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News + PoliticsHousingThis is the state of housing policy in SF in 2023

This is the state of housing policy in SF in 2023

Planners say environmental law doesn't matter, and supes approve a project almost everyone hates, all to deal with state Sen. Scott Wiener's rules—and Breed wants to make it worse.

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The Yimbys are going crazy about the Board of Supes action on a townhouse project on the edge of Nob Hill and Chinatown, so let me take a moment to explain what happened.

The supes were considering a challenge to the Planning Department’s determination that the project at 1151 Washington was categorially exempt from environmental review.

Developer image of the project, via socketsite

In the process of the discussion, Environmental Review Officer Lisa Gibson raised a pretty disturbing perspective, saying that because the state is demanding that San Francisco approve more housing development, the city might need to alter the way it handles the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

CEQA, as Sup. Aaron Peskin pointed out, is a state law that is designed to give policy-makers the information they need to determine how to address a project. It’s not something the city can change just because the state wants more housing.

“CEQA is a state law to help us make decisions, but we shouldn’t be using it because we are trying to meet our state housing goals?” he asked.

In this case, people concerned about the project raised several issues that suggested the city might need to do a bit more further CEQA review. Site evaluations turned up small amounts of highly toxic hexavalent chromium (the stuff of Erin Brokovich and PG&E) and PCE. The project would also cast a shadow over a small playground in a congested area that lacks open space.

Although the buildings would not exceed 40 feet, the threshold for invoking the city’s sunshine-in-the-parks law, the playground in question is at least 20 feet below the project, Peskin said.

The Chinatown Community Development Center and the Community Tenants Association, two of the leading community organizations in Chinatown, both opposed the project.

Gibson said that CEQA does not require an analysis of shadow impacts.

Sup. Myrna Melgar said that the toxics were a matter of concern; the construction dust could stir up some really nasty stuff and spread it to the playground. Gibson said that if the wind picks up and the dust starts to spread the city could order construction to stop—but the reality is, by then the dust will already have spread.

“That does give me cause,” she said. “These are little kids, and I’m not confident to say this is exempt from CEQA because it’s an infill project.”

Peskin and Melgar both made clear that the supes were not “killing” the project. They were simply sending it back to planning for further environmental review, which could mean simply a negative declaration, not a full environmental impact report.

Peskin’s motion passed 7-4, with Sups. Ahsha Safai, Catherine Stefani, Matt Dorsey, and Joel Engardio in opposition.

And now the Chron is saying that

1151 Washington represented more than just the 10 homes it proposed to build. It was a test of whether supervisors would move past the long era of housing obstructionism that has put us in the mess we’re in, or if they would embrace their promise to build the housing we so badly need.

The board failed the test.

So who cares about toxic dust or the Chinatown community. Build housing that won’t address the crisis anyway.

Then the supes got to 3832 18th Street, which has been delayed and discussed for more than two years. It’s a project that would create a type of housing the city doesn’t need, for a population that is moving out anyway, for a developer trying to sneak in under a “group housing” loophole. The tiny condos would be too small for families, opponents said, and will likely become intermediate-term corporate rentals of Airbnb hotel rooms.

“I don’t think this is a great project,” Sup. Rafael Mandelman, who represents the district, said. “I sympathize with the neighbors who didn’t think this was fair, and in many ways, it’s not fair.”

But he said that the mandates from the state (thanks to Sen. Scott Wiener—Mandelman didn’t say that, but I will), the city is out of options. “I don’t think this is a fight we want” with the Governor’s Office, he said.

So: A project that nobody except a developer wants, that the district supe agrees is a bit of a scam, got approved unanimously.

Thanks, Scott.

Meanwhile, the Planning Commission will consider Thursday/29 the mayor’s overall housing plan. I will give the Race and Equity in All Planning coalition space to weigh in:

“We need to go from doom to bloom, with our communities flourishing instead of being shoved further into the ‘Mayor’s Doom Loop,’” says Jeantelle Laberinto with Race & Equity in all Planning Coalition (REP-SF). “Mayor Breed’s housing streamlining legislation, coupled with her proposed budget cuts, will worsen inequality and homelessness, and displace low-income and BIPOC families and children out of their homes.” 

Mayor London Breed’s housing streamlining legislation, which will be presented to the public for the first time in front of the SF Planning Commission this Thursday, is full of developer giveaways that promote more surplus housing that most San Franciscans can’t afford. Meanwhile, the Planning Department and the Mayor continue to have no real plan for affordable housing. 

