Tackling Exclusionary Housing Policy in California

26 09 2018

Read the original post on Medium. 

The current essay dives into the issue of exclusionary practices that have exacerbated the housing crisis and offers some policy solutions.

It is a given that the people of California are facing an unprecedented housing crisis. One face of that crisis is the experience of thousands of renters facing evictions, displacement, and the wholesale gentrification of their communities (along with the experience of low-income homeowners still dealing with the consequences of the foreclosure crisis). The other face is the dramatic decline in overall production of housing over the last decade.

The exclusionary housing policies of many cities in the Bay Area region have undoubtedly contributed to the crisis, and should be targeted as part of a package of solutions.

When the California legislature reconvenes in January, it will have a chance to revisit important housing and land use policies. Looking back on last year’s legislative “Housing Package,” it is significant that all the proposals attempted to address “production” of housing, however not a single bill dealt with the protection of existing communities from displacement or the preservation of existing “naturally affordable” housing from the speculation market.

We can probably expect another package of production bills from the State legislature in the coming year, including Redevelopment 2.0, an increase to tax credit funding, or new “missing middle” and “accessory dwelling unit” policies. These are fine solutions, but most policy advocates now agree that the State is not going to simply build its way out of these dual housing crises. The challenge will be to balance the legislature’s emphasis on housing production with other complementary policies — in other words, advancing “The 3 Ps” of Production, Preservation and Protection.

As this current legislative session wraps up, the experience with the divisive battle over Senate Bill-827 should not be a lost lesson. It is notable that tenants, low-income homeowners and communities of color were not part of the conversation around the legislation, nor were the myriad of fair housing, affordable housing and social justice organizations across the state that work to support and protect those vulnerable communities.

The conversation must include those who would be directly affected by the proposed policies, not just the real estate lobbyists and policy wonks that dominated this past year’s discourse. Otherwise, we are likely to see a repeat battle of SB-827 pitting smart-growth and “yimby” advocates against affordable housing and housing justice advocates.

The Complexity of the Problem

First, it’s important to be grounded in the factors that have contributed to the housing supply crisis. It is not, as some lawmakers and journalists claim, a crisis simply based on 50 years of underproduction caused by exclusionary policies.

During the period of suburban expansion from the 1950s through the 1970s, the annual rate of housing growth in the Bay Area was much faster than population growth¹. Housing production compared to population growth flattened in the 1980s, and slowed after the recession of 1990, but then shot up again between 2000 and 2008. And then the pace dropped dramatically after 2008.

Did exclusionary housing policies go away in those boom cycles, only to reappear in 2008?

No, what happened was that the economy shattered. In 2008, housing production fell drastically, and is even now, ten years later and six years into the tech economy boom, only at two-thirds it’s average level from 1990 to 2008. And that is largely as a result of the decimation of suburban single-family and townhouse construction since the crash of 2008.

Admitting that there are far larger economic forces at work here does not mean we do not have an ethical and moral need to address exclusionary policies when and where they exist. However, it is clear that this is only a part of the bigger crisis of underproduction that has befallen the state since the 2008 Great Recession, and a perfect storm of factors that have completely changed the real estate market and thus our understanding of the housing policies needed going forward .

For the moment, however, let’s focus on the policies used by many cities to slow or stop housing development. Focusing on exclusionary policies is important because it was a primary frame used by the proponents for last year’s embattled SB-827 legislation, despite the fact that many if not most of the areas that would have been affected by the bill were historically working class and immigrant communities of color. And indeed, we should all agree that targeting persistent exclusion with the right policies is one necessary step to addressing the State’s housing crisis.

Exclusionary Housing Policies: A History

Development in the U.S. has always been defined by racially segregated cities: one side of the tracks, and “the other side of the tracks.” The rise of suburban sprawl saw policies of racial segregation and exclusion spread across metropolitan regions: primarily through the GI Bill and real estate industry policies of block-busting and redlining abetted by the Fair Housing Act’s underwriting guidelines. Regional segregation was encouraged by massive Federal investment into the highway system, enacted shortly after the Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education, mandating the desegregation of urban school districts.

These policies allowed whites to move to exclusive middle-class suburbs and separate school districts.

These racial policies also created areas of concentrated resources (and concentrated whiteness) that were maintained through land use laws, particularly zoning that mandated minimum-size lots and large single-family homes, but prohibited apartment buildings. But as the example of Houston demonstrates, you don’t need zoning to create exclusionary policies: that can occur just as well though separate suburban police forces, mortgage systems, strict occupancy limits, stringent Home Owner Associations and restrictive covenants.

That history also created the conditions where communities of color in inner cities were denied social rights and a sense of self-determination. They faced the disparate impacts of urban renewal, were prohibited from access to homeownership, and experienced disinvestment in schools, housing and transit. These communities were denied a political voice to decide what investment came into their neighborhoods and to what end. Richard Rothstein’s recent book The Color of Law has re-exposed the details of much of that history and argues that we are still bearing the consequences of these policies.

Exclusionary Housing Policies Today

Today, as if to rub salt in the wounds from decades of government and social disinvestment, inner city communities of color are now seeing new modern transit investments that trigger new cycles of gentrification (called by some “transit-oriented displacement”), and new urban housing development that is far out of reach of anyone in the neighborhoods.

Ironically, many of the more modest outlying single-family suburbs, originally built as racially segregated neighborhoods for the white working class, are now becoming the new receiving grounds for people of color being displaced from the urban core. This further complicates the current narrative of linking single-family homes with racial exclusion.

Indeed, San Francisco’s Bayview district, a primarily single-family housing area, has been able to maintain some semblance of diversity due to its relatively high rate of African-American homeownership.

A primary criticism of SB-827 is that although it was framed as an attack on exclusionary policies, it in fact was a one-size-fits-all hammer over many communities of color. These communities happened to be near transit nodes, which the bill would have automatically “upzoned” (ie, allowing greater heights and densities that landowners and developers could profit from). This would have resulted in further extending the racialized impacts of redlining and urban renewal by continuing to deny them voice and decision-making in their own futures.

One demand made by the affected communities is that they should be exempted from these kinds of state preemption policies that would harm marginalized communities.

However, a different approach might be to actually address the problem as it was originally framed by the bill’s authors: to target and tackle exclusionary policies head on where they are.

There are ongoing examples of exclusionary land use policies that reinforce regional racial and economic segregation, and keep the Bay Area from growing in a truly inclusive fashion.

Policy barriers include zoning that only allows single-family large-lot development, or that block the ability of homeowners to add new units on their own properties. Some cities prohibit new apartment buildings even near transit. There are planning departments and commissions that refuse to approve new housing at all or demand reductions in densities or heights despite existing zoning. There are some jurisdictions that do have multifamily zoning, but only in areas that are very difficult to develop.

Then there are jurisdictions with acres of develop-able land slated to be big box retail centers and commercial office parks with thousands of new jobs, and no housing at all for any of the workers at the different wage levels. Finally, there are those cities that not only do not fund affordable housing, but also routinely deny approvals, or place excessive demands on affordable projects.

Whether intentional or not, these policies add to existing market dynamics to keep out certain kinds of housing that might bring in newcomers to a community.

Some of these examples are smack-dab in the middle of transit nodes, but many other exclusionary geographies may not fall into the currently popular framing of “Transit-Oriented Development” (TOD). High-resource housing opportunity areas can be identified along commercial corridors and around downtowns and shopping districts throughout the vast suburbs of California, whether transit infrastructure has been built yet. It is not rocket science to rethink the traditional suburbs (as we write about in a previous essay).

Undoing these policy barriers will not necessarily undo the economic barriers to housing construction and particularly housing that is affordable to most people, but without these actions, housing production can be an impossibility in many places, contributing to an ever-more segregated Bay Area and California.

Addressing the Problem

These concrete examples of exclusionary housing policies can allow us to point to some of the policy solutions that the next State legislative session can attempt to address, before it gets caught up again in ill-formed, however unintentional, attacks on working class and communities of color.

  1. Housing Element Law: Address cities that don’t zone for enough housing, don’t zone for multifamily housing, or only allow low density on large sites (those 1/4 acre ranchette lots). (Assembly Bills 686 and 1771, both now on the Governor’s desk for signature, are examples of good policy that will begin putting teeth into Housing Element compliance)
  2. Housing in existing commercial areas: In exclusionary cities with low housing production, allow residential on large underutilized commercial/big box/strip mall sites over 1 acre (irrespective of transit proximity), with lower inclusionary for missing-middle 40’ buildings in cool markets and higher inclusionary for 55’-85’ buildings in hot market/transit-served areas.
  3. Housing requirements for Commercial Expansion: Address cities that prefer and zone primarily for commercial office and retail with little or no housing. The legislature could require a Jobs-Housing Fit analysis in all master plan development over 2 acres, identifying the estimated jobs growth by wage level, and mandate that the appropriate housing needed for the new worker households be provided as part of the development plan through a combination of market-rate housing, on-site inclusionary housing, and dedicated affordable housing sites.
  4. Barriers to housing approvals: Address cities or neighborhoods that stop all housing or reduce density through the approvals process. A process is needed to identify the problem and sort out so-called “bad actor” cities from good actors, and then challenge those cities to correct the problem. SB 35 streamlining is already the “stick” that will now push those places.
  5. Affordable housing zoning: Affordable housing faces particular barriers in approvals and zoning in many jurisdictions. For affordable housing, zoning densities and heights should be relaxed throughout to allow for 55’ buildings (generally the most efficient building type in most cities), with streamlined approvals.
  6. Affordable housing barriers: Exclusionary cities have been notorious in denying approval for affordable housing, or allowing it only on the most difficult and undesirable sites. Despite the Trump Administration’s attempt to roll back Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, the State of California has an immediate opportunity to link state disbursements of infrastructure money, whether for transportation or parks, to the approvals and funding for affordable housing to these already well-resourced jurisdictions.

Exclusionary land use policies should be a clear target for statewide policy reform, along with the proactive work of dedicating sites and funding for affordable housing, protecting tenants and communities at risk of displacement, and preserving the “naturally affordable” multifamily rental housing we already have in our communities.

For politicians it can often be easier to fetishize a good-sounding technical solution such as “streamlining” or “upzoning”, whatever its unintended consequences, rather than embrace the complexity of the public policy problem to be solved. It is even harder to address a problem like housing access and affordability that is, at its core, based on the dynamics of racial and economic inequality. Solutions need to tackle the privileges that white suburban communities have gained through decades of exclusionary policies, without simultaneously triggering perverse outcomes that exacerbate the wealth inequities and displacement risks that marginalize so many other communities. That is the challenge of tackling exclusionary housing policy in California.

In this age when the national government seems to be drifting in a different direction, we need to hold our State policy leaders accountable to ‘get it right’ by rising above divisive race and class political opportunism, and to work together on real housing solutions that includes producing a fair share of housing and protecting existing residents across the communities of California.

This continues a series of essays on California’s complex housing affordability crisis, and the need for regional, place-based solutions.

2018 is a big year for affordable housing measures

20 09 2018


This post was originally published in the San Francisco Examiner. 

