Old and new housing. Photo by Shani Heckman

With the Mission poised to take over City Hall today to call for a moratorium on market rate housing production in the neighborhood, it’s clear that there is frustration with the pace of construction of affordable housing.

Supervisor David Campos introduced an ordinance to the Board on Tuesday that would create a 45-day moratorium while the movement for a longer term moratorium decided in the November elections gathers steam. Campos is pushing for the ordinance to be considered by the full Board of Supervisors rather than a committee, citing the urgency of the housing crisis in the Mission. Only 95 affordable units have been built in the Mission in the past seven years, in contrast to 470 units of market-rate housing that popped up in the same time (more details on that here).  Although it’s unlikely that Campos will get the nine votes he needs, discontent about the pace of new affordable housing is unlikely to disappear.

More than 1,900 proposed new units are in various stages of development — some from projects with just preliminary plans, some that are under construction now. Only about 15 percent of those are likely to be below market rate units. That’s a far cry from the city’s mandate to make sure 30 percent of its new housing is affordable.

The Mayor’s Office of Housing reports that two of the properties in the Mission planned for affordable housing are poised for development. Representing over 100 units of below market rate housing.

For one at 1950 Mission, the mayor’s office has received proposals from affordable housing developers and will begin the planning process soon. For another, at 17th and Folsom, the mayor’s office has just sent out a request for proposals this week. For a third, at Shotwell and Cesar Chavez, Teresa Yanga from the mayor’s office says they will sent out request for proposals in June of this year.

However, these steps in the planning process for affordable housing have come after years in limbo.

So what would it take to move projects out of the pipeline and into reality? Could one person, a sort of housing czar, be successful in cutting through red tape? And if so, who would it be?

We asked housing activists, planners, and others who are tuned into the city’s housing crisis to speculate on what it would take to really make progress on housing, and to suggest possible housing czar candidates. Here’s what they said:

Phil Lesser, VP of Government & Media Relations at Lesser Enterprises LLC: The approval structure is not the problem. It’s the imbalance of projects to staff.

The city has a staffing problem, says Lesser. Existing personnel on hand is not enough to cope with the number of projects waiting for approval, and more people in the right positions will help move things along.

“For example, the wait period for an environmental evaluation is currently six-months from submission of the EE application to when it will first be considered,” Lesser says. “As you are probably inferring, the slow approval process is another reason that housing supply is having a difficult time keeping up with housing demand in San Francisco.”

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, Director of Counseling Programs at the Housing Rights Commission: The solution has to come from the community. 

A housing czar is probably not the answer, Avicolli Mecca says, but if someone were chosen to propel stagnated affordable housing plans toward realization, it would absolutely have to be someone currently active in the community fighting for affordable housing.

And, he pointed out, isn’t there technically already someone assigned to this? Like, say, an entire city agency called the Mayor’s Office of Housing?

“If the mayor said to the Mayor’s Office of Housing, ‘here’s your priority, this is what I want, you guys do it’ – I mean, he’s the mayor right? Who, ultimately, directs the Mayor’s Office of Housing,” Avicolli Mecca says. “It’s gotta come from the top. The directives have got to come from the folks who supposedly run this city. They need to run it.”

That could include efforts to seek out nonprofit developers to use the money in the Mayor’s Office of Housing’s Inclusionary Housing fund, which has been collecting in-lieu fees from market rate developers around the city who choose not to build the required portion of affordable housing in their projects, or asking the tech and entrepreneurial communities to help raise much higher sums in order to smooth the process of building affordable.

The problem, Avicolli Mecca says, is that those who have the power to make affordable housing a reality aren’t listening to the community. Demands, like tomorrow’s protest at City Hall, include putting a moratorium on the construction of any market rate development in the Mission.

“Who’s gonna come up with the solution? I think the community is already coming up with solutions. The moratorium idea…came out of the Mission community,” he said. “[It] is not going to be the panacea for all ills. It’s a piece, it gives us a tool. It’s a bigger tool than we’ve been given at this point.”

It would also force the city to direct resources, like staff time and effort, toward processing all the required permits and approvals needed for affordable housing units rather than for market rate ones.

