Three Cheers for Prop M

by on September 29, 2014

In 1986, San Francisco voters passed Prop M in order to slow out of control downtown office development. It’s been a great success. But its opponents never stopped denouncing it. Whenever there is a chance that the initiative’s cap on office development  could limit projects, opponents claim the sky is falling.

We are now in the midst of such fear mongering. The SF Business Times has been on a campaign to head off what it repeatedly describes as a Prop M “mess.” “Mess” is the preferred term because it avoids any need for facts to support their argument that Prop M office limits hurt San Francisco.

The truth is that San Francisco has enjoyed remarkable prosperity since Prop M’s passage in 1986. There’s no reason during the city’s current economic boom to weaken it. If anything, San Francisco’s currently extreme jobs/housing imbalance shows that Prop M likely did not go far enough in ensuring that housing exists for the jobs created in the city.

Prop M’s Impact

Prop M includes components other than its 1 million square foot annual cap on office development, but its that provision that gets the most attention. The initiative passed after voters rejected prior efforts to address the jobs/housing imbalance, and those earlier defeats made the city’s transit and housing crisis worse.

Unfortunately, Prop M’s passage in came just as the office boom ended. San Francisco never addressed the jobs/housing imbalance created by unbridled development in the 1980’s until it was too late.

Prop M’s ten “priority polices” have had a greater impact on San Francisco, requiring the Planning Department to analyze factors in project approvals that were otherwise not assessed. But Prop M’s biggest impact was its statement that San Francisco cannot simply add new office developments without considering the housing and transit needs of this workforce.

Nonexistent Problem

Real estate interests are raising “fears” over Prop M now because downtown office development is booming, For one of the rare times, Prop M’s 1 million square foot annual limit—-adjusted for past years when construction was under the cap– may actually be hit.

Most San Franciscans reeling from skyrocketing housing costs would probably say “Amen” to a break in downtown office development. After all, Mission Bay was exempted from Prop M, and that’s where a lot of jobs are being created without any requirement for addressing the  jobs/housing/transit balance.

It also turns out that, for all the real estate community’s  fake hysteria, even now  San Francisco’s Prop M “problem” is illusory. Mayor Lee pointed out last week that the city has been counting the Prop M limit incorrectly. Based on an old City Attorney opinion that was legally wrong when written, San Francisco has been counting as “office space” projects approved for that purpose but then converted to housing or hotel use

Some of these projects were never even built as office space. These projects clearly should not be included under Prop M.

When you subtract these non-office uses, another 2.3 million square feet of office space can be built under the Prop M cap. Problem solved.

Misplaced Priorities

The entire hubbub over Prop M and the Transbay Terminal development controversy highlights how elite interests drive local media. Both projects either exclusively or primarily deal with upscale real estate interests. Neither has direct impact on rising city homelessness, the lack of affordable housing, skyrocketing rents and single-family home prices, Ellis evictions, or actually anything that most San Franciscans care most about.

The only people who really care about the Prop M cap are real estate companies and the developers they represent. San Francisco’s economy is booming without these new projects, and few current city residents would be impacted by their construction.

So let’s give Prop M a rest. Its been nearly three decades since its passage,  and the horrible outcomes predicted by opponents have still not come to pass.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.







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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