Walk into any restaurant, shop or park in San Francisco and take a look at the people around you. You might wonder which ones live here, which ones can afford The City. You might wonder which ones are struggling to stay and which ones are on their way out. You might see someone who looks like they have it made, are one of the privileged few who have the means to be a San Franciscan.
It is a far stranger endeavor to look around and ask yourself who deserves to be here. The question alone is unsettling, but the answer is important. And it is easy: everyone. The rich, the poor, the middle class — everyone deserves a slice of San Francisco.
Historically, The City does a good job of taking care of the rich and the poor. In recent weeks, Mayor Ed Lee has pledged to pay attention to the middle, saying San Francisco is “a city for everyone.”
We agree, and we will hold him to that sentiment.
In his State of the City address this month, Lee emphasized the importance of boosting middle-class jobs like manufacturing. He also promised new funding methods for building more middle-income housing, a category that has been woefully underdeveloped during this current economic boom. One of the reasons that middle-income earners have been priced out of The City at a faster rate than those at the top and bottom is that the housing stock is inadequate and competition for the available units is ludicrous.
The new focus can certainly be viewed as good news. The City should, of course, be addressing the needs of all its citizens regardless of income level. This was the impetus behind the voter-approved Proposition K in November's election, to adopt a more balanced housing plan that addressed the needs of low- and moderate-income earners, seeking a third of new units in The City to be affordable to those households.
The flight of the middle class is not a new story, but it has taken on sudden political weight in San Francisco. The focus on the middle might signal a new priority for the mayor. And even though this is an election year, we would like to think this approach is genuine.
Last January, Lee told Time magazine, “I don't think [The City] paid any attention to the middle class. I think everybody assumed the middle class was moving out.”
A year later, he is proposing doing something to stem the tide.
State law requires cities to adopt a housing plan to address regional growth as determined by the California Department of Housing and Community Development. Between 2007 and the end of 2013, San Francisco met those state goals. The state asked for 31,193 new units, and The City built or entitled 32,578.
But the disparity in the kind of units built is shocking. San Francisco added more than double the allotted units for above moderate earners, yet just half of the needed housing for low-income residents came through. For the moderate-income households, the new units added totaled just 19 percent of the requirement.
When you think about those numbers, it is easier to see which categories everyone in the restaurant, shop or park fits into.
The state determines moderate income to be at 80 to 120 percent of area median income, which is $77,000 to $117,000 for a family of four. One of the obstacles is that San Francisco receives state and federal subsidies for housing below the 80 percent threshold, but not for middle-class residents. A new funding mechanism is needed.
The needs for the bottom earners are not lessening and remain stark. As The San Francisco Examiner reported this week, The City briefly opened its public housing waitlist to homeless families and individuals after having the list closed for five years. In the six-day period, more than 10,000 adults or families signed up. Yet this spring, only about 200 homeless families will move into public housing.
On Friday, Lee also boasted that The City's unemployment rate dropped to 3.8 percent, a low not seen since 2006. But as impressive as that figure might be, many unanswered questions remain, such as where the new employees came from and what kinds of jobs were being filled.
As San Francisco's chief economist Ted Egan told The Examiner this week, “a pretty big number” of the 13,000 new jobs created in The City during 2013 was filled by newcomers.
The implication is that such an influx, while good for the unemployment data overall, might have less of a beneficial effect on existing residents.
The mayor said in a statement with the release of the data that new policies will benefit low- and middle-income families. He called his approach a “shared-prosperity agenda.” Hopefully, that will become our true sharing economy.
Now Lee is proposing to follow the lead of New York City and Los Angeles and partner with private developers, nonprofits and philanthropic groups to develop more below-market-rate units.
Lee also vowed to put a new housing bond on the November ballot, hopefully with provisions for middle-class housing. The mayor's own name will appear on that ballot as well, as he seeks a second term in office.
We need a new housing model that provides funding for the middle class to prevent San Francisco from becoming a doughnut city with nothing in the middle. The conversation must lead to action to entice middle-income families and individuals to stay here — or, dare we say, move to The City.