It was a rare moment of accord at City Hall on Thursday, as activists frequently on opposite sides of San Francisco’s housing wars buried their hatchets to jointly support a Mission District affordable housing project contested by its neighbors.
The project went before the Planning Commission to seek a height bonus, which would allow it to go to 85 feet in a lot zoned for 65 feet.
Neighbors say that at nine stories, the 94-unit senior housing at 1296 Shotwell St. near 26th Street would be too tall and dense, robbing sunlight and causing congestion in a residential area.
“We support low income senior housing at 1296 Shotwell Street,” said Craig Weber, a nearby homeowner who has led opposition to the project for months. “It’s too tall, has no parking, and puts high density on a residential street. You need to consider that, please.”
Mission District activists supporting the project, who often fight market-rate housing in the neighborhood but support affordable housing, brought dozens of seniors to speak before the commission.
“I don’t have anywhere to live, I’m living with my eldest son in the living room,” said Maria Consuelo, who said she is “in the way” of her son’s life and needs a place of her own. “That’s why I’m here, because I need housing. We need you to help us.”
A dozen monolingual Spanish-speaking elders addressed the commission, through a translator and often through tears.
Some said they were homeless and had spent 10 years applying for housing. Others that they were evicted and needed a room, or disabled and needed a room, or poor and needed a room.
“I’m supporting this project for a lot of people who don’t have anywhere to live,” said Maria Flores, who lives at the Bethany Center on Capp Street but spoke for the homeless in the “cold and the rain” who could use the rooms. “San Francisco would be a beautiful city if it had buildings for all these people.”
But the activists also had allies in the YIMBYs – yes-in-my-back-yard activists – who support the production of all housing. They testified in support of the senior housing project alongside those they often clash with.
“This is a great idea for a project, all of these people who will live in it need housing, definitely,” said Sonja Trauss, the founder of the pro-development Bay Area Renters Federation, known as BARF, and also part of the YIMBY Party.
“I’m obviously in support of this project, more housing that’s great,” said Laura Clark, the leader of Grow SF, which is also allied with the YIMBY Party.
Dairo Romero, a community planning manager with the Mission Economic Development Agency, one of the project developers, noted the irony. He and others often come before the Planning Commission to kill or delay new housing, he said, but had switched roles.
“Most of the time we are against something. This is actually only the second time I’ve been here in support of something,” he said. “But we brought our people out here today because we are in support of something — we want more affordable housing for our seniors.”
At 85 feet, the nine-story building would be a stand-out in an area of mostly single-family homes. Its development team, the Mission Economic Development Agency and the Chinatown Community Development Center, have since May held meetings with residents concerned about their lost views and neighborhood character.
The extra height request on Thursday passed unanimously, however, and likely would have without the mass show of support. Commissioners praised the building’s design and said the neighborhood needed housing.
“I could not go to sleep tonight voting no on this project,” said Dennis Richards, the vice-president of the commission.
The 1296 Shotwell project will have 93 studios and one-bedrooms — and one two-bedroom for a property manager. It will be for seniors making up to 50 percent of area median income, or $37,700 for a single person household.
A fifth of the units would be reserved for formerly homeless seniors making up to $15,100 a year, and the site will have no parking in accordance with the city’s transit oriented development strategy.
It is one of seven fully affordable housing projects that will come to the Mission District in the next five years, bringing in some 750 below-market-rate units. It is just one of two such buildings south of 19th Street — the rest are clustered near 16th and Mission streets and one is on Bryant Street. All but one of them will go to 85 feet.
Thanks to the recently-passed neighborhood preference legislation, 40 percent of the units in all affordable buildings are reserved for residents living in the supervisorial district of the project site or within areas undergoing gentrification or displacement.
The influx of tall buildings was worrisome to at least one speaker, who said its senior residents would make parking more difficult in an area awash with dense development.
“We have enough big buildings,” said Connie Weber, the mother of Craig Weber, who said she has lived on Shotwell Street for 85 years. She and her son were the only two to speak against the project, though they have been joined by other neighbors in past meetings.
City staff said they received almost 400 letters in support of the project, but only four against it.
The majority of the hearing was taken up by the largely senior audience that came to speak for housing meant for them.
Marilyn Duran, a community organizer with the non-profit PODER, which conducted outreach for the project, said the approval of the building would help Mission seniors “feel like there’s finally something coming towards them.”
“I’m just overjoyed to hear that there’s so many seniors who are excited for this,” she said. “This is really important, this is about people’s lives.”
The testimony swayed at least one speaker, who said she was concerned about the height and was against putting seniors in tell, dense buildings — but changed her tune after hearing.
“I know I’m the most unpopular person in the room right now, but that isn’t the kind of San Francisco that I think a lot of people want to live in,” she said at first. “I want to say that I’ve changed my mind and I hope the project does go forward.”