1279 and SB 50 can be a necessary threat to get recalcitrant suburban cities to plan for density, rather than stall.

But in contrast to those cities where housing markets are stagnant, either through zoning restrictions, market conditions, or a combination of the three, many urban core cities are already achieving the state’s market-rate housing goals. What these hot-market cities need are resources and adequate time for local place-based, but substantive, planning.

Portland and Minneapolis are already doing this with plans that make context-appropriate changes to density and heights to promote a mix of housing opportunities and affordability. And where local community plans have already been adopted and working, as several have in San Francisco, those should be exempted from intervention by state bills.

The state can help cities plan for density with affordability, if done right.

The resolution urging these and other amendments to SB 50 has many co-sponsors at the Board of Supervisors, and is expected to be heard by the full board for adoption on Tuesday, Dec. 17.

Fernando Marti and Peter Cohen are both co-directors of San Francisco’s Council of Community Housing Organizations (CCHO), San Francisco’s coalition of 24 affordable housing developers, service providers and advocates. Maya Chupkov is CCHO’s communications director.

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