The Future of Balboa Reservoir: Say No to Privatizing Public Lands

9 05 2016

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

The parking lot at the Balboa Reservoir. Credit: Gabrielle Lurie, SF Examiner.

The Balboa Reservoir, currently a parking lot, could be used to build hundreds of affordable homes. Credit: Gabrielle Lurie, SF Examiner.

The future of a huge swath of The City is currently up for grabs, and with it, the future of San Francisco’s approach to affordable housing.

The Public Utilities Commission parking lot next to the City College of San Francisco’s campus on Ocean Avenue may not seem exciting, but it is 17 acres of developable land in our mostly built-out city, and market-rate developers are salivating at the prospect of privatizing this land.

As publically owned land, the Balboa Reservoir represents an indispensable public resource that should be preserved as a public good for this and future generations. This will require not only a commitment of resources, but also visionary leadership by The City, which we have yet to see.

Any “Request for Proposals,” or Board of Supervisors-approved rezoning or development agreement for residential uses on the site, should prioritize maximum housing affordability, at a minimum mandating that at least 50 percent of the site be affordable to low-income households (families earning less than $50,000), and on top of that another portion affordable to moderate-income families (two-earner households earning up to $120,000). And it should do that while still supporting City College’s continued viability by dedicating parking facilities for a fully enrolled CCSF and providing new open space.

The PUC’s Citizens Advisory Committee agrees: Last March, it passed a resolution calling for 50 percent to 100 percent of housing developed on the site to be affordable, for a range of incomes and family sizes, to truly meet the needs of San Franciscans.

The Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, however, argues the best approach for a large 17-acre site like this, even if it is publicly owned, is to privatize it as much as possible. Any affordable units, they argue, should be entirely dependent on market-rate developers willing to “cross-subsidize” some small amount. And most of these so-called affordable units could end up being studios and 1-bedrooms — only affordable to individuals who earn more than $100,000 (140-150 percent of median income). These are called “creative financing” solutions.

The logical and frightening conclusion of The City’s argument for privatizing Balboa Reservoir is that we would never need to invest in affordable housing again — simply let the paltry amount of affordable units we are able to leverage out of “the market” produce all our affordable housing from now on. These are the same arguments that lead to privatizing public schools and community colleges or contracting out critical public services to the lowest bidder. These are the classic arguments of austerity and neoliberalism, based on a model of scarcity of resources that hardly has a base in San Francisco’s booming economy.

Ideology aside, the problem with this model, practical as it may sound, is that it simply continues to exacerbate the imbalance of high-end market-rate housing (the latest numbers are that only 11 percent of The City’s residents can afford the median cost home) compared to housing for the everyday working and middle-class San Franciscans. And according to The City’s own Housing Element goals through 2022, we have already built or entitled more than 106 percent of our market-rate housing goals, and met only 24 percent of our low-income and 13 percent of our moderate-income needs!

We are always playing a game of catch-up with the overproduction of luxury housing.

It is indeed possible to develop the Balboa Reservoir with 100 percent affordable housing and amenities for the neighboring community and City College. And certainly it is without question possible to develop it with a minimum of 50 percent to 60 percent affordable as we suggested above. It is primarily a question of available funds and phasing. A back of the envelope calculation envisions a total city investment of around $100 million for a 250-to-300-unit affordable development — held in the public trust in perpetuity. This would include compensating PUC ratepayers with a fair-market value for the “unserviced” land (subtracting the cost of needed infrastructure such as streets and sewers).

The City argues we don’t have that kind of money lying around, and even much of the Prop A funds from last November are already being dedicated to new affordable housing elsewhere in The City. This would clearly be a major city investment, spread out in phases, but given the willingness shown by voters over the last decade to support funding for affordable housing, such numbers do not appear to be insurmountable, and the payoff would last for generations.

