SF Planning Commission debates housing, ignores gentrification

When will there be a hearing on the human costs of accommodating too much commercial growth?

The San Francisco Commission discussed the housing crisis Thursday, and there were a few remarkable moments.

Much of the presentation by planners focused on the balance between jobs and housing in the city — which, to nobody’s surprise, is way out of whack. 

Part of that is clearly a regional problem: The Peninsula cities love to approve tech office space but build no new housing, exporting the problem to SF. But the city also has a lot more jobs than housing.

John Elberling asks: Where is the hearing on gentrification?

And more important, the city has a lot more jobs that pay too little to afford existing or new housing.

But the planning staff, the commissioners, and the public speakers made some points that are critical to any discussion of the housing crisis (and often don’t make headlines.)

A basic fact for starters: The entire presentation by the department staff worships at the altar of growth. When you look at the slides, it’s as if we are competing with the rest of the nation for who can grow faster, and have the most “healthy” economy, which means the fastest-growing.

(I am reminded of the reports that talk about how SF has a “healthy” housing marking because prices keep going up. That’s actually a sign that the market is sick, terminally ill. )

Everyone agrees that people should be able to live near where they work. The data shows that most of the San Francisco workforce can’t afford to live near where they work. 

That’s no surprise. 

The city reports that 7 million square feet of office space are either approved or under construction, which can accommodate about 25,000 new jobs. Much of that space is already pre-leased, meaning those jobs will arrive.

The city’s unemployment rate is at historical lows. Which means that most of the new employees who get those office jobs will come here from somewhere else. 

That is the “demand” side of the supply-and-demand equation that economists love to talk about — but that part of the puzzle is rarely discussed. Part of the Department presentation was an argument that “the jobs are coming” one way or another.

Actually, the jobs are coming because Bay Area cities are approving the construction of new office space. It’s not magic: If Apple didn’t build its spaceship building in Cupertino, 12,000 workers wouldn’t be commuting to that space and seeking housing in the region.

Cupertino, which gets a nice chunk of its budget from Apple business taxes, isn’t building much housing at all. In fact, planning officials said that “the region is depending on us” to build housing — which seems grossly unfair and wrong from every standpoint. 

If we want people to walk or have short commutes to work, then housing has to be near workplaces. The idea that SF will continue to be the bedroom community for Silicon Valley makes no sense at all.

Nevertheless, some speakers argued that the solution is to let the market keep building as much housing as possible in San Francisco. Yimby Action’s Laura Clark said that “we should be building a lot more housing,” and that we should eliminate single-family zoning in the city within the next year.

But John Rahaim, the planning director, mentioned an obstacle to building more housing that has nothing to do with s or zoning. Not every project that gets approved is actually built, he said — developers go through the long process of getting an entitled permit, then either sit on it or decide to change their projects.

“There are many delays caused by project sponsors,” he said.

Rahaim called on “the development community” to step up and actually build what’s approved. He could just as easily ask the commission to mandate that all approved housing development break ground within 18 months — or the developer will lose the permit. That hasn’t happened.

But at least he’s talking about it.

Then during public comment, John Elberling, who has been working on affordable housing issues far longer than almost anyone on the Commission or Department staff, made the point that’s been missing from this whole discussion:

I heard a lot of things today, but I didn’t hear the word gentrification. I didn’t hear about the human consequences of accommodating growth, which sis clearly the current mission of the San Francisco Department, even when the growth, the commercial growth, is clearly more than we can accommodate. 

I’ve never seen a hearing on an anti-gentrification plan. Never seen a hearing on how do we prevent ethnic cleansing and the destruction of the long time communities that have been at the heart of this city, their complete loss to market forces. 

I know that the department denied that new development contributes to gentrification because they don’t think pouring gas on a fire makes the fire worse. Okay. But at least when we have places that can accommodate maximum housing, why aren’t you maximizing housing on those sites that don’t lead to gentrification?

That question, or course, was never answered.

  • Don Sebastopol

    Interesting that developers are not building approved projects. Why is that?

    Bringing high paid jobs to the Bay Area is the cause of high housing prices and gentrification. High paid workers can pay more.

    What data shows that most of the SF workforce can’t afford to live near where they work? Which cities in the Bay Area have a workforce than can afford to live near where they work? Name them. Since 80% of the jobs are in cities other than SF there must be one or two.

    Ending single-family zoning will mean that even more of the SF workforce will not be able to afford to live near where they work.