It’s the year of affordable housing at the ballot box. This November, San Franciscans will have the opportunity to weigh in on four game-changing housing measures: Propositions 1, 2, and 10 on the state level and Prop C in San Francisco.

The federal government has abandoned public funding for affordable housing for so many everyday people, whether its individuals and families struggling with homelessness, seniors and the disabled, or working class families. Even “middle income” households are feeling the pinch. The private housing sector can address the upper end and some of the middle income needs at a regional scale, but the reality is more and more people are being dropped out of the housing “market.”

The only way to bridge the gap is for cities, and increasingly the state, to address the multiple angles of the affordability crisis. The housing measures on the November 2018 ballot are the kinds of comprehensive solutions we need that will address homelessness (Prop C and Prop 2), protect tenants (Prop 10), and preserve and produce housing for low and moderate-income Californians (Prop 1).

Proposition 1, the Veterans and Affordable Housing Act, would dedicate $4 billion dollars to build and preserve affordable housing serving a wide range of households, with $1 billion earmarked specifically for veterans and their families. It is a widely supported measure and if passed, it will be the first major state investment in affordable housing since the 2006 state housing revenue measure.

Prop 2 would authorize $2 billion in bonds to build housing with services for Californians living with a serious mental illness who are homeless or at great risk of becoming homeless. The funding would come from the state’s “No Place Like Home” Program, created with the passing of the Mental Health Services Act in 2004. Prop 2 allows some funds from the existing program to be put into permanent housing solutions.

Prop 10 would help protect long-term residents and families at risk of displacement by allowing cities full authority to enact local rental control. This would be done by repealing the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act of 1995, a law that has handcuffed San Francisco for over two decades by placing restrictions on rent control policies. Costa-Hawkins denies families rent control protections if they live in a single family home and in San Francisco’s case, buildings built after 1978, or for a tenant signing a new lease — in other words, the apartment rent jumps all the way up to market rate once a former tenant moves out.

The idea behind Prop 10 is that every city should be able to decide what works best in its communities to fight the affordability crisis.

On the city level, Prop C, Our City Our Home, would provide $300 million annually towards permanent housing and support services for the City’s homeless residents. Funding would come from a marginal increase in the tax rate on San Francisco’s largest businesses that have over $50 million in revenues.

Tackling the affordability issues immediately will save the city money in the long run, particularly in reduced hospital and jail costs. Our City Our Home aims for early and permanent housing intervention to prevent these tremendous downstream expenses.

If Prop C passes, it is expected to support development of 4,000 new permanent housing units for homeless and marginally housed people, expand homelessness prevention services, and develop new public mental health resources. It is the one proposal on the table around homelessness that is actually big enough to make a difference.

Combined, these four housing measures for the November 2018 ballot are part of a larger solution to the region’s affordable housing crisis. They set a precedent of more comprehensive housing solutions that will confront the staggering eviction crisis, provide significant new funding for critical mental health services, and produce more affordable housing that has been a long time coming for our city and state.

They are by no means the only way to solve the affordable housing crisis, but together, they will help strengthen a holistic housing strategy for the city and the region.

How do we make regional housing policy equitable?

1 06 2018


We need regional policies that address the different displacement, gentrification, and exclusion risks in different communities. Map from UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project.

Read the original posting on Medium.

There are two pushes in housing policy right now that keep butting up against each other. One is the push to make equity a more central part of policy, no longer just a window dressing or an afterthought. The other is the shift to thinking about housing on a regional or even state level.

In a place like the Bay Area, where the housing realities of our nine counties are so deeply interrelated, it makes sense to think about housing regionally. The affordable housing crisis is not just a problem for individual cities, but for the entire region. What happens with jobs and housing in San Francisco or Oakland or Menlo Park impacts Mountain View and Berkeley and South San Francisco — each part of the region impacts and is responsible to every other part when it comes to jobs and housing.

But as policymakers are starting to take a wider-angle view on these issues, they are coming up with strategies that treat very different places as though they are the same, leading to policies that are both less effective and, more importantly, unjust, with unfair impacts on low-income and communities of color.

So, how do we make sure that regional housing policy is actually equitable?

It seems like the place to start is with the basic distinction that underpins the idea of equity: that equal is not the same as equitable. Different people and communities have their own distinct histories and needs. Access to resources has been and continues to be deeply unfair and unbalanced; systemic barriers continue to exist for some that don’t exist for others. Because we aren’t all starting from the same position, treating everyone equally won’t actually lead us closer to justice.

The same goes for places as goes for people — different places have different conditions and histories and needs, and so require different strategies to address housing and development issues.

Once you say it aloud, it’s a deeply intuitive idea — almost so obvious as to not need saying (or an entire essay). Piedmont is not the same as West Oakland. SoMa in San Francisco is not the same as Brisbane. The housing realities in each of these places — the histories, the state of the market, the demographics of the residents, the risk of displacement, even something as basic as the physical landscape — are distinct. And if we want housing policy that works and is fair, it makes sense to shape our policies specifically to the needs and realities in each of those places, instead of assuming that the same approach would have the same impacts in each place.

But despite the intuitive nature of this approach, this isn’t the way the predominant dialogue in the media and among policymakers is currently framing housing — especially in regional housing conversations. So, if we take this idea seriously, it’s time for a big shift in our approach to regional housing policy.

Place-Based Housing Strategies

Instead of trying to apply the same policies broadly regardless of the type of place, we should take the principle of equity to heart and take a different approach, developing place-based strategies.

What would this actually look like? Does this mean relying strictly on local housing policy, which hasn’t always guaranteed (and has in many places gone directly against) housing equity?

Not necessarily. This approach could provide the much-needed balance between macro regional policies that ensure cities do their fair share and hyper-local policies that ensure self-determination and address local needs.

A place-based approach to housing policy could start by identifying different types of places. This could be along a range of factors, including qualities related to development:

  • the level of existing development (urban, ex-urban, suburban?)
  • the state of the real estate market (hot, starting to heat up, or cold?)
  • the land available for development (big parking lots and industrial land, small infill lots, or built-up land?)
  • land costs
  • proximity to jobs and transportation

And, most critically, factors related to communities’ privilege, power, and access:

  • the demographics of the residents (race, class, level of diversity?)
  • the current risk and stage of gentrification and displacement (stable, at-risk, advanced gentrification?)
  • the tenure and stability of existing residents (renters with or without rent control and eviction protections? Small landlords or large corporate landlords and real estate trusts? Foreclosure risk for homeowners?)
  • the history (exclusion? Investment or disinvestment? Good schools and educational/economic opportunities?)
  • the experience local residents have had (or not had) in deciding the policies that shape the future of their communities

Taking these factors into account, we could then craft different housing production, housing preservation, and tenant protection strategies relevant to and appropriate for each type of place — almost like a menu — resulting in regional policies that still account for the needs of communities.

Of course, working out the details of this approach will be challenging: both identifying the factors that should be included, and even more so, getting policymakers to agree on which polices best address those factors. Luckily, there are some models out there from other regions to build on. UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project, the research team behind the gentrification and displacement mapping of the Bay Area, is starting this challenging work by reviewing existing models and beginning to identify key factors, types of places, and appropriate strategies. This work couldn’t come at a more important time, as the need for affordable housing and pressure for regional solutions continues to mount.

But even before we start talking about specific policies, it would be a huge step forward to agree on the basic idea of place-based strategies. This is more than an intellectual exercise — this is about the framework with which we approach development as the region’s population grows and becomes increasingly more urbanized. Can we agree to acknowledge that new development has different (sometimes negative, sometimes positive) impacts on different communities? Can we agree to acknowledge that some places may need more affordable housing, with deeper levels of affordability, than others? Can we agree to acknowledge that different communities need different levels of protection from gentrification and different guarantees of self-determination to redress historical wrongs?

This approach gives us hope for the future of our region. We know we need more housing — specifically a lot more affordable housing for low- and middle-income Bay Area residents — at the same time we see high-end, market-rate development unfairly impacting (and overwhelming) some communities and absent in others. With a place-based approach, we could target the right types of development, protection, and preservation strategies to the right places. Let’s shift our underlying framework, and start building regional policies that acknowledge and support the diversity of people and places in our region.

Thanks for coming to the CCHO 40th Anniversary Party!

11 05 2018

Check out the  photo album!  

Thank you to all our Friends of CCHO for coming out last week and celebrating CCHO’s four decades of collective work fighting for housing justice!  Together, we have had an incredible impact: winning nearly $6.5 billion dollars for affordable housing, building almost 30,000 affordable homes, creating thousands of jobs, and passing meaningful policies to guide housing development, prevent displacement, and stabilize our communities.  Forty years in, our commitment is as strong as ever – here’s to the next forty years!

We are extremely grateful for all the activists who came before us and continue to stand with us, and all the friends and allies we have in the work to make San Francisco more equitable and affordable.  We proudly honored three groups this year:

  • Olson Lee, former Director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, for his lifetime of work dedicated to creating affordable housing. 
  • Lita Blanc, Susan Solomon, Carolyn Samoa, Ken Tray, and Anabel Ibanez for their strong partnership in advocating for more affordable housing for both educators and San Franciscans at all income levels.
  • Calvin Welch, Marcia Rosen, Chuck Turner, Sue Lee, Gordon Chin, Al Borvice, and Rene Casenave in memoriam for their groundbreaking work and long legacies leading the housing justice and community development movements for the past forty years.

We also honored Joe Boss and Sharen Hewitt, two unforgettable activists.  May their memories live on in our collective work.

Thanks to our party sponsors, for helping make this night possible: Barcelon Jang Architecture, Cahill Contractors, Inc., California Housing Partnership Corporation, Forest City, Gubb & Barshay LLP, Heller Manus Architects, IBEW Local 6, Louis J. Giraudo, National Union of Healthcare Workers, Non-profit Housing Association of Northern CA, Northern California Carpenters Regional Council, Northern California Community Loan Fund, Plant Construction Company, LP, Progress Foundation, Public Advocates, Pyatok Architects, Inc., San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, San Francisco Labor Council, Unite HERE! Local 2, and United Educators of San Francisco.

And a big thank you as well to Eric Cuentos for the great music and to Doug Engmann for generously donating wine for the evening.

Want to see more photos from the party?  Check out the album.  
(And if you’re feeling nostalgic, there are also photos from past CCHO Parties!) 

Planning for an Affordable Future in Central SoMa

10 05 2018

Our latest op-ed in The Examiner.  Read the original posting here.

SF Examiner, Courtesy Photo.

A big change is coming to South of Market: The Central SoMa Plan is before the Planning Commission today. It is a massive neighborhood rezoning, estimated to generate 35,000 new jobs and at least 7,000 new homes by 2040. The Planning Department envisions “the creation of a sustainable neighborhood.” As proposed, though, the plan is poised to further stress our “jobs-housing fit” and affordability crisis.

It’s time for The City to seize the opportunity to be innovative around housing and affordability.

At the heart of the Central SoMa Plan’s challenges is the Planning Department’s unwillingness to plan for a real jobs-housing fit — that is, ensuring a match between the proposed housing and affordability levels, and the jobs and wages created by the proposed commercial development. There is a clear mismatch between the projected 35,000 new jobs from commercial development (equating to about 28,000 new households) and the proposed 7,060 homes.