“I think the moratorium is a good idea, but it’s got to be more than just a moratorium, it has to be a general change in the policies, in the way the city does housing,” Avicolli Meccas says. “What it’s saying is we need to put a hold on market rate, so that the city can come up with a plan for the affordable.”

Roberto Hernandez, Our Mission No Eviction Organizer: Look at the way market rate developers do it

Though he didn’t comment on the idea of a housing czar per se, Hernandez has observed that there’s a reason market rate developments make it through the pipeline more efficiently than affordable developments.

“I want you to think about and find out [how] these developers hire PR firms to lobby the planning commission and the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor, and they get what they want bc they have these … lobby firms and these attorneys,” Hernandez pointed out.  “And then they have expeditors to expedite their permits. And so that’s how they’re able to cut through all the red tape.”

Tim Colen, executive director San Francisco Housing Coalition: The city is working hard to grapple with a crisis that’s been a long time in coming

“Mayor’s Office of Housing does good work, they just don’t have enough money, the list of projects they’re working on is as long as their arm,” Colen says.

Over the years, he explains, the city’s had various proposals that would fast-track certain types of projects (enviro friendly, more affordable housing, etc…) but nothing ever really works. Everything takes a long time and gets hamstrung by our planning process.

“If you establish a housing czar that could streamline and expedite, you’d get all the torch and pitchfork folks saying you’re getting a dictator,” he says. “In San Francisco we have huge appetite for process, for participatory democracy. We have less of appetite for accountability…. This is one of choke points of housing. It’s more important that every last neighbor gets to have opinion on project, that is much more important to city than whether housing gets built. We’ve done that for 30 years.”

The moratorium, he says, will only throw fuel on the fire that is the housing crisis, stopping supply in a climate of already overwhelming demand. To Colen, it’s a feel-good stopgap that will come with a backlash:

“It’s emotionally satisfying, people feel like they’re stopping the machine, but I wonder if in moments of private candor and self reflection, if they’ve thought about what happens the day after moratorium expires. The demand for new housing will come back on steroids.”

To really get things, done, Colen says, the city needs to pass the Mayor’s housing bond in November, reform the inclusionary housing ordinance so it’s easier for developers to partner with non-profit affordable housing developers.

In a housing climate where federal dollars for affordable housing have largely dried up, market rate housing is actually the biggest current supplier of below market rate housing, Colen said. He suggested a sort of “dial,” a system in which a developer would have the option of pricing additional below market rate units at slightly higher price levels as an incentive to build more of it.

Supervisor Scott Wiener: Focus on land acquisition

“We can definitely do more to streamline the approval process for affordable housing,” Wiener says. “With new funding from the Housing Trust Fund, we need to make sure that the City is getting new affordable units on the ground as quickly as possible.”

Wiener also suggested the city should try to seal land-banking deals to make sure there is land on which to build affordable housing of the future.

“Once land is lost to other kinds of development, we can’t get it back.”

What’s Next Today

Activists, neighbors, and community members from around the Mission and the city will take to City Hall to try and deliver their message loud and clear to the Board of Supervisors: They want to put a stop to the construction of market rate buildings in the Mission. A hotly debated suggestion with dissenters just as strident as its proponents, the proposal now has one champion in the Board of Supervisors, but has yet to sway all the votes it would need to pass. Protesters at City Hall today will demand that supervisors come forward in person to hear their plea. Stay tuned for coverage of the action there.

Daniel Hirsch

Daniel Hirsch is a freelance writer who has been living in the Mission since 2009. When he's not contributing to Mission Local, he's writing plays, working as an extra for HBO, and/or walking to the top...

Lydia Chávez

I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor at Berkeley’s J-school since 1990. My earlier career was at The New York Times working for the business, foreign and city desks. As an old...

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1 Comment

  1. While I agree that 95 units in 7 seven years isn’t much, neither is 470 market rate units. Affordable units built as a percent of total during that time is 17%, which seems pretty reasonable. I think this highlights that the problem is a lack of building in general, not the proportion, and that a moratorium would only exacerbate the problem.

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