Casa de la Misión, an affordable housing complex for seniors transitioning from homelessness, is occupied. It's located on 3001 24th Street. Photo taken by Annika Hom in September 2021.

If you think approving a project in San Francisco is difficult, try approving a plan encompassing 82,000 units. That’s how much the state is mandating San Francisco to build within eight years, and city planners are attempting to meet the 2031 goal while balancing the interests of marginalized communities. One major problem looms: Money. 

“The resources aren’t there to get to what we are being asked to do by the state,” said Planning Director Rich Hillis at a Planning Commission meeting Thursday. 

That’s a problem. Thanks to new laws, localities that fail to submit plans that meet the state’s requirements could lose local control on projects and affordable housing funding.

On Thursday, the Planning Department sent its most recent draft of the Housing Element to the Planning Commission for review. While commissioners appreciated the robust document full of “aspirational” ideas, they questioned how the city can achieve its low-income housing goals as the feds pull back from funding. 

By 2031, San Francisco must create 32,000 very-low-income and low-income units, as well as 13,000 middle-income units. 

“Affordable housing is going to be the big nut,” Planning Commissioner Frank Fung said. “The problem is the scale. It goes way beyond what we have attempted to do, either with the last bond issue or anything else.”

Not only is the current housing goal high, but the city failed to meet its previous low and middle-income production goals during the last Housing Element cycle that began in  2014. And demand is high. According to a 2019-’20 Mayor’s Office of Housing annual progress report, there were 120,000 applications; only 600 applicants were chosen. 

After analyzing the state’s production goals, current construction costs, and funding sources, senior planner Kimia Haddadan estimates the city will fall short by $1.5 billion to $2 billion per year. 

Part of the reason is that traditional affordable housing resources, like the federal low-income housing credit, are drying up. Director Eric Shaw of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development added that the “availability of state funding” will “be the bottleneck.” Shaw said they are advocating at both the state and federal level for more flexibility and more funds. Locally, San Franciscans can rely on the affordable housing fee, affordable housing bonds, and city tax initiatives like Proposition I to chip in. (The mayor has refused to spend millions of those funds so far.) 

However, housing fees can be volatile, and even if voters approve a housing bond it won’t be enough. “We also need to explore and support new funding sources,” Haddadan said.

Commissioners agreed. “Whether the ability to create or leverage funding from a number of sources we’ll see,” Fung said. He recommended staff find multiple, flexible approaches to affordable development. “What happens if certain things don’t work? It’s really incumbent on other agencies about how we’re going to pay for this.” 

Commissioner Sue Diamond concurred. “I am deeply concerned that this is deeply aspirational on the affordable housing side. She implored the Planning Department to make identifying funding a “top priority” for the next Housing Element draft. 

Hillis said the Housing Element mentioned mayoral and the Board of Supervisors actions the city can control, like passing a vacancy tax that attempts to make the ballot this year. “We tried to lay out options, and we recognize not all will be embraced,” Hillis said, promising more details in their next session. 

Thursday’s discussion also suggested mixed-income housing should be explored, to compensate for some affordable units. “We cannot rely only on 100-percent-affordable housing,” Haddadan said.

This has been a controversial concept for a long time. Pro-density advocates and developers argue that mixed-income housing offsets the expensive cost of building affordable housing, and others highlight how it can encourage social integration. But for certain marginalized communities, this can invite further gentrification and displacement. 

Multiple commissioners and community members also said that  preserving rent-controlled housing, exploring social housing, and facilitating the affordable housing enrollment process, could all help to prevent displacement. 

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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  1. a) buy back parkmerced
    b) buy back stonestown UPN and UPS from SFSU-CSU / see RV’s to know why
    c) buy land from the SFUSD at $1.00 multiple sites across the city
    d) buy land from the SFHA at $1.00 multiple sites across the city
    e) buy land from chevron at $1.00 multiple sites across the city
    f) buy back land from any institution that bought up land prior improperly without addressing impacts and growth, AAA, CCAC, UCSF, USF, big corps etc.

