There’s been a murder!
A murder of a charter amendment to streamline affordable and mixed-income housing, that is. Consequently, there’s been a mixed response from politicos and housing advocates; some mourned last week’s loss, while others eagerly spoke ill of the dead.
On Jan. 26, Supervisor Ahsha Safaí and Mayor London Breed asked the Rules Committee to consider a charter amendment that would allow certain projects to be streamlined if they had 25 units or more. Eligible projects could bypass appeals and review, speeding up the permitting, and use state density bonuses to boot. This could shorten the development process by eight to 18 months.
Nevertheless, the Rules Committee sounded the amendment’s death knell with its 2-to-1 vote (Supervisor Rafael Mandelman dissenting). It effectively renders the amendment a lost cause for the June ballot, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be efforts to bring the idea of streamlining back from the dead. Some hope a similar version to make a difficult run for the November ballot.
Since insanity is defined as repeating the same thing and expecting different results, and because previous charter amendments regarding affordable housing failed, we should look at what’s going on. And, if you cut through the noise and politics, Safaí’s amendment boils down to questions we really ought to consider: First, should we streamline affordable housing that targets middle-income needs? And, if so, what are we willing to give up in exchange?
The situation we find ourselves in
To answer the first question: Yes, we need middle-income housing, full stop. Planning Department data shows that the city has historically under-built all types of affordable housing. From 2009 to 2019, only 20 percent of the total very-low-income housing we needed was built; only 14 percent of the low-income housing we needed was built. Just 6 percent of the total moderate-income housing we needed was built.
Moderate income is defined as those earning between 80 to 120 percent of the area median income, which is roughly $74,000 and $112,000, respectively, for one person, and $106,000 and $160,000 for a family of four. This includes teachers, electricians, union and labor workers, some of whom drive all the way from Sacramento to work their shifts in the city. Such long commutes are horrendous for commuters and their families, for the environment and for our community, which benefits from their work.
So we need to build more housing. It would be even better if it didn’t take eight years to do so, which is why a streamlined approach could greatly help. We already streamline teacher housing.
Using that same rationale, Safaí and Breed’s streamlining effort wasn’t a bad idea. Does that mean it was a perfect solution? No. Nor does that mean we should abandon the idea of streamlining middle-income housing.
A way with words
So, where did this amendment go wrong? Unfortunately, it went wrong at the definition, it seems.
In Safaí’s original version of the charter amendment, projects that bypass the process fall under two definitions: “Affordable housing” and “increased affordable housing.” The former is a project of 25 units or more, consisting of 100 percent affordable housing and priced, as amended, toward 120 percent of the area median income.
More controversial was the inclusion of “increased affordable housing,” which is a mixed-income project of 25 units or more that provides more affordable units than usual. Mixed-income is also beneficial for increasing economic integration, bettering residents’ lives, and tends to deliver affordable units faster than 100 percent affordable projects. Cool.
Already, the city’s Inclusionary Housing Policy requires market-rate developers to contribute to affordable housing. As of 2022, market-rate projects with more than 25 units need to set aside 21.5 percent of their on-site units at affordable rates. So, for a 100 unit-project, developers now need to provide 22 affordable units on-site.
Safaí’s amendment would extend the streamlining benefits to developers who go beyond that and create “increased affordability projects.” That increase is determined by calculating 15 percent of the required number of units. In the example above, that would be 15 percent of 22 units, or three more affordable units. So the 22 affordable units now become 25 affordable units on a 100-unit project. That’s not a lot, but it’s something.
In exchange, developers would get the power to skip project appeals and certain reviews. That limits local advocates’ ability to give input or to criticize a project. Also, if applicable, the developer could also take advantage of state density bonus laws that boost density by up to 35 percent.
Are the three extra units enough to forgo local control? The answer depends on who you ask.
To housing think-tank SPUR and some affordable housing developers, San Francisco’s past practice of abusing the appeal process has increased the need for development.
“I see it as more just creating another pathway to move forward, and removing a lot of the red tape and some of the obstructions to new development rather than tying the city down,” said Sujata Srivastava, director of SPUR in San Francisco.
