Articles recently appeared in various news outlets pointing out, yet again, what has been well-known locally for years: San Francisco has the lowest proportion of households with children of any city in North America. Worse, U.S. Census data show that, since 1990, the middle-income population of The City has steadily declined from 48 to 37 percent. In plain terms, the housing affordability crisis is emptying The City of its workforce and families. But dry numbers alone cannot convey the threat this trend poses to San Francisco’s character as a diverse, inclusive place.
We are in the third or fourth year of a building boom that has resulted in a lot of new housing being built in San Francisco. Unfortunately, it tends to be high-rise buildings, close to the dense urban core and affordable to very, very few families or workers. Conspicuously absent in this housing boom, however, is any smaller-scale, lower-cost housing built out in the neighborhoods, areas where housing is intrinsically cheaper. The lack of production of this type of housing is a key impediment to making The City friendlier to workers and families with children.
Why is this so important?
Middle-income families are the traditional backbone of any successful public school system. They are also the customers for neighborhood-serving retail and the shops and restaurants that make San Francisco an interesting place to live. A city that can combine both an ample stock of housing that families can afford with a successful transit system can support active, vibrant neighborhoods with good schools and desirable commercial districts.
What are the obstacles to achieving a more inclusive city that’s friendlier to families?
Basically, it’s finding political consensus on how to significantly ramp up housing production and fund a transit system that would successfully support them.
The San Francisco Housing Action Coalition believes an excellent opportunity to increase family and worker housing lies in encouraging more building on under-utilized land along The City’s neighborhood transit corridors. More housing in existing neighborhood commercial districts would mean residents could shop locally with much less reliance on cars. This housing could be built with reduced parking, making it intrinsically cheaper. Merchants in many districts are beginning to support building housing as a way to bring more customers and offer better retail options. Policy solutions that could do this offer huge benefits to families, the workforce and local merchants.
A highly promising solution that could achieve this has recently been proposed by Supervisor Katy Tang. Called Home SF, it allows increasing new housing along transit corridors in exchange for making 30 percent of it affordable to low- and middle-income residents and, crucially, making 40 percent of the units two-bedrooms or greater. The SFHAC strongly supports this sensible approach for two reasons. First, it incentivizes building precisely the kind of housing we need most that is not economically feasible under current conditions. Second, it would finally give San Francisco a local ordinance that legally complies with the state density bonus, only with more generous affordability terms than the state version. It has become clear that state law requires that density bonuses must be given to new housing under certain circumstances. The only remaining question is whether this will happen under the state’s less generous rules or under our own that give us a much better deal.
The SFHAC looks forward to the adoption of Tang’s legislation that offers real hope for housing more of our families and workers.
Todd David is executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.