Past moratoriums show why we need another

The eviction and displacement crisis in San Francisco's Mission district has been decimating The City's Latino community for nearly two decades. But now a slow-motion crisis has become urgent. Many neighborhood voices are calling for a moratorium on market-rate housing in the Mission, and the battle has been joined by cheerleaders of market-rate development, blaming affordable housing shortages on NIMBYs and attempting to shame neighborhood advocates into backing down from moratorium demands.

A brief review of recent history is in order. In the last 15 years or so, there have been at least three full stops to market-rate housing construction in the Mission. These moratoriums suggest trickle-down housing extremists like the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation might be better served by coming to grips with professional planners and the international capital market, rather than imagined NIMBYs who shout at the clouds, try to preserve the city in amber, and somehow control the City's housing policy in their volunteer time.

Mission Moratorium No. 1 (2001-2002) was in the form of “interim controls” — a longstanding and necessary tool in urban planning to temporarily hold development while a comprehensive plan for neighborhood growth is devised. The Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors have installed interim controls in dozens of ways over the last couple of decades without much drama. There are interim controls slowing development today on Market Street, 2nd Street and in the Castro and Showplace Square, among other places. This particular set of Mission controls was focused on stopping market-rate office conversions, and supported housing developments where 25 percent of the new units were affordable to low-income residents.

The word “moratorium” may sound extreme, but the proposed Mission Moratorium of 2015 really isn't that much different than the interim controls of 2001. If you're opposed to interim controls, you're really opposed to the entire notion of zoning and urban planning. (Which may be true of the Build-Baby-Build brigade I've seen at public hearings recently.)

But interim controls expire, and if there's no comprehensive plan following those controls, we're back to the same mess we've seen before. Which leads us to Mission Moratorium No. 2 (2006-2008), courtesy of 2660 Harrison St. That was a small development at a single address, but when the Planning Commission's approval of the proposal was appealed to the Board of Supervisors, it highlighted the ongoing affordable housing and displacement crisis in the Mission, and the failure of long-range city planning to address the cumulative impact of multiple projects converting industrial land to market-rate housing.

So the Supervisors overturned the Commission's approval and insisted that Planning had to complete its stalled re-zoning of The City's eastern neighborhoods (to protect light-industry jobs and provide for some affordable housing and infrastructure) before approving more market-rate housing. That effectively stopped most development proposals in the Mission until the re-zoning plan was adopted at the end of 2008 — just in time to meet the Great Recession.

The housing market collapse effectively created Mission Moratorium No. 3 (2009-2011): a credit freeze that stalled market-rate construction for years because developers could not attract private financing. Why couldn't they? Because they couldn't guarantee enough profit in a competitive, international capital market.

So how, exactly — even if the extreme fans of market-rate development could wave a wand, say “More Housing” and magically make The City's re-zoning process as streamlined as otters — how would an increased flood of deluxe housing approvals lead to more affordable housing construction? It's clear from experience that, once prices (and profits) start to decline, funding for market-rate housing goes elsewhere until demand heats up and potential profits (and prices) rise again. That is the supply-demand curve that is really at work in the San Francisco land market, and endless rezonings and construction won't change that.

Which brings us to the dilemma for housing advocates of all stripes. The City is painfully slow at building (or supporting the building of) affordable housing. Market-rate developers (and their financiers) really don't want to build housing at less than market-rate. Then The City chooses (in the 2008 re-zoning plan for the Mission, and elsewhere) to rely on market-rate development for much of the money to build trickle-down affordable housing, which ends up really being the worst of both worlds and a big part of today's housing crisis.

A new Mission Moratorium on market-rate housing doesn't create new affordable housing by itself; neither did the other three. But history tells us that it can help in two ways. As an interim control, it would calm the current feeding frenzy of development in the Mission, while new proposals are created and approved to (finally) correct past planning errors, prevent evictions and build affordable housing. And like a picket line or a boycott, it is also a clear and unmistakable signal to City Hall that business-as-usual cannot continue at the Planning Department and in the City's neighborhoods.

Tony Kelly is vice president of the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association.

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