Sam Moss, the executive director of Mission Housing who, in the past, supported similar affordable charter amendments, agreed. Both Moss and Srivastava pointed out how San Francisco uniquely opens every project to discretionary review. Other counties and cities use ministerial review to bypass stages in the process.
“God forbid that people have to follow the law and the planning code if it had to be ministerial, like most other places in the country that still manage to survive,” Moss said.
Those opposed, including community members and progressive housing advocates, said the amendment veiled its true intention: To streamline market-rate housing. They said they’d rather the city build more “deeply affordable” units for those earning far less than 120 percent area median income. Okay, but let’s not pit one type against the other; we need both.
While people have characterized those opposed to Safaí’s amendment as unwilling to build, housing advocates like Peter Cohen of the Community Council of Housing Organizations, which represents a wide swath of housing organizations in the city, say there are better ways to speed construction.
Cohen pointed to other streamlining measures that require higher affordability. For example, SB35 requires developers to build half the units of a project with 80 percent area median income; local program HomeSF allows streamlining affordable units with a higher affordability percentage of up to 30 percent.
Others point out, too, that Safaí and the mayor were unlikely to clinch the six votes from the full board. In the past, two other mayor-suggested amendments failed. Some may recall Wednesday’s rocky start. Supervisor Aaron Peskin appeared irritated at the failure to send amendments before the committee (Safaí apologized and dispensed those); Peskin further highlighted that Safaí was the sole supervisor sponsor. Supervisor Myrna Melgar told the Chronicle she declined support.
Though political consultant Jim Stearns had no specific knowledge about this charter amendment, he said that politicians who announce legislation without doing “any work to get enough votes … would lead a reasonable person to conclude that they are more interested in the grandstanding of it.”
Safaí disagreed with that statement. He told Mission Local via email that he approached all supervisors, except Hillary Ronen and Dean Preston, who he would have approached later in the process, and trade groups and community groups.
“I believe I adequately shared the positive impacts of this initiative with a wide range of stakeholders, and if more discussion was needed, I should have been allowed that opportunity in Committee and with the entire Board as the process proceeded,” he wrote. “There was tremendous outreach done on this initiative over the past year.”
Charter chatter and next moves
Mandelman also feels there should be a finer balance between streamlining perks and affordability output. He said Safaí’s amendment was a less than perfect proposal. It was “broad and far-reaching, and would have had impacts far greater than I think we can grasp right now,” Mandelman told Mission Local.
He believes there is a pathway to streamlining more middle-income housing, but he advocates for a “narrower path.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, Mandelman called for numerous amendments to be explored, including a time limit, and some restoration of local control that Safaí’s amendment would have wiped out.
That builds off Peskin’s main reason to kill it: that a charter is tough because it requires a vote to revise. This has been his consistent position for charter amendment proposals. After all, extensive power that’s hard to undo shouldn’t be approved easily, even if it delivers something we desperately need.
In his speech against the measure, Peskin recalled when in 2012 Mayor Ed Lee proposed a charter amendment to set up the Housing Trust Fund to develop affordable housing that defined how many affordable units market-rate developers should include on-site. When Peskin and then-Supervisor Jane Kim wanted to increase that requirement, they had to go back to voters in 2016.
Peskin said it may have cost the city thousands of affordable units, which would’ve been nice to have right about now.
Safaí responded that these types of changes require a city charter amendment, not an ordinance, according to the City Attorney (Mission Local confirmed this). He told Mission Local signature-gathering may be a next step.
“I think both sides use [the sanctity of the charter] when it suits them,” Stearns said about charter amendments. Generally, “There’s few things that can be done one way. Most things can be done many ways.”
But, given the past failed attempts to amend the charter, maybe we should investigate other methods that still offer incentives to build middle-income housing faster.
“The board should come up with something that addresses what is reasonable of what [Safaí’s] proposing,” Mandelman said. “I think if they didn’t pass it they’d try to do it on the ballot. And those of us who think they’re going too far, we need to come up with an honest alternative.”