By Maelig Morvan
A few years ago, I noticed something that did not make sense: there were pretty much no below-market-rate homes in my neighborhood, the Sunset District. BMR units are what is often referred to as “affordable housing,” which is restricted to folks at certain income levels who would be priced out of the City with higher rents or mortgage payments. So I began trying to understand why.
When I scratched the surface is when I started agitating for abundant housing on the west side of San Francisco.
There are three main reasons why affordable housing does not get built on this side of Arguello: 1) legal (zoning and density) restrictions, 2) spatial (small parcels and height limits), and 3) perceived neighborhood lack of support.
The first two reasons block affordable housing by making it infeasible. In San Francisco, there are two ways we build affordable housing. One consists of 100% BMR buildings that are often built by non-profit developers leveraging public money from the federal and local levels. The other, called inclusionary zoning requirements, is the provision by market-rate homebuilders of a certain percentage of BMR homes, either by having these units on-site or by “feeing out” (paying a fee that goes towards building 100% Affordable Housing).
So, why would zoning affect this? On the west side of San Francisco, most land is STILL zoned for single-family homes, allowing only one home on each parcel. Sometimes, two or three homes are allowed, and there is currently a legislative proposal at the Board of Supervisors to allow up to four homes. But even this would not be enough to trigger inclusionary requirements: in San Francisco, only buildings with 10 or more units need to include (or pay for) affordable housing. Add into the mix very stringent height restrictions (four stories in the Sunset and elsewhere) and small parcel sizes, and it is virtually impossible to find sites where 10 homes or more can be built.
Not only would such a low number of units make these projects financially infeasible, but the federal and local funders also would, for good reasons, prioritize other proposals where they would get more homes for each dollar they are providing. This is why affordable housing developers often look for sites that are larger and where they can build taller, in order to maximize the number of homes that can be offered. This improves their chances of receiving funding in a timely fashion.
The site at 2550 Irving St. is, for all these reasons, the perfect location for 100% affordable housing. It is a large plot of land (19,000+ square feet) that is currently zoned NCD (Neighborhood Commercial District, which allows many homes), and with the use of the Affordable Housing Bonus Program (AHBP), can go up to seven stories (which, in my personal opinion, is way too short) without the need to change the zoning. Additionally, in addition to its proximity to the N-Judah line and Golden Gate Park, it is on the Irving Street commercial corridor, close to many existing services, schools, and stores. What a formidable amount of opportunities for these residents! And what a great decision made by TNDC to get on board to develop many homes for low- to moderate-income households, including folks who had formerly experienced homelessness, over there.
However, that is when a perceived (and I insist on this term) lack of support from the neighbors comes into play. I have witnessed it over and over at town halls, community meetings, and also, more recently, online on various social networks: a vocal minority, coming right out of an episode of Parks and Rec, will basically oppose any change to “their” neighborhood, even if it means losing their best friends, family members, and essential workers over the years. The dynamics are always the same. First, oppose it for the most nefarious reasons, with no shame in saying horrible things out loud to rile up the rest of the minority. We saw it with 2550 Irving St., with opponents to the proposal clearly stating that they did not want low-income folks in “their” neighborhood, especially if they were Black or Brown, and that it would bring crime, filth, and drug abuse.
The thinly veiled racism and classism is usually not a successful and sustainable communication strategy, so the vocal minority then brings on the more experienced detractors, like longtime neighborhood associations. Then, it switches to more palatable arguments. These include, but are not limited to, lack of parking, building height, number of homes, the definition of a “family,” vague concerns about infrastructure, privacy, home values, neighborhood character, who would get to live here, lack of community benefits, etc. Taken individually, these could look reasonable to a naive person, but taken together, the strategy is clearly to inflict on these proposals a death by a thousand cuts.
But let’s be clear: affordable housing and the services and people that it brings to a neighborhood are a net benefit to the community. And San Franciscans, including Sunset residents, have shown time and time again that they are in favor of building more affordable housing, voting for ballot propositions, and candidates, favoring the financing and building of these BMR homes. Gordon Mar, our current District 4 Supervisor, ran on an unapologetic platform of finally building affordable housing in the Sunset. I can tell from personal experience that he is genuine about this goal and has actually rolled up his sleeves to identify appropriate sites and stakeholders.
So why are we still listening to this vocal minority? The main reason is that they are loud. Louder than the folks who think supporting affordable housing in their neighborhood is so obvious, that most of the time they do not feel the need to speak up. Louder than the folks who do not really care (the actual majority) but have no way to be heard because, by definition, they are not organized.
Let’s change this! From the beginning, our goal has always been to organize the silent majority of reasonable folks who welcome beneficial changes, including those of you who do not really have a strong opinion on everything. You also deserve to be heard! If you support maximizing the number of affordable homes at 2550 Irving St., please sign our petition and email Gordon Mar’s office and TNDC to share why.
Maelig Morvan is a research scientist at UCSF, a resident of the Sunset District and a co-founder of the group Westside = best side!