Some say only by relying on market-rate development can we be reasonably assured that development will happen sooner rather than later. This is simply not true. In fact, city-funded development is more stable and reliable than market-drive development. Large market-rate projects rely on the ups-and-downs of the global market of institutional investors, which quickly dry up at the slightest change in the economy. On the other hand, in the downs of the market, it is often only city investment that moves projects forward. In fact, during the Great Recession in 2010, more than 50 percent of the units completed in San Francisco were publicly financed affordable housing.

The model of Octavia Avenue is a perfect case in point: A huge swath of public land (from the Central Freeway teardown) was divided into parcels, and fully half of the new units were dedicated to affordable housing. Most of those parcels are now built out, and everyone agrees the development along Octavia Avenue is wildly successful. It took vision, leadership and perseverance, but public lands are being used exactly as was envisioned by the public.

It is not a question of feasibility or funding that is holding us back, but a lack of bold leadership that truly attempts to face the housing crisis head-on. A short-term trade-off for a handful of privately financed affordable units for people earning $100,000 at Balboa Reservoir is not visionary. A truly visionary plan would seize this rare opportunity with a longer-term strategy that leverages hundreds of affordable units from this major public resource.

On Monday, the Balboa Reservoir CAC will discuss development parameters for the site. Supervisor Norman Yee has requested that the CAC consider a proposal to mandate 50 percent of all housing on the site to be affordable (and the definition of “affordable,” and affordable for whom, is critical). And on Tuesday, the PUC will take their CAC’s resolution regarding affordability and uses for the site into consideration.

Our elected leaders, commissioners and city bureaucracy would do well to begin with a philosophy that prioritizes and preserves public resources for the public good in perpetuity.

Affordable Housing Week Comes to San Francisco

2 05 2016

For details for each of San Francisco’s Affordable Housing Week 2016 events, see here.

CHP's Richardson Apartments, one of the stops on our upcoming bike tour!

CHP’s Richardson Apartments, one of the stops on Saturday’s upcoming bike tour!

The coming week is Affordable Housing Week here in San Francisco – an annual event with activities throughout the Bay Area.

We spend a lot of time calling for more affordable housing. The need for affordable housing is deep and growing rapidly, as more and more San Franciscans find they can’t afford housing produced on the market.

But there’s a new rumble of voices asserting that our systems for building affordable housing are outdated and broken.

These voices are wrong.  We desperately need more affordable housing, yes, more funding, and even more importantly, we need leadership and vision by elected leaders.  But in San Francisco we actually have a host of proven solutions, and the policies that we’ve developed and are continuing to develop have produced real results.

In light of all this, CCHO and the affordable housing community across the Bay Area are taking a moment to raise awareness around the advocacy and solutions that exist right here at home with Affordable Housing Week 2016.  This is an opportunity for San Franciscans to get a deeper glimpse into affordable housing, and really understand the issue that’s dominating every headline in our city.

Over the past 40 years, San Francisco has taken a lead in affordable housing, both in policy and in actual implementation.  Nearly 30,000 units of permanently affordable housing built, another 3,000 acquired and converted to affordable, several thousand protected SRO units, and nearly 2,000 below-market Inclusionary units. And this has continued up to the present.

TNDC Mosaica 1

The bike tour will also include TNDC’s Mosaica Senior & Family Apartments.

In 2012, SF voters established a Housing Trust Fund, setting aside $20 million annually (and incrementally growing to $50 million in year 15) to support a variety of affordable housing programs for low and moderate income San Franciscans, including a $15 mil new investment for first-time homebuyer assistance.  In 2014, we set a goal and a monitoring system to achieve a minimum benchmark of 33% affordable housing production citywide, and in 2015, we prioritized underutilized public sites for affordable housing AND voted through a $310 million bond for affordable housing. And now, responding to the dramatic surge in the real estate market, San Franciscans are set to vote on adopting the highest inclusionary housing policy in the State, requiring developers to produce 15% low-income and 10% middle-income units in every development over 25 units. These are real solutions.