    Than build new social housing affordable rental housing and properly financed co-ops and infill housing options.

    We can talk later, or we can solve for the now NOW…..
    Parkmerced last flipped for what? and is approved for what? so therefore we buy it and redevelop under the SFCLT or other options…?

  2. How many houses in San Francisco have garages? How many additional units of housing would we add if the building, fire and planning department didn’t make homeowners jump through such enormous hurdles just to add an in-law unit instead of (or by reducing) a garage? Just counting houses in the Sunset district, that’s over 20,000 possible units, without any huge buildings, without pushing anyone around. We need to look at incremental developments that allow individual people to add to density throughout the city without relying on huge developments.

    1. Excellent point Mathew! Why are government officials so bent on “pushing people around” as you indelicately put it? Could they be addicted to power over others?

    2. Mathew,

      Those laws to add “incremental development” –for instance, an in-law unit by converting garage/storage space) in the form of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) already exist. They’re helpful, but only a (very small) part of the solution.

      We need to housing creation, at scale, throughout the City –especially the west side; which was massively down-zoned in the 70’s to make apartment construction on 2/3 of SF’s residentially-zoned properties illegal.

    3. ADUs only provide a small amount of not-very-good housing, limit the housing based on individual homeowner’s ability to renovate/modify/etc., and not every homeowner wants to be a landlord.

      ADU development rules have already been dramatically relaxed, but this will have effectively no impact on the housing market. The numbers are just too small, and the various commissions know and knew this.

      The “hoops” people have to jump through for ADUs were somewhat reasonable — things like making sure there’s a fire exit, kitchen, and code-compliant wiring and plumbing. Even that stuff has been relaxed for some older ADUs.

      For those commenting on office space, it’s a different ballgame. Aside from zoning issues, it’s far easier to build office space. There are fewer requirements in the building code, and they’re easier to address. You also get tenants who pay a lot more for a lot longer (and in known/negotiated increments, so you know when you have to start looking again), and in some cases already have those deals signed before you begin build-out or renovation.

      San Francisco’s problems are a combination of a convoluted permitting process and rules (corruption in both of which Mission Local has done a great job of highlighting)…and special interest groups across the political spectrum who more or less argue the only housing that should be built is the kind they want, for the people they want, in the location they want, looking how they want.

      For every NIMBY “rich techie” opposing dropping subsidized housing in their neighborhood, there’s a Calle 24 or equivalent opposing market-rate housing in their neighborhood.

      If SF wants more housing, it needs to build more housing, and stop being so fussy about things like how it looks and who is allowed to live there.

      If the only housing SF builds is subsidized or “affordable”, SF is effectively committing to more income inequality throughout the city.

      Constricted supply of market-rate housing means prices keep going up so only the very rich (or corporations) can buy the market-rate housing that remains. The restrictions on who gets subsidized housing create a persistent underclass who are at risk of losing their housing if they start earning too much money. The people who really lose out are the ones who are in the middle — not rich enough to drop $1.5M+ on a home, not poor enough to qualify for the small pool of subsidized housing.

      If you aren’t very rich or very poor, you’re out of luck.

  3. In my neighborhood association, we are thinking about this complex issue. Seems no one is talking about excessive commercial/office development as a driver of our housing “crisis.” This has been going on for a long time. As a San Franciscan whose childhood friends have all moved to the suburbs, I love our compact city. However, I fear we are being pushed into unhealthy crowding. (some are already there). Perception of crowding inspires many people to move to unsustainable neighborhoods. For example, I am completely befuddled by the mailer I received the other day advertising a development in Cloverdale, Sonoma County: 40 acres with 32 single family homes. Is this legal in our state? Given where San Francisco is being pushed, I think such sprawl development should not be permitted. Is anyone else paying attention to the many different factors that are affecting our whole state’s ability balance the many needs — and/or desires vs. needs — of our residents?

