Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

SF housing density program met with community opposition at planning commission

Opponents of a housing density proposal held a press conference on the steps of City Hall prior to a hearing before the planning commission January 28.

Opponents of a housing density proposal held a press conference on the steps of City Hall prior to a hearing before the planning commission January 28.

Community members came out in force Thursday to oppose a proposal that would allow developers to build denser developments in various San Francisco neighborhoods in return for including increased amounts of affordable housing for low to moderate and middle income residents.

City planners attempted to address the concerns about the proposal during the planning commission hearing. The oversight body is expected to vote on the density bonus in exchange for more affordable housing next month.

[UPDATE: Staff had requested they postpone the matter until April. But after the nearly six-hour hearing, a number of planning commissioners indicted they were ready to send the matter on to the Board of Supervisors tonight.

Others were inclined to take up the matter again in three months after planning staff addressed the myriad issues brought up by the oversight panel and the public. In a compromise 4-2 vote, the commission voted to schedule a vote on the program at its February 25 meeting.]

Gil Kelley, director of citywide planning in the planning department, acknowledged there has been “such a storm around this issue.” He argued it would allow the city to add 5,000 new affordable housing units by 2036.

“I want to dispel some info out there … that this is somehow akin to provoking wholesale redevelopment,” said Kelley. Instead, he argued, “We think it has a limited but important infill design aspect to it that will be dispersed throughout the city.”

And an aide for Board President London Breed announced she would introduce an amendment when the supervisors take up the matter later this year to ensure properties with rent-controlled units would be excluded from the density program.

Conor Johnston, the supervisor’s chief of staff,  said that Breed was still studying the program details and had no stance on it yet either way. He noted that both he and Breed are tenants in rent-controlled units and have a personal stake in the issue.

He stressed that Breed’s amendment “will say it cannot be applied to a property with rent-controlled units.”

Kelley added that planning staff intended to include such a provision in the language the planning commissioners will be voting on. And the office of Mayor Ed Lee, who introduced the density proposal last year along with District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang, also said it supported a rent-controlled unit exclusion.

The proposal as currently written “still needs some fine-tuning,” said Jeff Buckley, a senior adviser to the mayor on housing policy. He told the commissioners, “Your job is really needed to really sharpen this program.”

Yet housing activists and residents remain strongly opposed to the proposal. Not only are they concerned about losing rent-controlled units, they also fear small businesses will be displaced and unable to afford to re-open elsewhere.

“Who benefits from this? Only developers,” said Deepa Varma, the new director of the SF Tenants Union. “It sounds like we are giving up the store, literally, for developers to make more money.”

Philip Lesser, a former board member of the Mission Housing Development Corporation, countered that the proposal is the “best” to come to Room 400, where the planning commission meets, “in a decade.”

Under the density program buildings, such as the one depicted above, could go from four to six stories in height.

Under the density program buildings, such as the one depicted above, could go from four to six stories in height.

Known as the Affordable Housing Bonus Program, it would award projects that include higher amounts of affordable housing than what is currently required with such development incentives as increased density, heights, and limited reductions in other zoning requirements, according to city planners.

The target would be for at least 30 percent of on-site units to be set aside as affordable. As it is now, developers of buildings with 10 or more units are required to set aside 12 percent as below-market-rate if provided on-site or they can pay an in-lieu fee to the city toward the building of affordable housing elsewhere.

But as the Bay Area Reporter‘s Political Notebook column noted earlier this month, opponents of the program fear it will lead to the demolition of the city’s rent-controlled housing stock, ruin the character of the neighborhoods covered by the proposal, and lead to the loss of various structures of historical importance.

Housing activists have been demanding that buildings with rent-controlled units be excluded from the program. They had raised questions in recent weeks about Breed’s amendment to exclude rent-controlled units because of a clause they contended would allow the city to remove the rental stock exclusion after a one-year review of the program.

(Breed aide Johnston said at today’s hearing that that language would be removed.)

“Ultimately, we want them to kill it and send it back to the drawing board,” said Fred Sherburn-Zimmer, a queer woman who is the new executive director of the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee. “We don’t need a plan that encourages luxury housing.”

A number of community groups held a press conference on the steps of City Hall prior to the hearing to voice their objections to the housing density program. Gay District 9 Supervisor David Campos derided the plan as a pig dressed up in lipstick.

He argued it would do nothing to solve the city’s housing crisis but would pad the pockets of developers.

“It is clear what this program does is incentivize not affordable housing but the displacement of thousands of San Franciscans,” he said.

He added that the “devil is in the details” and questioned how the plan as proposed would provide housing stock affordable to low and moderate income residents of the city or prevent families with children from having to move outside of San Francisco in search of homes that fit their needs.

“I feel we need to go back to the drawing board to ensure we are getting it right,” said Campos, adding that ordinary citizens “need to be at the table as the program is developed, not after the fact.We should give San Franciscans as much of a voice as we do to developers.”

Once the planning commission adopts the plan, it will go before the Board of Supervisors for approval. With progressives now holding a 6-5 majority on the board, the supervisors are likely to, if not scrap the proposal, add several amendments to it to address the various concerns residents and merchants have raised.

— Matthew S. Bajko, January 28, 2016 @ 5:52 pm PST
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