What does all this mean on the ground? Since 2002, when we passed our first inclusionary ordinance with a 12% requirement, we have created over 2,000 low- and moderate-income units, affordable to families earning from $55,000 to 90,000/year. Since 2012, when we passed the Housing Trust Fund, San Francisco has built roughly 700 units per year, providing quality homes for people at all income levels who are unable to afford San Francisco’s astronomical market-rate rents. These are real projects, scattered throughout the city, some of the best architectural design and the highest quality service-enriched housing anywhere in the country.  San Francisco has also commenced with one of the most comprehensive public housing rehabilitation programs in the country, one that guarantees one-for-one replacement units and a right-to-return to all current tenants.

As part of San Francisco’s Affordable Housing Week 2016, CCHO, along with SPUR and architect David Baker, will be leading an affordable housing bike tour this Saturday May 7th, where you can see a number of these buildings and meet architects, community organizers, and tenants, from Chinatown to SoMa to Hayes Valley to the Mission. We’ll look at senior buildings, family buildings, and even mixed-income buildings with on-site inclusionary units and we’ll talk about the community struggles that made these buildings possible.

todco Mendelsohn garden

The garden at TODCO’s Mendelsohn House, another stop on Saturday’s Affordable Housing Bike tour.

Despite the success we have had so far, this is clearly not the time to rest on our laurels. The need for affordable housing IS growing, and we do need more support and more funding. To learn about the steps the affordable housing community is taking to address the housing crisis, come to this week’s two Affordable Housing Week lunchtime forums, sponsored by CCHO and SPUR. On Tuesday May 3rd, policy advocates from throughout the Bay Area will speak on plans for expanding funding for quality affordable housing, from San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and the East Bay. And on Thursday May 5th, community planners will discuss what they are doing from the grassroots in neighborhoods across San Francisco hardest-hit by the gentrification crisis.

We hope you join us for San Francisco’s Affordable Housing Week 2016, and check out the other events happening this month across the region, as an opportunity to plug in, get informed, and learn about the extensive advocacy and real solutions that exist right here in our City.

For more information on San Francisco’s Affordable Housing Week 2016, see here.

Another Small Site Success!

12 04 2016

WP_20160412_019Down a little back alley in SoMa, there’s now one more permanently affordable apartment building, thanks to the Small Sites Acquisition Program and two CCHO members, San Francisco Community Land Trust and South of Market Community Action Netwok.

Using funds from the Small Sites Program, which CCHO helped establish, the two organizations were able to purchase a 5-unit building at 568 Natoma Street.  Until the purchase, the tenants of 568 Natoma – a rent-controlled building housing lower-income Filipino families, seniors, and first responders – were facing possible eviction.  A previous potential buyer got so far as offering the tenants “buy-outs,” which they refused.

Places like this are where the affordable housing crisis is hitting hardest –in nondescript small buildings in everyday neighborhoods, where average San Franciscans are struggling to keep their housing.  As this situation makes clear, the affordability crisis is not just about building new housing, but about helping people keep their existing housing, preserving the affordability we already have and making it permanent.

The Small Sites program is a means to do just that – stabilize tenants at risk of eviction and take existing buildings off the speculation market to make them permanently affordable.  With this latest purchase, the program is now up to twelve buildings successfully purchased.

Twelve many not seem like a big number and 568 Natoma may seem like one small building, but transforming these units into permanently affordable housing has a big social impact.  We have the policy in place to do this for many more buildings and many more residents – we now just need a significant increase in funding to the Small Sites Program to allow it to realize its full impact.


Check out photos from this morning’s press event about the purchase, hosted by Supervisor Jane Kim, The SoMa Stabilization Fund, SOMCAN, and SFCLT:WP_20160412_017WP_20160412_013 WP_20160412_011WP_20160412_020 WP_20160412_021

The “Affordable Housing Balance” Just Keeps Getting Worse

7 04 2016

Our last op-ed in The Examiner.  Read the original article here.

