A controversial new San Francisco housing proposal finally made its case to Mission District residents on Tuesday, though the community meeting held for the neighborhood — which was also for residents of District 11 and took place in the Excelsior — drew a crowd of no more than 20, only half of whom were from the Mission.
“For people in the Mission District, this is 3-5 miles away,” said Eddie Stiel, a Mission resident who walked 50 minutes from his apartment to the San Francisco Muslim Community Center at 4760 Mission St., the meeting site. Others bemoaned what they said was a lack of outreach, saying not many people were informed of the meeting, much less the proposed housing program.
“In my neighborhood, no one’s even heard of this thing,” said one woman.
“I hear your comments. I agree it’s frustrating,” said Kearstin Dischinger, a policy planner at the Planning Department. She did point to some 20 community meetings city-wide and widespread media coverage of the program, but acknowledged the department was brainstorming better ways to get the news out.
“You’re making excuses for yourselves,” Stiel replied.
The concerns over outreach stemmed from a general conviction in the crowd that the new proposal — known as the affordable housing density bonus program — would be a massive top-down rezoning that might drastically alter the city.
Planners at the meeting fought hard against this portrayal.
“This is really surgical infill,” said Dischinger, adding that because construction costs rise with height, most buildings would likely stop at eight stories. “It’s not a really big change like many of you are living through in the Mission and the SoMa. This is a really small change.”
The affordable housing density bonus program would allow private developers to build an additional two stories above current height limits in exchange for building more affordable housing. Current city law requires that 12 percent of market-rate housing developments be affordable to those making less than 90 percent of area median income, or $64,000 for a single-person household.
The density bonus program, which will be considered by the Planning Commission February 25, would require an additional 18 percent of the project be affordable housing to those making 120 to 140 percent of area median income, or individuals earning $86,000 to $100,000. The extra 18 percent is aimed at helping middle income households find affordable housing, though some housing advocates are critical of building for those income levels.
Other groups have come out in strong support of the proposal. The San Francisco Housing Action Coalition and the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation both support the measure and say any slowdown to work out its kinks would delay the production of affordable housing. Representatives from nonprofit housing developers, such as BRIDGE Housing, have also come out in support of the measure.
The program has undergone significant change since it was first conceived, disqualifying all sites with rent-controlled units, for instance, which slashed the number of eligible parcels from 30,000 to 13,000. Even that is misleading, planners said, because only some 240 “soft sites” — like parking lots and single-story commercial buildings — would offer the right financial incentive for private redevelopment.
“Most of the parcels in San Francisco have very healthy buildings that it does not make sense to redevelop,” Dischinger said. These soft sites might contain a single-story shop, for instance, that might be sold to a private developer to build a multi-story housing complex.
The possibility of commercial displacement raised plenty of concern. Though the plan affords affected businesses 18 months of warning, right of first refusal, and relocation assistance from the city, some still worried that neighborhood shops would be evicted and fold.
“It could be detrimental to small businesses,” said one Excelsior resident. Another wondered whether this would hurt commercial corridors, saying there are plenty of empty Excelsior storefronts as is. “It doesn’t seem like where density’s been increased it helps commercial businesses,” she said.
Others at the meeting thought private developers would simply put all the market-rate units at the top of the building — to provide better views and up possible rents — and all the affordable units at the bottom.
Gil Kelley, director of citywide planning at the Planning Department, said such isolation would be impossible because the affordable units must be mixed into the building.
“There can be no ghettoization of the affordable units in the bottom,” he said.
But Chandra Egan from the Mayor’s Office of Housing clarified that only the bottom two-thirds of a building would have to be equally mixed, and that developers could indeed choose to put their market-rate units near the top, which Kelley called “an important clarification.”
“This is just blanket rezoning of the city,” said Stiel from the Mission. “It has rezoned certain plots of land and given a gift to developers.”
“We do feel like we’re going to be railroaded on this,” added an Excelsior resident.
For their part, city planners acknowledged the “overwhelming” feeling that the program caused in many residents.
“Whenever you talk about height limits, density requirements, affordable housing, you hit the third, fourth, and fifth rails of politics,” said Gil Kelley, the director of citywide planning at the department.
Controversy over the density bonus program has been enormous, some comparing it to redevelopment from the 1950s to ’70s and others saying it’s a simple and necessary means of extracting more affordable housing from private developers. A meeting at the Planning Commission last month saw a longtime housing advocate characterize the proposal as “ethnic cleansing” because even its affordable units would be too expensive for the neighborhoods most affected.
Kelley said that though that characterization was offensive, the critique that the affordable units in the program would not be targeting the median income of many neighborhoods was valid and that the department is working on a revised plan.
“We’ll continue to noodle with that,” Kelley said. He expects to have a more nuanced approach in front of the Planning Commission next Thursday, when the program will be discussed again.
Less than 1 percent of the projected units under the program are in the Mission district, and just some 2 percent in the Excelsior. Most of the eligible land is in the Western Addition and Bayview–Hunter’s Point — the traditional black enclaves of the city — as well as the Financial District.