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News + PoliticsTwo crucial issues, housing and downtown, will come before the supes...

Two crucial issues, housing and downtown, will come before the supes this week

Plus: what does 'a city that works' really mean? That's The Agenda for Nov. 13-20

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The new line from the neoliberals, Big Tech, and the mayor’s allies, and we saw it all through the campaign, was “a city that works.” Now Heather Knight at the Chron has picked it up:

No, San Franciscans haven’t turned into a bunch of right-wing Donald Trump lovers as some far-left city leaders and their acolytes repeat ad nauseam on Twitter. They just want a city that works — and they’re willing to put their money behind commonsense, good-government efforts in a bid to make that a reality.

Affordable housing is awfully common sense.

What this means, of course, as has always meant, is a city that works for wealthy and upper-middle-class people who don’t need a lot of government help in their daily lives. They want “commonsense good-government efforts” (wait: Is this Good Government?). That means putting more people, mostly poor, non-white people, in jail, and making life even harder for the poor, mostly non-white unhoused.

Real common sense would mean addressing the economic inequality that has created these problems. But I guess to the Chron, that’s easily dismissed as a “far left” idea.

Meanwhile, as the mayor and her allies gloat over their not-so-profound Election Day victories, two of the most profound policy decisions facing City Hall are going to be at the center of debate this week.

San Francisco is required to adopt a new Housing Element to the General Plan, and the state wants it to include provisions to build 84,000 new housing units over the next eight years, and 46,000 of them need to be below-market rate.

That’s impossible, unless the state and federal government dramatically increase their spending: The price tag for the affordable housing is $19 billion.

And right now, hardly any developers want to build any sort of housing in San Francisco; the costs are too high and the returns are too low to generate the kind of profits that investors demand.

And yet, the fantasy world of the Housing Element continues.

On Tuesday/15, the Board of Supes, sitting as a Committee of the Whole, will hear a presentation on the document. Two days later, the Planning Commission is slated to approve the Final Environmental Impact Report and give its nod to the new Housing Element.

The report is supposed to drive planning policy for a decade. If it doesn’t include plans to allow and encourage enough new housing, the state—in a bizarre move that our local legislators have not challenged—will actually take affordable housing money away from the city.

I will cite just a few of the comments that people who actually know what’s going on in the housing world made on the EIR.

From Jeantelle Laberinto, representing the Race and Equity in All Planning Coalition:

There is no mention of the fact that the current Housing Element has resulted in a wild overproduction of unaffordable market-rate housing and a staggering underproduction of affordable housing; however, there is mention of the fact that market-rate housing provides benefits to those in upper socioeconomic tiers but does not study an alternative that will materially benefit low-income and people-of-color communities. The DEIR must study an alternative that prioritizes building affordable housing first, eliminate strategies that encourage displacement, respects and fulfills the goals of the cultural districts in San Francisco, and ensure that our public lands are developed for affordable housing, supportive housing, community services, small businesses, and public open spaces.

From lawyer Sue Hestor, who has been consistently right (and never wrong) on planning issues for 50 years:

The EIR omits an issue, which we have been underproducing housing for low-income people, for working-class people, and instead the entire incentive is to apply, approve, and build luxury housing, and that housing can’t accommodate real workers. People working in San Francisco hotels and the retail district need housing. If they are not housed in San Francisco, at rents they can afford or housing prices they can afford to buy, they will sprawl throughout the region, and that affects transportation, noise, air pollution, and all the things that we are trying to step down. Instead, we are going to worsen them.

If you want to read all of the comments and responses to the EIR, the document is here. The city planners simply say that since the Housing Element includes a lot of language about equity and racial justice, those things are going to happen.

There are, in fact, no effective policies in the document that would prevent displacement and gentrification. That’s in part because the state, which insists that cities meet the Regional Housing Needs Assessment goals, has prevented cities from using tools like rent control on vacant apartments to stabilize existing vulnerable communities.

I have no doubt that the Planning Commission will approve the Housing Element, and send it to Sacramento in the hope that the Newsom Administration will find it sufficiently developer-friendly that it will pass muster.

But the supes have the ability to ask questions, and the Planning Department will need to send representatives to answer. It would be great if Planning Director Rich Hillis showed up, but I suspect he will send a subordinate.

Among the questions that are so obvious that cry out for response:

What are the chances that even a fraction of the housing that the state wants to see built can actually be constructed in San Francisco in the next eight years?

Is it not the case that building 84,000 new units would require the demolition of a significant amount of existing housing, particularly on the west side of town?

Does anyone at City Planning or the Mayor’s Office have any plans, proposals, or even wild ideas of where the city will get the $19 billion it needs to meet the affordable housing mandates? (The leading Yimby supervisors, Matt Dorsey, who just won re-election, told me that he has “no idea” where that money will come from. At least he’s honest. But why are we developing a plan that has no basis in reality?)

Does the Planning Department seriously believe that allowing developers to build more market-rate housing will bring prices down to a level that people who make the median wage for the existing workforce can afford? How long with that take? What evidence does the department have to support that theory?

Do the planners who, to their credit, include equity and racial justice in the language of the document not recognize that market-rate housing can create displacement in some communities?

Honestly, folks: Is this not just a political farce?

Why is the city even playing this game?

I look forward to the questions.

The other huge, defining planning and economic issue for the city will be the focus of a set of hearing at the Budget and Finance Committee Wednesday/16: What is the city going to do about downtown?

The committee will consider reports from the city economist, the Planning Department, the Small Business Commission, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and other city agencies on the economic impact of the collapse of the financial district.

This is, in some ways, even more important than the Housing Element or anything else the supes and the mayor are talking about.

For more than half a century, mayors and supervisors have viewed downtown offices as the economic hope of the city. San Francisco’s entire transit system is designed to get workers from the neighborhoods to downtown. City leaders have courted not just developers but finance, insurance, and real-estate industries, then tech, to fill those towers.

And maybe, with remote work, that’s all over.

The hearing will no doubt produce some alarming scenarios: If property values drop downtown, so will city property tax revenue. If the economic activity that was our Golden Goose collapses, so will the city’s business taxes and sales taxes.

Mayor Breed’s exhortations that people need to go back to the office aren’t working. Elon Musk wants his Twitter folks back at mid-Market, but he’s fired half of them and it’s not even clear that his company will survive another year.

All of us who have argued that the Downtown Offices Above All Strategy was a bad idea in the first place, that a more diverse economy was always going to be more healthy, can say We Told You So, but that won’t do any good.

We have linked our city to downtown, and now we have about 20 million square feet of empty office space, and the situation isn’t going to get any better.

Modest ideas and plans to help building owners aren’t going to work. So let me make a wild suggestion that might: Maybe downtown should be the new arts district of the world.

Anybody have a better idea?

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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