SF Planning Director John Rahaim wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors on Friday, expressing concern over displacement, pointing to efforts to address it, but also arguing for more housing – regardless of who it is built to house.

The letter responded to an earlier and unanimous November vote by the Board that effectively sent a 157-unit building at 1515 South Van Ness Avenue back to the drawing board.

“I want to let you know that I personally share many of the concerns raised at the hearing about the serious challenges to our city’s racial, cultural, and economic diversity posed by the current economic climate,” Rahaim wrote. “We are exploring how we undertake a broader socio-economic analysis of displacement, gentrification and growth with a focus on equity.”

While he touched on key talking points of anti-market-rate activists like the decline in the Latino population in the Mission, he also underscored a key argument made by the YIMBY (yes-in-my-back-yard) party’s argument that the supply of housing in the region is simply inadequate to accommodate the influx of new residents.

“We know that there is simply not enough housing regionally or in San Francisco to meet our needs,” Rahaim wrote. “We know that producing housing at all income levels is critical, and that is why we are working with you and other elected officials to strengthen our affordable housing policies.”

Sonja Trauss, the founder of the Bay Area Renters Federation, known as BARF, which is allied with the YIMBY party, saw this as an attempt to appeal to both affordable housing advocates and those who, like herself, believe the city must build new housing at any level.

“He’s like, I’m concerned about displacement, and then he goes into how we really have to build at all income levels,” Trauss said. “Those are each dog whistles for two really opposite philosophies.”

The appeal on 1515 South Van Ness was made by the Calle 24  Latino Cultural District Community Council and its leaders, who argued that constructing high-income housing would exacerbate displacement.  Keeping 25 percent of the units there at below market rate rents as the developer had promised,  would not be enough to offset the negative effects, they said.

The Board directed the city to conduct further study on how market-rate development impacts displacement and gentrification.

Rahaim pointed to the collaboratively developed Mission Area Plan 2020, the Planning Department’s Interim Controls for the Mission District, and the 24th Street cultural corridor as efforts the department has made to quell displacement.

“We are working every day with the community, Planning Commission, elected leaders, and our City partners to undertake a series of policy and implementation efforts aimed at pursuing this goal,” he wrote. “These include efforts to stabilize our neighborhoods and existing housing stock; to create more housing options for San Franciscans at every income level and strengthen our affordable housing requirements; to deepen our understanding of the complex forces behind these issues; and adapt our housing supply to the unique needs of every San Franciscan.”

Diana Flores, a tenants rights advocate with the advocacy group Causa Justa::Just Cause also lauded the MAP 2020 plan for its community input.

“Unless we have that kind of engagement, most projects are going to have some sort of resistance to the changes that are coming into neighborhoods, where folks are trying to vocalize these changes and the city is not making any space for them to be heard,” she said.

On Monday, Calle 24’s president Erick Arguello characterized the letter, and these efforts, as a signal that neighborhood organizers have been effective.

“I think it took the community to really make its case and really share what’s happening in the neighborhood,” Arguello said. “It’s hard for folks on the outside to see what’s really happening on the inside.”

Trauss and Arguello both lauded the city’s efforts to acquire small multi-unit properties, known as the Small Sites Acquisition Program.  These efforts keep existing long-term tenants in place and expand the city’s permanently affordable housing stock without having to build new units.

Incoming District 9 supervisor Hillary Ronen said she was heartened by the letter, but focused on developing concrete legislative changes to address displacement.

“I’m really happy that the planning director is being proactive and taking the displacement crisis so seriously and I’m heartened that they’re going to do… analysis of the problem,” she said. “But the proof is gonna be in what sort of policy changes and legislation that we put into place.”

In the letter, Rahaim refers to efforts to bring 1,000 units of affordable housing to the Mission. In her run for Supervisor, Ronen promised to bring five times that in the next 10 years.

The letter comes at a time when new strategies for housing development and mitigating displacement are already clashing.  

Newly elected State Senator Scott Wiener announced the introduction of legislation to streamline local planning processes, igniting speculation what exactly that would mean and whether it would diminish the influence of local advocacy groups.

Rahaim wrote that the department has also begun drafting legislation related to preserving production, distribution and repairs spaces and protecting neighborhood businesses in the next six to 12 months, as well as a study on zoning changes to increase the city’s affordable housing capacity.

The Planning Department is now tasked with reviewing the social and economic effects of the 1515 South Van Ness project on the 24th Street Latino Cultural Corridor.

The Board of Supervisors will consider another appeal Tuesday brought by the same group that appealed 1515 South Van Ness. This time, Calle 24 is appealing the approval under environmental and conditional use laws of 2675 Folsom Street, a 117-unit building.

The Planning Department will consider the Mission Action Plan 2020 will in 2017.

Planning Director Letter by MissionLocal on Scribd