As much as the challenges seem daunting, rezoning Central SoMa is also a huge opportunity: an opportunity to plan for adequate affordable housing, good local hire policies, robust displacement protections and other policies that create the stable and livable communities we are all craving these days. To seize this opportunity, there are changes that could be made within the current process.


Housing affordability is the key issue

Most troublesome is the housing situation for low- and middle-wage workers. We can estimate that up to 55 percent of new households in Central SoMa (nearly 16,000 households) will be low- to moderate/middle-income (under 120 percent of San Francisco’s median household income). But the Central SoMa Plan only proposes 2,670 low- and middle-income affordable homes.

In response to this conundrum, planning staff say that The City’s existing pipeline of planned housing may someday accommodate SoMa’s housing needs throughout The City — even though most of those pipeline units are not being built, even now in the middle of such intense demand. And the current pipeline of entitled affordable housing for the entire city is only 3,092 units, far less than what Central SoMa alone will need.

To the extent that new housing needs are not met within the Central SoMa Plan, it will simply put further pressure on residents and communities within the South of Market and other adjacent front-line neighborhoods like the Mission, Tenderloin and Western Addition.

The City can improve the plan by:

— Increasing the areas zoned for housing to the maximum analyzed under the Environmental Impact Report (adding approximately another 1,500 housing units).

— Conditioning planning approvals to expire within 30 months to make sure approved housing proposals result in units on the ground and don’t fuel more land speculation.

— Protecting the existing community by creating an “eviction-free zone,” to the extent that the plan does not create sufficient housing for its workforce.

— Taking acquisition seriously, prohibiting the sale or lease of publicly owned sites for private development, and establishing a first-right of acquisition for The City and nonprofits for existing rent-controlled homes and underutilized lots.


Middle-income housing

Creating moderate/middle-income housing for the expanding workforce is also a big challenge. The Central SoMa Plan includes major upzonings (and a last-minute addition of a state “sustainability district” streamlining of approvals), which confer significant value that can be recaptured for more affordable housing. Yes, the Central SoMa Plan includes new development fees for other important community benefits, but not going beyond baseline affordable housing requirements in this visionary plan is missing an opportunity to create more moderate/middle-income housing that is significantly in short supply in The City.

The City can improve the plan by:

— Tying additional “middle-income” units to the upzoning and approvals streamlining.


Workforce development

In addition to increasing the housing in the plan, The City should also look at the opportunity for San Francisco’s existing residents to fill new jobs. A strong local hire and workforce development component, if real rather than simply aspirational, can have a dual benefit: creating job pathways for local residents to reduce unemployment and underemployment, thereby also reducing the housing demand created by new workers.

The City can improve the plan by:

— Incorporating a workforce development and local hire component, not just for construction jobs but for permanent jobs in tech and other office employment sectors the plan focuses on.


We encourage the Planning Department to seize this opportunity to plan for an affordable future, and consider bold, creative and forward-thinking ideas for getting toward a real jobs-housing fit in Central SoMa.

Inching Toward an Affordable Westside: Lessons from Forest Hill

28 03 2018

Our latest op-ed in The Examiner.  Read the original posting here.

Earlier this month, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development pulled the funding on an affordable housing development in Forest Hill. It would have joined other affordable developments on the Westside, including senior housing at the old Harkness Hospital by Mercy Housing, Parkview Commons in the Inner Sunset and St. Peter’s Place in the Richmond by Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center in partnership with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

This affordable development in Forest Hill would have made a positive impact, preserving a much-loved preschool, giving new life to the church sanctuary and, above all, bringing critically needed senior homes to a generally affluent neighborhood. By expanding the footprint of affordable housing beyond our traditional working-class Eastside neighborhoods, it would have proved San Francisco’s commitment to affirmatively furthering fair housing across The City.

Unfortunately, after a yearlong string of challenges, including a campaign to preserve the existing preschool, neighborhood opposition and costly historical and geotechnical issues with the site, the Forest Hill Church project proved too uncertain for The City. This points to the need for The City to change course and go back to its roots in seeing community development as the way to do affordable housing.

In understanding what happened, we should acknowledge the broad need and substantial support for affordable housing in the southern and western parts of The City. It was not just NIMBYs that stopped this project, as social media chatter has focused on; there were also some decisions on the part of The City that made the project a challenge from the start.

Affordable housing has been successful in San Francisco because it has been deeply grounded in the model of community development. By selecting a developer with limited experience in San Francisco and no local organizing partner to be on the frontline of moving affordable housing into a wealthy San Francisco neighborhood, the MOHCD turned away from this proven model of connecting with local community leaders and organizations to create a base of support. It is this local capacity and knowledge that can move a project successfully through the development process. Although the developer has a strong record of good work in the East Bay, neither their efforts, nor the subsequent support of local residents and affordable housing advocates, could overcome this risky beginning.

Enthusiastic and reckless supporters took advantage of the community process early on to grandstand and create immediate confrontation to NIMBYism, thereby provoking the very resistance that they decried and adding fuel to the fire in an already challenging situation.

Creating spectacle and notoriety can have its purpose, but it’s not a strategic way to engage with a community. With community development, the process of creating an affordable project is as important as the end product. Building housing is about more than just the actual bricks-and-mortar building — it is about building community.

The hallmark of 40 years of affordable housing work in San Francisco has been to win over hearts and minds, to educate and listen to neighbors, to create relationships that help a project past the finish line and lay the foundation for continued support down the line. These relationships also ensure new affordable housing residents are welcomed, overcoming social isolation that can be challenging in a new neighborhood.

This has been the successful model from Chinatown to the Tenderloin to the Mission to the Bayview. Unfortunately, the Forest Hill developer didn’t have those community relationships, and had no local organizing partner, except the church itself. While the “outside lands” do not have their own community housing developer yet, there is a rich history of organizing, from faith-based networks like Faith in Action to tenant organizations like Housing Rights Committee, as well as community-based nonprofits with existing relationships that can be leveraged to build support.

The unfortunate failure of the Forest Hill project is a valuable lesson for The City and for all of us in the housing movement. We know how to do affordable housing successfully, starting with vital decisions at the front end of the process. We hope the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development moves quickly to secure a new Westside site, to pick up the momentum built under Supervisor Norman Yee’s leadership. This time, they should play to the strengths of the community development movement, using community-based development and organizing capacity to build the wider base of support for affordable housing that is possible.

There is a lot of affordable housing opportunity in the outer neighborhoods. Let’s do this, and do it right.

June 2018 revenue measures

23 03 2018

This June, San Francisco voters will be asked to weigh in on two ballot revenue measures that address important needs – Proposition D for Housing and Proposition C for Childcare. The Council of Community Housing Organizations, comprised of 25 community and faith-based nonprofit affordable housing developers, advocates, and service providers, is looking closely at these two measures.

The housing measure would provide $60-$70 million annually for housing for the homeless, seniors and transitional age youth, as well as residential hotel acquisitions, and funds for middle-income housing. The childcare measure would provide funding needed for childcare and preschool for San Francisco’s growing workforce, and would raise about $130 million annually.

Recently, the Beyond Chron blog asserted that CCHO has “rejected” and “opposed” the housing measure and that such a position was “hypocrisy.” These assertions are both incorrect and misguided.

The truth is that CCHO’s membership is still working through a formal coalition position on both the housing measure and the childcare measure. Supporting a ballot measure that proposes funding for critically needed affordable housing may seem obvious, but the particular circumstances of these two revenue measures have put housing and community development advocates, including our broad coalition, in a challenging position.

The housing measure has an explicit winner-take-all provision (some describe as a “poison pill”) that would invalidate the childcare measure depending on votes received. While none of the CCHO housing organizations were involved in crafting the housing measure, we are now forced into the difficult process of taking a position on a divisive situation that goes against the kind of coalition building CCHO believes in. Many of our members worry that endorsing the poison pill sets a precedent for using critical policies such as housing and childcare as wedge issues in partisan campaigns.

This is clearly a difficult position not just for housing advocates, but also for community development organizations working across the spectrum of housing production and resident services, who strongly believe in both affordable childcare and affordable housing. Some of CCHO’s member organizations have endorsed the housing measure, some have endorsed the childcare measure, some have endorsed both and some have stayed neutral on both.

The thoughtfulness with which CCHO and many other housing, service-provider, tenant, and community organizations, as well as labor unions across the City, are approaching these two measures is not, as Beyond Chron puts it, “hypocrisy.” It is about integrity and maintaining independent positions in the face of partisan politics.

The Council of Community Housing Organizations will take the time we need to make a decision that respects the coalition of organizations and communities that we represent.

The Next Mayor’s Housing Challenge

19 03 2018

Credit: Emma Chiang, SF Examiner.

Our latest op-ed in The Examiner.  Read the original posting here.

The housing challenge for the next San Francisco mayor will be not only to expand Mayor Ed Lee’s successes in building affordable housing, but also to address the increasing mismatch between housing affordability and the job growth generated by the economic boom that unfolded under Lee’s watch.

The week Lee passed away in December, the Planning Department published its annual Commerce and Industry and Housing Inventory reports, wonky publications that generally disappear without a blip in the media. The two reports — one about jobs and the other about housing — didn’t speak to each other in the least.

Anyone can tell you there is a link between jobs and housing need, but it’s more than a simple supply-and-demand relationship. We need to understand how incomes from jobs relate to housing prices and examine whether housing construction is meeting real need. Without an intentional match between newly created jobs and new housing affordability, many San Franciscans are left behind.

The Commerce and Industry report shows that, over the last 10 years, the San Francisco job market grew by 127,700 workers. That translates to a housing need of about 100,000 new units. Couple that data point with the Housing Inventory report showing that 28,300 new units were built in San Francisco over the same period, and we see that less than a third of the total housing need was built. On this point, most sides of the political spectrum can agree.

However, equally as important as comparing the ratio of jobs to housing units is considering the actual incomes that were generated by job growth. This is known as “jobs-housing fit” and essentially comes down to a simple question: Does the affordability of new housing “fit” the incomes of new workers? Could someone who got one of those new jobs actually live in one of those new homes?

An analysis of state and local data gives a pretty good sense of the number of jobs generated with low-income salaries (such as restaurant workers and baristas), moderate and middle-income salaries (education, health care, construction and even many workers in tech) and higher-income salaries.

The bottom line? Only about a third of those 127,700 new workers could afford market-rate housing. The majority — the remaining two thirds — needed housing at below-market rates.

Yet, only about 10 percent of the need generated by new low- to middle-income jobs was met with affordable units.

Market-rate housing, on the other hand, met more than 80 percent of the need generated by higher-income jobs over the last 10 years. If you break those higher-income jobs into finer income categories, private development has met more than 100 percent of the need for new worker households earning more than 150 percent of median income (more than $120,000 per year for a single person).

Some may argue with our numbers — of course, San Francisco housing is also meeting a demand from regional jobs (all those Google buses down to the Peninsula) and for global investors looking to park their cash in San Francisco pieds-a-terre they don’t live in. So there is a regional high-income housing demand to consider as well. It’s also important to acknowledge, though, that new construction is a small fraction of the supply available for those households earning more than 150 percent of the average median income. Much of that is met by existing housing on the resale and rental market.

