Strange path to density bonuses

San Francisco, known for its varied neighborhoods, has seen them convulsed recently by a modest, wonky proposal from the Planning Department that goes to the heart of how, or whether, our city can adapt to address its pressing challenges. To listen to some folks, the “evil” this proposal would inflict on quiet, unsuspecting neighborhoods sounds more like a stealthy city-backed plan to introduce the Zika virus into its own backyard.

The culprit is the Planning Department’s Affordable Housing Bonus Program. Contrary to some of its critic’s wild claims, it does not appear to have been invented because the Planning Department finally found the inspiration and tools to “wreck” The City. The simple truth is the AHBP was developed as The City’s measured response to a landmark 2013 California legal decision regarding the interpretation of the state’s density bonus law.

The strangest thing about the civic angst caused by the AHBP is how disconnected it is from the actual argument on the table. In a nutshell, the court’s ruling on the state’s density bonus said if a builder includes a certain amount of affordable housing in a market-rate project, he or she must be granted certain benefits and incentives — a density bonus. Period. To its huge credit, the Planning Department figured if we’re already mandated by state law to give density bonuses, let’s devise our own rules that would keep the incentives, but also require providing even higher amounts of affordable housing and target it to the middle-class.

The impetus behind density bonuses is that The City should encourage putting underused properties like parking lots and rundown single-story retail or commercial buildings located along neighborhood transit corridors into more productive use, like solving the housing affordability crisis. But, for a city that’s three years into hemorrhaging its middle-income residents, consensus solutions appear in short supply. Successful cities across the U.S. are increasing their housing supply by thoughtfully adding height and density and integrating it with better functioning transit. Call it an intelligent design for the future, but for simply suggesting this, the Planning Department is getting excoriated — tar and feathers may not be far behind! It’s unsettling to watch simple policy ideas get entangled in hysteria and misinformation, some of it perhaps intentional.

There’s an only-in-San Francisco dynamic at work in the opposition to the AHBP. Our city is almost unique in the U.S. in that building new housing is an issue that unites the progressive left with the NIMBY Right. Nowhere is this truer than with the AHBP. One of the weird traits of the controversy is that a group opposing a plan to increase the amount of affordable housing and target it to the middle-class is that they claim to do this on behalf of the “community” or “affordable housing.” Of course, as with any new program, there is also the usual neighborhood coalition — mainly older homeowners — who demand the AHBP be thrown out because of the grave threats it poses to “neighborhood character,” views or on-street parking.

What’s most striking, however, is the strong convergence between what would otherwise be two very different groups. The AHBP’s odd victory is to again unify the self-identified defenders of social justice with those of the status quo.

Conspicuously absent in all the hyperventilation at recent public hearings, however, is an acknowledgement of this fact: Density bonuses will begin to be issued before long in San Francisco for residential development. The only pertinent question is what amount of affordable housing will accompany them?

The groups opposing the AHBP appear almost gleeful at their prospects of killing it. But they’ve been silent on what the state’s density bonus simple language demands or explaining how defeating the AHBP is a better outcome for The City.

Tim Colen is the executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

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