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News + Politics The Agenda, Nov. 23-Nov. 30: The problem with affordable...

The Agenda, Nov. 23-Nov. 30: The problem with affordable housing bonuses …


… and a couple of key elections that are still underway

The city has more than 30,000 sites where a "density bonus" could be allowed for building taller housing with some affordable units
The city has more than 30,000 sites where a “density bonus” could be allowed for building taller housing with some affordable units

By Tim Redmond

NOVEMBER 23, 2015 – There’s not a lot going on at City Hall this week; things tend to slow down for the holiday. Which gives us a chance to talk about a couple of things that have been floating around this fall and that have gotten lost in the campaign season.

There is, for example, this grand plan for what city officials call an “affordable housing density bonus.”

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: If you are going to build new housing in the city, and you are seeking permits in an area with pretty low height limits (like most residential neighborhoods) you can get as much as two stories or extra height if you agree to build more affordable units.

Nice, right? We aren’t talking about giant highrises, just and extra ten or 20 feet in exchange for an increase in below-market units. Let the developers do what they do, and make the new places just a little taller, and we suddenly have thousands of new “affordable” units.

But Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a longtime tenant advocate at the Housing Rights Committee, points out that there’s a huge loophole here:

What happens if developers decide to demolish existing rent-controlled housing units to build taller buildings with more units – but no rent control?

There are thousands and thousands of places in the path of the city’s density-bonus program that are smaller than what the plan would allow. Among them, Mecca told me, is the site on Castro where Harvey Milk’s camera shop once stood.

“Are they going to tear down that building?” he asked.

The current city law makes it hard to demolish existing residential units. Any demolition plan requires a conditional use permit, which means a full hearing at the Planning Commission. The code is designed to discourage any housing demolition; the default assumption is that housing should be preserved.

But what happens when a developer comes to the commission and says: Hey, I’m tearing down six units – but I’m going to build ten, and three of them will be affordable?

The way this commission, and for the most part this Board of Supervisors, has been trending, anything that offers more housing is good. So that’s an argument that might have traction.

Two problems: A lot of that existing housing is in irreplaceable Victorian buildings, part of the city’s historic legacy, which would be turned to dust in the name of (ugly) new utilitarian structures that maximize space.

And under state law, all housing constructed after 1979 is exempt from rent control.

So you tear down rent-controlled housing, which means the existing residents are evicted and forced out of town, probably out of the Bay Area. (Any eviction of long-term working-class tenants or people on fixed incomes today means they are gone, forced to move to another part of the country.)

Then new units that are not under rent control are built, along with some below-market units – probably fewer than the existing affordable units that were destroyed.

Oh, and the existing tenants won’t have any preference for those affordable units, which won’t be built until those tenants have already fled the region.

In the end, maybe, net loss of affordable housing.

Remember: In a housing crisis, the most important, and least expensive, housing is what already exists. The first priority has to be preventing the loss of rent-controlled housing stock.

“We went to the planners and asked about this, and they said they would get back to us,” Mecca told me.

I tried the same thing: I posed the question to the chief planner on the program. What, I asked, will prevent developers from demolishing existing rent-controlled housing to build more new units that might not be under rent control?

No answer.


I don’t think the battle over Fifth and Mission is over – and the same goes for the board’s approval of a highrise condo complex on the waterfront at 75 Howard.

There’s a good chance of lawsuits challenging the EIRs in both projects – and there’s also the prospect of ballot measures.

The developer of 8 Washington got all of his City Hall approvals, too. And that is now dead, thanks to a vote of the people.


Voting is on for the local board of the Sierra Club, and a pro-development group is trying to take control. If you’re a member, you get to vote (and a lot of members don’t). There’s a big difference between the slates, and you can figure it out pretty easily – the ones who have only been members since 2014 are the developer-driven candidates who want to make the local chapter promote more market-rate housing. The ones who have been members for many years are credible environmentalists.


There’s also a battle for control of the SF Bicycle Coalition, between a group that is more focused on the single-issue of bicycles and a group that wants the organization to veer more toward larger transportation justice issues. Also: One group wants to eliminate elections for board members in the name of “privacy.”

The coalition has always walked a fine line between doing the narrow mission – advocating for better conditions for bicycling in SF – and being part of a larger progressive coalition. In the last election, for example, the coalition endorsed both Aaron Peskin and Julie Christensen, who might both like bikes but who have very different vision about issues of economic and transit justice.

The November municipal election is over. Two key environmental groups are just starting theirs.


Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


  1. Oh you meant museums. When you said that LA was increasing density without sacrificing it’s character I of course thought you were talking about residential density, which is why I posted what I thought would be an enlightening article for you.

    There is greater latitude with museums. Look at our own De Young, Jewish museum, or the new MOMA. No, they’re not on the order of a Gehry, but they’re something.

