Ideological purity or affordable housing on Bryant Street?

An important housing proposal in the Mission District is seeking its permit approval from the Planning Commission this Thursday. Its official name is 2000-2070 Bryant Street, but in the Mission’s polarized climate, it’s ominously called the “Beast on Bryant,” presumably because of its supposed emphasis on market-rate housing. But in spite of being demonized, the project sponsor responded to community’s concerns and this “beast” has been transformed: It now includes an unusually high amount of affordable housing, too.

This is a neighborhood that really needs more affordable housing, especially if it is permanently affordable to low-income residents. Specifically, the Bryant Street project proposes two buildings: one market-rate with 199 apartments, and one affordable with 139 apartments. Doing the math, that means that 41 percent of the project’s homes would be below-market rate, a remarkably high proportion for a project this small. It achieved this through a rarely used tool, called a land dedication.

The project sponsor essentially gifted 36 percent of his land to the Mayor’s Office of Housing for construction of affordable housing. That is no small thing for a chronically underfunded city agency that is rarely able to acquire land in a super-expensive real estate market like ours.

In a city that’s grappling with an unprecedented housing affordability and displacement crisis, it’s strange how little consensus exists on what to do.

The nonprofit San Francisco Housing Action Coalition believes increasing production of housing at all income levels is the basic starting point. Our city is growing by about 10,000 new residents annually, but it only builds a small fraction of its needed housing. This is a primary cause of displacement. While it’s vital to figure out ways to stabilize neighborhoods and keep residents in their homes, if we don’t build more housing faster, displacement of San Francisco’s renters will continue unabated.  

On the flip side of the argument are those who believe that construction of any market-rate housing in the Mission is wrong and must be stopped. They will be out in force on Thursday asking the commission to reject 2000-2070 Bryant Street.

This is a puzzling response to the stark housing challenges we face, one where ideological purity appears to trump pragmatic solutions. The opponents dogmatically insist that it is better to reject 139 permanently affordable homes for the Mission than allow a single market-rate home to be built. A crucial bit of information is that the 139 affordable homes in the Bryant Street project alone exceeds the 136 units that were built under The City’s inclusionary housing policy in all of the Mission in the 14 years from 2000 to 2013, according to UC Berkeley’s Center for Community Innovation’s Mission District Case Study in July 2015.

It’s not clear whom the project’s opponents speak for in their rejection of the land dedication offered by this project.  Their insistence that only a 100 percent affordable housing development is acceptable seems strangely at odds with the realities of a market economy. The City, by itself, lacks the funding to buy land and build affordable housing. Free land is being offered for that purpose. Is this not a win-win for The City and 139 future low-income families? Or is the principle itself more important than the housing?

Tim Colen is the executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

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