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Thursday, May 19, 2022

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City HallThe AgendaSaving Soma—and laundromats

Saving Soma—and laundromats

The Agenda: Another massive development (and the loss of a place to wash your clothes) shows why zoning rules are really important.


The Board of Supes will hold a crucial hearing and vote Tuesday/26 on a large-scale market-rate housing development that could signal the future of the last low-income area in Soma.

The project at 469 Stevenson Street calls for 495 mostly market-rate housing units—in an area that is already at high risk for gentrification and displacement.

It’s also on very unstable ground, and the project Environmental Impact Report basically ignores the seismic safety issues.

Where are you going to do the wash when the market says laundry isn’t as valuable as condos? Image by Daniel Case, Wikimedia Commons

This will be a test for the supes, who only very rarely overrule appeals of decisions made by the Planning Commission. But in this case, the developer (Build Inc.) has projects all over the city, and Soma advocates are asking that this site be deeded to the city for affordable housing.

The district supe is Matt Haney, and everything he does these days is going to be watched and vetted in the context of his run for state Assembly. If he opposes the project, he may make some of his strong allies in the building trades unhappy; if he supports it, he will infuriate affordable-housing activists.

But since the board almost always defers to the district supe, this one could be largely in his hands.

Overturning the EIR doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the project; Build Inc. and the planners can just spend the money and time to prepare a new one. But it would send a strong message that the city has a better use for this site.

The hearing starts at 3pm.

It doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but for a lot of the renters in the city, it’s exactly that: Laundromats in San Francisco are becoming an endangered species.

Landlords all over town are looking for ways to make more money by creating new Accessory Dwelling Units—and one option is to replace the laundry room. Meanwhile, the places that offer residents without their own facilities a place to wash and dry their clothes are being displaced; that land is too valuable as market-rate housing.

This is potentially huge, particularly for low-income renters. What do you do if there’s nowhere to do your laundry in the neighborhood?

The Land Use and Transportation Committee will hear Monday/25 legislation by Sup. Aaron Peskin that would ban landlords from removing laundry facilities—and require a conditional-use hearing at the Planning Commission for any project that displaces an existing laundromat.

There’s an important issue that goes beyond this particular use of space: Zoning, which often feels technical and boring, is actually critical to maintaining a diverse city.

Local government in California has the right, most of the time, to decide how land gets used. That has a direct and immediate impact on the price of that land—and thus on what types of businesses can survive.

When the city decided in the 1980s that office space was more important than light industry in Soma, a thriving printing industry that provided good jobs for people without a college degree, that industry left the city forever. The reason is simple: Light industry needs space, and can’t possibly compete with office uses. The price of land goes up, the landlords sell or develop for offices, and the old occupants have to go.

When the planners decided in the 1990s to let “live-work” lofts—mostly expensive housing for tech workers—to replace light industry in the northeast Mission and Potrero, blue-collar jobs were lost. Again: When you change the zoning, you change the price of land.

When you make it harder to turn a laundromat into market-rate housing, you lower the value of that land. This is a good thing; the planners rarely seem to see that.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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.

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