    • Don Sebastopol

      To answer by own question I looked up some data. 51% of SF Workers live within 10 miles of work; that's most. In the Bay Area, cities with the lowest home values include Pittsburg, Antioch, and Vallejo. Workers there that live within 10 miles are 48%, 45%, and 35% respectively. Concord also has affordable housing and a good worker to housing ratio. 35% of Concord workers live within 10 miles.

      But those percents don't mean they can't afford to live near work. They may not be able to find suitable housing near work. If you desire a home on 3 acres, you can't find that anyplace in SF no matter what you can afford. But it may be true that if you want 3 bedrooms and a yard, affordability is an issue.

    • Stephen Nestel

      Single family zoning is family friendly. Where is the planning for middle income families in San Francisco?

      • Don Sebastopol

        With the limited supply of single-family homes, there will be fewer middle income families moving in. But there are also fewer middle income jobs, so fewer will be moving to San Francisco to begin with.

        There are still relatively affordable single-family homes in the southeast part of the City. Over time they should also increase in value due to the limited supply and the increase in higher-paid workers.

        Less affluent families with children will do what they have been doing for at least 50 years. They leave the City. Even upper income families leave the City because they can get more space for their money, plus better weather, better schools, and less crime.

        In my neighborhood there are still middle-income families that bought their house years ago. They are now empty nesters. Some sold out and retired to the country. Some have died. Many left the City when their jobs left the City for San Ramon and other places. They have been replaced by higher income families with children.

  • gb293

    Are the trust-fund baby "artists"'s aristocratic privileges from the tech workers? Do the tech workers not fit the millionaire homeowner's racial aesthetics?

    I suppose sinophobia has a long history with things like the China exclusion act. 'Gentrification' is just a dog whistle for its modern incarnation.

    • Stephen Nestel

      The "greencard for sale" scheme to Asian investors is responsible for huge amount of cash real estate transactions throughout the West Coast. It is not race, it is a broken immigration system that is to blame.

      • gb293

        Chinese investors aren’t just investing in San Francisco real estate. Many are buying in Vancouver, London, and other places. I don’t think it is simply about buying green cards. Unless we banned wealthy Chinese people from coming to the United States, I don’t see what immigration fix would change this.

        There are also many h1-b holders from other countries like India. If they were given permanent residences more easily, I think it is fair to assume even more would buy houses.

        • Stephen Nestel

          Canada also sells citizenship for investment. In fact, the situation is worse in Vancouver. I favor sensible immigration laws but as long as we are having problems housing our citizens maybe we should consider suspending the practice until the markets stabilize.

  • goodmaab

    Elberling hits the nail in the head. the human aspect is what city planners have forgotten. Rahaim needs to walk the existing communities being transformed and learn a lesson with other planners on the human scaled impacts and how to create better affordable rental and lower cost housing solutions for the growth projected…. There are solutions but they need to spend more effort looking and listening to the communities most impacted by current pipeline projects, maybe renegotiating ones that seem dead or stuck like treasure island and Parkmerced….

    • Don Sebastopol

      What is the human aspect? What would Rahaim find if he walked in existing communities being transformed and what does transformed mean? Which communities are being transformed how?

      • goodmaab

        A) he will not see what has occurred / example is Parkmerced which served as the backbone of rental housing including Stonestown apartments. Prior there were seniors families and students but sfsu enrollment growth and purchases of UPN and UPS blocks alongside no pet/drinking and smoking rules on CSu properties and than roving frat/sorority houses/ parties quickly displaced families alongside flipping of rents. It did not occur overnight but over a good 10 years+ that the gentrification and displacement occurred. The lacking interest of planning in studying and solving for housing typologies outside of market forces is why banks and developers call the shots and we get minimal solutions that house people economically in SF. The backbone of housing was removed by CSU-SFsu and other institutional and business growth without assessment of fees to build housing adequately for the general population being displaced by growth. I lived there and watched the effects firsthand as families fled, seniors died or left and students moved in typically without a concern for their impacts nor any will to stand up and discuss the issues of student living "redefined" Parkmerced motto to attract more students while discriminating against families. They prioritized renting to students as they were short term. See also peter Cooper stuy town NYC and NYU university in the lux-town living blog shows the impacts and similar issues…gentrification takes time and thus planners should be using that time wisely to solve for housing solutions looking at precedent and how to densify suburban and urban sites to link systems and infrastructure and ensure the public needs and good is being met by developments.

        Sadly the future Parkmerced has moved little and the future will be non-affordable to most people living in SF….or trying to move here…

        Many public housing conversions may or may not meet the future housing needs and we're done in quick decision making by public and gov entities without stopping to consider the real effects

        • Don Sebastopol

          What is purchases of UPN and UPS blocks?