    However, I agree! We’ve taken NIMBYism to a whole new level. And it has gotten worse in the last 5 years. Who knows if the de Young could even get built today. Look at the original Warriors stadium proposal or Lucas’ proposal for Chrissy Fields. Everyone’s got an opinion. Antonini is not the problem. It’s a city of 800,000 practically all of whom think they should have the last word over what gets built where, and they almost do thanks to the ballot initiative process. Who would’ve guessed 5 years ago that Emperor NIMBY himself, Peskin, would gotten himself reelected to the board. Look at the opinions on this site. Shadows where we’re not used to having shadows, the horror! The new Salesforce tower could’ve and should’ve been something special. Instead it’ll be a 1000 ft building that’s afraid of throwing a shadow,. Mediocrity everywhere.

  2. No way.

    First, he is an “LA architect” and San Franciscans hate LA. Then we have to deal with NIMBYs who object to anything that isn’t boring. There have been many campaigns to remove the Vaillancourt fountain because “it is ugly” – even though it is one of the most successfully used public spaces in San Francisco.

    Then there are idiots in power like Michael Antonini who would force changes because it would look ‘out of place’ in SF.

    No, there are many barriers to anything that has a hint of nice design in San Francisco. The handful of decent buildings that do sneak through do so by luck.

  3. The Disney Music Hall could never be built in SF. Neither could the Broad, the Petersen Museum and a dozen other buildings that are either great architecture or so-so architecture with interesting facades, that, minimally, don’t look like every other building.

    But they, like us, do build a lot of ugly buildings. The point of my original post stands.

  4. Nah. Don’t believe me if you don’t want. Stick with your conclusion that the new buildings in Los Angeles are much better than ours. I wouldn’t say either are top notch at this point. Between corporate-driven profit interests and housing subsidies to pay off the voting base of our screechiest politicians, there’s not a lot of money left over for architectural flourishes or experimentation.

  5. The simple fact of the matter is that if the City does not establish a Local (Affordable Housing) Bonus Density Program that is attractive to housing developers then these developers will invoke the State’s Bonus Density Law. Anyone who has been follow this issue understands that San Francisco has been out of compliance with the requirements of the State Law since it was initially passed in 1979.

    The City has been skirting the issue until recent court cases have made it abundantly clear that it will no longer be allowed to do so. This is, quite simply, why the City (i.e., the Planning Dept. Commission, etc.) is moving as quickly as it can to implement a local program. For instance, the State Program allows a density bonus up to 35% of the base/permitted density and a developer only has to provide 11% “affordable” units @ 50% AMI *(Note: The local affordable percentage is 12% @ 55% BMI — so developers, just by meeting the City’s current requirement, automatically qualify for a 35% bonus in the allowable number of units — and absolutely none (0!) of those bonus units needs to be below-market-rate. A number of developers are pursuing this approach at this very moment — and no special permission is required by the City and the City will not be able to block these projects without being on the losing end of a lawsuit — the State Law and recent case law is very strong in this regard.

    The City, seeing that the writing’s on the wall, is scrambling (as usual) to catch up. To entice developers away from invoking the State Law, they are offering a more streamlined entitlement procedure through the proposed local program in order to obtain not only the 12% @ 55 % AMI (low-income), but additionally another 18% @ 120%-140% AMI — to start to help address the pressing/elusive middle-income housing need.

    People, such as Mr. Avicolli Mecca, can complain to their hearts content and attempt to stall or water down the local program, but if they are successful in doing so to the degree that it makes the local program less attractive to developers, then the developers will ignore the local program and utilize the State’s program. The City will ultimately lose out on the potential 18% boost in “locked-in” middle income housing and the housing crisis will continue to get worse and worse.

  6. Again, Tommi and his housing activists have been AWOL on moving a proactive agenda on planning, preferring to go through the motions of producing “people’s plans” for “the people” that always get shot down because “the people” have not bought in and won’t fight for a top-down plan. The housing activists were AWOL on local set-asides for inclusionary and new construction affordable and they are AWOL on density bonuses.

    We should set a limit on as-of-right citywide to 45′ for market rate with 25% onsite inclusionary, 50% offsite, and require anything above that to be 50% affordable onsite and 2/3 affordable in lieu.

    But Tommi uses the typical social services trope to render a proposal unsuitable: if a proposal does not cover each and every corner of the problem area, then it is unsuitable. In the past, if a homeless proposal did not meet all of the needs of people with substance abuse problems, people with mental health issues and people who are just poor, then the proposal was shot down. In this case, if density bonuses don’t anticipate demo permits, then the proposal is unsuitable.

    Had the affordable housing activists been proactive they’d have long since proposed measures to require a very high bar for demolishing rent controlled apartments. Had affordable housing activists been proactive they’d have long since proposed their own density bonus program and built the political support to push it through. Had the affordable housing activists been proactive they’d have long since proposed measures to give locals set-asides in new affordable housing.

    But they’re just marking time, calling it in.

  7. I’m arguing with myself! LOL.
    Show me one example in the last 20 years where he city allowed the demolition of a rent controlled unit without at least a 1-1 replacement. Otherwise, just like Tim, you’re just making stuff up.

