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A real answer to the mayor’s (latest) bogus housing plan

Community groups figure out how to increase density and affordability -- without displacement


Market based “solutions” to our housing affordability crisis come and go like spring fashions; only the crisis persists.

Eight years ago, it was removing maximum density requirements from newly rezoned areas of the Soma, Mission, Castro and Dogpatch, which was to result in thousands of “affordable units.” Four years ago, it was “CEQA reform,” ending the supposed strangle-hold environmental regulations had on holding back production of market rate housing. Three years ago is was deregulating “in-law” units — allowing “10,000” new units to be added, which would dramatically reduce housing costs (except that they were allowed to be Airbnb units which kept their prices high). This year it’s the mayor’s “density bonus” plan, which confers additional density for additional “affordability.”

The mayor's proposal would be great for a few, but bad for the many
The mayor’s proposal would be great for a few, but bad for the many

Yet, this time around the density bonus proposal has been transformed by a broad coalition into a measure which, if passed, which offers a real opportunity at producing thousands of homes able to be afforded by current San Francisco residents.

On Tuesday/17, San Franciscans for Community Planning (SFCP), a coalition of neighborhood, affordable housing and tenant organizations and allied labor, neighborhood merchant, faith and community groups will call for the passage of the “Density Done Right” legislation introduced by Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Eric Mar.

The measure takes on the twin poles of increased density and decreased regulation (except for increased density regulation!) that lies at the heart of neoliberal market-based housing policy adopted by both the Obama and Brown administrations. While never mentioned in polite liberal company, this is also the urban development policy embraced by Donald Trump, who has partnered with Democratic politicians in New York to help to produce the densest and expensive housing market in the US, with San Francisco second in density and sometimes first in housing costs.

The Lee Adminstration Proposal: Density and Displacement

It should be no surprise that the Ed Lee administration, embracing fully the Trumpian notion of market-driven density, followed the same approach late last year.

The mayor’s program, initially named the Affordable Housing Density Program (renamed after it came under withering attack to the more PR friendly “Affordable Housing Bonus Program) sought to give developers an additional two floors of development along with the removal of minimum unit size, off-street parking requirements, and public hearings if they agreed to meet the existing 12% inclusionary requirement plus an additional 18% of the new units being offered at 120% (if rental) to 140% (if ownership) of Area Median Income (AMI). The program would allow this “density bonus” on some 31,000 parcels in San Francisco, centered on neighborhood commercial districts.

Some 64% of the parcels were in neighborhoods where African American, Asian and Latino households formed the majority of current residents. No Planning Commission public hearing would take place on individual projects taking advantage of this program and the Commission itself would not be allowed to modify a project’s size, density nor height but only its “design.” Up to a half a block would be allowed to be “consolidated” into a single project.

Essentially what the Lee administration was proposing was a market-rate development program remarkably similar to the early 1960’s “urban renewal” programs of the now defunct Redevelopment Agency. Only worse.

Like “redevelopment,” Lee’s AHDP would have conferred upon private developers “value” derived by governmental fiat, hurting many but profiting a few. It, like early-style redevelopment, placed no meaningful obstacles to demolition and displacement of existing homes and businesses. Indeed, by allowing any demolished rent-controlled apartment to be counted as part of the 18% of the “bonus affordable” units it actually targeted the oldest rent-controlled buildings, since many of the new below-market-rate units would be more expensive than the long-time rent-controlled units demolished.

Neighborhood serving retail businesses along the shopping streets at the heart of the AHDP would face displacement, with no restrictions or requirements placed on the developers of the new projects to keep them in the new projects at the same commercial rents.

But most sobering (and reminiscent of the Redevelopment Era) was the targeting of the AHDP: The Western Addition, Chinatown, Bayview, the Excelsior and the Richmond — neighborhoods that had major and often majority communities of color. The affordability levels of the “density bonus” units — 120-140% of AMI — meant that these residents would be priced out of the supposed “affordable” units.

According to census data the average Asian household in San Francisco earns about 70% AMI, Latinos, about 60% of AMI and African Americans about 30%. Application of the AHDP in 64% of the neighborhoods it was being proposed for would have meant the massive displacement of populations of color as existing housing was demolished for new housing wildly unaffordable to current residents.

Novel Community Response: Affrodable Desnity without Displacement

Mayors Lee’s proposal was not well received, even by his Planning Commission. In a series of hearing before the Commission from October, 2015 to February, 2016 an improbable coalition not only opposed to the proposal but offered a counter proposal. Including affordable housing advocates and developers, tenant organizations, neighborhood and community groups, district merchants and environmentalists, SFCP proposed how “density could be done right.”

