State leaders last week smartly pushed pause on Senate Bill 827, controversial upzoning legislation that would have allowed developers to build in neighborhoods throughout San Francisco without having to contribute more to affordable housing, transit, parks or other services that make a denser city livable.
SB 827 would have upzoned most of The City’s neighborhoods to enable developers to build luxury housing in areas that the bill said met “minimum levels of transit service,” a standard so broadly defined that, according to Planning Department analysis, 96 percent of San Francisco’s parcels, including the Sunset, Richmond, Excelsior, Noe Valley and Chinatown, would have seen new luxury condo towers without the ability to require additional developer contributions.
As a supervisor who has helped permit more affordable housing in my own district than all the other supervisorial districts combined over the past seven years, I saw that SB 827 was a massive giveaway to developers masquerading as a transit-oriented housing bill.
When we “upzone” a parcel, allowing developers to build higher and with more density, we are essentially giving that developer value. In exchange for that value, we should be able to negotiate public benefits, like more housing for working- and middle-class families. In my own district, I did exactly that, negotiating record levels of new affordable housing. The buildings still got built but with higher levels of affordable and middle-income housing.
We need more affordable housing and bold tenant protections, but this bill proposed to take away our ability to negotiate and have a conversation about what works in our neighborhoods and communities. SB 827 gives developers all the benefits while taxpayers have to pay for the resulting new burdens on transit, schools and services. That’s a terrible deal.
Perhaps what is most dangerous about SB 827 is the effect it will have on displacement. Let’s be honest: Although nearly every neighborhood could be transformed by SB 827, those with expensive houses are not likely to be the first targets. The parcels that will generate the highest profit are the places with the lowest land values, meaning we will see the small amounts of housing that are still affordable to working people become the target of massive gentrification. And we won’t be able to manage the problem locally because Sacramento has taken control of San Francisco planning decisions.
Meanwhile, the suburban cities that refuse to invest in public transit weren’t required to build any new housing under SB 827. In fact, SB 827 rewarded bad actors who refuse to build public transit or housing — sorely needed throughout the region. Supporters of SB 827 have never explained why Marin, Sonoma or Napa counties would build mass transit if they are then required to upzone. Of course, the answer is that they wouldn’t; transit, the housing balance and our environment would be hurt as a result.
The Sierra Club California strongly opposed this bill, writing, “While infill development near transit is the most desirable option, we believe that [SB 827] is a heavy-handed approach to encourage development that will ultimately lead to less transit being offered and more pollution generated, among other unintended consequences.”
We can build more housing without destroying our neighborhoods, starting with negotiating with developers receiving public benefits like height and density bonuses to build more affordable housing and contribute more to transit and other services.
We can entitle thousands of units faster and more affordably by streamlining the process for accessory dwelling units in single-family homes and approving more 3- to 10-unit residential buildings throughout The City. We can secure construction loans for homeowners and small builders to get these units built. And these units will be more affordable to everyday San Franciscans by virtue of the lower cost of their construction.
We can also establish a citywide infrastructure bank to fund necessary public infrastructure for our growing neighborhoods so the 30,000 units of housing approved by The City but stalled by delayed infrastructure can be built as soon as possible. And if Sacramento wants to help, legislators there can fund grants to encourage building higher levels of affordable and middle-income housing and help cities and counties pay for the infrastructure costs.
What San Francisco needs is to work together to build more affordable and middle-class housing, not more luxury condos. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, we can build more housing without destroying our neighborhoods or turning over decisions about San Francisco’s future to developers and lobbyists.
Jane Kim represents District 6 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and is a candidate for mayor.