  8. Tommi should stick to what he knows best; screaming into a bullhorn…and leave the land use stuff to the grown ups.

  9. The state density bonus is required by state law not the city version. So far there is no city version, but there is a plan to develop one.

  10. It is true that LA has fewer NIMBYs. But then many projects are not intrusive nor are they among the ugliest buildings being built.

    Not so in SF.

  11. Oh come on. This is not some conspiracy by developers to level Victorians. Good luck trying to get city sign off on a demo permit for a historical aesthetically pleasing building.

  12. LA has much more of a culture of replacing older homes with newer ones. For instance, it is usually possible in LA to demolish an Ellis’ed building. Near to impossible in SF no matter how bad its condition.

    LA has rent control, zoning etc. but it is much weaker then here. While NIMBYism there has not been elevated to an art form.

    LA does better because its approach to land use is less progressive. Who would have thought it?

  13. I know, it’s annoying, the phrase “transportation justice” is meaningless. There is an unfortunate tendency now among zealots to describe their ideological agenda as “something justice” as if that automatically confers upon that agenda some kind of validity and legitimacy.

    So we see weasel phrases like “social justice”, “economic justice”, “housing justice” and racial justice” thrown about as if that crowns the speaker with an air of irrefutable authority. After all, how can anyone oppose “justice”, right? Except of course that it is an entirely subjective notion that reasonable people can have very different views about.

    And now transportation justice, whatever that means? A decent rule of thumb is to ignore anyone who peppers their shtick with liberal use of the word “justice”.

  14. Because Tim would be less concerned and more positive about housing construction when the development was happening on parking lots or abandoned buildings then, right?


  15. Now Tim is just making things up. Things that have never happened but MIGHT happen in the future but WON’T. Show me where city planning has allowed the demolition of rent controlled units without replacement of those rent controlled units. You do realize a demolition permit is nearly impossible to get in this city!

  16. I really appreciate this article, as angry as it makes me.

    I appreciate how it highlights that a lot of the political and mental gymnastics that the Bay Area is going through is related to preserving rent-controlled apartments. (It could be worse– it could be “traffic,” “parking,” or “burrowing owls.”)

    Am I off base– isn’t most new development going on in in-fill, things like decrepit gas stations and car washes?

    I’ve been somewhat following the shenanigans there. I mean, WTF, you want an org with relying on volunteer members and they don’t get a vote on leadership?

    So I’m not a big fan of the current leadership (or lack thereof). And thus I voted for the ‘Save SFBike’ slate.

    And then I read their candidate statements. And almost to a person, they seem to come from other perspectives than just bicycling (“Free MUNI”, ‘transportation justice’, “affordable housing”, etc). They all seem like committed members, but their ‘expertise’ if you will lay outside bicycling and in these other realms. Most of them (some?) are good causes. But it was apparent that the current board were ‘professional’ in bicycling/planning/fundraising – i.e. mission-based.

    So after my knee-jerk vote for the Slate, and with the admonition not to vote for more than seven candidates, I went back and voted most of the current board – totalling 14. So I guess (hope) my vote to “save” SFBC was nullified.

    Yes, stripping members of voting rights is wrong and curious. But I don’t like the idea of ‘mission creep’ into areas already too-well populated by other NPOs in the City. Keep the focus on cycling-for-everyday-transport.

  18. While I agree with increasing urban density, I think it is a bit much to say that the only other option is moving to the desert or sterilizations.

    I just visited downtown LA. They are increasing density without sacrificing it’s character and constantly upgrading their public transportation infrastructure.

  19. The bicycle link to the Chronicle is a short paragraph long, it is a pay story.

    All the people in the “justice” link use it in such a way as to make it have no meaning.

    There is an entertaining “people’s front of Judea” vs “the Judean front” aspect of the bike coalition here.

  20. The city’s density bonus isn’t some random program, it is required by state law. If San Francisco does not provide density bonuses, developers will sue the city and win.

    On the merits, increasing density in San Francisco in particular is a desirable policy goal. Modest, dense housing in a city that uses the least water in the state, with a forgiving climate and transit that reduce energy use, with a high minimum wage and relatively plentiful job opportunities – that seems like a good thing.

    Certainly adding more people to any city presents challenges, but none is a reason to ask people to move to the desert or to solicit sterilizations. You can’t oppose urban density without supporting sub- and exurban sprawl or some form of depopulation.

  21. Tommi is wrong as he almost always is. It’s tough to get a demolition permit in this city, even for run-down buildings that really should be torn down. The reality is that most new constructions of housing are on either vacant sites, vacant buildings, or on sites converted from some non-controlled use like commercial.

    And eventually we will have to re-zone the entire city anyway to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of new residents estimated to be moving here in the next few decades.

    What this is really about is what it is always about with Tim. He doesn’t want to see any new market-rate housing, even with a generous BMR allocation, because he knows the residents it will attract are less likely to mindlessly vote progressive, but rather will be informed moderates.

    And that means the end of his gravy train, his relevance and his narrow ideological socialist aspirations. It’s all about demographics and their political implications.

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