The initial concept for the 157-unit development at 1950 Mission St. Design by David Baker Architects.

It’s been nearly a decade since the last large-scale, entirely affordable building was completed in the Mission, and it will be longer still before any of the seven affordable projects in the pipeline break ground.

How long is hard to say, but already many of those seven — representing more than 770 affordable housing units — have run into their share of delays from neighbors as well as administrative hurdles.

Most appear to be on track to take about three years from proposal to groundbreaking. That’s less time than many market-rate projects, but more time than those who’re suffering the effects of the housing crisis might like. 

The YIMBYs — Yes In My Back Yard, a group that advocates for the development of housing — are pushing a ballot measure that would take away the power of neighbors to try to block low-income housing.

“This is going to make sure that affordable housing is not always dealing with the bulshittery that goes into the planning process,” said Laura Foote Clark, who heads up the organization YIMBY Action.

“Neighborhoods that don’t want affordable housing are able to fight it tooth and nail, and I don’t think that’s right,” Clark continued. “If we’re going to have equity of development we need to have affordable development everywhere, in every district.”

The ballot measure proposes to make approval of any code-compliant proposal for entirely below-market-rate housing a matter of course. It would take only ministerial action, not a hearing, to approve. And putting up roadblocks like appeals under environmental laws or asking for additional review hearings wouldn’t fly.

Even in the Mission, a neighborhood where activists have been known to clamor for “100 percent affordable or nothing,” bureaucracy and residents with other priorities have stalled the development of subsidized housing.

A 94-unit project that will eventually house formerly homeless seniors at 1296 Shotwell St. by Cesar Chavez, for example, was dragged all the way to the Board of Supervisors by an appeal from neighbors who had concerns about a lack of parking, a feared increase in crime, building height and ugly views from Bernal Heights. The appeal was rejected and the project can carry on.

That appeal crossed the line for Sam Moss, Executive Director of Mission Housing Development Corporation, an affordable housing nonprofit. Moss also sits on the YIMBY board.

“Why did all of us have to go to the Board of Supervisors that day because there’s people whose view corridor matters more than homeless senior housing?” he said. “I’m sorry, but it’s gotten out of hand.”

Elsewhere, 127 units of below-market-rate housing at 2060 Folsom St. near 17th needed to go to a hearing before the Planning Commission because a neighbor feared the project would exacerbate flooding in the area. Commissioners weren’t convinced, and easily passed the project a second time.

But for Moss’ nonprofit, it was the process of obtaining a permit itself that proved frustrating. Mission Housing and its partner group on this project, BRIDGE Housing, are tasked with building affordable housing at 490 South Van Ness Ave. The lot is an abandoned gas station at 16th Street that the city bought for $18.5 million — around $260,000 a unit — in 2015.

At this point, Moss said, that project is just waiting for various city departments other than Planning to sign off so a building permit can be issued and construction can begin.

“We were removing parking, and we added eight percent more units. We went from 72 to 80, and if this ballot measure had existed, that would have been, okay, fine. Over the counter,” Moss said. “It wouldn’t have been months and months of redrawing and environmental [considerations] and all that, it would’ve just happened.”

Already, several other efforts to streamline the process of getting housing permitted are about to kick in. Senate Bill 35, a California state law that eliminates certain administrative hurdles that neighbors or planners can set in the path of a project, goes into effect next year. It only kicks in for the type of housing — affordable or market rate — that a city isn’t building enough of, according to state standards. In San Francisco, that means market-rate projects continue as they were, but the road is smoothed for affordable projects.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee also recently decreed that the city should build 5,000 new homes a year and most projects should get approvals in less than two years.

And there’s various city programs that allow developers to exceed predetermined heights in exchange for more affordable units.

So Karoleen Feng, who runs the community real estate department at the Mission Economic Development Agency, a partner agency in four of the neighborhood’s seven affordable buildings, isn’t impressed by the ballot measure proposal.

“We already have by-right approval through the affordable-housing density bonus and the mayor’s directive to all departments. We don’t see the need for this measure,” she said.

