The talk of the town
Given its excess air time, I wasn’t going to talk about the notorious development on 469 Stevenson St. Then the debate crossed into Mission territory. So, here goes.
The 495-unit project slated for a Nordstrom’s parking lot sought to build 73 below-market-rate units on site. It also requested to take advantage of the state’s density bonus, forcing the developer to donate a parcel earmarked for extra off-site affordable housing. All in all, a 24 percent affordability deal.
But community members said the location would trigger gentrification in and around Stevenson, specifically for Single Room Occupancy and Filipino members. John Elberling, a leader of the Yerba Buena Neighborhood Consortium, the main group appealing the project, called it “The Monster on Sixth Street.”
You know the rest: Eight supervisors voted to delay it for environmental concerns, causing backlash and necessitating Twitter and media damage control. The proposal at 469 Stevenson quickly ballooned from a scorned project into a symbol of which side of a housing debate one supported.
Several of the eight supervisors who delayed it — Supervisors Connie Chan, Hillary Ronen, Myrna Melgar, Gordon Mar, Aaron Peskin, Dean Preston, Rafael Mandelman, and Shamann Walton — repeatedly said they were not anti-housing, but rather preferred developments with higher affordability ratios to mitigate the displacement of marginalized residents. Not all were convinced.
So, what if they highlighted a model project that checked all the boxes: hundreds of units, maximum affordability, and overwhelming community support?
Days after the Stevenson vote, news of the Marvel in the Mission, a hard-fought 100 percent affordable housing building, surfaced. Suddenly, berated supervisors embraced it as the antithesis of Stevenson.
“Perhaps BIPOC community groups know better than YIMBY Twitter what’s good for their communities,” Supervisor Dean Preston tweeted.
Supervisor Matt Haney, however, shot back a reality that Preston and others ignored: The Marvel would not happen without the land dedication connected to a 900-plus-unit “almost entirely market rate development” at 10 South Van Ness Ave., about a mile from the Stevenson project, and less than a mile from the Marvel.
The Marvel in the Mission
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone against the Marvel in the Mission; it’s a 331-unit 100-percent affordable housing project slated for 1979 Mission St., near 16th Street. With no displacements and lots of units, it’s pretty much the perfect deal, but it came at a cost that politicians and the Internet overlooked.
As Haney tweeted, the deal was cemented, thanks to the market rate development at 10 South Van Ness. Developer Crescent Heights eyed a 966-unit market rate housing there, but needed to satisfy its end of the city’s inclusionary housing deal. After negotiating with community groups headed by Elberling, they agreed to buy the land at 16th and Mission streets for 100 percent affordable housing in exchange for full support of the deal, and bonuses on height and units.
In other words, the Marvel was an unlikely gift without the approval of another market-rate building. The project there, first proposed in October, 2013, was dropped by the developer in February, 2020, and put up for sale.
“I want to be clear, the [Marvel] in the Mission is a great outcome. But the unintended consequences is it creates this false hope,” said Todd David, executive director of San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.
That hope is that building affordable housing is quick or easy. “We’ve made affordable housing a neoliberal hellscape,” said Sam Moss, executive director of Mission Housing. He’d love for San Francisco to build only 100-percent affordable housing. However, that’s not financially sustainable: Most of the present funds are spoken for, and there’s a backlog of projects.
“I would love [to build] only 100 percent affordable housing. I also would love a pony and to drink rainbow-juice every day,” Moss said. “We only have so much money.”
He said Mission Housing will make a bid to develop the Marvel. At present, there is no developer, nor financing.
When that’s secured, time will be lost. Certainly, the Marvel’s development was complicated by a family battle and dodgy developer advertisements, which the community passionately and successfully fought. Nevertheless, it’s taken eight years to make development progress. Who has been pushed out in the meantime?
“It’s a legitimate policy question. Is a 10- or 15-year delay worth going from a mixed-income to a 100 percent affordable project, when there’s no guarantee when you’ll get a 100 percent affordable project?” David said. “Is the bird in the hand better than two in a bush?”
100 percent affordable, or mixed income? That is the question
According to Ronen’s tweet praising the Marvel, the wait was worth it. It would be the eighth affordable development approved in the Mission in recent years and would house “families & workers who would otherwise be pushed out.”
Eight affordable housing projects in the Mission is a win. It keeps people who need to live here, home; already, 9,000 Latinxs left the Mission between 2000 and 2019. Yet, harm could arrive in an alternate form. Numerous studies show that concentrating affordable housing units in one area leads to more segregated neighborhoods, and prevents underserved populations from accessing better socioeconomic opportunities.
That’s a major reason why, in the early 2000s, the city introduced the Inclusionary Affordable Housing Program. It requires developers to offset market-rate units by pitching into affordable housing development through building on-site affordable units or by paying a fee to develop 100 percent affordable units elsewhere.
A key “concept of inclusionary was integrating folks from segregated communities,” said Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations.
Despite the “menu” of options, historically the Board of Supervisors encourages developers to build on site. This method not only reduces segregation, but completes projects at least a year faster than in-lieu-fee projects, primarily because affordable units go up at the same time as the market-rate ones.
About 75 percent of the developers built units on site until 2010, when the inclusionary program was revised and incentivized developers to pay in-lieu fees. By 2011, about 55 percent of developers paid fees and 27 percent built on-site units. (Supervisors noted and criticized this anew at an October committee meeting.)
But, while fees may take longer, developers like Moss and the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development argue that they allow the city to maximize funds and create more affordable units. A 2012 city performance audit also suggested that fees target more very low-income residents than on site, thus roping in more vulnerable communities.
And, in Moss’s view, the addition of a community space in 100-percent affordable housing buildings unites the community more than slapping a single low-income floor on a 12-story, market-rate apartment.
Although the Marvel got created via land dedication and not an in-lieu fee, the same concepts apply. With 331 below-market-rate units, it will offer hundreds more affordable units compared to the original 46 in the mixed-income plan. The Marvel certainly won over the community, and may mitigate displacement.
Stevenson, on the other hand, could’ve had the best of both worlds. It would’ve included 73 on-site units, AKA leasing some units quicker, and integrating segregated communities within the building. It also had to contribute a parcel for off-site development, leaving funds for future 100 percent affordable housing, rounding the project to 118 affordable total units.
No matter. The vote pushed it back at least another year. Right now, both it and the Marvel in the Mission remain under-utilized lots.