Op-Ed: San Francisco Can Do Better on Housing Reform

by on October 10, 2023

To state the obvious, the level of dissatisfaction with City government has been building.  San Franciscans believe that our elected officials are not making enough progress to solve the City’s most pressing problems.  As a key vote approaches on October 16, the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor are locked in yet another game of high stakes chicken.

The last two meetings of the Land Use and Transportation Committee of the Board of Supervisors was emblematic of this dysfunctionality.  On the agenda was the Housing Constraints Reduction ordinance sponsored by Mayor Breed, Supervisors Engardio and Dorsey – part of a package of legislation to implement the latest housing element.

It should have been an opportunity to have an intelligent and evidence-based public policy conversation on how to open up a path to solutions that build housing without destroying what makes San Francisco special, our rich tapestry of neighborhoods and our precious stock of rent controlled housing.  Instead, it became clear that the legislation was hitting a brick wall because nobody had really read the collective mood of San Franciscans.  The hearings have created a pitched battle between supporters of the ordinance and tenant advocates, labor, and neighborhood leaders who opposed it.  The Supervisors and the Mayor are now faced with a complex task of essentially performing open-heart surgery for countless hours on a very complicated piece of legislation because no one was doing the hard work of trying to reach consensus before trying to write it into law.

This is another example of how dysfunctional the City has become – where everybody has lost sight of the values and goals of the people of San Francisco by becoming too focused on rigid agendas.   These compromises that necessitated amendments to this legislation should have been hashed out long before the Constraints Ordinance saw the light of day by engaging with all stakeholders and having a true dialogue.   Instead, City leaders were aiming their efforts at their own political bases and complimentary media outlets – and not doing the people’s work of finding real solutions through common ground.

One of the many clear lines in the sand that had been crossed here was that our City does not demolish rent-controlled buildings without a public hearing.  To throw this value out the window is radical and conjures up memories of the Redevelopment agency that demolished the Fillmore and Japantown – the original sin of San Francisco Land Use policy that is etched into our collective memory.   Preventing the demolition of rent-controlled housing is not a new policy and in fact, it has been supported as bedrock policy of pro-housing Mayors from Brown to Newsom to Lee.   So why go there?

Couple this with the simple fact that nothing in this legislation actually creates an incentive for the true densification needed to meet our State mandated goal for housing production such as requirements for building to the maximum density of the lot or equitable sized units or even safeguarding against sham units tucked under very large single-family homes.

Savvy developers have had no problem thriving in San Francisco.  When I was Chair of Middle Polk Neighborhood Association, we worked collaboratively with developers to get projects built without displacing tenants or demolishing rent-controlled buildings.  We also ensured that community input and concerns were always addressed before support could be had.  I scaled our efforts and co-founded the Van Ness Corridor Neighborhood Council and took a values-driven approach to planning, transportation and public safety through collaboration and community engagement with the City.  These experiences taught me that we can improve and simplify our processes by creating the appropriate incentives and safeguards while upholding our values by working together rather than in silos.

Most troubling is that this latest skirmish is emblematic of our City’s lack of focus and attention to what residents really care about. You do not need to walk far from City Hall to see the problems on full display. Open Air Drug markets and fencing operations rule the Tenderloin and are pushing their way into Lower Polk and Lower Nob Hill.  Encampments continue to grow and dot the Lower Polk Alleys which were once envisioned as amazing public spaces where residents can gather since there is a dearth of public parks and open space in these neighborhoods.

Parents and children walk through these neighborhoods with a better than average chance that they will be encountered by random yelling or other erratic and potentially violent behavior. Residents and merchants deal with unacceptable levels of trash and human waste on their streets.  People are literally dying by the hundreds from drug overdoses.  Our police department is chronically understaffed and there is no sense of urgency to assist the department to fill these vacancies.

Now just imagine if our elected leaders could free up countless hours of their precious time to focus on these big picture problems instead of useless pitched battles over ideology that ignore the voices of our neighborhoods and do not actually solve our housing needs.  Let’s push the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors to roll up their collective sleeves, manage their time wisely, and start saving San Francisco – rather than forgetting the lessons of our past because it is never true that one must destroy San Francisco to save it.

Filed under: San Francisco News