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News + PoliticsHousingWhy it makes sense for stakeholders to sue the city for failing...

Why it makes sense for stakeholders to sue the city for failing its affordable housing goals

The Housing Element numbers are really funky and don't make sense—and under Breed's Administration, there may be no other option.


Sup. Dean Preston announced this week an intriguing, if counter-intuitive concept: He wants to let nonprofits sue the city if it fails to meet its affordable-housing obligations under the new Housing Element.

The idea of a city official encouraging outside entities to sue the city doesn’t make sense at first: Why would someone who votes on and make policy under a limited city budget want to put the city at financial risk?

That’s the approach the Chron took to the story. In fact, the Chron and other outlets are going to do their usual attacks on nonprofits, and suggest that this will let affordable housing developers sue if they don’t get their owe projects approved.

But I spoke to Preston, and what he’s proposing, while the details are still in the works, has little to do with financial penalties.

And to understand his concept, you have to understand the background.

Housing activists passed Prop. I to fund affordable housing, but the mayor won’t spend the money.

Under state law, San Francisco is required to make room for 84,000 housing units in the next eight yearsd—and 46,000 are supposed to be affordable.

That, by my math, means the city is supposed to make room for another 38,000 market-rate units. Miriam Chion, a senior planner, told the supes that San Francisco has already issued permits for 45,000 units that haven’t been built. So the current planning process, she said, only has to make room for 39,000 new units.

According to the latest city planning pipeline report, about 22 percent of the approved units are affordable, which means about 10,000 units.

So if what Chion said is accurate, San Francisco planners have approved 35,000 market-rate units already, out of 38,000 that the state wants to see approved. That’s pretty much a wash.

Why is the city going out of its way to upzone and remove “impediments” for more market-rate housing?

Here’s what Chion told me:

We can only count about 43,000 unitS out of the pipeline that are likely to happened in this RHNA cycle.  The site analysis reports describes the requirements for counting units towards RHNA.  In addition we can count about 15,000 units in available sites or buildings.  This means that we need to rezone for about 36k in order to get to the 94k (82k+ 15%). The additional 15% is the buffer that would allow us better access to affordable housing funding.

The reason for removing constraints in the entitlement process is because our annual production of housing, affordable and market rate, is way below the annual average 10k for this RHNA cycle.  The removal of constraints by itself is not going to resolve our housing rehab and production, but it can help.

Getting to the funding and strategies to build the 46,000 affordable units is the real task.

I’ve spoken to all three members of the Land Use and Transportation Committee, Sups. Myrna Melgar, Dean Preston, and Aaron Peskin, and they both agree the the numbers are a little weird—and they agree that the real issue here is that the city has no plans and no financing to build 46,000 affordable units—or 36,000 if we assume that 10,000 are already part of inclusionary projects. Except that the inclusionary units are part of market-rate projects that aren’t getting built anyway.

And the Mayor’s Office and the Planning Department don’t seem to care.

At the hearing last week, everyone talked about looking for “resources,” because nobody wants to say “money.” As Preston pointed out, the city already has sources of affordable housing money—$250 million in just the past two years from Prop. I—and the mayor refuses to spend it on affordable housing.

Let’s just think about this for a minute: If San Francisco added 46,000 units of affordable housing in the next eight years, we could effectively end homelessness and take a huge step toward fighting displacement.

And at Tuesday’s Board of Supes meeting, the supes essentially promised to make that happen by approving the Housing Element.

But as long as Breed is mayor, and as long as her priorities are more about hurting her political foes than about building affordable housing, the city is going to fail, badly, on its promises to the state and to the public.

That’s particularly true when the city is facing a big budget deficit, and Breed will want to spend the Prop. I money on other priorities, including apparently the Police Department.

So the legislation Preston is proposing isn’t about nonprofit housers suing the city for money. It’s not about anyone trying to take money from the city.

It’s about stakeholders suing to force the Mayor’s Office to allocate the money that already exists and that should be made available to fund the affordable housing that the city just promised to create.

The way things are going now, there’s not a whole lot of choice.

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
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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