Laying out a series of amendments to Lee’s proposal, the coalition proposed banning demolitions of residential and commercial buildings; limiting the density bonus to some 215 “vacant soft sites” that could, according to the panning department to accommodate an additional 15,000 new homes and hundreds of new businesses; requiring that the projects be 100% affordable, limiting the density units to two floors only if the units were affordable to a neighborhood median income in the area in which they were located; and requiring a full approval process and public hearing before the Planning Commission. At a marathon ten-hour hearing February 25, the Planning Commission refused to adopt the staff recommendation of Lee’s AHDP and instead made a series of recommendations to the Board of Supervisors consistent with SFCP proposed amendments.

The Peskin and Mar legislation in turn implements those recommendations.

City voters passed a $310 million affordable housing bond last November (it could have been far more but for Ed Lee’s opposition to increasing the amount). At least $120 million of that money could be used for this “Density Done Right” program. Moreover, some $190 million of a prior-year seismic revenue bond could be re-allocated by the voters for this program, meaning that by the end of the year as much as $310 million could be available.

Given the historic leveraging of local affordable housing funds with foundation, state and federal funds at better than 2 to 1, significant direct public investment is available to produce thousands of homes able to be afforded by current San Francisco residents — no “trickle down” nor “magic of the market place” needed.

When you consider the increased number of below-market-rate units that will be authorized if Prop. C passes this June, progressives in San Francisco have placed before the city a plan that will provide increased housing affordability for a wide range of middle and lower income residents, a total of several thousands of units — without displacing our neighbors or destroying our shopping streets and neighborhoods. San Franciscans have shown time and again their willingness to pay for, make room for, and approve housing that meets the needs of San Franciscans. It’s time for the private sector to join the effort – and for the leaders in Room 200 to fully understand what city they are in.

Supporters of the density-without-displacement plan will hold a rally and press event Tuesday morning at 11:30 on the steps of City Hall.


  1. I know you think you’ve caught me in some sort of tangle, but really you’ve just revealed how little actual work/research you’ve done on this subject.

    The state law raises height and bulk, which is different from number of units. If the city zoning allows for multi unit buildings then you can get a bonus. You can not get a density bonus (state or Otherwise) if the max number of units you could build is 1 or 2.That’s where all the white on map comes from. It’s not AHBP/ planning cherry picking.

  2. “These are limitations of the law itself and our current zoning.”

    You’re speaking out of both sides of your mouth. The plan alters the current zoning, so the omissions are clearly intentional.

    You’re not honestly portraying what’s on the map.

  3. Those huge swaths of white in the AHBP map are RH-1 and RH-2 zones (or in the case of Eastern Neighborhoods, SOMA, and Market- Ocatvia governed by an area plan). The state law did not alter our zoning so there can be no bonus in areas where we do not permit new multi-unit buildings. As a result, the state law only applies to areas that allow for 3 or more units. So neither the state law or the AHBP can apply to those zones or blocks. The city didn’t cherry pick anything. These are limitations of the law itself and our current zoning.

    The map has nothing to do with what is currently built, it has to do with what the current zoning for that block or lot is, which is why lots of all kinds of buildings show up on the map (including rent controlled and historic). The rent control exemption is an actual amendment to the law, not a “verbal assurance.”

    Believe me, I wish the whole city was blue, but that would require upzoning most of the west side. Our RH-1 and 2 zones (which is basically 2/3rds of the city’s land) are not subject to either program.

  4. “It sounds like you’d like them to cherry pick lots and buildings out of the program.”

    Why do you think that? I’ve said the opposite. The State plan is State wide, this plan is not citywide. Why are you obscuring how the city cherry picked? There are entire neighborhoods lacking in a single blue line eligible for bonus.

    Half the City is listed as a historic resource eligible, it doesn’t equate preservation at this point. Very little of the city is “conforming” as you say. Conforming has nothing to do with this.

    Plenty of rent controlled unit showed up on the map. We have verbal assurances they’ll be removed.

  5. “Density Done Less” is just a poison pill that NIMBYs are putting forward to triangulate with affordable housing people because they only concentrate on percentages. Its main effect is withdrawing all the automatic funding AHBP provided for affordable housing, and requiring density bonus buildings only be built when paid for directly out of city housing funds, which basically means just a few buildings will be built. Something on the order of 600 units if you use the entire housing bond. 30% of AHBPs 150k units would be 5000 units of just affordable housing, So clearly this isn’t actually an affordable housing proposal, its a knife in the chest.

