SF’s colorblind ‘bonus’ program ignores black residents — again

City Hall’s proposed Affordable Housing Bonus Program is coming up for a (perhaps final) hearing at the Planning Commission today. It’s an earnest attempt by city planners to address our affordability crisis by adding development incentives — taller buildings and higher profits — to build on vacant lots. It’s also a craven attack on vulnerable neighborhoods that accelerates gentrification and doesn’t even provide more affordable housing than we have today. In the upside-down worlds of urban planning and housing, both statements can be true.

The premise behind the bonus program is simple, especially to a local government that steadfastly insists that there is no problem in San Francisco that can’t be solved by someone making a profit on it.

It goes like this: In return for dedicating a number of housing units for “middle-income” renters and buyers, developers get to build additional floors of high-end housing on sites they acquire. Like Groucho Marx in the movies, the Planning Department is calling room service to send up bigger rooms.

But capitalism does not care about old comedies or our affordable housing crisis, and this proposal — once advertised as a way to gain affordable housing units along transit corridors on The City’s west side — has now found its way to the lower-income neighborhoods, like Bayview and the Western Addition, with very different consequences.

Of the 16,000 housing units anticipated to be built under the bonus program, fully two-thirds are projected for black, Latino and Asian neighborhoods, with few residents who qualify for the proposal’s “middle-income” threshold. Forty percent of the new housing is projected for Bayview and the Western Addition, the last outposts of our city’s dwindling black population, for whom the median annual income is less than $30,000. That is nowhere close to middle-income and, in fact, is below the threshold for The City’s low-income housing.

So, by and large, San Francisco’s black population is again left out by The City’s latest aggressive effort to create affordable housing. And the only way current landowners of color in these neighborhoods get to participate in the program is by selling their property and getting out, to be often replaced by paler, more affluent residents.

How is this not a replay of the worst elements of the old Redevelopment Agency? The Affordable Housing Bonus Program in its current form is head-slappingly ignorant of the unequal markets of different city neighborhoods, and the resulting proposal threatens to reheat gentrification battles of the past three decades.

In recent days, planning staffers have come to understand that their definition of “affordable” housing is out of reach for many residents of bonus-program neighborhoods. So the possibility of reducing rents and sale prices under the program is now on the table, dependent on a new “feasibility study” to come in the future. But the questions have to be asked: Wasn’t feasibility studied as part of the current proposal? What new feasibility — or rather, reduction in developer profits — might show up now that wasn’t there before?

Perhaps more importantly, was the economic reality of Bayview simply ignored while the citywide program was developed, even though its buildings and parcels comprise one-fourth of the proposal?

The biggest question of all is: Where is The City’s feasibility study for black people to stay in San Francisco? There is rare and painfully slow work done each year on rebuilding public housing, foreclosure and eviction protections, unemployment, overincarceration and environmental justice. Meanwhile, programs like the proposed bonus program are quickly pushed forward in just a few months. 

San Francisco’s Planning Department is largely funded by developer fees. As a result, the department often struggles with a stereotype that it is dependent on those developers, and that its efforts serve business interests and the Mayor’s Office more than city neighborhoods. Spectacularly tone-deaf plans, like the current bonus program, serve to confirm that stereotype, and its zombie-like advance through the corridors of City Hall suggests the Planning Department and Mayor’s Office are incapable of creating anything that is more sensitive to our inequality crisis.

San Francisco Examiner columnist Nato Green wrote a couple of months ago that the last black neighborhood in San Francisco is jail. Despite its intentions, the Planning Department’s housing bonus program appears to be efficiently designed to make that lacerating joke into city policy.

Tony Kelly is a Potrero Hill activist and serves as vice president of the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association and the Potrero Hill Democratic Club.

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