Details aside, the facts are clear: If we are to house our growing number of city residents, a much better “fit” is needed between the housing being produced and the jobs being created. We need more housing and, specifically, much more low- and middle-income housing.

So where does that leave us?

The consequences of not creating housing to meet actual worker incomes will be the difference between having a home or having entire communities displaced outside San Francisco. Addressing this jobs-housing-fit is what we should expect of a new mayor.

All five major candidates will have an opportunity to share how they plan to address the relationship between jobs growth, wages and housing need at a Housing Town Hall on Saturday, March 17, at 4 p.m. at the Kelly Cullen Community House in the Tenderloin. Come ask your housing questions and hear what they have to say.

Recovering from an Affordable Housing Wildfire

19 12 2017

Our latest op-ed in The Examiner.  Read the original posting here.

Journey’s End mobile home park in Santa Rosa (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner).

A week before the North Bay fires broke out, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission convened a blue-ribbon committee, named CASA, to identify “game-changing regional solutions to the Bay Area’s chronic housing affordability challenges.” At that Sept. 27 meeting, Santa Rosa council member Julie Combs spoke about development in the North Bay: “We’ve been told by our builders that even though our home prices are rising, more than 33 percent rises in rent, that they can do better cost per square foot versus rent per square foot in other areas…” In other words, the rents were just not high enough for developers to want to build.

The catastrophe that engulfed the North Bay in October changed all that. The fires destroyed 8,900 structures, killed 44 people and displaced about 100,000 people, many permanently. It destroyed entire neighborhoods in and around Santa Rosa, including 5  percent of the city’s entire housing stock. These fires and those now raging in Southern California remind us how vulnerable we will continue to be to climate-induced catastrophes.

Our hearts go out to those who lost their homes and family members. The fires affected entire communities, regardless of economic status, but had particularly dire impact on seniors and people with disabilities in the path of the fires, on working-class families who can no longer afford to return to their communities, and on immigrants fearful of accessing help due to their status. As winter approaches, we are faced not only with an unfolding environmental crisis of toxic building debris, but with a new wave of evictions and rent increases. Even those who were not directly affected by the fires are impacted, as landlords cash in to rent to the wealthier residents who lost their homes, sometimes raising rents by more than 30 percent, despite California laws prohibiting rent gouging.


Disaster can create opportunities to rethink the future. The question always is: “Opportunities for whom?” Will investors win at the expense of regular people, rebuilding Coffey Park and places like the Journey’s End mobile home park as luxury housing? Or will this be an opportunity to rebuild in a more sustainable manner, at higher densities, and with guaranteed affordability for all the people who live and work in the North Bay?

The past teaches us that recovery looks very different depending on the socio-economic status of communities. After a few years of resolving insurance disputes following the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, the neighborhood was rebuilt. The 2008 mortgage crisis leaves us other lessons, in particular how a crisis can create a redistribution of wealth up to the rich, as institutional investors and cash buyers swooped in.

These fires have created a potential opportunity to rethink the suburbs: to require fire-resilient design and less toxic materials; to “assemble sites” into larger parcels for higher density apartments; to turn single-family zones into areas for townhouses, duplexes, or fourplexes; or even to entirely redesign street layouts.

The likely outcome is that lot lines and zoning will stay the same — or, if any of these innovative changes are instituted without protections and policies to guarantee affordability, they will result in further segregating the region.

Just this week, the Chronicle reported vacant sites in the destroyed Coffey Park are being marketed as “fantastic opportunities” in a “wonderful neighborhood,” selling to all cash offers far above asking. Now, in an echo of the language of Trumpian tax cuts, one of the proposals being entertained in the regional CASA committee is to declare a “Housing Emergency,” cutting all regulatory and economic barriers for 10 years in order to stimulate development. Like Trump’s tax cuts, with no guarantees that such measures will actually help those displaced, the effect will not be a “trickle-down” of benefits, but rather a redistribution of ownership to wealthy investors.

This is the time, in the aftermath of disaster, to rethink how the North Bay can develop in an equitable way that protects its diversity, rather than giving away its future and transforming old neighborhoods into new enclaves for the rich. We need immediate action to protect residents and preserve and expand affordability. Regional planning provides a clue for how we can get there, but first and foremost, it must center equity and the needs of those most impacted as its fundamental goal.

As of January 1st, Affordable Housing Will Get Streamlined Approvals in San Francisco

18 12 2017

Photo credit: Fumigene (CC BY-ND 2.0).

There has been much interest in streamlining the approvals process for affordable housing projects given the need to get those affordable homes designed, permitted, and built as quickly as possible. Families, seniors, formerly homeless, young adults, teachers, and many others are in great need of affordable housing as the San Francisco real estate market leaves out more and more everyday people.

Fortunately, with a combination of locally- and state-adopted laws, as of January 1st affordable housing will get streamlined approvals in San Francisco, becoming what is colloquially known as “by right.”

It is important to note that this didn’t happen all at once—there have been a series of steps over these last three years that in combination are trimming the timeline and making the permitting process smoother for our affordable housing work.

  • In response to a 2014 executive directive by Mayor Ed Lee to prioritize affordable housing projects, a working group of inter-departmental representatives and affordable housing stakeholders established a set of priority processing measures to ensure extra attention to getting projects through the bureaucratic review steps.
  • Then in early 2016 the Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted legislation to make affordable housing projects “principally permitted,” meaning that if projects are in conformance with existing zoning they are reviewed administratively by Planning Department staff and there is no conditional-use permit required to be approved by the Planning Commission.
  • In 2016 the State Legislature amended the state’s density bonus law to make it a guaranteed allowance for increased density, height and other development incentives for affordable housing projects.
  • Then in 2017 the Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted the Local Density Bonus Program which also ensured allowance for affordable housing projects to receive up to three floors of additional height as well as density increases and setback relief.
  • And finally in late 2017 the State Legislature adopted Senate Bill 35 which established affordable housing projects for “ministerial approval,” meaning they will not have to undergo an environmental review or be approved by the Planning Commission, nor are they subject to discretionary review appeals.

SB 35 also includes specific timelines for streamlined ministerial review: the Planning Department must determine if a project is eligible for streamlining within 60 days of application submittal for projects of 150 or fewer units, and 90 days for projects containing more than 150 units.  Then the design review and any other review process must be completed in 90 days for projects with 150 or fewer units and within 180 days for projects with more than 150 units. In other words, it is a fast process!

The Planning Department issued a Bulletin in recent days outlining the specifics of this new by-right process for affordable housing.

Rethinking the Suburbs Is Integral to California’s Housing Solution

12 10 2017

This is the second essay in a two-part series on the role of the suburbs in California’s housing crisis (read the original posting on Medium here). Read Part One here

A new model of the Bay Area that we can – and should – be moving towards.

An important and often overlooked factor in the state’s affordability crisis is the dramatic drop in single-family housing production in California over the past 10 years. We break this down in the first part of this series. Despite the rhetoric repeated by real estate boosters, the media, and some politicians that California historically under-produced housing for decades, developers were actually producing roughly enough homes until recently, through the ups and downs of economic cycles, to maintain pace with the state’s growing population at a rate of about one unit per average 2.5 person household.[1]But the Wall Street financial crash of 2008 brought with it a huge decline in investment in single-family and townhouse construction that the state has not recovered from, eliminating a source of homes that were once “naturally” affordable to middle-income Californians. Single-family production is down to about 40% of the statewide total, compared to 70%-80% of all homes built through the decades until the crash.

The result has been 1) a decline in single-family construction which has left overall state and regional housing production far below historic levels, and 2) changing geographic patterns where development is now concentrated as multi-family units (ie, apartments and condos) comprise the bulk of housing construction.

Clearly, jobs will continue to expand and the population will continue to grow, from in-migration, from births, and from a growing population of seniors on fixed incomes. Statewide, and in the Bay Area, home building needs to get back to the kind of pre-meltdown balance before single-family production dropped off, when new housing more closely matched population growth (in this we are in agreement with the supply-sider critics).

But we need to come to terms with the new reality we are living in — that a once inexpensive source of homes is no longer viable at significant levels (and is no longer desirable, environmentally-responsible, or even marketable to new generations of Californians).

So how do we deal with this new decline in single-family homes, and the accompanying desire to live in more “urban” places? And how do we make this new reality affordable to the vast majority of Californians, given the increasing income inequality of the state’s urban regions?

Cities Struggling to Make Up for the Suburbs

As single-family development in suburban cities dramatically slows, attention has increasingly fallen on a few major cities to take up the slack. For example, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission crafted the recent “Plan Bay Area” that places almost half of the entire burden for future residential growth on just three of the region’s 101 cities: San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland.[2] But is it realistic for most of California’s new homes to now be built in just a handful of core cities, with many of their low-income and working class neighborhoods already struggling with a crisis of urban gentrification and displacement? And with a greater share of units in those core cities now being built in luxury high-rises, is that any solution to our overall statewide and regional housing crisis?

The answer is no, for two reasons:

1) The gentrification and displacement impacts of this approach are very real — and they are increasingly immoral and untenable. As California development is becoming increasingly concentrated in a handful of core cities and urban neighborhoods, we are seeing a new re-segregation of metropolitan regions, with working class people being pushed out to the suburban periphery, the inner city transformed into exclusive areas for the wealthy, and nowhere for the middle-class to go. An approach to “build, build, build” that leans on core cities alone and just heightens the risk of displacing poor and low-income folks to older suburbs, forced to commute long distances to jobs in the urban core, doesn’t address either the environmental or affordability imperative of this new era.

2) Even if we wanted to put nearly all the region’s new housing in three core cities, we (city governments, legislators, planners, policy makers, activists) can’t make that happen — short of controlling either the land or the financing. San Francisco, for example, approves (the official way of saying, “yes, go ahead and build this!”) a lot more housing than is currently being actually built. 2016 was a record year with over 5,000 new homes built, yet there are still 38,000 more units already approved but not the financing or construction cranes to build those thousands of units. Why not? We can speculate, but the main thing to know is that just approving a ton of market-rate housing in “the big three” and expecting it to quickly materialize is more urban fantasy than practical market reality, not to mention the attendant gentrification and displacement impacts noted above.

Getting into why there would be financing limitations is beyond the scope of this essay, but looking back at the Chronicle’s graph, even with today’s housing boom in the core cities, developers built only 49,000 multi-family units across the entire state in 2014, compared to 155,000 single-family houses constructed at the height of suburban construction in 2005 before the Wall Street crash. Clearly, any aspirational goal that attempts to squeeze most new construction into California’s core cities won’t meet the demand at the scale needed to address the state’s overall shortfall.

Middle-class Californians increasingly want more urban living, but it can’t all be done in a handful of high-density cities or concentrated into existing working-class, inner city neighborhoods. It is time to re-think suburbia. From a public policy standpoint, we can’t afford to write off the suburbs — which have already paved over millions of acres of the California landscape in the last 50 years — as private investors have largely done since 2008. We need to reevaluate the potential of the suburbs for more multi-family development, especially suburban cities accessible to regional transit, for enabling the denser, more interconnected, more affordable, and more sustainable living that people are looking for.

