Do you think the San Francisco housing wars are intense? You haven’t seen anything yet.
On Thursday, the San Francisco Planning Commission will hear an update on The City’s Housing Element, a state-mandated blueprint that will guide development for years to come. The hearing represents a small step in a process that promises to reshape the cityscape: California law requires San Francisco to change its zoning to accommodate around 82,000 new homes between 2023 and 2031. dense West Side neighborhoods—Sunset, Richmond, West Portal—that have seen little new development in decades.
While the rezoning plans remain largely conceptual, major points of contention are already emerging. A coalition of social justice and non-profit housing organizations has leveled criticism at the role of commercial housing in the draft plan.
A neighborhood association has a different criticism. The plan is said to amount to “relocation,” turning the city into “an overcrowded, airless, gardenless, architectureless, charmless, largely desolate place.”
Meanwhile, YIMBY groups, which have helped guard the state law underlying this process, are fighting to ensure the Housing Element actually produces as many homes as promised.
By accommodating these different perspectives, the city has discretion over where new developments should go, but not whether they should take place. One way or another, San Francisco has to find room for more than 80,000 apartments.
While the planning department has gone through this process before — this is the city’s sixth 8-year Housing Element or Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) cycle — this time is different in several ways.
Senator Scott Wiener’s recent state legislation to address California’s chronic housing shortage has greatly increased the number of housing cities must plan for, adding real consequences for cities that fall short of their goals.
Another state law requires cities to actively desegregate existing patterns of racial segregation and concentrated poverty. After its apology for racist practices like the 2020 urban renewal in Fillmore, the Department of Planning went a step further and added a formal commitment to promote racial and social justice through the housing element.
After gathering feedback on the current design of the dwelling, the planning department will release another revised design this spring and will initiate final state approvals by May 2023 at the latest.
The current draft contains dozens of recommended policies that affect virtually every aspect of San Francisco housing, including strategies to reduce evictions, preserve existing affordable housing, and lower housing costs.
However, the most controversial and transformative strategies relate to zoning: how many houses can be built where?
Half of the city’s total housing production in this cycle would be concentrated in “well-endowed” neighborhoods, encompassing nearly the entire western half of the city, from the Marina down to St. Francis Wood and stretching through Richmond and Sunset to the bottom Sea, according to the draft plan. This would represent a massive shift from the development patterns of recent decades, when new construction was largely concentrated in eastern neighborhoods such as SoMa, The Mission, and Bayview.
(Courtesy of the SF planning department)
The draft plan identifies several major transit corridors that could see more mid-rise or even high-rise development, including Lombard Street, Geary Boulevard, Judah Street, Ocean Avenue, Taraval Street, 19th Avenue, West Portal Avenue, Divisadero Street, Castro Street and Van Ness Avenue. It also calls for the legalization of up to four units on each residential lot in The City and builds on a proposal currently going on at the Board of Supervisors.
The plan has already met with fierce opposition.
“The housing element relies too much on market-based strategies and too little emphasis on changing public policy and directing public investment towards solutions that are truly affordable,” said Joseph Smooke, a spokesman for Race and Equity in all Planning Coalition (REP ), which provided detailed responses to the planning department. The more than 30 organizations in the coalition include prominent nonprofits such as Glide, the Chinatown Community Development Center and the Mission Economic Development Agency.
Smooke notes that the city has missed its affordable housing goals in the current Housing Element cycle and wants affordable housing to be a priority this time.
The REP coalition wants only buildings 100% below market price to be constructed along key transit corridors. It also wants more neighborhoods to be designated as “priority equity communities,” which would see more affordable housing resources and more limited development in market rates. Smooke said these areas were mapped “without any verification or involvement of actual communities.”
(Courtesy of the SF planning department)
The REP Coalition is currently working with Supervisor Connie Chan to create a more comprehensive equity community map that would include most of Richmond, as well as large parts of Sunset and northeastern neighborhoods such as Mission Bay and North Beach. These neighborhoods have low-income homeowners and tenants who need protection from how market interest rates move, Smooke said.
“The Housing Element has gone to great lengths to describe the historic problems of redlining, rehabilitation and other mistakes that we have made through our government actions,” Smooke said. “We believe our city and state governments are now making the exact same mistakes.”
Based on comments from the REP coalition and 22 focus groups with members of low-income communities, the planning department has agreed to add metrics measuring displacement to the housing element and to examine the equity impact of market housing development.
YIMBY Action Managing Director Laura Foote agrees that the housing element should focus on “development without displacement” and include strong tenant protection. “But we don’t have to protect people who own a single-family home from their neighbor building a ten-unit building,” she said. Foote pointed to other benefits of increased density, such as busier shopping corridors and more housing options for people of all ages to live in reasonably sized houses.
Foote also stressed that allowing market development is a legal requirement. San Francisco’s housing supply includes approximately 33,000 low- and very-low-income units, 14,000 middle-income units, and 35,000 above-average income units. If the state deems the plan insufficient to meet those goals, San Francisco could be stripped of its land use authority, meaning any housing development that conformed to basic safety rules could be built.
“They may not like market housing, but to comply with state law, we have to build a lot of market housing,” Foote said. “So the question is where. The question is not if.”