          I knew two people who lived in the towers 10-20 years ago; an elderly woman and a doctor who lived down the peninsula but kept an apartment there as a pied-a-terre.

          I recall hardly any families with children, especially school age children. All of the children I saw coming and going were in strollers. I believe there are still a lot units with seniors. With more density and multi-unit buildings you get fewer families with children.

          I can see the logic of appealing to those who will be there a limited time to have more turnover. That is a smart move by a landlord with rent control. Parkmerced will be affordable to people who live there, otherwise they would not be living there.

          • goodmaab

            University park north
            University park south

            Families were displaced during "rent-bucks" fiasco and increases by prior owners "flipping units" aka predatory equity investment aka gentrification and displacement of existing community members

            Happened often and low income residents were first to be pushed out of they did not fight back…

            The landlord does what he is able to do to run a business, but at Parkmerced it's a special form of predatory investment strategy due to redevelopment proposal and trying to get rid of existing residents over time especially nearer to construction efforts

            As to affordability without baseline units there are no stepping stones towards homeownership or survivability in urban area thus displacement and gentrification

            To stem the gap we need to build adequately the mix of housing needed balanced between for sale and hi-end rental and social housing and lower cost options

            According to city data and what we see getting built we are very low on one end of the spectrum which banks and developers do not focus on…

      • Stephen Nestel

        John Rahaim wants to force suburbs to take up the slack for low income housing so more luxury housing can be built for tech workers.

        • Don Sebastopol

          How can he force anything. He can't force developers to develop in SF. But he can stop them from developing.

          • Stephen Nestel

            Here he is at MTC asking a way to FORCE development in suburbs. It has become partially true with SB 35 and the new housing package. https://youtu.be/MeEE3Mp9Upk

          • Kraus

            Just like you're FORCED to pay taxes.
            Everyone is required to do their share.
            It's called SOCIETY.

          • Stephen Nestel

            Your entitlement is astonishing. No, society does not owe you anything but life, liberty and your ability to pursue happiness. You'll have to pay for your own home.

          • Kraus

            Regrettably, your hypocrisy is not astonishing.

          • Stephen Nestel

            He is asking for a legal mandate to force communities to build. The new housing package. Including sb35 substantially achieves this objective. Developers now have more rights than citizens.

          • Kraus

            Rather the good of the many takes precedence of over the narrow interests of the few.

          • Don Sebastopol

            I agree that the State should not override local planning if that is what State law does. Communities can be forces to allow what? I hope the State cannot dictate zoning laws.

          • Stephen Nestel

            Not quite dictate from state but allows override. Also MTC will blackmail coommunities with transportation funds.

  • Don Sebastopol

    Comments that include anti-gentrification plan and ethnic cleansing probably get him labeled as a crackpot and the commission tuned him out.

    • playland

      That is a good point. SF Progressives don't help themselves with the constant excessive hyperbole. I doubt that the Muslims of Rohingya would agree that there is ethnic cleansing going on in San Francisco right now.

      "Eviction = Death" is another one. Yes, these are local problems that we need to continually address but the SF Progressives need better talking points.

      • renew

        or "Luxury Housing and the Free Market = the only solution or move to Fresno"

        • Stephen Nestel

          In tight markets like today, only highly profitable luxury housing or taxpayer subsidized low income housing will be built. The middle income market can pound sand. The planners and politicians don't care.

  • Kraus

    The anti-housing crowd first tried the "supply-and-demand-don't-apply-to-the-SF-housing-market" argument and that was proven to be a lie.

    Then they launched into the "new-housing-causes-displacement" assertion and that was shown to be absurd.

    Now they're hollering about "gentrification" — pretty much anything to thwart the creation of new housing if it doesn't comport with their vision of a "100%-tax-payer-subsidized-housing" utopia — which will never materialize.

    Guys like Eberling — continuing to peddle their outdated ideology — are the true "displacers".

    • Don Sebastopol

      To have much of an impact on prices the supply would probably "ruin" the quality of life in some areas. It would in single-family neighborhoods if they were rezoned. And there is no guarantee the demand would not catch up unless we limit office buildings. I agree the claim that new housing causes displacement is absurd. And I am in favor of gentrification considering the alternative.

      • Watson Ladd

        So lemme get this right: you think residents of St. Francis Wood are more important then the people in the Mission, so new housing should be in the Mission?

        • Don Sebastopol

          The comment was about rezoning. I did not say anything about new housing other than new housing does not cause displacement.

          • Watson Ladd

            No, but you did say it would ruin the quality of life in some neighborhoods. Absent rezoning there won't be more housing in those neighborhoods.