Clark, meanwhile, argued that the Mayor’s order largely pushes departments that come in after Planning is done to issue all their approvals in a timely manner.

The YIMBY ballot measure focuses on getting new projects through the planning process faster. And affordable density bonus programs still require projects to go through a hearing.

It also makes the streamlining for affordable buildings permanent, while the state law is contingent upon the city not meeting its state-set goal of affordable units.

The ballot measure is a charter amendment, and needs to gather about 50,000 valid signatures, so Clark is aiming for more than 70,000. The amendment could appear on the June or November ballots next year.

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  1. Neighbors in the North Mission have welcomed 100% affordable housing projects such as 490 South Van Ness; there is no incipient opposition brewing to 1950 Mission either. Go elsewhere to find straw persons to joust at.

    Affordable housing development agencies are businesses just like any other, with their own agendas. They see business opportunities and take them, such as MEDA’s punking on small sites acquisition which was intended for community land trusts, not authoritarian nonprofit client-serving housing.

    CCHO and their constituent agencies speak for themselves, not for the community, most of whom they hold in contempt.

  2. Our affordable family housing a 1950 Mission is proceeding through the arduous process of realization. There are many reasons it takes so long to build any new housing in San Francisco. Affordable housing is especially challenging, taking much longer than privately financed projects. The good news is that once the process is initiated it will eventually come to fruition. It’s important to work on speeding up the process which at times is bizarre: a case in point would be the critically needed affordable family housing we are designing in the Tenderloin neighborhood which is now entering a year plus process to do a full EIR, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, to authorize demolition of a historic tire shop and parking lot. But the smart and dedicated people at the City, the non-profit developers, and the design and construction firms who design and build to the highest standards, will prevail and cross the finish line, someday. ETA? 2020+…

    1. David, is not the term “historic tire shop” an oxymoron? I have made sure that we always clean up dog excrement in front of our laundry within 24 hours so that it is not considered “historic dog excrement:. 🙂

    2. If public policy were sane, building low-cost housing would not take much longer to build than high-cost housing. The fact that you say it does, is evidence of how insane government land use policies are. When a simple, affordable, bare-bones dwelling takes more time to get built than a luxury dwelling, something is seriously wrong with the system and we’d be better off wiping the slate clean and starting over from scratch with a truly “by-right” approach that lets people build what they want on their own property. Think how much time and money would be saved and how much more affordable the resulting housing would be. We might actually be able to have streets without homeless people living in them, as San Francisco did 100 years ago before the onset of the land use planning bureaucracy.

  3. All development has to deal with this BS from special interests and the infuriating Planning Department, which is one of the reasons housing in SF is so scarce. It’s ironic to hear MEDA complaining about obstructionist neighbors using discretionary review and other delay tactics, when MEDA itself is the master of this technique to obstruct numerous development projects.

    1. Now that MEDA is itself a developer, its own very numerous construction projects, small sites projects and building management projects are vulnerable to retaliation: Discretionary Review, appeals to the Appeals Board and CEQA appeals to the Board of Supervisors. As the old sayings go, “turnabout is fair play”, and “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones”. MEDA needs to decide what is more important: to get its own projects built or to disrupt the projects of others. Further, San Francisco needs to limit all the ways that housing is now obstructed.

      1. Is MEDA only now a developer? I thought the “D” stood for “Development”. What have they been doing up until now, just trying to block other peoples’ housing projects?

  4. “This is going to make sure that affordable housing is not always dealing with the bulshittery that goes into the planning process” – I only wish this were true. Unfortunately my understanding is that anyone trying to build low-cost housing without government subsidies will still have to deal with the bullshittery, and that builders of unsubsidized tiny homes, for instance, are being thrown under the bus with this ballot measure.

    1. Well one step at a time is fine for now. Let’s first get “by-right” for 100% subsidized projects and then expand the program to include affordable-by-design (w/o subsidy) projects etc. and so forth.

      1. One step at a time is fine when the steps are in the right direction, but giving preferential treatment to housing financed with stolen taxpayer money over voluntarily financed housing is wrong.