Central SOMA Exposes SF’s Political Identity Crisis

by on March 13, 2018

YIMBYs Lead Effort to Protect Tenants from Central SOMA Plan

For the first time since San Francisco’s 1970’s downtown highrise boom, activists are demanding that new office space—-in this case in Central SOMA— be balanced by new housing.

This concern is understandable. San Francisco’s longtime affordability crisis is a product of decades of adding jobs without building new housing.  Activists see this mistake repeating in a Central SOMA plan adding 40,000-50,000 jobs and only 7000 housing units; it is seen as a blueprint for displacement and gentrification.

Those leading the fight to protect tenants from the Central SOMA plan may surprise you: it’s the growing YIMBY movement raising the  loudest alarms.

YIMBYs recognize that San Francisco desperately needs new housing. And they cannot understand why the city would act in a Cupertino-like manner by creating a massive Central SOMA upzoning that makes the city’s housing deficit even worse.

Joe Rivano Barros wrote a strong piece in the SF Examiner last week about how the Central SOMA plan ensures “rising rents and gentrification in neighborhoods from the Excelsior to North Beach.

His conclusion is based on what happens when tens of thousands of highly-paid Central SOMA office workers begin looking for places to live. Some will land in Oakland, furthering that city’s gentrification. But many will seek housing in nearby neighborhoods like the Mission, creating extreme competition for vacant apartments that sharply drives up rents.

When you have ten groups of people competing for every Mission, North Beach or SOMA apartment, prices sharply rise. Even worse, people with resources who cannot find a vacant unit to rent instead decide to buy buildings.

The displacement of longterm tenants for owner move in evictions or under the Ellis Act soon follows. The Central SOMA plan will provide a new market for buyers of Tenancies in Common, which drives speculator evictions under the Ellis Act.

Mission activists and D9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen are aggressively fighting to stop housing from being built on a Laundromat at Mission and 25th Streets. Yet neither are battling a Central SOMA plan which will unquestionably drive up Mission rents and evictions.

The Central SOMA Plan

As described in JK Dineen’s February 27 SF Chronicle story, the Central SOMA plan, “would dramatically raise height limits in portions of a 17-block zone that stretches from close to Market Street south to Townsend Street, and from Second Street west to Sixth Street.” The plan calls for two forty story condo towers at Fourth and Townsend, and 3.1 million square feet of new office space overall. It’s 20 million square feet of development also includes 2,310 affordable housing units, 33 percent of the total.

In a city where neighborhood activists come out in mass to oppose new two unit buildings, this massive Central SOMA plan has gotten remarkably little opposition.

It has gotten nowhere near the opposition that mounted to defeat a 150-unit affordable senior housing project slated for Forest Hills. That project was killed last week, as “progressive” supervisor Norman Yee—who also opposes any homeless services in District 7—pushed to prevent seniors from living in the neighborhood.

Count on Yee to support the Central SOMA plan. It offers no risk of low-income, working or middle-class people moving into District 7.

Why are the YIMBYs the only tenant dominated groups mobilizing against this destructive Central SOMA plan? And why are “progressives” concerned about rising rents and evictions not prioritizing this issue?

Why the Lack of Opposition?

Four reasons explain the lack of public opposition to the Central SOMA plan.

What’s Central SOMA?:  “Central SOMA” is a recently invented term. It is not a “legacy” neighborhood that activists have fought for decades to preserve. Few know its boundaries. It’s hard to get riled up about changing a place when you don’t know where it is.

Few nearby neighbors: As noted above, opposition to projects in San Francisco is largely based on where they occur. Small projects in the Mission, Noe Valley or the Richmond can get massive neighborhood opposition while the absence of boomer homeowners near downtown or Central SOMA prevents such resistance.

That’s why Rincon and other upscale condo projects in SOMA got progressive support —no nearby homeowners were there to mobilize against their construction.

Not a single developer: Paavo Monkkonen and Michael Manville of UCLA released a study in late February that bears directly on the Central SOMA plan. They found that “opposition to new development increases by 20 percentage points when respondents see the argument that a developer is likely to earn a large profit from the building.”

In Central SOMA, no single developer can be identified as profiting from the upzoning for office development. This makes a huge difference.

If Amazon announced it were opening its new headquarters in Central SOMA and adding 50,000 jobs and only 7000 housing units, activists and politicians would be storming the barricades to stop it. If Airbnb and Uber were identified as part of a Central SOMA plan that had a 7-1 jobs housing imbalance the San Francisco Tenants Union would make stopping it a top priority.

Jane Kim Made the Deal: D6 Supervisor and mayoral candidate Jane Kim is sponsoring the Central SOMA legislation. Kim stated that the plan “sets a new standard for the City with 33 percent affordability throughout and zero loss of any existing arts or manufacturing jobs.” She also touted its community benefits.

Progressives are all in on electing Kim mayor. They are not going to undermine what her campaign sees as a signature achievement at Central SOMA. The plan’s backing by Acting Mayor Farrell shows Kim’s ability to work with moderate forces, addressing a concern some may have about her ability to succeed as mayor.

But if Supervisor Ahsha Safai had made the identical deal traditional progressives would be irate over the jobs housing imbalance. For all the community benefits Kim procured, the fact remains that when you add 40,000-50,000 upscale office jobs and only 7000 housing units you are guaranteeing that housing becomes even less affordable and that no-fault evictions increase.

The irony of Kim’s deal is that I believe she would love to get more housing.  She made the best agreement she could and would support her colleagues securing more housing.

This may actually happen. Late yesterday at the Land Use Committee, Aaron Peskin said that the Central SOMA Plan should have tens of thousands of housing units and railed against the jobs/housing imbalance. With Peskin on board for a better deal, the Supervisors could modify the agreement to turn the Central SOMA into a huge step forward for housing.

D6 Candidates Stances

I asked the leading D6 supervisor candidates where they stood on Central SOMA.

Sonja Trauss stated, “As currently written, the Central SOMA plan will displace between 18,000 and 43,000 households in SOMA, the Tenderloin, the Mission, West Oakland and other neighborhoods within commuting distance of the new jobs in the plan. We can’t keep planning to fail. We have to amend the Central SOMA plan.”

Christine Johnson said, “We need more housing everywhere and we should take this opportunity to call for more from the Central SOMA plan. I still think there is an opportunity to provide more housing for some key project sites that can raise the number of units built overall by thousands.”

Matt Haney also backs more housing:  “I support increasing the housing included in the Central SOMA plan.  This should be a top priority in the coming months.  Once passed, we are going to have to get beyond the grandstanding and blame game that has held us back, and actually build the housing. ”

Until Peskin’s announcement yesterday, the only opposition from traditional progressives has been from TODCO’s John Elberling and other nonprofit housing advocates pushing for 50% affordability. I think the 33% affordability Kim negotiated is fine, and that doubling the plan’s 7000 housing units would mean far more would be affordable.

The Planning Commission holds a March 22 hearing on the plan and could approve it as soon as March 29. It would then go to the Board of Supervisors, where Kim has stated she wants it approved by May.

A massive rezoning plan that creates a 6-1 jobs/housing imbalance and drastically worsens San Francisco’s housing crisis can still be changed. Contact your supervisor (and I am told D1’s Sandra Lee Fewer has yet to take a position on Central SOMA)  and urge them to back Peskin’s revision that adds thousands more housing units to the deal.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book, Generation Priced Out: Who Will Live in the New Urban America, will be out this fall from UC Press


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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