By Simone Manganelli and Shanti Singh
Two weeks ago, scores of San Franciscans called in to the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee, in opposition to a proposal to extend the lease of a Twin Peaks gas station on publicly-owned land.
Almost every comment, including ours, lambasted the committee for considering the 25-year lease, which would allow Twin Peaks Petroleum to operate until 2045. That’s five years past the City’s climate goal of having all private vehicles be electric by 2040, and fifteen years past the International Panel on Climate Change’s 2030 deadline to stop irreversible global warming.
Time and time again, the City has underutilized its public land, where deeply affordable housing is more feasible. While the Balboa Reservoir and Potrero Yard projects are steps in the right direction, only 50% of the units at both locations are slated for affordable housing. The City’s own definition of “affordable” often means affordable to households making up to 120% of area median income. In 2020, that’s an income of $138,350 for a family of three, which is well out of reach for the San Francisco households most at risk for unemployment, eviction and foreclosure during the pandemic.
But why can’t the city create more deeply affordable housing on its own land without privatizing it? Lack of dedicated funding, and a segregationist law that bans municipal housing in cities like SF.
In 1950, California voters narrowly approved Article 34, an amendment to the California Constitution backed by segregationists and the Association of Realtors. It requires a citywide vote before even a single unit of “low-rent housing” or publicly-owned housing can be bought or built. Federal public housing, now privatized, was repeatedly defunded by the federal government — especially in the Reagan era — in part due to deep-seated classism and racism against public housing tenants. These policies fuelled race and class segregation, gentrification, and the mass displacement of Black San Franciscans. In 1970, almost 100,000 residents of San Francisco were Black. Today, it’s half of that.
San Francisco has an existing authorization, from 2012, for private sponsors to create low-rent housing. But the City itself still isn’t allowed to create a municipal social housing program. Prop K would authorize such a program, and permit up to 10,000 units. Prop I would tax the richest investors’ property sales to fund short-term COVID rent relief and long-term social housing. As Prop I also funds the more immediate need of rent relief for tenants and small landlords hurt by COVID, the municipal social housing program would begin as a pilot and use additional funds to expand.
“Social housing” is a broad term for housing that serves society’s need for shelter and infrastructure, not profit, where either the government or a binding agreement keeps housing affordable in the long run. The housing itself covers a broad range of incomes to be financially self-sustaining and expand, but is focused on low-income households. The newly-proposed SF Social Housing Fund, which Prop I would partially fund, requires an average household income of less than 80% of median income in a development.
Unlike past public housing, municipal social housing would use funds from the City’s budget, and would be locally accountable, financially self-sustainable, and almost completely independent of the presidential administration in Washington, D.C. We can, and should, draw on additional funds from the federal or state government to expand the program. But a locally-run model would allow the City to account for local costs and ensure low rents that can cover operational and capital expenses, without any profit motive.
Prop K is crucial to a broader strategy to expand San Francisco’s affordable housing infrastructure. Alongside private non-profit affordable housing, municipal social housing can create a significant stock of housing that is deeply and permanently affordable. And municipal social housing will succeed if we fund its expansion. Ask the residents of Vienna, Austria, where over 60% of residents live in some form of social housing, half of which is municipal. Or ask our sister city, Paris, where 7,000 units of social housing are being built every year.
The Twin Peaks Petroleum site is close to transit, including the Forest Hill Muni Metro station. It’s adjacent to Juvenile Hall, which will close down next year — another block of City-owned land. If Prop K and Prop I win at the ballot next month, we’ll have the funding and the authorization to pilot a municipal social housing program there.
Now is the time to pass Prop K and Prop I. Let’s expand what is possible in our city to do what is necessary: give every San Franciscan the shelter they need to survive and thrive.
Simone Manganelli is a coauthor of Proposition K, a homeowner in the Castro, and an organizer for deeply affordable housing. Shanti Singh is a District 3 renter, a tenant organizer and advocate for land use reform.
Find out more about Proposition K at socialhousingsf.com