A More Urban Suburbia

Bringing a degree of urbanity to the suburbs is not the same as transforming suburbs into big cities. A suburban “urbanism” is what in the 1920s and 30s would have been called “streetcar suburbs,” the kind of human-scaled, walkable, and transit-accessible communities that many middle-class people are rediscovering today. This means increasing the density of suburbs by degrees, moving from the single-story tract house landscapes of the 1960s-1990s to duplexes, three-unit walkups, small apartment buildings, and condominium clusters. This increased density can be concentrated near town centers and within primary corridors connected to commercial areas and parks. This is really just about going back to a California of pre-sprawl suburbs, what “smart growth” advocates have been pushing for twenty years (to give credit where it’s due).

With the crash of single-family construction, now is the time for the smart densification of suburbs to be part of the big-picture statewide housing solution. In our own Bay Area region we need a new vision of a multi-nodal metropolis, with denser, human-scaled, small-city suburbs around the Bay augmenting the ‘Big Three’ core cities, with both residential and employment opportunities, linked by efficient regional transportation systems. That is, if developers will reverse the trend of abandoning the suburbs in favor of high-end development in core cities, and step up again to “build, build, build” middle-class homes for a re-envisioned California suburbia.

How to Get There — and How Not to

One approach currently being pushed by some development boosters essentially draws its cues from Reagan-era neoliberalism: removing what are seen as regulatory “barriers” to residential approvals, including removal of public input and planning commission approvals, inclusionary housing requirements, or environmental review that has the potential to empower NIMBY opponents to development. As part of a wider deregulation agenda that helped to produce the very financial crisis that nearly brought production to a halt in the first place, it’s hard to accept this as a primary path forward.

However, the data detailed in the Chronicle’s graph, showing residential production since the 1990s, clearly points to something other than regulations or NIMBYs as the cause of the crisis in California’s housing supply. It’s not as if regulations or fees suddenly changed in 2006, or NIMBYs suddenly found themselves empowered to stop construction when statewide production dropped by over 70% between 2005 and 2008. Moreover, it’s important to remember that while these deregulatory approaches may facilitate “approvals,” they cannot force financial decisions that lead to whether and where homes actually get built. Hence San Francisco’s backlog of 38,000 approved units, with little control over the fickle private investment to ensure that those units are built in the foreseeable future.

To acknowledge this is not to say that the planning bureaucracy cannot be improved — there is always room for improvement. But a deregulation approach on its own will not only fail to actually produce the scale of housing the state’s growing population needs, but more importantly will fail to produce homes where they are really needed — in the suburban cities of California where construction has dramatically fallen off over the last ten years. By contrast, a universal deregulation approach that cuts local public oversight will have the potential to exacerbate gentrification and displacement in urban “hot” neighborhoods already struggling to shoulder the bulk of the state’s development, silencing the voices of those fighting to get more affordable homes in those impacted neighborhoods, and pushing existing communities to the urban periphery.

So how to get there? The exact opposite of a deregulatory approach may be required — smartly using regulation to incentivize suburban areas to build and stabilize housing at the needed affordability levels. A good start would be regional measures that make local cities’ transportation funding dependent on the adoption of new production, affordability, and anti-displacement measures. A regulatory approach could also counteract the Prop 13-induced emphasis on retail and commercial development (Emeryville, anyone?) by linking the ability of cities to approve commercial development with approvals for residential construction that meets the housing needs of new workers brought by the commercial development — what is called a Jobs-Housing-“Fit”.

Lessons from Cities

The experience of San Francisco from the last two decades serves as a partial example of how the state could begin to go about this reimagining of California suburbs. As San Francisco finally rebounded from the suburban outmigration that had depleted its population from the 1950s to the 1990s,[3] planners and community activists began a long and imperfect process of rezoning its former industrial districts and creating redevelopment plans (bringing public investment) on former military bases, train yards, abandoned freeways, and downtown parking lots. This is the approach that our organization, the Council of Community Housing Organizations, took to development in San Francisco, an approach that sought to balance jobs, housing, and affordability: in the 80s we advocated to meter new commercial offices so that housing and infrastructure could keep up (jobs-housing balance), and successfully passed jobs-housing linkage fees (funding mechanism) so office builders would contribute to homes affordable for their workers; in the 90s we advocated for residential development in areas like Mission Bay (rezoning for residential development) when the landowners and pro-growth boosters still believed the future of the city was as the region’s officehub; in the early 2000s we worked with neighbors (yes, neighbors!) to plan for their own communities to support housing with 50% affordability in the former Central Freeway parcels of Hayes Valley (rezoning, with public investment in affordable housing); and in the late 2000s we pressed for public benefits and inclusionary fees built into rezonings (“public benefits zoning”) for Rincon Hill, Market/Octavia and Eastern Neighborhoods.

All of these were hard-fought campaigns that resulted in real homes. They depended not on deregulation, but on the opposite: an understanding of what the development market will and will not provide on its own, good participatory planning, a commitment of public resources needed to attract and direct private investment, and regulations that provide certainty for development outcomes. Key to some of these successes was the use of redevelopment funding, bonding against future tax growth, to build the infrastructure and affordable housing that would kick-start private development, then demanding that the private development also include a mix of affordability (ie, “inclusionary” housing). Redevelopment was dissolved in 2011 in California, and years of talk of a replacement “Redevelopment 2.0” have come up empty. Creative local financing sources will be needed to facilitate this kind of holistic planning and investment, whether at an urban or suburban scale.

Rethinking and densifying the suburbs, as well as the old “Main Streets” of the less dense areas of core cities and towns, is not the same as building out industrial lands and former military bases — these are existing communities. So, planning will be key, as was done in San Francisco’s Market/Octavia and Central Freeway parcels where intact and vibrant communities were already in place. State bills just passed in the legislature such as AB73 and SB540 this summer may provide incentives for this kind of carefully planned growth and development supported by infrastructure and mandated minimum levels of affordability.

But to make this happen there will have to be a firm commitment to change in these suburban communities, which requires organizing and political leadership — creating an understanding and acceptance that there will berezonings, there will be increased heights and density of people, there will be a lot more activity, and things will change for the better as the old single-family suburbia model morphs into a 21st century regional urbanism. That commitment needs to come with careful understanding of potential displacement of any existing residents, and the impacts on existing small businesses those communities depend on. And any rezonings should be predicated on well-analyzed requirements to capture a portion of the added profits to landowners and developers in order to mitigate the infrastructure and affordable housing needs that planned growth will bring. Change in suburbs can happen, it’s not rocket science, but it does mean being intentional. Which is to say, we need more planning, not less regulation.


The changing trends in statewide residential production over the past decade are drastic. In a new era where single-family construction no longer provides the bulk of middle-class homes to support a growing population, with a generational shift to more dense urban living, and with growing income inequality, it’s time to rethink the role of the suburbs. This isn’t a question of either/or: both core cities and suburban areas will need to do their share. California’s core cities are clearly going to continue to shoulder a large responsibility for accommodating population growth, and in so doing those of us in the affordable housing and community development movement will continue to grapple with countering the pressures of gentrification and displacement while figuring out how to plan for growth.

With the shift to “infill” multi-family housing patterns, California’s policymakers, planners, and developers will have to start envisioning a smaller overall development footprint in our metropolitan regions. But this is not the end of history for the vast built landscape of California’s suburbs and small towns. The state is 770 miles long stretching from Oregon to Mexico and 220 miles wide, with 482 local cities in total and millions of acres of suburbanization over the past six decades. Suburbs will have to evolve to play a new role, if we are to have any hope of solving California’s housing affordability crisis.

[1] Comparison of census population for California to housing starts tracked by the Construction Industry Research Board.

[2] Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Plan Bay Area 2040, Final Preferred Scenario: regional growth pattern & investment strategy. November 2016.

[3] Like many core cities across the US, San Francisco lost population every decade of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, while the surrounding suburbs mushroomed in size. SF did not bounce back to its previous peak 1950 population until the year 2000.

Eye on the State: This Year Was All about Housing

9 10 2017

The latest piece from the SF Examiner’s monthly column “Eye on the State,” which examines the local implications of housing proposals brewing in the Capitol from the perspective of community, housing, labor, and environmental advocates representing everyday people.  Read the original article.

Read the rest of the “Eye on the State” series:

By Peter Cohen and Fernando Martí

Photo credit: Gary Coronado, LA Times/TNS.

To great fanfare, Gov. Jerry Brown last Friday finally signed a “package” of housing measures. The political logjam that had stymied affordable housing bills finally broke, with more than a dozen housing bills making it through this year.

The last decade has been a triple nightmare for housing in California: the 2008 Wall Street crash that decimated single-family house construction that once provided the bulk of middle-class starter homes; the governor’s dissolution of redevelopment funding that eliminated more than a billion dollars annually for housing; and the attack by the real estate industry that took away cities’ ability to require affordable “inclusionary” housing. California’s deficit of affordable homes grew to 1.5 million in the last few years, even as the state cut funding for affordable housing by 79 percent.

The SB2 and SB3 funding bills are a helpful shot in the arm — not nearly enough to make up for lost funding, but a good start. SB2 establishes a new document recording fee, which should net San Francisco $5 million to $10 million per year. The SB3 “Veterans and Affordable Housing Bond” will now be on the November 2018 statewide ballot. Helpful as these measures are, their limitations point to the continued need for real, permanent sources of dedicated funding at the local level to meet the scale of The City’s need.

Our local San Francisco nonprofit organizations have produced more than 30,000 permanently affordable housing units, and The City adds more affordable units annually than any other community in California. Clearly, we know how to put resources into brick-and-mortar results on the ground.

Another positive was Brown’s signature on AB 1505. The inclusionary housing bill, originally sponsored in 2011 by then-Sen. Mark Leno, had been previously vetoed by the governor after the real estate industry blocked it. AB 1505 will ensure that communities can once again require a minimum contribution to affordable housing needs by private, profit-driven developers within “financial feasibility.”

Other bright spots less talked about are AB 291, which strengthened nondiscrimination protections for immigrant tenants, and SB 166, which ensures cities actually provide sufficient sites for affordable housing.

We should remember that many of these affordable housing bills have been attempted multiple times in the last half decade — and this year finally broke through, thanks to the urgency of the crisis and the persistence of advocates. Credit should go to Western Center on Law and Poverty, Housing California and Public Advocates in particular, which worked the “inside” of Sacramento but also stayed connected with organizers on the ground and, as best as possible, steered the bills away from deals that would undermine tenants and low-income residents. There was tremendous grassroots advocacy from the statewide Residents United Network and the HousingNow! coalition with in-district visits, capitol visits, lobby days and letter-writing and social media campaigns.

But we can’t ignore that this was more of a “housing tradeoff” than a “housing package.”

The big quid pro quo was the governor’s support for the funding bills in exchange for votes for SB 35 to streamline market-rate development approvals. It includes streamlining for affordable housing, too, which was widely supported by many advocates, and it might help address opposition to low- and moderate-income housing, particularly in suburban cities. The bill’s real controversy was about the state requiring cities to approve market-rate projects “by-right,” without regard to potential impact of development on at-risk communities facing gentrification and displacement. Many organizations across the state called for amendments so that streamlining would not result in harm for vulnerable communities or create new secondary markets for speculating in “approvals” rather than producing actual built housing. These amendments were rejected, as the governor had made clear that any funding bills were dependent on his streamlining priority.

