By Molly Goldberg, Kung Feng and Fernando Martí
The housing affordability crisis in major cities across the country has sparked a multitude of creative policies to combat property speculation. For all of the leadership in affordable housing, there is one important tool that San Francisco lacks: an inventory of all homes in The City. Many cities have thorough information on tenancies, vacancies, unit sizes, housing services, and rents, which enables active community planning and enforcement of housing laws.
There are a total of around 400,000 apartments in San Francisco, of which almost 250,000 are rental units. It’s time for The City to get back on top with a comprehensive inventory of rental apartments. This week the supervisory board will vote with nine co-sponsors on the legislation that will set up such a housing database.
There are several reasons why we need this.
First, there are laws that The City simply cannot implement or enforce without a comprehensive housing database. Enforcement is critical to protecting tenants and ensuring that the policies are having their intended impact.
One example is Senate Draft 50, a bill to promote market interest rate developments. SB50 sponsors have promised this would not apply to properties that have had tenants at any point in the past seven years. However, in the absence of a thorough inventory of homes, there is no surefire way to identify these properties and protect tenants from displacement. This is a serious and worrying barrier to incentives for development that does not trigger a potential shift.
Likewise, ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units), small rental units that have been added through the renovation of underutilized parking lots, warehouses or backyards, cannot be implemented properly. Strict ADU guidelines ensure that the construction does not displace existing tenants or threaten housing services. However, these guidelines cannot be followed or enforced, and renters cannot be protected without an inventory of the existing conditions.
Second, the city authorities should have the information infrastructure to provide real-time help, support and assistance to owners and residents and to respond to crises.
The city currently has no apartment-level addresses for most of our housing stock, let alone information about which units are occupied. Following a recent fire in the Richmond District, a lack of information about the number of occupied units in a building could result in officials being unable to determine how many tenants were evicted. As a result, it is unclear how aid should be provided or what rents should be if tenants can return.
Many of the 500,000 or so tenants in San Francisco are key workers who play a vital role in The City as we all struggle with the pandemic and economic crisis. Without a housing database, The City is unable to efficiently ensure that these workers have safe housing during this difficult time.
Third, knowing exactly what the housing supply is in San Francisco at all times is a clear advantage. This, in turn, can influence housing expansion efforts, which close certain “gaps” in housing affordability. Without knowing what apartments we have and what rents are available, or whether apartments are even occupied, housing policy can look like throwing arrows blindfolded and just hoping to achieve the goal.
For example, it is common knowledge that there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of vacant housing units across the city. As the housing access and affordability crisis deepens during the pandemic, it is a missed opportunity for housing units to collect dust rather than being actively occupied as part of the citywide housing supply. But how do we know where these units are or how we can support them to get back up and running?
San Francisco is better able to meet its affordable housing needs, and a housing database is vital to the effective housing policy we need.
Having a comprehensive housing database is synonymous with understanding the nature of the city’s housing supply, as well as the displacement and speculation that continue to plague our city and endanger the Franciscans. This new tool will provide the city and the public with an information infrastructure to enforce laws that curb displacement and improve affordability. This real estate crisis has resulted in significant tenant evictions, extreme income gaps and prices that have made it increasingly unsustainable for low-income and everyday working-class people to stay.
In this crisis we need solutions that will keep people in their homes. Good solutions start with good information. Our city can begin to pass the House Inventory Act this week.
Molly Goldberg is the Human Resources Director for the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition (SFADC). Kung Feng is the director for San Francisco Jobs With Justice (JWJ). Fernando Martí is co-director of the Council of Local Housing Associations (CCHO).
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