District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen received no clear answers at a hearing she called Monday to figure out why seven fully affordable housing projects in the Mission District are taking so long to break ground.
“I’m not seeing that level of prioritization of these projects, and that’s what’s concerning to me,” Ronen said after she questioned officials from the Mayor’s Office, the Planning Department and the Department of Building Inspection.
All of the officials Ronen questioned seemed to say the same thing: 100 percent affordable projects are a top priority, and we’re moving as fast as we can.
She called their answers “vague” and “loosey-goosey.”
For at least two years, the Mission has had seven fully affordable projects in the pipeline, representing 778 units, many of which are fully funded and fully approved. None has broken ground.
At present, a 94-unit development at 1296 Shotwell Street is slated to break ground next month.
The largest, a 157-unit project at 1950 Mission Street, is slated to break ground in November. Whether either of these will actually break ground remains to be seen.
(See the map below for all seven of the Mission’s fully affordable housing projects.)
Mission residents anxious for permanent affordable housing wondered at Monday’s hearing why the units are not going up faster.
“We have hundreds of people in the Mission that don’t have low-income housing now, and we need it,” said Mervyn Greene, a Mission Hotel resident, during public comment. The situation is “desperate for us who live in the community.”
On average, explained Dan Adams of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, an affordable project takes five years to complete: The first year is dedicated to finding a site, the second for environmental reviews and zoning approvals, the third to secure permits and financing, and the last two years to build.
“What I would love to do is have us make this four years, three and a half years,” he said, suggesting that the city could lean on two directives from late Mayor Ed Lee that were largely meant to prioritize affordable housing projects, as well as some “state-level tools.”
Adams noted, too, that funding is always an issue; often, federal and state money can be difficult to secure.
“We have to hold projects so they’re set up for application to state funding,” he said. “Sometimes we’re in programs where we need to key up a project and put it on hold so that it can apply for $10 million in state funds, and that will elongate the development timeline.”
Daniel Sider, director of executive programs for the Planning Department, insisted that fully affordable projects are his department’s “top-shelf priority.”
“We’re taking these affordable projects at about twice the clip as market-rate projects,” he said.
And yet, it is the market-rate projects that have gone up on Valencia Street, Mission Street, and elsewhere.
James Zhan, a senior engineer with the Department of Building Inspection, agreed that his department prioritizes fully affordable projects. “There can be some misconception that our department sits on the projects without acting on them or approving them,” he said.
Zhan said the process can be slowed by a lack of resources, and projects must undergo many layers of review “to make sure the permit application complies with respective code.”
“Because of resource restrictions, we cannot revive them the minute or day of they come into our department,” he said, noting that taking up a project can take as long as three to four weeks.
Sider said, per the first mayoral directive, the city has two staffers dedicated to shepherding affordable projects through the various departments involved.
That fact was unknown to Karoleen Feng, the director of community real estate at the Mission Economic Development Agency, which now has four 100 percent affordable units in the pipeline.
“We at MEDA did not know there were agencies in the room that had dedicated staff to this. I’m not sure whether the Mayor’s Office of Housing knew,” Feng said. “That’s interesting in itself — the expediting has been in place, and city agencies have been working together, but that has been a little less known to us.”
For Ronen, that was a problem. “I was concerned to hear that one of our community-based affordable-housing developers in the Mission wasn’t aware that there are people in each department that could help expedite affordable-housing projects,” she said, following public comment.
“If (Feng) doesn’t know that, I don’t know who knows that or how word moves on about that,” she added.
Another point of tension came as District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai asked how a recently passed state law, SB35, which removes the review process for certain affordable projects, can cut down on a project’s timeline.
Sider of the Planning Department said that it could shave roughly seven to 12 months off a project’s timeline. “That’s very significant,” he said.
In fact, MEDA — which remains against parts of the law — applied to invoke SB35 to skip the environmental review and expedite its 130-unit project at 681 Florida St,.
Ronen appeared to wince at the exchange. Indeed, the supervisor stated from the get-go that she does not believe in removing local control from the development equation.
“I’m not one for eliminating public voice from projects,” she said after the hearing. “When you close off community voice from projects, you create a bunch of unintended consequences.”
She said allowing the community to work out its concerns before a project goes up is, in many ways, a healthy process that eliminates “resentment” among neighbors down the road.
Plus, she said, “It’s not the CEQA review on these projects that cause the delays — it really isn’t.”
What does remains something of a mystery.