Sacramento’s focus on housing is nonetheless a welcome turn, after the governor’s long reticence to supporting affordable housing. Of course, the framing of the crisis in the Capitol has been totally focused on the decline in production relative to population and job growth. Yet for everyday working people and people on limited incomes, the crisis is also one of precarious tenure, evictions, soaring rents, unlivable commutes, rampant real-estate speculation and the loss of ethnic communities.

Now that the legislature has finally begun to tackle housing production — however imperfectly, including some actual resources to jump-start affordable housing — next year’s legislative session should start to tackle the gentrification and displacement crisis head-on, focusing on the lives of the millions of Californians who are most at risk.


The Missing Piece in the Housing Crisis: The Fall in Single-Family Homes

9 10 2017

Our latest piece on Medium.  Read the original post here.

Credit: La Citta Vita, [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

On Sunday Aug 20th, 2017, the San Francisco Chronicle posted a two-page editorial “On Housing” which included a very telling graph that, unfortunately, was glossed over in the editors’ simple narrative of deregulation and “build, build, build.”

The data, from the State’s Department of Finance, shows two things: 1) the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 nearly ground housing production in California to a halt, and 2) single-family construction has dramatically diminished and is clearly not coming back.

This second point — the stunning sea-change in development patterns just within the past decade — has been largely overlooked (if not intentionally ignored) in discussions of what has caused the state’s housing crisis. But understanding this extreme, recent change in the landscape of home construction is critical to finding a pathway to a more affordable California.

The Era of the Suburbs

For decades, single-family homes dominated residential construction in California and the Bay Area. Go to any suburb east of Oakland and it’s plain and clear for as far as the eye can see — single-family suburbia was what made up the bulk of the housing industry. The real estate market responded to middle-class consumer demand by building inexpensive starter homes on farm fields and orchards, expanding our state’s wide-ranging suburbs. Built on cheap, undeveloped tracts and with fairly low construction costs, these homes provided the “natural” affordability that many middle-class Californians have recently watched disappear.

That housing supply tracked with population demand, both in the Bay Area as a region and in California as a whole: for every decade since the 1960s, developers built an average of .4 units for every new person added to the state, which at an average 2.5 persons per household is essentially one new home developed for every new California household decade over decade.[1]

The Crash of Single-Family Development

Since the 2008 Wall Street crash, though, we are living in a completely new era of housing, turned upside down in terms of housing production and preferences.

As the Chronicle’s graph above shows, home production crashed overall since about 2006, while population continued to soar. Compared to the historic average of .4 units for every new person, developers have only built .09 units per new person since 2010.

But what’s most striking about the graph is not only the overall drop in production, but the shift in housing types being built. With the market crash, single-family home production crashed and has never recovered. In 2005, over 150,000 single-family homes were built in California, providing the bulk of housing that we needed. Just last year, when multi-family home construction had essentially returned to pre-crash levels, single-family home production was still at less than 50,000 units — a THIRD of what it was before the crash. Multi-family homes (apartments and condos) now make up nearly 60% of all housing being built. This is a stunning change from past decades, when by contrast single-family homes made up 70–80% of all new construction.[2] The Chronicle editorial totally missed that key revelation in the data.

The takeaway? The single-family suburbs are out, and denser, “transit-oriented,” “urban infill” is now the focus of the residential development market.

We believe that this shift to a more urban housing market is — and should be — permanent. This drop in single-family construction is at least partly a response to a positive cultural change that’s been taking place over the last generation: middle-class and younger folks are increasingly seeing more urban living as both socially valuable and ecologically important. This is a good thing from an environmental standpoint, even a necessary thing as we turn away from sprawl development and reconfigure our metropolitan regions to deal with climate change and vehicle emissions.

A quick aside: as exciting as this new urbanism is, the narrative often ignores the reality that preferring to live in cities is not new for everyone. Talk to any of the working class communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities that remained in California core cities during the decades of white flight, redlining, disinvestment, poor schools, toxic dumps, and urban renewal, and who are now living with the effects of evictions, gentrification, and economic displacement as the middle-class “return-to-the-city” increases. For people who have been there all along, urban living has not just been the only option, but has provided the critical social networks and public transport that allowed these communities to thrive despite the disinvestment and racial and economic segregation they endured while middle-class suburbs thrived and developers happily built hundreds of thousands of single-family homes decade after decade.

But back to the point. Acknowledging this dramatic change in single-family housing production and the generational shift in housing desires is an essential piece to understanding the origins of the current housing crisis. Pair this new middle-class attention on cities and the sustained (never-to-rebound) crash in single-family housing production with the inherently higher costs of building high-density infill on expensive land, add in growing income inequality and relatively weak protections for urban tenants and low-income homeowners, and you have the recipe for the housing affordability and displacement crisis we all know too well.

A New Economic Reality

To move forward out of the affordability crisis, we need to understand the history of how and where homes got produced in California in the past and what has changed. What the Chronicle’s graph makes clear is that the story that “we chronically under-produced housing for decades and are now paying the price” (a mantra of the Bay Area Council, SPUR and other real estate lobbyists, and the “YIMBY” crowd) is simply revisionist history with little connection to reality.

Until very recently, developers were building enough homes to match population growth in California — it’s just that most of it was in the form of single-family homes. The past 10 years of the real estate market tells a story of drastic change — of suburban abandonment, hyperfocus on urban “hot markets”, and resulting gentrification and displacement.

Acknowledging that our reality has changed, we can evaluate what the new role of the Bay Area and California suburbs should be in returning the state to healthy housing production levels and meeting the growing desire for denser, more interconnected, and sustainable living.

Stay tuned for Part Two for our thoughts on rethinking the role of the suburbs.



[1] Comparison of average annual housing starts by decade from Construction Industry Research Board data compared to annualized population based on decennial census and 2015 ACS estimate, varies from 0.27 to 0.57, with an average of 0.41 units per new person.

[2] Construction Industry Research Board data.

Santa is Back for the Developers

12 09 2017

Our latest op-ed in the S.F. Examiner.  Read the original posting here.

Buildings on The Embarcadero. Credit: Sarahbeth Maney, S.F. Examiner.

Last December, we wrote about the gift that Santa Claus brought to real estate developers in San Francisco: the ability to use recent changes in state density bonus law to increase heights and densities 35 percent above the existing zoning, with no additional public benefit.

To end this loophole, Assemblymember Phil Ting authored AB 915, which simply required The City’s “inclusionary housing” percentage to apply to projects that take advantage of the density bonus. It was a simple question of fairness. The San Francisco pro-housing community — from all 11 supervisors and the mayor to our community-based affordable housing, tenant and smart growth advocates, from Tenants Together to Livable City — came together to support this measure.

AB 915 passed in the state Assembly, thanks to Assemblymember David Chiu shepherding it through the Housing and Community Development Committee and thanks to the mayor and supervisors putting on the push for the Assembly floor vote. But in the final weeks for state legislation to pass, the real estate industry forced amendments to the bill in the Senate Housing Committee, by adding a gatekeeper role for the state’s housing agency to decide on an annual basis whether The City gets to implement AB 915.

That effectively killed the measure.

So what’s at stake? If you happen to be a developer in San Francisco, Santa brought you a 35 percent bonus on your profit. If you happen to own land you’re looking to sell, Santa handed you a 35 percent increase on the price of your land.

As we wrote last December when this giveaway was first exposed, it’s an unintended loophole in the State Density Bonus law that allows increased densities, heights and other economic incentives (reductions in open space or setbacks) in exchange for additional affordable housing. But San Francisco, due to the extraordinary profits to be made from housing here, already requires developers to provide a minimum of 18 percent affordable units for projects that comply with existing zoning. So, AB 915 was designed to fix that loophole specific to San Francisco, still encouraging increased density, but allowing The City to recoup part of the added value in increased affordability. Now, with the bill’s demise, developers will be able to upzone their land through the state density bonus with no additional requirements, effectively reducing their total affordable housing contribution to only 13 percent. What investor wouldn’t be slapping Santa’s back for that? And, in fact, over this past year, developers have already started taking advantage of this loophole.

What does this loophole actually mean in monetary terms? In a page straight out of “The Art of the Deal,” the first project to take advantage of this loophole, in South of Market, effectively created net “value” to the investor to the tune of about $3.8 million. After the hearing, Planning Commissioner Myrna Melgar said, “It is an unconscionable giveaway. The City should not so easily stand aside and risk letting this impact on our city’s affordable housing policy become standard practice.”

Increasing density or heights is not the issue — what is at issue is upholding the spirit of the state law, which was that builders could be allowed to exceed local zoning rules to get more profit, only in exchange for giving back more. That is the win-win that ensures “pro-housing” really leads to more affordable housing.

What’s surprising about this sudden turn for Ting’s measure is that housing organizations across the state, many of which last year worked to strengthen the state’s density bonus law, had no problem with this San Francisco-specific bill, from Housing California to the Western Center on Law and Poverty to the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation: in short, all the respected statewide pro-housing organizations.

Groups in opposition to AB 915 read like a laundry list of the state and local real estate lobby: the California Association of Realtors, the California Apartment Association and the California Building Industry Association, as well as locally the S.F. Housing Action Coalition, BARF and YIMBY Action. This constellation of players are also the most ardent supporters of SB 35, a bill that would streamline approvals for market-rate development in gentrifying communities throughout the state. All of which begs the question: Is the goal of these groups to support greater housing affordability in our densifying urban areas, as they often contend, or is it simply to support real estate profits at whatever cost to the public good?

AB 915 could return next year. But in the meantime, the fight to protect San Francisco’s landmark inclusionary housing policy continues.

Eye on the State: Leaders Must Find Political Will to Fund Housing, Fight Displacement

12 09 2017

The latest piece from the SF Examiner’s monthly column “Eye on the State,” which examines the local implications of housing proposals brewing in the Capitol from the perspective of community, housing, labor, and environmental advocates representing everyday people.  Read the original article.

Read the rest of the “Eye on the State” series:


By Dean Preston and Sam Tepperman-Gelfant

From left: Senate President pro Tempore Kevin DeLeon, Governor Jerry Brown, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. (SF Examiner, Courtesy photos)

State leaders have finally woken up to the affordable housing crisis raging throughout California. A slew of housing bills were introduced this year with different approaches to the problem. The governor and real estate companies sought deregulation of high-priced housing construction, while affordable housing and community advocates pushed for what families being priced out of neighborhoods need most urgently: funds to build more homes that low-income people can afford and removal of state constraints on local affordable housing and anti-displacement policies.

Back in July, Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate President pro Tempore Kevin DeLeón and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon pledged “their shared commitment and effort to address California’s housing needs.” With the legislature returning from a month-long recess this week, and a Sept. 15 deadline to send bills to the governor, it remains unclear whether they can convert this rhetoric into action.

The governor has signaled that deregulating housing construction — including market-rate housing — is his priority. Since he took office, he has slashed funding for affordable housing, vetoed inclusionary housing laws and refused to lead on even the most basic anti-displacement policies.