    1. What you describe sounds like a matter of builders in Sonoma facing *too many* restrictions, not too few. Given the high demand for low-cost housing, surely there would be more profit in building and selling hundreds of less-expensive units on those 40 acres, than in building only 32 single-family homes there. The fact that they didn’t do this is probably the result of it being either outright prohibited, or made impractical by too many regulatory hoops to jump through, too many extra fees, etc.

  4. appreciate this article. but what enrages me also is that journalists, and housing activists never call out democrat FED administrations for housing funding. cities cannot build massive projects by themselves. C’mon that has not happened for 150 years. It has always been massive state and federal funding!.. Look at how much Clinton (more then Reagan!) cut Hud funding etc, and Obama except for one year….and Jerry Brown, except for one year maybe. If you want to build great middle class working class mixed dense housing, the money has to come from the Fed. They loan trillions to the finance sector also at zero interest rate loans, but some reason…..can’t do that to states for housing and transit.

  5. So maybe the supervisors shouldn’t be engaged in blatantly illegal (under the state bonus program) practices like trying to block the developments at the “historic laundromat” on Mission St or the Nordstrom’s valet parking lot on Stevenson St?

  6. Were these state laws serious about anything but developer give-aways, they’d condition the approval of market rate luxury condos on the identified and programmed funding for affordable housing. That’s the leverage that Weiner forfeited. Now, all developers have to do is drag ass at the beginning of the period for “streamlining” to kick in which blows through local requirements gooses their profits.

  7. The one thing I’m not reading anywhere is reducing the cost of the affordable housing being proposed/built. I.e. the building at 18th and Mission is costing over 800K per unit to build. Is that really the cheapest they could do? Isn’t it their responsibility to spend as little as possible per unit so they can build as many units as the money will buy? Why are they not using the cheapest materials that are legal in ALL subsidized housing???

    1. While other factors such as workmanship play a role – you build a structure “using the cheapest materials” means a shorter overall lifetime and higher maintenance costs. What with that cheapest-material pipe hat saved $20k during construction busts after five years, triggering a $200k repair plus monthslong inhabitability of several units.

  8. Whoops – well there you go. Proof reading 120,000.
    Serves me right for pointing out other peoples potential mistakes:

    Respectfully: “120,000 applications and only 600 applicants” Might be, near as can be figured, “120,000 applications and only 600 occupants”

    1. Hi thanks, you’re right. It was supposed to say occupants. It’s now fixed. Thank you!

      1. Annika, in your reporting on this issue, have you considered including a free market perspective?

        I believe that this whole housing mess is due to government regulation and limits on developing new housing – that if property owners were allowed to modify their own property as they choose, there would be no housing shortage and drastically reduced homelessness in short order. Years ago, before San Francisco city government developed its labyrinthine housing regulations and bureaucracy, with all manner of expensive costs and delays, there was no rampant homelessness as there is today.

        Would be happy to talk with you further about this perspective and how it can be included.

  9. Respectfully:
    “20,000 applications and only 600 applicants”
    Might be, near as can be figured, “20,000 applications and only 600 occupants”.
    This is for BMR rentals. BMR sales are equally dismal.
    There are many takeaways from this, what musta cost a million bucks, report.
    Just a few random pickings:

    “The Certificate of Preference (COP) program gives a lottery preference to persons displaced in the 1960’s-1970’s by the former Redevelopment Agency’s urban renewal programs”. Should read “forcibly” displaced.

    We sure do like the concept of keeping our African Americans segregated in the Deep South … east.

    3 “Black or African American” occupants made it to Occupant within BMR sales.
    Assume these units are deed restricted so the prospect of passing on inter-generational equity wealth is forestalled.

    The list of Community Development Grantees provides a glimpse on how many non-governmental entities (all non-profits?) it takes to keep the ball rolling.
    See if you can count them all. I gave up.

  10. “$1.5 million to $2 billion” – that’s a wide range, presuming both should say billions?
    “there were 120,000 applications and only 600 applicants” – this is confusing, based on the link, the latter should say chosen

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for reading! Yes, my apologies. They were supposed to say billion for both. Fixed to be occupants as well. Thanks!