Well, back to the ol' drawing board.

Moments ago, a panel of supervisors scuttled a teacher housing charter amendment put forward by Mayor London Breed. This was done with no shortage of drama and acrimony and a lengthy cohort of (dramatic, acrimonious) public speakers. 

But, like a pro wrestling match, the outcome here was never in doubt and everyone knew the script. 

The mayor can count on three, maybe four votes from this board on any given day. You need six supervisors to put a charter amendment onto the ballot — and this charter amendment contained a number of provisions not amenable to the progressive majority on the board. Multiple legislators who spoke to Mission Local said they were never really engaged in a way you’d expect them to be if the object was to win their approval for passage of the charter amendment. 

What’s more, the unions representing the teachers — the teachers for whom this housing is proposed — did not support the mayor’s teacher housing proposal. Instead, they’re backing a competing measure put forward by members of the Board of Supervisors. 

Your humble narrator is not going to weigh in on the merits of the competing measures, and will focus instead on the problems and perceptions that led to today’s fraught — yet ultimately farcical — meeting. This conundrum has been framed, elsewhere, as a battle between a pro-housing mayor and an anti-housing board. Beware the distillation of a beastly complex problem into a simple slogan. Beware anyone on any side of a municipal issue evincing the moral certitude of a Crusader. 

Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer’s much-repeated mantra today was “who are we leaving behind?”

The misgivings the supervisors had with this proposed charter amendment when it was introduced months ago were the same ones expressed today in a telling preamble to the hearing by Supervisors Sandra Lee Fewer and Hillary Ronen. Their feelings weren’t mollified at all. 

In short: The mayor’s proposal would enable “by-right” teacher housing on public land in which one-third of the structure is devoted to commercial space, and, in the residential portion of the structure, one third of the units would be market-rate and open to anyone, and two-thirds would be reserved for teachers. The supes complained, however, that these teacher units would be set for residents earning up to 140 percent of area median income, with no hard and fast requirements to provide for lesser levels. Of note, 140 percent of AMI would be $121,000 for a single person and $172,400 for a family of four. 

What’s more, as this is a proposed charter amendment, the supes bemoaned that this setup — in which a one-bedroom apartment would run $3,000 a month — would be the new definition of “affordable.” 

The mayor has, repeatedly, described the above plan as “100-percent affordable teacher housing.” Which is, if nothing else, excellent branding.

The competing board plan would require everyone in teacher housing to be an educator. It would also cater to those earning less money — half of the units would be for those earning 80 percent of area median income — with 20 percent of the units earmarked for educators earning 160 percent AMI. This split would, ostensibly, make these developments feasible.

(Of note: This is a dicey way to fund a housing development. The mayor’s proposal of allowing one-third of the units to be market-rate housing, while politically treacherous, is not a dicey way to fund a housing development.)

(Also of note: The supes’ plan relies upon structures enabled by Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB 35 — a measure many on San Francisco’s political left did not support.)

As speakers in favor of the mayor’s measure pointed out today, there is less state and/or federal money to be tapped in order to provide housing for middle-income earners — and a family earning $172,000 would be hard-pressed to land property in this town. 

But the conflict here pits middle-income earners against lower-income earners fighting for the same resources. 

“Our concern is that the pie is too small. We do not want middle-income educators’ legitimate need for housing to be pitted against low-income San Franciscans,” said Ken Tray of the United Educators union. “The mayor’s office is creating a new definition of affordable housing. Fair enough. But we would’ve liked to have been there on the ground floor.” 

There was much discussion today regarding “discretionary review,” a San Francisco oddity in which private citizens can inveigh against and pillory even a conforming development. This is a legitimate cause for concern, but developers tell me it’s not near the No. 1 issue holding up their housing projects in this city. Rather, they point to spiraling construction costs and the sclerotic nature of the city’s planning bureaucracy itself. They’re less concerned with community groups holding up a project than the months or years it takes to get a hearing before the Planning Commission and connect a project with a planner.

Sclerotic bureaucracy is a problem — but one the voters needn’t be involved in fixing.  

So why would the mayor’s office move forward with a charter amendment everyone knew was dead on arrival? Think of it as the legislative equivalent of a flaming bag of feces placed on a mark’s doorstep. The mayor invigorated her staunchest supporters while also portraying the board as obstructionist and dysfunctional. 