The third “Housing Balance Report” from the City Planning Department was quietly released last week, coincidentally one day before April Fool’s Day and one week before a Planning Commission hearing today. And the punchline is … wait for it … the citywide housing balance of net new affordable housing from 2006 through 2015 is down to 13 percent. The last report in September had it at 15 percent, the July report before that was at 16 percent. The trend line is pretty clear. Overheated real estate development cycle, declining percentage of affordable housing.

And what is being built currently? Wait for it … only 14 percent of all new development now under construction or with active building permits will be affordable to anyone earning less than 120 percent of median income (a San Franciscan earning less than $85,000 per year). And for most market-rate housing today, you have to earn much, much more than $85,000. This bleak news comes at a time while San Francisco is experiencing one of its worst gentrification cycles in history.

Looking even further ahead to the next round of development — based on the entitlement “pipeline” of projects, the Housing Balance Report shows a whopping 15 percent affordable housing (the report does note that this number may increase if more developers commit to provide on-site inclusionary units in their projects).

And the problem is not just about production — these Housing Balance Report numbers make clear how the loss of protected rental units completely undermines The City’s efforts to build more affordable housing. More than 4,100 housing units have been removed from the affordable housing supply over the last ten years through condo conversions, demolitions, owner move-in evictions, Ellis Act evictions and other means (not including tenant “buyouts” which are dramatically on the rise as well). Across The City there is a ratio of three existing units lost for every four new affordable units produced. At a more local level, the affordable housing balance is actually negative in nine out of the 15 neighborhood-level “planning districts”! If the upward trend of evictions and lost protected rental units continues, that already-paltry 15 percent projected housing balance may be eroded even further.

Is there any wonder why we have a housing affordability crisis in San Francisco?
Across The City there is a great need to correct that imbalance of low and moderate/middle income housing for San Franciscans compared to the rate of market-rate housing production. And we are far behind the goal of minimum 33 percent affordable housing set by the voters in Proposition K back in 2014 and way, way, way behind the actual need of 57 percent affordable housing per The City’s General Plan Housing Element, based on job growth projections across the income spectrum.

There are a lot of numbers thrown around these days about housing goals and aspirations of an affordable city for all. But the numbers here are a reality check, and they are sobering. All is clearly not well in the housing “market.” Here in this Housing Balance Report authored by the Planning Department we have the real story. This is from The City’s own building permit data, and The City’s own planning pipeline data, and The City’s own rent board data. It doesn’t get more truthful than this. Thirteen percent affordable and dropping! We as a city have a real job to climb back out of this hole.

The “Supply-Side” Argument, and Why Geography, Scale, and Migration Matter

5 04 2016

CCHO co-director Peter Cohen’s latest op-ed in Rooflines, the Shelterforce blog, responding to Rick Jacobus’ article “Why We Must Build”.  Read the original posting on Rooflines hereShelterforce oped_image

Rick Jacobus’ article, Why We Must Build, published here on Shelterforce a couple of weeks ago has created quite a buzz. Jacobus is smart, and has been writing on the topic of affordable housing and land trusts for a while. The supply-siders have wishfully interpreted the piece as unquestionably supporting their “build, baby, build” agenda, with BeyondChrongoing so far as to share the piece, saying: “Why building housing reduces displacement.” That isn’t the simplistic argument Jacobus’ article makes—even if he positions himself as a bit of a market rationalist, he clearly didn’t write this long and thoughtful piece to simply be a booster for market-rate development, and his article shouldn’t be interpreted as such. A few parts of his article make this clear and deserve further attention, while others are troubling and in need of correction.

Geography and Scale
Jacobus’ piece offers refreshing insight in the way he explains the implications of market-rate development at a neighborhood scale versus a regional scale, providing strong reinforcement to the argument that in “hot markets” like the Mission district (or other front-line neighborhoods) in San Francisco, a simplistic supply-side housing policy will not resolve a local affordability crisis and in fact may make it worse. He says this:

“New development may lower prices regionally even while it raises prices in a specific neighborhood.”