That’s where our legislative leaders come in. Leadership must force the issue with the governor, making clear that his deregulation agenda will not advance without his commitment to sign key tenant protection and affordable housing bills.

Right now, some of the most important bills remain in jeopardy. None should be controversial for anyone who cares about addressing the housing crisis.

Assembly Bill 1505 (Bloom, Chiu and Gloria) would overturn a misguided 2009 court decision that restricted local “inclusionary zoning” policies. Inclusionary zoning promotes mixed-income neighborhoods by ensuring that new housing developments contain a minimum percentage of affordable units. This creates affordable housing across the state at no cost to the government. Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2013 despite widespread support from business, labor, environmental, housing and equity groups. This year, legislative leaders must flex their political muscle to convince the governor to sign AB 1505.

A bill that would protect immigrant tenants from abuse by unscrupulous landlords, Assembly Bill 291 (Chiu), faces similar uncertainty. Brown has been quick to call out the Trump administration for anti-immigrant rhetoric, and needs to back this up with action. Yet the governor is reported to be on the fence about this bill. It is again up to legislative leaders to go to the mat to make sure that immigrant families have security in calling California home.

Another dire need is substantial ongoing funding to build more homes for lower-income families, seniors and people with disabilities. Over the last eight years, statewide affordable housing funding has been slashed by two-thirds — largely due to the dissolution of local redevelopment agencies by the state in 2012, which cut $1 billion per year in affordable housing funds.

Senate Bill 2 (Atkins) would generate hundreds of millions per year for affordable housing by imposing a modest recording fee on some real estate transactions. Its fate in the Assembly remains uncertain, however, since it requires a two-thirds majority.

Senate Bill 3 (Beall) would send a housing bond to the statewide ballot in 2018 — but at just $3 billion, it would not make enough of a dent in the affordable housing deficit. Voters would likely support double or triple that amount; lawmakers and the governor should ask them to.

Unfortunately, the bill most likely to become part of any housing package is unlikely to help low-income households and could silence the voices of low-income communities of color struggling to combat gentrification and displacement. Senate Bill 35 (Wiener) would prohibit local approval and environmental review processes for many housing developments. While touted as a panacea to the state’s housing crisis, the bill is in fact a giveaway to market-rate developers. A bill that streamlined only affordable housing could be helpful, but in its current form, SB 35 would largely result in fast-tracking high-priced condos in low-income neighborhoods.

Whatever housing bills pass this year, the affordable housing crisis will rage on. The legislature must step up efforts to combat the crisis now and when it reconvenes in January. Already on that docket are bills to repeal state restrictions on local rent-control policies, and to strengthen housing civil rights protections.

Whether there is political will to enact essential housing bills this year remains uncertain. Senate and Assembly leadership must fight for real housing solutions as if their constituents’ lives depend on them. Because, in fact, they do.

Dean Preston is executive director of Tenants Together. Sam Tepperman-Gelfant is deputy managing attorney of Public Advocates Inc.

Magical Thinking “By Right”

11 09 2017

or: Why deregulation will do little to increase housing supply for those who need it…

Say Yes to Housing at Pier 70

5 09 2017

Our latest op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner.  Read the original posting here.

Photo of Pier 70. Credit: SF Examiner, Courtesy of Port of San Francisco.

More housing! The Planning Commission has the opportunity today to either push for the housing we need, or continue to promote projects that exacerbate our jobs-housing imbalance.

Commissioners will hear two proposals for the 35-acre Pier 70 project along Third Street near Dogpatch and the Bayview. One scenario emphasizes commercial development, with comparatively little residential development to house the new workers, while the other scenario gets closer to proposing enough housing to meet the demand created by new jobs. The Planning Commission will be asked by the project sponsor to approve both — giving the developer certainty on their approvals for the huge Pier 70 site, but also giving the developer lots of flexibility on what they actually build.

We think this is the time for the Planning Commission to actually walk their talk about the need for housing to meet job growth, and demand that these big master-planned developments build enough housing for their workers.

This should be a no-brainer. The project’s own Environmental Impact Report notes that the “Maximum Commercial Scenario” will only meet 30 percent of the demand created by the project’s jobs, while the “Maximum Residential Scenario” will meet 94 percent of the housing demand. It’s a clear choice — the Planning Commission should approve the project on the condition that only the maximum residential scenario be allowed to move forward.

Pier 70 is a perfect site for new mixed-use development and we look forward to seeing the project move forward. Our affordable housing coalition, CCHO, along with several neighborhood associations adjacent to the project, supported the Proposition F ballot measure in 2014 that increased heights and densities on the parcels. But these large master-planned projects should no longer be allowed to just focus on profitable commercial development, while leaving other places to take care of the housing need they’ve helped create. This is the same scenario that has contributed to our housing crisis, with cities allowing companies like Google and Apple to build campuses in the South Bay without adequate housing for their workforce. San Francisco should not make the same mistake.

Getting to a real jobs-housing-fit
This debate points to an underlying issue with how The City plans its future (and by extension, to the absence of any regional planning that can rationally and equitably plan the region’s growth).

While large developments like this are required to do environmental impact reports, there’s no requirement to hold them accountable to their housing impacts, or to even understand what kind of housing the workers in these new jobs will be able to afford. The Planning Department needs to evolve and actually analyze the housing impacts, by wage level, for every major master-planned project and area plan (and cumulatively for the sum of all projects in The City). It’s called a Jobs-Housing Fit analysis, and it should be a prerequisite for Planning Commission discussions on development approvals.

This isn’t rocket science. Last June, we analyzed the Brisbane Baylands project, and this month we’re providing the Commission with our analysis of the Pier 70 project.

A Jobs-Housing Fit analysis shows that even the “Maximum Residential Scenario” doesn’t adequately meet the housing needs for Pier 70. The EIR’s estimate assumes that over a quarter of all new workers will be housed elsewhere in the region, and that other jurisdictions will take the responsibility of housing those workers. That’s like Brisbane or Cupertino or Mountain View saying San Francisco can house the majority of their new workers because that’s how it has been. It’s time for jurisdictions to start internalizing responsibility for the housing needed to support the new workforce their policies promote. When we take the full workforce into account, even the “Maximum Residential Scenario” would only account for 65 percent of the actual need.

When we delve deeper into worker incomes, the lack of adequate housing in the Pier 70 plan is even clearer. The project will have a mix of commercial office (presumably largely tech jobs), restaurant, retail, and arts/light industrial uses. This means Pier 70 will create low-, moderate-, and high-wage jobs, and needs to plan for housing at a range of income levels. Based on a Jobs-Housing Fit analysis, a whopping 47 percent of all housing would need to be affordable for Pier 70’s low- and moderate/middle-income workers (all those restaurant, retail, grounds, arts, light industrial and office support workers). The project will be providing 30 percent affordable units, which is still impressive and a plan that San Francisco’s Council of Community Housing Organizations supported in the Prop. F proposal.

That means that the “Maximum Residential Scenario” will provide enough housing for most of the new tech and office jobs, but a significant portion of the low- and moderate-income support workers will be forced to look for housing in cheaper outer suburbs with long commute times, and put additional housing pressure on other cities. This kind of inequality is not how we should be planning our cities or region, and San Francisco can and should do better.

At the very least, the Planning Commission should only allow the Maximum Residential Scenario to move forward. And from here on out, the Planning Department should commit to real planning for The City’s future by ensuring that commercial development in The City is planned with sufficient housing and at the appropriate affordability levels for a true Jobs-Housing Fit.

Otherwise, we aren’t solving our housing crisis — we are just making it worse. Say yes to housing at Pier 70.

Pieds-A-Terre: The Scale of the Problem

9 08 2017

Construction of luxury condos on Folsom Street. Credit: Noah Arroyo, San Francisco Public Press.

The idea of a “pied-a-terre” tax has been in the headlines recently, with Vancouver and other cities taking the lead in disincentivizing unoccupied housing units.

Secondary/non-primary residence homes (NPRs, or what are more colorfully called “pieds-a-terre”) in San Francisco are significant in number, and the numbers and value of these homes continue to rise, inflating market housing and contributing to the scarcity of available housing.  As of 2014 data (the most recent available) NPRs now comprise nearly 30% of all vacant housing units in the City, and the increase over recent years is equal to 26% of all the new housing production in the same period.

San Francisco has seen a significant increase in NPRs in the past 10 years. Whether these housing units are second homes for the wealthy or units that are rented as short-term vacation rentals, NPRs take housing units out of the rental market, depleting the supply of available housing for San Francisco residents and adding pressure to rising housing prices.  This has become not only a San Francisco issue but a phenomenon in other major “hot market” cities nationwide and even internationally.


The scale of the problem

There are three key takeaways from recent research: The number of NPRs in San Francisco is increasing rapidly, pieds–a-terre seem more prevalent in newly constructed housing, and these secondary vacation home units constitute a significant portion of the City’s total vacant units.

The most recent 2014 ACS data shows that San Francisco had 9,307 seasonal units. In 2005, the number was 5,822. That is a 60% increase in secondary/vacation homes since 2005. When compared to the total number of vacant units in the housing stock, the number of NPRs are significant in any year.  In 2005 the total number of vacant units citywide was 32,564, making seasonal homes 18% of those unoccupied units.  By 2012, the total number of vacant units dropped to 30,057 while the number of seasonal units almost doubled to 9,075 accounting for 30% of all vacant units.  To put that in relative terms, the number of new pieds-a-terre over that 2005-2012 period was equal to 26% of all new housing production over those same years.

While San Francisco has not approached the number of secondary units affecting housing markets in places like New York City and Miami, it outstrips other cities when we look at the rates.  Secondary units in New York account for a lower percentage of overall vacant units than in San Francisco. In 2014, there were 63,916 recreational units in New York City, out of 290,675 unoccupied units. That means 21% of vacant units in New York were secondary homes, a significant number but still much lower than in San Francisco where pieds-a-terre account for roughly 30% of all vacant units.[1]  New York, like San Francisco, has seen these numbers increase since 2005, when secondary units only accounted for 17% of vacant units.  However, unlike San Francisco, New York has begun to actively talk about regulating these homes. [2]



There is a clear policy and even moral logic in implementing a policy to disincentivize this trend of “ghost units,” and, to the extent that this market behavior continues to persist, to ensure pieds-a-terre are subject to a “luxury tax” that can help fund affordable housing and offset the impact on the City’s housing supply.


[1] 2014 ACS 1-year estimate, American Factfinder

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/realestate/pieds-terre-owners-dominate-some-new-york-buildings.html?_r=0

Take Action! Call for Amendments to SB 35

10 07 2017

SB 35 will silence the voices of working-class communities facing potential displacement in cities like Richmond, San Pablo, East Palo Alto, Oakland, and even San Francisco and LA.

It doesn’t target NIMBYs – it targets gentrifying communities. We need a tool to encourage the housing that we need in anti-housing jurisdictions, but this isn’t it.