That’s good politics. That doesn’t mean the mayor’s office isn’t legitimately trying to build more housing in other ways — but, today, the supes were made to dirty themselves by stamping out that flaming bag of feces.

San Francisco’s housing crisis is just that: a crisis. Today the call went out to public speakers on both sides to provide cover for a preordained outcome. That’s politics as usual, but politics as usual got us to where we are. 

The charter amendment was tabled today, but the mayor and board are still both presenting competing ordinances regarding teacher housing. If teachers could live in legislation, San Francisco’s educators would be set up well. 

The differences between these measures are described as trivial by everyone in City Hall I’ve spoken with. Which could, in fact, lead to the most rancorous arguments of all, and competing measures being thrown to the voters come November. To wit: The definition of “affordable housing” and “teacher housing” differ depending upon whom you ask. 

Hopefully housing will be built. As will consensus. 



Follow Us

Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

Join the Conversation


Please keep your comments short and civil. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Joe, I’d really like your opinion.

    Doesn’t something seem wrong in creating a public subsidized housing project that is limited by law to only a particular social group, in this case teachers? I thought integration, diversity, and inclusiveness are considered essential to promoting community harmony and vitality. Essentially, the BOS proposal(and other similar ones) is a gated community for teachers. Shouldn’t teachers live among their students’ families and people in other vocations? The new model of publicly supported housing is include a broad range of income groups. I realize that being done mostly to finance the projects. Shouldn’t it also include a broad range of social groups?

    What’s next? Subsidized housing exclusively for muni operators, firemen, police, sheriff deputies, trash collectors, water treatment workers? Or how about bus boys, janitors, restroom attendants,…. Sandy Fewer is asking who are we leaving behind? The answer is everyone else who wants to locate/stay in SF and can’t afford market rate housing. Is all this theater simply orchestrated to create political patronage?

  2. A big question is the break down on the public sites with what actually will be built or negotiated ad nauseous.

    Balboa reservoir CCSF
    Francis Scott key
    SOTA site on o shaunnessy

    And a few other parcels sold by public entities for developments CCSF gough st comes to mind and ideal teacher housing spot.

    Or how about buying back UPS and UPN from CCSF who piratized prior essential west side teacher family housing for their own nefarious uses… as Defacto dormitories.

  3. Joe, why don’t you investigate why the union didn’t support the mayor’s proposal? No teacher or union rep in public comment was able to articulate why the BoS’s proposal was better than the mayor’s. In fact, some stated preferences which were better met by the mayor’s proposal.

    1. Jake —

      They made it very clear to me, and it was stated on the record in the story, that they were uneasy about the non-requirement for income tiers in the mayor’s proposal. They also noted they wanted to “get in on the ground floor” rather than have a mostly finished proposal presented to them.



      1. That is also part of the political theater. The union told the mayor that they would negotiate only through the supervisors, and then the supervisors refused to talk to the mayor, so when the mayor proposed to put it on the ballot anyway the union could say that they were not in the ground floor. The union chose to ally with the supervisors from the beginning.

  4. Joe, I respect you as someone who can and does ask tough questions, but you’re far too credulous of bad actors on the BOS this time.

    The charter amendment would have closed avenues for obstruction through discretionary review, appeal, and ultimately CEQA lawsuit, which are very much still a going concern, especially as we start to talk about affordable housing on the west side.

    Look back at the Forest Hill affordable housing project that was killed 2 years ago. A rich attorney up the hill had sworn he would tie it up in court if necessary, and the city backed off. Making approvals non-discretionary is the only way to neutralize that line of attack.

    It’s weird to say Mayor Breed isn’t “legitimately trying” to build affordable housing just because a bloc on the BOS was likely to obstruct it. By that logic, I guess Obama wasn’t legitimately trying to fill a Supreme Court seat because he knew Mitch McConnell was going to block it. The BOS refusing to pass this is on the BOS, not the mayor.

    You also don’t mention the fact that the charter amendment would be voted on directly by San Franciscans. So why are Ronen, Peskin, and Fewer scared of putting it on the ballot? Because they know San Francisco wants affordable housing now, and would pass it in a landslide. This is dirty politics to prevent the voters from having our say on spending housing funds effectively.