  6. “When you consider the increased number of below-market-rate units that will be AUTHORIZED if Prop. C passes” …

    I like that. In 2020 some units might be “authorized” – no count on how many, eh?

    Actually, we can’t count on *any* BMR units coming out of Prop C. Calvin would do much better to come out with some solid estimates of what his Density Without Displacement will (or won’t) produce.

    Ferinstance, each of the 215 ‘soft sites’ would need to include 75 U per site on average to meet his expected 15,000 new units. As an example, 388 Fulton
    only has 69U’s and thats more than a quarter acre site! And of course its way not “affordable”. How does Calvin shoehorn in extra units necessary with the req that some of them be ‘family size’? And at a cost of about 20% of whats being built now??

  7. Another nonsensical Calvin Welch piece and more cynical legislation from the Peskin/Mar camp.

    1. This is a “non-program” as proposed by Peskin, Mar et al. They’ve totally missed a golden opportunity here — as they are so blinded by their backward-looking ideology and continue to double down on their failed policies.

    2. Their proposal will do nothing to ameliorate the chronic housing shortage.

    3. Despite what Peskin is bizarrely claiming, their proposal does not “meet the requirements of the state mandates” — it appears entirely oblivious of the State Law. The State Bonus Density Law does not require projects to be 100% subsidized (a.k.a. so-called “affordable”); for instance, at 50% AMI it kicks in at 5% subsidized units.

    For those interested in understanding the State Bonus Density Law, here’s a good link (apparently neither Peskin or Calvin can be bothered to look):

    4. If I was a housing developer (i.e., an actual creator of housing), I’d just ignore these clowns and invoke the State Law — which, in fact, is what 12 different developers are currently doing on 12 different projects in SF.

    Accordingly, I predict developers, en masse, will go the State Law path — thereby completely bypassing Peskin/Mar’s cynical “do-nothing” legislation which merely panders to their home owning NIMBY constituencies.


    If you’re young, newly-arrived and/or of modest means, ideologues like Calvin Welch, Peter Cohen, Aaron Peskin, Eric Mar and David Campos are definitely not your friends.

    They continue to thwart the implementation of real solutions that would work — at scale — to create the necessary amounts of housing to address the massive housing shortage in SF.

    Because of so-called “activists” and politicians like these, those of us who are renters — and those aspiring to be homeowners in this city — will continue to suffer.

  8. The program is very consistent in how it interacts with current zoning as far as I can see. It applies to almost every zone in the city except for a few (which mirrors the design of the state program). It sounds like you’d like them to cherry pick lots and buildings out of the program.

    To your point about every Victorian. There are LOTS of ‘non-conforming’ structures (i.e. older buildings that are much older than the current zoning permits.). Plus historic resources (i.e. old building) won’t be able to get demo permits anyway.

    Also formerly rent-controlled units are not eligible for the city’s program.

    Just to lay my cards on the table, I believe there are almost no cases where a two story upzoning isn’t appropriate. They did not pick location based on value to developers, they picked basically everything in the city except for RH-1 and 2.

  9. No, there is no pattern where you can attribute it to inclusion of exclusion by zoning.They absolutely cherry picked. I just pointed out two examples of where up zoning would be inappropriate, in all practical terms, take away rent control units, and incentivize demolition of untouchable buildings. Your answer that these buildings happened to go blue because they weren’t RH-1, 2, 3 doesn’t explain why they did not blue line every Victorian with a grocery store in the ground floor, and units upstairs. They picked what they wanted to see developed, because of their location, and potential value to developers.

  10. I see what you’re saying, but it still looks like the AHBP is consistent. The AHBP would only be applicable to small pieces of blocks 5517, 5523, and 5524 around Precita Park, which are the only non RH-1 or RH-2 zones next to the park (they’re neighborhood commercial). Block 5502, which is between Precita Ave and Cesear Chavez, and is adjacent to Precita Park is also blue because it’s RH-3. As far as that part of Bernal is concerned the AHBP is just being applied to the zones as Planning described.

    As far as North Beach is concerned, every block I could find was either Residential, Mixed or RH-3+. the only exceptions, to all of which the AHBP applies.

    This is the AHBP map I used:

    And this is the city zoning map I used to compare:

    You can let me know if I missed something.

    It doesn’t sound so much like you think Planning cherry-picked blocks, but rather you much of the city shouldn’t be adding additional density to many of these areas. despite their current zoning.On that point, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

  11. On the city map density bonus map, it’s not standard, they definitely targeted certain blocks and neighborhoods. Check out Bernal Heights, and around Precita Park, where the only homes blue lined are premium locations. They actually targeted special character districts where it’s not at all practical, if you check out one way streets in North Beach.