Ways to Take Action:

  • Sign the petition to state legislators telling them to oppose SB 35 unless amended
  • If you live in San Francisco, call Assemblymember David Chiu (916-319-2017) and urge him to oppose SB 35 unless amended in the ways called for by the statewide community coalition, Californians for Affordable Housing, including a safe harbor provision for at-risk communities.

If you want to know more about SB 35, here’s a great fact sheet from Californians for Affordable Housing.

Credit: Jonathan McIntosh, Creative Commons.

Alarming Housing Bill Headed for Approval

10 07 2017

Our latest op-ed in 48 Hills.  Check out the original posting here.

Senate Bill 35 is a huge game-changer about to hit SF and other gentrifying cities.  As it says at the end of the article, if you are concerned about SB 35, let your voice be heard before Wednesday’s Committee Meeting!

Emails and calls to:



A sign-on petition has also been created and you can access it here.

Senate Bill 35, heading to Assemblymember David Chiu’s Housing and Community Development Committee Wednesday/12, is a potentially serious threat to California’s most vulnerable urban communities. It will disenfranchise working-class communities of color who bear the brunt of gentrification and prevent them from having a say in how their neighborhoods are developed and from pressing for housing development to be affordable.

A huge market-rate housing project at 16th and Mission could lead to gentrification -- but SB35 would undermine community oversight
A huge market-rate housing project at 16th and Mission could lead to gentrification — but SB35 would undermine community oversight

SB 35 is one of 130 housing and development-related bills in the State Capitol – a record number – and so far, it’s been quietly gliding through under the radar. SB 35 is different from the other housing bills that seek to enforce zoning, or create funding for affordable housing or strengthen local tools like Inclusionary Housing. Despite some real potential benefits in suburban anti-housing jurisdictions, SB 35 could actually end up making housing development less affordable in low-income neighborhoods of San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, East Palo Alto and many similar urban core communities across the State.

Known as the “By-Right Development” bill, Senate Bill 35 would eliminate the role of the community and the local planning commission or city council in the approvals of “infill” real estate development projects. Virtually every project in San Francisco qualifies as infill, and the same is true of Oakland, Richmond, San Leandro, East Palo Alto, and much of San Jose. Most of the “by right” development pursuant to this bill will likely happen in urban communities.

Under the SB 35 legislation, cities will be required by State law to approve market-rate projects “by-right” unless developers have built 100% of a city’s market-rate housing planning goals, regardless of how much or how little affordable housing has been built.

Eliminating public process is a simplistic scapegoat that ignores the real impediments to housing: a lack of cheap land zoned for housing, limited funding for affordable housing, and the boom-bust nature of economic cycles. But SB 35 is a convenient way for its proponents to “do something” to address the crisis, without changing the underlying fundamentals of the crisis. And of course the real estate industry absolutely loves the idea of eliminating public process and local city “control” over approving development.

So what is there to possibly like about SB 35?

The premise on which SB 35 is supposedly based is a fine one: “all cities need to do their fair share to build housing.” We wholeheartedly agree.

The idea behind SB35 is that the principal reason for California’s affordable housing crisis is that communities abuse public process to stop or delay housing development. We all know of cases where that has happened, including to stop affordable housing. With Silicon Valley pumping out thousands of jobs while cities like Palo Alto, Cupertino, Menlo Park, Brisbane, and many other slow-growth, middle-class cities do little to facilitate new housing, there’s a lot of “fairness” that needs to be spread around the region.

From an affordable housing perspective, the big upside is that SB 35 will make proposed affordable housing projects By-Right throughout the State of California. Given the opposition to affordable housing projects in many California communities, streamlining could benefit affordable housing in suburban jurisdictions – which is why a few affordable housing developers have endorsed SB 35.

But even with these benefits to affordable housing, our Council of Community Housing Organizations coalition representing San Francisco’s affordable housing and tenant’s rights organizations, along with tenant, housing and social justice organizations up and down the state, still think SB 35 in its current form will do far more harm to urban gentrifying communities than it will do good in suburban exclusionary cities. A broad coalition of statewide organizations has made calls for amendments to SB 35 that would address the issues with the bill, and mediate the potential threat it poses to low-income and communities of color.  These appeals have been repeatedly ignored.

What are the downsides of simply “streamlining” more development?

The real problem is in the way SB 35’s authors fail to distinguish between communities where eliminating discretion of approval and public process is harmful and where it could be a benefit. The By-Right bill makes no distinction between communities that have “hot” real estate markets and communities with little development activity, or between communities with low-income populations vulnerable to displacement and those neighborhoods and cities that are totally stable with no gentrification risks.

SB35 is supposedly meant to incentivize market-rate housing only in cities that have not met their market-rate housing goals for a given period. But even in “hot market” cities like SF, San Jose and LA, which in most years build even more market-rate housing than their planning goals, SB 35 could end up eliminating public participation after a recession period when production goes down, precisely at the time when developers begin ramping up for the next development boom cycle.

As currently written, the practical outcome of SB 35 will be to further expedite and accelerate market-rate approvals in the small handful of California communities where the real estate market is already hot – communities that are overwhelmingly urban, low-income, and predominantly people of color. These are the same communities that are currently grappling with displacement and gentrification, and typically have terrible imbalances of market-rate housing development compared to affordable housing. Simply accelerating approvals in those communities is just a recipe to spur even more aggressive gentrification.

Yes, we need a lot more infill housing in California, but we need development that is fairly distributed across all communities and that really meets the needs and incomes of existing and incoming residents. If there were a “safe harbor” in SB 35 to ensure that streamlining doesn’t apply in communities already experiencing rapid development and displacement, then the benefit of the bill could be to steer some new development activity to cities with truly low housing production, but SB 35 does nothing to ensure this.

And in a one-two punch, SB 35 not only encourages accelerated market-rate approvals in vulnerable neighborhoods, but then takes away some of the very tools low-income communities rely on to mitigate gentrification impacts on their neighborhoods. With public participation cut out of the approval process, communities lose their ability to negotiate for higher levels of affordable housing and other community benefits like public open space and pedestrian improvements and protections for small businesses. Moreover, SB 35 explicitly prohibits cities from requiring more affordable housing from By-Right projects than already locally required, preventing communities from re-capturing any of the monetary benefit given to developers by this By-Right Development bill.

Does this trade-off really get anything?

While SB 35 will clearly accelerate approvals in hot market areas, we think it’s unlikely that it will have the positive impact of speeding up development in slow-growth areas of the state with little ongoing housing construction. Many of these are areas that have intentionally ducked their responsibility to provide housing, or where the developers cannot get high enough returns from low rents and sales prices. And, because of the sloppy way it is written, the bill lets many middle- and upper-class growth-averse cities off the hook, places like Dublin, Pleasanton, Danville, Lafayette, Orinda, Walnut Creek, Corte Madera or Los Altos or many other places across the state that aren’t doing their “fair share” to absorb new housing needs, while urban communities struggle with gentrification and displacement symptoms of over-concentrated development.

SB 35 also critically lacks the key element of a meaningful two-year “use it or lose it” provision, which would give the By-Right approval an expiration date to ensure that developers actually build their approved projects in a timely manner, rather than simply selling off their “approved project” to the ever-larger speculative pool of “entitlements” (San Francisco, for example, even though it’s building units at the full capacity of available labor and building cranes, already has a pipeline of 38,000 approved units). Under SB 35 development sponsors have up to four years to apply for a construction permit after getting by-right approval.

Even if a soup-to-nuts project approval for, say, a 50-unit development was pushed through in 12 months, under SB35’s streamlining rules, if the developer can sit on that approval for up to 4 years and then with a typical 2+ year construction period, that is a total of 7 years to get “By Right” housing units on the ground and ready to occupy. That’s “streamlining?”

More significantly, SB 35 does little to tackle the underlying issue: that development investors – not city government, nor public policy goals, nor actual community need — determine where, when, how fast, and what types of housing are built.  Instead of addressing this, SB 35 makes it even easier for investors and developers to pick and choose the best way to play the California real estate market—it doesn’t take much imagination to see the outcome of developers continuing to focus on the most profitable housing in the most profitable areas, irrespective of broader regional need. In the absence of use-it-or-lose-it accountability or other mechanisms that ensure actual housing construction in places where development isn’t already happening, SB 35 gives a lot but gets very little in return.

Silencing those most impacted: race and class

Even if it does succeed in encouraging more development in slow-growing areas, which is a laudable goal, the SB 35 By-Right bill in its current form makes an unconscionable trade-off: sacrificing vulnerable urban communities in the hopes of facilitating development in stable ones.  SB 35 will silence the voices of working-class communities facing potential displacement in cities like Richmond, San Pablo, East Palo Alto and Oakland, and even in gentrifying neighborhoods of San Francisco during “hot market” years.

The rapid gentrification of California’s urban core communities is real. The outmigration of low-income and working class residents to far-flung suburbs as a consequence is also real – much has been written about the increasing suburbanization of poverty. The shrinking African American and Latino populations from city neighborhoods and the changing race and class profile of many low-income communities is a real thing. “Trade-offs” have historically decimated vulnerable communities that found themselves on the front lines of real estate agendas. This trade-off feels all too familiar, and is not one we can afford to make again, especially under the guise of increasing affordable housing.

The SB 35 bill may have some good intent, but for low-income urban communities already struggling with gentrification and displacement from San Francisco and Oakland to Los Angeles, Long Beach and Fresno, it is a potential looming threat.

So what can we do to fix this mess?

Our coalition organization, CCHO, continues to work with dozens of other local and state affordable housing and tenant advocate organizations to press for amendments to the bill addressing these concerns. The minimum “fixes” for SB 35 should include:

  • A safe harbor provision exempting low income communities where development is already “hot” and communities are already grappling with gentrification and displacement pressures;
  • A higher affordable housing requirement in exchange for By-Right approval;
  • At least half of the affordable housing in By-Right projects should be for households under 50% of the median income;
  • A meaningful two-year “use it or lose it” expiration date on how long a By-Right approval lasts before the developer must start actually building the project.

So far these proposed amendments have been rejected by the bill’s author, raising the question of whether this bill is really intended to steer development to no/slow-growth cities, or whether the goal is to accelerate gentrification and constrain public participation by communities of color facing the brunt of displacement. In the way that legislation in Sacramento can sail through the process inside the political bubble of what is known as “the building” at the Capitol, this SB 35 By Right Development bill has advanced seamlessly and disconnected from any community voices on the ground.

The primary support testimony at the June 28th Assembly Local Government Committee hearing on SB 35 was an interesting display – they were representatives from the California Association of Realtors, the California Apartment Association, national developer Bridge Housing, and San Francisco Mayor Lee.

But we remain hopeful that legislators in the Capitol will do right with By-Right and not do harm. That said, it will require making enough noise so up there in “the building” they hear voices from the ground.

The SB 35 bill now heads to the Assembly Housing and Community Development committee on Wednesday July 12th, chaired by David Chiu. As chair of that key committee, much rests on Chiu’s leadership to push for amendments addressing these concerns with the serious unintended consequences of the By-Right bill, including a safe harbor to communities impacted by gentrification and displacement. If you are concerned about the consequences of this By-Right Development bill for San Francisco and other urban gentrifying communities, let your voice be heard.

Emails and calls to:



A sign-on petition has also been created and you can access it here.