California—and the San Francisco Bay Area, in particular—is currently suffering from a prolonged and devastating housing affordability crisis. Housing construction over the last decade has been anemic, relative to previous decades, at a time when the state’s population and economy are both booming.
The San Francisco Housing Alliance Coalition (SFHAC) formed back in 1999 during the first dot-com boom to advocate for inclusive housing policies for the city of San Francisco and has played a significant role as an advocacy group across the region in the decades since. In advance of the organization’s Spring Symposium, The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) spoke with Rob Poole, Development and Communications Manager at SFHAC, to discuss the organization’s recent initiatives, goals and the group’s efforts to help address the housing crisis.
For more information on the Spring Symposium, see the SFHAC website.
AN: Can you explain a bit about SFHAC’s short-term housing goals for the region? What are a few of the projects or initiatives you are working on getting approved over the next few months or years?
Rob Poole: I’ll break this up into short-term versus long-term goals, and local versus regional. At the present moment in San Francisco, we’re in the final stages of passing a program called HOME-SF, the city’s first major tool targeted at creating homes for San Francisco’s middle-class, which has been underserved by the city’s housing policies. Under HOME-SF, developers who build in certain parts of the city (primarily outside of area plans and RH-1 neighborhoods), would have the option to build denser buildings and add two extra stories in exchange for providing a higher percentage of subsidized housing targeted at moderate-and middle-income residents. This program has been in the works for about three years and should finally get passed this month. In addition, the city is about to adopt a new inclusionary ordinance, once again. The most recent requirement was decided upon by the voters and was—frankly—an arbitrary number, 25%. We’re pushing for a data-drive policy, which I’ll touch on later. Both of these measures have taken up a lot of our time.
For the more long-term, we consistently search for ways to improve the process for creating housing in San Francisco. The city is known for having an enormously complex and lengthy approval process. We’d like to see more certainty and remove some of the risk for building in a place with a chronic housing shortage. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also know as “in-law” homes, are another priority. A couple of state bills were passed last year—AB 2299 and SB 1069—that remove some of the costs for building or home owners to add these. We want to ensure San Francisco is in compliance with the new laws.
Stepping outside of our sandbox, SFHAC staff has regularly attended and organized residents to speak at Brisbane City Council hearings in regards to a project called Brisbane Baylands, which borders the southern part of San Francisco. The developer has plans to build a mixed-use project with over 4,400 homes, but the City has pushed for a plan with zero housing because that’s what the most vocal residents down there want. That’s frankly unacceptable and emblematic of the struggles the region faces around local governance. The site is essentially 680 acres of dirt and is adjacent to a Caltrain station. What happens there impacts the entire region as much as it does Brisbane, yet the City Council only has to listen to their voters in a town of about 4,200 people. We’re trying to influence the outcome by showing the City Council their decisions have impacts that extend far beyond their town’s borders.
Finally, the conversation around has housing has picked up a lot in Sacramento, which influenced the theme of our Spring Symposium on May 23rd. There are over 130 bills pending in the legislature that address how homes are funded, planned for and approved. SFHAC has taken positions on several of these measures, including SB 35, AB 71, AB 73, AB 915 and SB 167 and AB 678. We give our members the opportunity to weigh in on these bills and stay informed as they work their way through the approval process. We should know what happens with all these by the fall. This is new territory for SFHAC, but it’s likely to only grow in relevance. We cannot expect to solve this problem by allowing cities and suburbs to make land-use decisions independently of one another.
Are there target neighborhoods or corridors your organization is seeking to specifically add housing to?
Housing should be located where those residents are more likely to walk, bike and take transit to get around. Our land-use decisions must reduce vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) via private automobile use. Otherwise, we will not achieve our environmental goals at the local, regional or state levels. That mindset drives our advocacy.
This also falls into an issue we like to call “density equity.” In San Francisco, about 80 percent of the development happens on 20 percent of the land. Most new housing gets built along the eastern and southeastern half of the city while the west side hardly adds any homes.
There are a couple reasons for that. Over the past 20 years, the city has spent a lot of effort rezoning neighborhoods, via the Better Neighborhoods Plan, where the land historically had industrial use or been underutilized. As the economy changed, many of the uses became less relevant and it made sense to rezone them for housing. This has primarily been done along the eastern side of the city.