The Race and Equity in all Planning Coalition (REP-SF) has developed the Citywide People’s Plan with member groups representing thousands of residents across the city. The Citywide People’s Plan lays out a comprehensive plan to put affordable housing first, speed up permitting with a community first approval process, and protect residents from displacement. “What we need is truly affordable housing as laid out in the Citywide People’s Plan and the Mayor’s legislation does nothing to house our essential workers and most families. Instead, we are going to see evictions and demolitions of housing and small businesses at levels not seen in San Francisco since Redevelopment,” says Laberinto.

The Mayor is introducing this legislation to instruct the SF Planning Department and other city agencies how to implement the Housing Element, the state mandated policy that guides San Francisco’s housing policies for the next eight years. Such implementation instructions can be proposed by both the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors. The state is requiring that SF permit over 82,000 units of new housing during this period of which at least 57% of the units should be affordable for people with extremely low, low and moderate incomes. 

Rather than building for San Franciscans’ needs, Mayor Breed is focusing on developer giveaways that will set SF on a track to repeat the same failures of the previous 2014-2022 Housing Element. During those years, SF overbuilt market rate units by almost double and under-built for low-income residents by almost half. Mayor Breed and the Planning Department are pushing this streamlining of even more luxury condos at a time when the city has an astoundingly high residential vacancy rate of 15% and a declining population. Despite the surplus in supply in San Francisco’s market, housing prices are still out of reach for most residents. 

“With this legislation, Mayor Breed is telling working class families like mine that there is no place for us in San Francisco”, says Reina Tello, with PODER. “Families like mine are under attack in San Francisco with the budget cuts to tenant protections and affordable housing. We wouldn’t even qualify for what little affordable housing the Mayor’s plan would produce. Where is the love, San Francisco? What we need are the solutions in the Citywide People’s Plan and continued investment in SF’s pandemic recovery.”

Underpinning the Mayor’s legislation and its developer giveaways are incentives for demolitions of existing housing which will result in the increased displacement of long time tenants resulting in San Francisco repeating the harms of Redevelopment and urban renewal that demolished BIPOC owned housing and businesses in the Fillmore, Japantown and South of Market from the 1950s to the 1990s. In fact, the geographic scopes of the Mayor’s legislation and other Housing Element implementation legislative proposals cover a far greater area of San Francisco than the relatively small historic Redevelopment Project Areas. 

In the Housing Element, the SF’s Planning Department acknowledged the displacement risks will occur during the implementation process and recommended increased funding for tenant legal defense and counseling. Instead, the Mayor has decided to gut tenant protections and habitability enforcement in this year’s proposed budget. The Mayor’s legislation also moves to remove public notices and hearings for demolitions, which are vital means to protect tenants from displacement from predatory landlords and developers. The developers will not be held accountable for evictions and scare tactics preying on longtime, low-income tenants, such as seniors. To make matters worse, Mayor Breed is taking funding meant to house homeless families (Prop C dollars) and funding to acquire affordable housing sites (through Prop I funds for a nation-leading program called Housing Preservation Program) to instead increase the SF Police Department’s budget. 

“We need homes not jails. Instead of policing us, the Mayor should be doing everything in the City’s power to keep San Franciscans in their homes and build truly affordable housing, including acquiring sites to build throughout the City,” says Christen Alqueza of Richmond District Rising. 

Rather than creating an actual plan and budget for new affordable housing, the Mayor merely created an Affordable Housing Leadership Council to publish a report that isn’t even due until next year. As a whole, the Mayor’s planning and budget policies will increase inequality, evictions, slum conditions, hunger, permanent homelessness, and policing to control the human toll of her austerity measures, all while catering to predatory and speculative real estate.

“Doom is the new blight. It’s like the Mayor wants to further the blight conditions in certain neighborhoods, setting them up to deteriorate, just like they did during Redevelopment, to justify demolishing them in order to build luxury condos,” says Don Misumi of the Westside Tenants Association. “Japantown was completely demolished and rebuilt and now neighborhoods like the Richmond, the Sunset and the Haight have the urban renewal target on their back. The worst part is that communities don’t know the extent of how the policies will affect them.”

REP-SF urges residents to turn out June 29th to the Planning Commission hearing and demand the City reject Mayor Breed’s legislation and enact the Citywide People’s Plan! For a more detailed analysis on why we must reject the Mayor’s streamlining legislation and enact the solutions from the Citywide People’s Plan, see REP-SF’s letter to the Planning Department.

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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