Juan Pardo/Special to the S.F. ExaminerThe Balboa Reservoir is land The City is considering selling for development.

S.F. wise to look to own land to ease housing crisis

One issue facing San Francisco when it comes to new development is geographical: Being hemmed in by water on three sides and another county to the south leaves little space to expand. This means The City must look inward for plots to place new housing, and Mayor Ed Lee is right in eyeing city-owned land for new residential units.

The mayor is working to address the current housing crunch, which has sent rents and home prices soaring to the point that San Francisco is now the most expensive city in which to live in the U.S. The booming economic recovery, which has drawn workers here at a rapid clip, combined with The City's historic lack of building has created a shortage in housing that has contributed to the increase in prices.

But as the price of land and construction continues to increase, there are fewer places that make economic sense on which to build housing that is priced for low- and middle-income people. City government has incentives and money to build housing for low-income residents, but it becomes trickier when there are needs for people who make what would be a high income in other parts of the state or country yet are still struggling to get by in high-cost-of-living San Francisco.

Lee's idea is to look at city-owned land that is not being used and to transform it into plots that can be developed. The concept is to clear at least one of the major hurdles – finding affordable land for development – before moving through the at times Byzantine planning approval process. Many projects in San Francisco can take between four and five years to move through the planning process. Lee recently said that using city land could shave six months to a year off that timeline, which could be useful as The City works to build housing quickly for those being priced out – and for residents in the future who could be caught in price squeezes.

There will not be a single solution to the housing issues facing San Francisco, and a debate is sure to rage in the next year about several issues facing The City, including how much below-market-rate housing should be built in new developments and whether or not high-priced developments help alleviate the housing crunch. But those questions need to be approached independently from the idea of using city land for more housing.

What is clear is that San Francisco and other government agencies have land that is sitting fallow while there is a great need for it for housing in The City. It would be foolhardy to overlook these valuable assets while pointing out the problems. The City is looking at four possible properties now on which to build more housing, and that is a good start. But the development needed for low- and middle-income residents will require more than those. The City is on the right track with encouraging responsible development, and it must continue that to ensure there is housing for all income levels in San Francisco.

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