The west side is a different story. These neighborhoods are primarily zoned for single-family homes, except along some the transit and commercial corridors. Historically, there’s been a lot of opposition to any kind of change towards the built environment, which makes it difficult to build housing there. SFHAC believes these neighborhoods need to step up and provide their fair share of homes. We acknowledge it doesn’t make sense to build towers out there because the transit isn’t as sufficient, but it’s not fair nor good planning to allow one side of the city to stay frozen in time while the other half takes on all the new housing. HOME-SF will help move the needle.
At the regional level, there are so many municipalities that simply don’t contribute. Brisbane is just one example. But there are numerous cases where organized opposition will use every tool at their disposal, be it California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) appeals, lawsuits or just turning out people to public hearings, to influence outcomes. As a result, housing is built further away from jobs where there are less people to oppose it. The recent report from the California Department of Finance reaffirms this trend. There aren’t any incentives or penalties for cities that don’t do their part. Some of the state bills, such as SB 35, would change this.
There’s been lots of talk lately regarding inclusionary zoning requirements—current requirements are too high, don’t go far enough; inclusionary zoning actually dampens market-rate housing production—what is SFHAC’s position on inclusionary zoning?
Inclusionary housing is a smart tool to provide homes for low-income residents, especially in expensive markets. SFHAC was at the table in 2002 with then-Supervisor Mark Leno when we crafted San Francisco’s first mandatory inclusionary ordinance. Since then, the program has resulted in over 4,600 below-market-rate homes (BMR), for both rental and ownership. Those are homes for people who otherwise may have been priced out of the city. On the flip side, that doesn’t come remotely close to meeting the need. For example, there was a recent project along Market Street that had 144 applicants for every one BMR.
Some think the solution is to make the requirement higher, based on the idea that developers make so much money and market-rate homes will never be affordable to anyone besides the rich. We reject that notion. Inclusionary zoning policies should be data-driven so they do not restrict supply of market-rate housing, because that is tomorrow’s middle-class housing.
Last June, San Francisco voters passed a measure that more than doubled the inclusionary requirements, from 12 to 25-percent on-site. There was no study to support whether this was financially feasible. Since then, applications for new projects have dropped significantly. So what will probably happen in the long run is we’ll see less homes get built than may have had we not changed the requirement, which will drive up the price of market-rate homes. That’s scary to imagine considering how expensive it is already.
Keep in mind, the subsidy that makes BMRs affordable comes from the rents of the market-rate units. That means if the requirement is set too high, only the most luxurious projects are likely to get built, because those are the ones that pencil out. It’s the smaller projects and the developers with less money that get cut out from the process. As a result, we remove any possibility of building naturally affordable housing (a concept known as “filtering”).
To put an end to my long-winded answer…I want to reiterate that SFHAC supports inclusionary zoning. It is one tool in the toolbox. But cities should not rely on it as the end-all, be-all solution for housing. It does not scale to the severity of the problem. And unless Congress decides to quintuple the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget, we will not be able to subsidize our way of the problem. Planners, politicians, developers and architects will have to accept that they’ll need to get much more creative with how they approach housing in the open market. I know that’s not the most popular idea politically, but I don’t see how else we can change course given the lack of support from the federal and state government.
Do you have anything else to add?
Yes. I think we’re at the beginning stages of a new era in regards to how the general public perceives this issue, at least in the more urban parts of California. People are starting to understand that the status quo does not work. Now, instead of the loud Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) voice that local elected officials are used to hearing, they’re listening to the Yes-In-My-Backyard (YIMBY) voices. This is a political movement.
We’re starting from a tough place, however. The policies we’ve adopted over the past several decades promote sprawl, aren’t friendly to newcomers and still result in economic and racial exclusion. This will not change unless there are organized, thoughtful and influential groups working to shift the tide. At SFHAC, we bring all the parties together—the private sector, city staff, politicians, YIMBYs and even those who don’t agree with us (at least if we’re able to)—to form pro-housing solutions that result in choices for people of all income levels.
It took many years to get us into this hole we’re in today and it will take a long time to climb our way out. But given some of the recent decisions that have been made here in San Francisco and even at the ballot in Los Angeles, as well as the political energy in Sacramento, I think we’re on our way there.