New SRO Plan Continued by Planning Committee

by Eric Schaefer on February 25, 2005

A plan which would would amend the planning code to re-define a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) unit as a “unit that is affordable to very low income or extremely low income households” in some mixed-used zoned areas had its first brush with the Planning Commission yesterday. The commission continued the legislation, which would require new SRO’s in specific mixed-use areas of the South of Market district to be available only to tenants earning 50% of median income, for one month, citing the need to understand the issue in more detail. Planning Commission President Sue Lee directed commission staff to work with the office of Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who is sponsoring the legislation, to collect more detailed information and hold a “working group” meeting with housing and neighborhood groups.

Buildings devoted to SRO’s are currently allowed to have fewer parking spaces per unit, smaller back yard areas and have a reduced open space requirement. The new legislation would require that all units in such new developments also be reserved for tenants earning 50% of median income, or a little less than $40,000 for a single person household. Current regulations require that 10-12% of units in new developments in San Francisco be available to tenants earning 60% of the median income.

According to Dan Sider, the Planning Commission staff member who presented the legislation, “the most relevant part of the plan is affordability.” He also mentioned in his presentation that opinion among affordable housing groups was split and said that the Housing Action Coalition (HAC) and the SF Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) were opposed to the plan.

That split was evident in public comment. Juan Prada of the Coalition on Homelessness was concerned that the stock of affordable SRO’s in San Francisco might dry up if their price was left to the market. “We are creating a new bottom to the race, without preserving entry-level affordable housing.” He also stressed that SRO’s are central to the city’s long and short term plans to deal with homelessness, saying “We need to pass this bill to help the city end homelessness in ten years.”

Jim Meko, of the SOMA Leadership Council, spoke against the plan, on the grounds that it could do more harm than good. “I can’t deny that there is a strong distrust of the RBA” he said, “But the existence of this commission is a sign that times have changed.” He suggested that the explosive growth of the late 90’s, which pushed rents up in many working-class districts of the city, was under control in SOMA, saying that neighborhood groups and the city would “never allow the excess of the 90’s to happen again.” The distrust of such explosive growth is a major reason for this legislation.

Their comments, and those of others, highlight the unique and critical role of SRO’s in the city’s housing stock and in its politics. On the one hand, activists like Mr. Prada are concerned with keeping SRO’s affordable and available to people on the bottom of San Francisco’s housing ladder; making sure that SRO’s can remain a safety net on the way down to, and a first step up from the streets for the city’s poorest residents. Others, like Mr. Meko, are also concerned about the middle of that housing ladder, ensuring that single artists, entrepreneurs and recent arrivals have the flexible housing options that they need.

The division of public opinion and the lack of hard facts contributed to the decision to continue the item. Commissioner Christina Olague asked that the board “see census figures” in order to “better understand occupancy” of SRO’s. Commissioner William Lee said that the commission would have to ask the Mayor’s Office of Housing about the availability of funding for subsidized housing and also said that, having worked with Mr. Meko before, he valued his opinion. Commissioner Kevin Hughes reminded everyone that the section of code defining SRO’s, adopted in 1994, states that the exemptions made for them are meant to “create a number of dwelling units that are permanently affordable.” He said that the new bill would merely be enforcing this principle. The commissioners expressed an interest in working closely with Supervisor Ammiano’s office and with the housing and neighborhood groups involved.

Given the highly politicized role of SRO’s in San Francisco, this legislation goes beyond the usual scope of the Planning Commission. As today’s limited debate showed, any final plan will have to address the need for guaranteed affordability and the need for flexibility in San Francisco’s SRO’s. In the long term, this bill will reveal a great deal about the state of affordable housing in San Francisco, perhaps showing whether the “excesses of the 90’s” are really past. For the short term, as Commissioner Lee said, “whatever we put through, let’s make sure we can build.”
The current proposal will not affect other neighborhoods with many residential hotels like the Mission, Chinatown or the Tenderloin

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