Developments in Development: Arguments

"Iliad" by David Maxim

Is it just me, or is the fur flying this week in the discussion of how to fix this housing mess? Everyone wants housing costs to come down, but there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground developing over how to do it. Instead, warring policies are being worked through the bureaucratic wringer and stacked up in the media.

Take Palo Alto, for example, where a transportation commissioner argues that the only way to bring costs down is to lift zoning restrictions, while the Mayor says yes, more housing – but also curb job growth.

Bigger picture, there’s the governor’s “by-right” housing legislation, which has faced stubborn opposition from those who fear it would remove opportunities for public input on development, looks like it might be circling the drain. And with it, SFGate reports, go $400 million in state spending for affordable housing. Similar state legislation is in the works.

Part of the discussion over whether things get built revolves around an environmental protection law called CEQA, which pro-development groups often argue is invoked inappropriately by people who oppose new developments just to to get projects killed or slowed down. Not so, says 48Hills, discussing a report from an environmental protection and advocacy group that found the number of local projects halted or litigated through CEQA is relatively small.

The city controller has found in a report forthcoming in September that the new required percentage of below-market-rate units in new developments – set at 25 percent with the passage of Prop C last year – will stall the production of housing overall.

The report finds 18 percent is closer to the “magic number” where developers will not be deterred from producing new housing, landowners won’t be incentivized to sit on their land rather than sell for the highest possible profit, and affordable housing still gets built. But we don’t yet know the report’s assumptions, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, critics are already saying that an unwillingness to devalue land undermines the value of the report. They’re also seizing on the other key finding: That the city really ought to raise the “in lieu” fees developers can pay to get out of having to actually build that below-market-rate housing.

(Extra credit reading for wonks: Here are two blog deep-dives into how zoning affects land value and what Craigslist listings tell us about the cost of housing)

Another approach to getting affordable housing to those who need it most, and fast, has been to prioritize certain groups of people. On one hand, the state legislature just approved a law that allows housing specifically for teachers to be built on property owned by the district.

On the other, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and city of San Francisco are arguing over whether a neighborhood preference reserving 40 percent of a new affordable housing development for those who live in the immediate vicinity enables segregation or prevents minorities from being driven out by gentrification.

Meanwhile, a power vacuum has developed at the Planning Commission, where lots of decisions about what actually gets built are made. Two commissioners, one generally in favor of approving projects and one who tends to be more cautious, are departing. Depending on their political leanings, two new like-minded appointees could heavily steer the body’s voting.

While all these high-level, broad-spectrum discussions are going on, at the very local level we have some more underwhelming news that still might have a small effect on your daily life:

Public Works is continuing work on its Potrero Avenue streetscape improvements. Crews are installing new bus pads along Potrero Avenue between 22nd and 23rd streets, replacing broken sections of street base (23rd between Vermont and Potrero is slated to be worked on September 3), adding a 12-inch water line between Alameda and 15th streets, and working on traffic signal conduits between 22nd and 24th streets. Concerns can be called in to 311.

Finally, SFist reports that the city’s urine-reflective coatings experiment seems to have been reincarnated into piss-proof coatings inside BART elevators. Perhaps time for another hard-hitting investigation?

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