On both sides of SF Bay, public lands should go to below-market-rate housing

From Oakland to San Francisco, the message to city officials is clear: Publicly owned land should be used to provide desperately needed affordable housing, not to support more luxury development.

Activists in San Francisco and Oakland took over their respective City Halls last week, demanding housing justice.

These are not just protests about unfair evictions or the misuse of public resources. They are a response to the explosive growth of income inequality in the Bay Area — the fastest growing in the nation. They are standing in direct opposition to the ideology, heard from city administrations on both sides of the Bay, that unchecked market-rate development will somehow address this affordable-housing crisis.

On May 5, housing activists occupied the Oakland City Council chambers for three hours, chaining themselves in front of the council members and unfurling a banner reading, “The People’s City Council.” Their action prevented a vote to sell a parcel of public land on East 12th Street for $5 million to a market-rate developer, in violation of the city’s own goals for expanding affordable housing. The developer planned to build a 24-story, 300-unit luxury tower.

“If we don’t build affordable housing on public lands, where will it be built?” asked the activists.

Three days later in San Francisco, housing activists converged at City Hall, occupying the rotunda to capacity, dropping banners from the galleries, and delivering their demands to Mayor Ed Lee.

The activists called on the mayor to declare a state of emergency due to the housing crisis, with a temporary moratorium on evictions and on luxury development in the Mission. Activists demanded city officials use the moratorium to buy time to expand tenant protections and make the necessary budget allocations to purchase sites and build 3,000 new affordable homes over the next five years. The chants of “Mayor Lee, we don’t need no luxury!” from outside the closed door of Room 200 echoed throughout the building.

But the message, it seems, still hasn’t sunk in. On Monday, in echoes of Oakland’s proposed sale of public property, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors heard about a new proposed sale of city-owned property at 30 Van Ness Ave. for, you guessed it, a luxury high-rise! This was the first public discussion on the matter, though apparently it has been quietly in the works at City Hall for a year, with nary a mention of The City’s 2002 Surplus Properties Ordinance that requires surplus city properties to be used for and/or to fund affordable housing. Nor does the request for proposals to developers for the 30 Van Ness site even mention the minimum 33 percent low- and moderate-income housing goals enshrined in Proposition K that was adopted by the voters in November (or the additional 17 percent of middle-income units on top of that). There’s also no mention of the recently adopted Surplus Lands Act at the state level that requires, at minimum, 25 percent affordable housing on public sites sold for private development.

Our publicly owned land is an invaluable resource for building new affordable housing. In a city with increasingly limited open space, the land itself is far more valuable for affordable housing than fees we could get from its sale. Setting a high bar for affordable housing included within the 30 Van Ness property disposition terms should not be seen as “getting less money” for the site — a public property is not a cash cow — but rather as an investment in affordable housing to maximize the value of this public site. We can no longer afford to sell off these sites to the highest bidder, supporting more luxury development while our low- and moderate-income workers struggle to find suitable housing within city limits. In the spirit of last week’s housing demonstrations, The City should at minimum honor the Prop. K standards and use the property to leverage a significant inclusion of affordable housing.

To its credit, The City, after several years of no new affordable-housing sites, just this month published requests for proposals for building 100 percent affordable housing on two underutilized publicly owned sites: a former school and a San Francisco Public Utilities Commission parking lot in the Mission, for housing for low-income tenants. A sure sign that action gets the goods! It’s a good start, and a model that shows what we can accomplish with our other publicly owned sites. The site at 30 Van Ness should not be exempt from that conversation.

In the end, the message is simple: public lands in community hands.

Peter Cohen and Fernando Marti are co-directors of San Francisco’s Council of Community Housing Organizations.

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