Councilmember Joel Engardio at a podium.
Joel Engardio at the Planning Commission.

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Could the mayor’s new housing legislation make San Francisco the Paris of the West? Supervisor Joel Engardio argued it would — and, following a 4-2 vote, the Planning Commission seemed to agree. 

Mayor London Breed and Engardio proposed an ordinance Thursday that would slash housing fees, permits and other red tape in an effort to accelerate housing production. 

At a  Planning Commission meeting, Engardio painted a dreamy picture of what the low-lying west side could look like with more housing: Six-story buildings all around, where hundreds of tenants live above ground-floor cafes. 

But that can’t happen without serious changes to city policies, he said. “We don’t have enough housing for the teachers, first responders and the next generation of families,” Engardio said at the meeting. 

Commissioners Rachael Tanner, Derek Braun, Joel Koppel, and Sue Diamond concurred. The ordinance will now move to the Board of Supervisors.

“We’ve underbuilt for decades in the state, so now we’re trying to catch up in a big way,” said Tanner. “I know it turns the page for our city.” 

Commissioners Kathrin Moore and Theresa Imperial voted against the measure, citing questions about the reduced role of the Planning Commission and insufficient protections for marginalized communities. 

Advertised as a major change to housing policy, the meeting today attracted dozens of San Franciscans who filled the usually empty chambers to voice support or express concern.  

During the three-hour public comment period, affordable housing advocates, environmentalists and pro-density groups, like YIMBY Action and SPUR, passionately traded anecdotes of homelessness, detailed economic studies, and long-winded comparisons to Paris. 

Commenters used words like “idiots,” “common sense,” and “oppression” with abandon. 

Eric Brooks of Our City and San Francisco Defenders quipped, “the sponsors of this legislation have their geography off by a few thousand miles. This does not bring Paris to San Francisco,” he said. “This brings Houston, Texas, to San Francisco. And that’s, frankly, unacceptable.”

More development, fewer permits

The proposed ordinance attacks excessive permitting, which studies suggest significantly slows San Francisco’s housing production. 

Conditional use authorizations, the special permits often required to build taller or more dense buildings, would no longer be mandatory for many projects under the proposed ordinance. 

Developers who want to add more homes than presently allowed on large residential lots could do so without conditional use permits, and senior housing could be built at double the density automatically. 

“It’s going to give seniors more options,” Engardio said. Homeless shelters would be allowed anywhere in San Francisco, whereas they are currently restricted to low-density and industrial zones. 

Homes could be demolished and replaced, as long as they are located outside of neighborhoods with high amounts of “vulnerable” populations like the Mission, Outer Mission and Japantown and no tenants currently live in the building.

“I don’t love the idea of demolishing a cute single-family home,” Tanner said. But she did love the idea of demolishing a single-family home and replacing it with a cute multifamily apartment. 

The ordinance would remove hearings and notifications of projects, another disincentive to build. For example, State Density Bonus Law projects, where a project is granted more height or density if a certain number of affordable units are included, would no longer be heard by the Planning Commission. 

Neighbors would no longer get notified each time a project is proposed, unless it is in a neighborhood with a large number of vulnerable populations. Individuals could still request to be notified by the Planning Department for notification on projects, however, said Director of Current Planning Elizabeth Watty. 

San Francisco cowed by state

Tanner reminded the packed room that new overarching state laws already limit decision-making by the city, and the Planning Commission’s decisions in particular. The commission already received a “strong” letter from the state housing department prior to the meeting, urging them to adopt the legislation, Moore said. “I, personally, felt a bit intimidated.” 

The city is also obligated to meet its Housing Element goals, which promised 82,000 units of housing in the next eight years, half of which must be affordable. State preemption shaped some of Engardio and Breed’s legislation, for example reducing minimum lot size to 1,200 square feet. This is in alignment with Senate Bill 9 and the Housing Element, planning staff said. 

To incentivize affordable housing, the ordinance proposes eliminating fees for 100 percent affordable housing projects that use the State Density Bonus Law, and any affordable housing project slated for tenants earning a maximum of the 120 percent area median income, or $121,000 for a one-person household.

Despite this, members of the Race and Equity in Planning Coalition, which comprises multiple community groups representing diverse populations and affordable housing advocates, felt the legislation did not focus on “truly” affordable units. They viewed this legislation as a “gift” to developers. 

Moore and Imperial agreed. “A major aspect of what we tried to really support in the Housing Element is, indeed, the creation of affordable housing for lower income people,” Moore said. “And I believe that this particular piece of legislation in front of us today does not fully address that particular aspect.”

Following the hour-long commissioner deliberation, the legislation passed. Commissioner Derek Braun said, “This is a really big step toward a long-term solution to improving housing affordability in our city.”

Resolution: Housing for All Plan.

The Vote: 4 to 2.

For: Rachael Tanner, Joel Koppel, Derek Braun, Sue Diamond.

Against: Theresa Imperial, Kathrin Moore.


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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. I cannot wait for the west side to get a taste of the kind of luxury condo over development that they subjected the eastern neighborhoods to for the past 15 years including a metastasis of the corrupt housing nonprofits out to speak over them on the issue of land use and “public benefits” their neighborhoods.

    I told them in the 2000s it was but a matter of time before the west side was on the luxe condo chopping block. I’ll make some popcorn.

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  2. Is Joel Engardio willing to move out of his place demo it and build a multiplex in his backyard, does Rachael Tanner comprehend what happens to preservation conservation restoration and rehabilitation issues on older homes ? She did not comprehend a lot in the excelsior where we have yet to see street improvements occur and planned and thought through community input followed up by city agencies. Katherine Moore states it as usual quite correctly its a give away and a loss of urban concepts that focus on the need and not the greed. Without westside transit upgrades it’s carmeggedeon on the west side…

    Retail won’t bounce back from demolition of sound housing nor will any sense of affordability. By buying up homes and tilting the board game is the only real way so use the SF Public Bank and SFCLT and buy lots whenever they list… puzzle em together but no dom-I-City focus on scale and character essential growth and infill and ensuring those needing the housing get it first…

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  3. So if we still have homeless folks after this, we can sue Spur and YIMBY members?

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  4. They passed the housing element just to get it passed and kick the can down the road. The sad reality: Nothing’s going to get built, in particular workforce family housing that’s needed the most, as long as construction cost and interest rates are not coming down, substantially so. Exhibit A: Not even new construction, the rehabbing of a couple dozen duplex units down by Great Highway was just completed to the tune of $1mio each. Converting a Mission garage into an in-law (ADU): Hundreds of thousands.

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  5. Paris has a highly functioning metro system.
    We have …
    Best case scenario is 50% of these units will have a car.
    Oh … and no on site parking for the affordable folks – that ones most likely to actually have to go to work.
    “Engardio painted a dreamy picture” of an Idiocracy.

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  6. We don’t need a board of permit appeals either. If planning & dbi do their job, the permits are / should be legit.

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  7. We don’t need a planning commission. Every building project ends up with the Board of Supervisors anyway.

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