SB50 Exposes SF Supes’ Failed Housing Vision

by on April 9, 2019

Board Favors Zoning that Bans New Apartments, Prices Out Middle-Class

“It’s not just about production. It’s about preservation, and it’s about protection”

“We should increase density, especially near transit, and we should update our zoning to allow this. But we should do this through a robust, community-led process … not mandates handed down from Sacramento. The question isn’t whether we should build more housing or not — we must. It’s about what we build, how and for whom.”—-SF Supervisors Fewer and Mar explaining why they oppose SB50.

In Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America I explain how San Francisco became the national poster child for unaffordability. This did not happen because, as Supervisor Fewer and others believe, the city failed to protect tenants or preserve rental housing. San Francisco actually has the nation’s strongest tenant and rental housing protection laws.

No, San Francisco’s housing prices have skyrocketed for nearly four decades because the city has not built anywhere near enough housing to meet population and jobs growth. And the political question has always been about whether we should build or housing or not.  San Francisco’s answer has been to restrict what limited housing gets built, either via supervisor opposition to specific projects, the killing of lift-work lofts, or the creation of a glacial housing approval process that often results in entitled projects not getting built.

SB 50 highlights the central argument in my book about San Francisco: it is a “progressive” city whose politicians claim to support greater inclusion and racial diversity but maintain exclusionary land use policies that undermine such goals. Fewer and many of her colleagues prioritize “protecting” existing homeowners from new apartments over expanding housing opportunities for a new generation of working and middle-class residents.

You are not “for” affordable housing when you back zoning laws that prevent such units from being built. Nor are you “for” inclusionary housing when you oppose market rate projects that trigger such below-market units.

Bernal Heights, Noe Valley, and the Haight-Ashbury are among the city’s most “progressive” voting neighborhoods. All gentrified by preventing virtually any new housing.  Restricting housing supply has proven the chief vehicle for displacement and gentrification in San Francisco.

These and many other upscale San Francisco neighborhoods might as well post signs,  “Only wealthy new residents and their Children Allowed.”  By preventing new multi-unit buildings in such communities,  supervisors have accepted the standard homeowner association argument that new rental units jeopardize neighborhood “character.”

The Supervisors’ failed housing vision was on full display last week.

All Talk on Climate Change

On April 2, all eleven supervisors co-sponsored a measure declaring a Climate Emergency in San Francisco. Yet that same week saw a Board majority announce opposition to SB 50, which promotes the infill housing essential to combating climate change.

In other words, the supervisors want to continue the city’s practice of forcing tens of thousands of people into three hour round trip greenhouse gas creating car trips rather than allowing apartments to be built in most San Francisco neighborhoods. The Board figures that as long as they talk Climate Emergency and Green New Deal they don’t actually have to change housing policies to match their words.

CALPIRG, the League of Conservation Voters, Environment California and the National Resources Defense Council all back SB 50 because they recognize that reducing long car commutes is essential for combating climate change. That’s why the national Sierra Club urges infill housing and why state and local Sierra Club and chapters have aggressively backed infill housing measures like SB 50 in Seattle, Minneapolis and other cities.

SF Bans Affordable Housing

San Francisco has long prevented apartments from being built in most of the city and vast sections of the Westside. Yet we have “progressives” continuing to claim they support “100% affordable housing” knowing full well that zoning laws bar such housing in most of the city.

Fewer’s district has been represented by a “progressive” supervisor since district elections returned in 2000. Neither Fewer nor her predecessors ever introduced legislation allowing affordable housing to be built throughout the Richmond. It’s about putting loyalty to luxury homeowners over expanding affordable housing.

Fewer, Mar and other current and former supervisors reflect what I describe in my book as a “generational divide” over housing. In the dozen cities I write about and many more, boomers are the primary opposition to allowing apartments in single-family zoned neighborhoods; the primary support comes from millennials.

Mar and Fewer both own homes that meet the “luxury” test by being valued at over $1 million (Fewer and her husband actually own three properties valued at over that amount, including one purchased in 2009 for a now bargain price on Dolores Street, a far distance from her district).

I have no problem with supervisors owning luxury homes or being landlords. My problem is when they deny housing opportunities to a new generation of working and middle-class residents by maintaining zoning laws that allow new mansions in most of the city but not new apartments.

San Francisco supervisors have no real strategy for housing the future middle-class in San Francisco. No strategy at all.

Non-profit affordable housing developers (who have overwhelmingly endorsed SB 50) are not the answer, as they primarily build for a much lower-income population. Affordable housing funding is also scarce, and advocates have never supported shifting these funds to housing the middle-class.

A middle-class family can only afford to move to Fewer’s district in two ways: by being selected for an inclusionary housing unit or if they can afford to buy a new condo in a newly built multi-unit building.

Yet San Francisco zoning makes both options illegal. Supervisors bemoan teachers unable to afford to live in the city but refuse to change zoning laws to get teachers and middle-class families into affluent neighborhoods where they are now priced out.

SB 50 would allow both middle-class housing options to move forward. Yet the Board opposes this change.

Fewer stated last week that “Instead of NIMBY or YIMBY, let’s all be IHMBY — inclusionary housing in my backyard.” But that requires the zoning changes that SB 50 imposes and that Fewer rejects. And inclusionary housing—which allows working and middle-class families to live in below market homes or rental units—-is only triggered by the market rate housing that Fewer opposes.

San Francisco has had decades to engage in the “community-led process” to increase density near transit that Mar prefers to SB 50. But while Mar is new to the Board, he has to know that homeowners in San Francisco and most blue cities use “community process”  to stop apartments and increased density in their neighborhoods (My book describes this in several cities).

Kudos to Senators Nancy Skinner and Scott Wiener for realizing that the “community process” and “neighborhood input” game was designed to keep the non-rich and non-white out of homeowner neighborhoods. Support SB 50 or not, but the state has waited long enough for local actions to address California’s affordability emergency.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. He is the author of Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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