          • Don Sebastopol

            Yes increased density would ruin the quality of life in those neighborhoods; light, air, quiet, less pollution, less traffic, more space, etc.
            However, there could be more housing in parts of the neighborhood like along a commercial corridor without much harm.

          • Watson Ladd

            Don’t like it? Sell your millionaire’s house and move to suburbia.

      • Stephen Nestel

        If a neighborhood is destroyed to make new housing then indeed it causes displacement. Millennials who whine about single family housing never consider the social cost of their greed. The world owes them nothing.

        • Kraus

          There you have it folks — in this comment and his previous ones — straight from the lips of the middle-aged "I've-got-mine" Baby Boomer who despises immigrants, migrants and Millennials.

          • Don Sebastopol

            If the issue is rezoning single family neighborhoods, then I would not have mine nor would anyone else who lives or wants to live in a single family neighborhood have theirs. I am too old to be a baby boomer. Millennials have moved into the neighborhood as have immigrants. They have children. If not for single-family neighborhoods they would leave the City.

          • Watson Ladd

            Lots of families raise children in apartment buildings.

          • Don Sebastopol

            More like some, not lots. However, in some areas with a high percent of multi-unit buildings you do find a lot of pre-school age children.

            In the Alamo Square, Marina, Twin Peaks, Cow Hollow, Duboce Triangle, and Mission Bay, you find an above average percent of children under 6, but a below average percent of children 6 to 17. These neighborhoods also have 2-3 unit buildings, where children are more likely to be found. In buildings with 20 or more units, children, especially school-age children, are rare.

            The reverse is also true. In some single-family neighborhoods like Balboa & Ingleside Terrace, Crocker Amazon, Silver Terrace, Excelsior, Ingleside, Oceanview, and Outer Mission, you find a lot of school age children but few pre-school age children. Many families with children can’t afford to buy until their careers advance and by that time their children are older.

          • Stephen Nestel

            And you have proven the stereotype of a callous millennial so called YIMBY ( who actually doesn't have a backyard) who wants to force others from their home in the vain hope that developers will leave a crumb or too for him. Not sure where you got "middle-aged "I've-got-mine" Baby Boomer who despises immigrants, migrants and Millennials" but it adds to the angry, selfish rant. P.S. I don't hate all millennials but only the "entitled, selfish, self appointed YIMBYs".

          • Kraus

            So in your mind "YIMBY" = Millennial.

    • curiousKulak

      Building housing with a bathroom (or two), and a kitchen in each unit, and central heat-A/C, and elevators is a standard that is unaffordable to the people targetted for low-income housing. I mean, if they're going to pay even a percentage of the costs.

      And why shouldn't they? Why does their convenience and comfort have to come from someone else?

      One can claim housing as a "human right". But if that right is granted on the condition of birth, then doesn't that simply mean one should have a minimum sq ft-age of space? Other then that, its up to each one to build and provision their own. And if we grant space-per-person, then it doesn't have to necessarily be in the most expensive sq-ft-age on earth (SF).

      Granted workers should be close to their employment. But that closeness (in time, anyway) may be 'purchased' by transit. And once someone has left the workforce, then they no longer require being "close". Elsewise we'd have nursing homes zoned for every block (ha).

      Why does no one speak of the 'gentrification of Italians' from North Beach? Is it because there were driven out by lack of parking spaces vs driven out by lack of low rents?

      Seems to me the business of govmint is to make change orderly – not to delay, impede, or otherwise amber-ice life-as-it-was.

      • Don Sebastopol

        If housing were a right I would think the only way to provide that right would be through the government. If so, then government could tell you how much space you could have and where you could have it. I w ould guess it would also be necessary to assign you to a job as well as a home, if workers should be close to their employment. Maybe a job in Fresno and a small studio apartment.

        If there was a limit on how much space one could have per person, the government could confiscate large houses and fill them up with people. Somehow, I recall that this has been tried before and did not work out too well.

        The Italians I knew moved first to the outer mission and then to the suburbs. I think it was for more space.

  • Watson Ladd

    Because of single family zoning. Tim Redmond knows full well why HomeSF was controversial.

  • Jonathan Bonato

    I'd like to see us move beyond throwing up terms like Gentrification to oppose new housing, to what people can actually afford to pay for rent, and are we building or providing those units. Housing is a pragmatic issue, not an ideological one. Lets just find a way to provide folks the homes they want and need, lets not worry about making tax payers pay….we can find a way out of this mess, without all this divisiveness and ideology.

  • Stephen Nestel

    How long will it be before planners and housing activists declare the Sonoma and Napa fires as an "opportunity " to replace single family homes with multifamily homes? They will be having "community outreach sessions" before the embers cool, is my guess.