    You’re right that zoning can get weird to begin with. Planning as a problem on top of it. I wouldn’t expect zoning uniformity on both sides of a street though. Even the more suburban homes were built in phases with different models and at the time, they cared about environmental considerations, views, light, air.

    Most of the development going on is to commercial and warehouse zoned buildings, where the zoning listed online isn’t always reliable.

  12. I haven’t seen any of that in my research.Their map follows the parameters of the program (all areas zoned for housing except RH-1 and RH-2, and some special character districts) in all the areas I’ve looked.

    There are plenty of areas in the city where the zoning is really weird (i.e. half a block is zoned for 3+ and the other half is 1 or 2), which makes the programs map very strange, but that’s a function of the underlying zoning not the AHBP itself.

    I’m very interested to hear if you’ve found some inconsistencies. I obviously haven’t looked at every block on the map, but from what I can tell the blue on the map is just areas zoned for housing except for the RH-1 and RH-2 zones (RH-1 and 2 is a lot of city).

  13. You’re right, it applies to the entire State, but it’s a vague program that is very general and non-threatening. The City doesn’t have the controls they operate with, but nobody has challenged it. The city map was carefully chosen as a hit list for developers.

  14. The state law applies to the entire state, and the entire city. It’s our current height/bulk requirements that limit it’s applicability. The current map of the AHBP excludes the Eastern Neighborhoods and Market Octavia plans are not eligible for either program.

    So yes the state program doesn’t map exactly as the AHBP, but the map of the AHBP is largely the result of current zoning not a creation of the AHBP.

    Regardless, Mr. Welch’s proposal doesn’t change the way the state program will apply to the city at all, which is a flaw in his program. Developers in those other areas will have less incentive to build any affordable housing then they would under the AHBP.

  15. To be honest, projects within code should be fast-tracked. I think the BMR set-aside should be higher than brown’s bill, but if SF is left to it’s own devices, we will not build enough housing.

  16. The State law isn’t interchangeable with the City targeted map. I don’t think this is the first time that’s been pointed out to you.

  17. The City density plan is about one thing – killing off neighborhoods by transforming previously untouchable lots, for big, big money.

    We already have a process that’s allowed developers to raise limits on a case by case basis.

    That process should just be simplified.

  18. Looks like that is happening at the state level already, without a care for the transit impacts created… or infrastructure, open space, libraries, parks, pools, schools etc…
    Jerry Brown was pushing for a bill.

  19. So let’s unpack Calvin’s proposal:

    “limiting the density bonus to some 215 “vacant soft sites” that could, according to the panning department to accommodate an additional 15,000 new homes and hundreds of new businesses; requiring that the projects be 100% affordable”
    >>> 100% affordable means the city is paying for these developments. No private developer will build 100% affordable. Let’s make some incredibly optimistic assumptions: (1) the city can acquire this land for $100K per buildable unit and build units for $500K per unit (both way less than any affordable project in recent history, but let’s hope we can do better than we’ve ever done before). So best case we’re looking at $1.5 BILLION to buy the land and $9 BILLION to build the units. So we need $10.5 BILLION. Good thing Calvin points out we can use the $310 million bond (although a fair amount of that is already spent, let’s just assume we can use all that $310 million for this plan). Awesome! We’re only $10,190,000,000 short. Let’s pass the hat, I’m sure there’s $10 BILLION laying around here somewhere.

    “requiring a full approval process and public hearing before the Planning Commission”
    >>> Oh, so every NIMBY group can squash all these projects anyway (no one wants a 100% affordable project in their backyard). So nothing gets built.

    These are not solutions. It’s just more of the same policies that got us into this mess in the first place. Calvin’s proposal, in essence is DO NOTHING. Because that’s how many of these “100% affordable” projects with “full approval process and public hearings” and a no way to pay for any of it will get built.

  20. Parkmerced opened the flood gates. Efforts by lennar are underway to flip prop M cap on office space development.

    The problem is the nested neighborhoods and figuring how to do density right with heights and proper infrastructure buildout which takes more than a real estate site by site items

  21. What your comment ignores is that the density bonus is a state law, the mayor’s program aims to squeeze more affordability through a local ordinance. Mr. Welch’s proposal just leaves us with the state program.

    Density-equity is incredibly important, and I wish someone would propose raising the density limits on other parts of the city, but literally no one is doing that. The mayor’s program doesn’t do that and neither does Mr. Welch’s.

  22. “limiting the density bonus to some 215 “vacant soft sites” that could, according to the panning department to accommodate an additional 15,000 new homes and hundreds of new businesses; requiring that the projects be 100% affordable, limiting the density units to two floors only if the units were affordable to a neighborhood median income in the area in which they were located; and requiring a full approval process and public hearing before the Planning Commission.”

    100% affordable isn’t economically feasibly for developers, unless the city straight up hands them shovel ready entitled parcels for free…

  23. Unfortunately we have not seen enough incentive solutions where planning and pundits join forces to really tackle the pholanthopy needed by corporations. Marc benioff noted Lucas should do more than just build a self center… Perhaps this will lead to a better understanding of corporate philanthropy and what the tech industry can do to help vs hinder the housing and transit and services systems

  24. Tim is going to have a litter of kittens as soon as the Governor’s housing trailer bill passes and we will finally get “by right” development for projects with a minimum % of BMR units. I suspect they will set the level somewhere around 15%. This will be the biggest boost to housing production in our lifetimes and will put the professional NIMBYs like Tim and Sue Hestor out of business for good!

  25. The number of high end housing that sits empty or is international money laundering and back room deals is not mentioned by the commenters above nor solutions to develop essential rental housing through simpler smaller scale infill policies that equitably densify while also addressing the lacking infrastructural investments in SF including transit parks schools libraries and pools. The civic-SF is open and empty while tons of people roam the streets. Think about the empty towers and lacking services for the homeless, seniors students and displaced citizens.

    To build for the future we need major ideas that come from the communities and not just the private interests that keep building as if there is no tomorrow.

  26. Eight years ago? Try fifty years ago. By 1966 there was talk of a housing crisis. Mr. Welch’s highly successful (credit where credit is due) anti-growth politics have made a major contribution to an unaffordable city. Welch testified to Planning in 1976, touting higher rents as a result of downzoning. High rents are a feature of his program, not a bug.

    The city, the region and the country need places for people to live. The questions are where, who will do it and how ugly things get. Mr. Welch’s call to ban urban infill in all but a very few cases gives his answers: ‘where’ is suburban greenfields, ‘who’ is private developers and ‘how ugly’ is very, except for a scant few urban BMR lottery winners.

    These answers may be reactionary, but they are consistent with Mr. Welch’s politics. What seems to be missing is any environmentalist, social democratic alternative.

  27. This is op-ed is deeply inaccurate. The reason that Mr. Welch has to rely on ad hominem attacks is because he has provided a largely false account. Had the facts been in his favor, there would be no need to make grotesque comparisons to Donald Trump.

    The biggest omission is that the state legislature passed the density bonus law and instructed the city to implement it. In response to the state law, the city drafted the AHBP which provides for more affordable development and greater density.

    Those neighborhoods that Mr. Welch identifies as being unfairly targeted by the AHBP (Bayview, Chinatown, Excelsior, Richmond) will still be subject to the state density bonus law, which is just like the city’s AHBP, but requires less affordable development. So a developer can still propose a new multi-unit building in any of those neighborhoods, but has no incentive to provide any affordable housing as part of their project.

    The AHBP is not like redevelopment for two reasons (1) developers cannot en mass clear an entire block because our rules around demolition will not change. If you can get a demo permit today you can get one under the AHBP. Additionally, the AHBP cannot be used if the previous building contained rent-controlled units (which is the Breed amendment).

    Mr Welch’s proposal (to the extent that he gives us anything more than vague generalities) leaves the city completely subject to the state density law, which provides less density and less affordable housing than the AHBP. Through it’s neighborhood median income metric, it guts the AHBP’s middle-income housing incentives, which is the kind of housing SF is in the most desperate need.

    Mr. Welch is wrong about the funds available to develop affordable housing. $310 gets us about 620 housing units (yes it costs about 500k to build a housing unit in the city). Not thousands of units. There are currently no state or federal funds in our hands for affordable housing development.

    His proposal, should it mandate density bonuses for only 100% affordable developments, will basically result in barely any affordable housing because all of the 200+ soft sites are PRIVATELY OWNED. That means the owner gets to choose what the develop. The vast majority of them will do what they’ve always done which is not develop 100% affordable housing.

    Make no mistake, Mr. Welch’s proposal guts a good, but modest program and replaces it with a policy that will never result in substantial generation of any housing.

  28. Why should we going to spend 310 million dollars of taxpayer money on something we could get for free? Are Calvin and Tim aware that the state density bonus law continues to apply to San Francisco regardless of the actions the Board of Supervisors do or do not take?

Comments are closed.

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