Market-rate “supply” has a very different effect at a local scale and in a hot market (like the Mission) than at a regional scale and/or in a less heated local real estate location. Intuitively and empirically, this makes a lot of sense—that’s what we’ve all been seeing, and it’s why few people at the ground level believe the supply-side argument has much merit for, say, the Mission District. But taken at a regional scale, large-scale developments out in Pleasanton, down in Mountain View, or over in Fremont might have a different local effect and certainly might have a regional effect on stabilizing housing prices. This argument supports the fact that, when it comes to housing, supply and demand isn’t as simple as it seems (or as simple as some boosters would like us to believe), and a supply-side strategy will not work in every context to address affordability problems—including the hot neighborhoods of San Francisco.

Migration Trends
Jacobus makes another important point that is often lost in the current argument over supply and “who is to blame” for our housing affordability crisis:

“We are in the middle of a once in a lifetime tectonic shift in consumer preferences regarding urban living. …There has been a shift, and now a growing share of the powerful prefer the center. But where the edges were occupied by farmland, the center of most of our regions is today occupied by the same low-income and minority communities that were excluded from late 20th century suburbia.”

In other words, we’re now dealing with a near-reversal of “white flight” (Neil Smith’s “revanchist city” articles weren’t so crazy after all!) that is overloading the capacity of local urban resources, policy, and political organizing to absorb that “tectonic shift” gracefully.

The disruption to working class and poor communities has been rapid and unrepentant, and the solutions are not as aggressive as the economic forces that are driving that migration shift. This is quickly resulting in the reversal of urban segregation—a Federal Reserve study from 2012 started to reveal this trend and trigger discussion about the new “suburbanization of poverty” which is a clear symptom of the tectonic shift that Jacobus refers to. Perhaps it should be called a “titanic” shift, as many people are drowning in this process.

All of this means that the same supply-side solutions that may have worked in the past won’t necessarily work in the here and now. We are trying to “build, build, build” in inner city neighborhoods where people already live, live, live; not out in the greenfields of suburban growth for the last 50 years.

Neighborhood Stabilization (Or, Mistakenly Viewing the Mission through a Tenderloin Lens)
Another big point Jacobus makes is that ownership of land and community control are key elements of stabilization/anti-gentrification. For sure, taking land and housing off the speculative market is a core tenet of the affordable housing work we do. It is hard, slow, and not inexpensive, but it is the essential long-term strategy to maintain an affordable city.

But here is where Jacobus goes wrong, however, in citing the Tenderloin as somehow the model for other contemporary neighborhoods battling gentrification. He suggests that, for unexplained reasons, the Mission District has been less successful than the Tenderloin. In reality, Jacobus is comparing an apple to an orange and mistakenly viewing the Mission through a Tenderloin lens. He writes:

“While it may be right that the Tenderloin has been saved by the community’s refusal to allow “upscale” development, the Mission has also mostly resisted the kind of high-end, high-rise development that transformed SOMA, but Mission rents and home prices have skyrocketed nonetheless. Even with rent control, relentless tenant education, and advocacy and nonstop neighborhood organizing, if you didn’t allow any new building, you can’t stop private property owners from cashing in on the fact that the area is desirable to people with a lot of money. Even in the Mission!”

What he misunderstands is that the Tenderloin’s rezoning and strict property controls were a lot more aggressive than the Mission’s Eastern Neighborhoods Plan—in fact, the latter was designed to promote market rate development (in a kind of upzoning-for-public-benefits-value-recapture concept, that in hindsight is proving to have been quite weak). The Tenderloin was not rezoned to promote development, but rather to discourage development and prevent market conversions of existing buildings. The Tenderloin Plan (and the Chinatown Plan also from that earlier era) are the envy of many current “front-line” neighborhoods—the Mission District, Soma, Western Addition, even Bayview, that are getting rocked by development, but have very weak zoning controls and limited mechanisms for community control of land. The Mission District isn’t an example of the futility or even detriment of community resistance to market-rate development, but rather an example of community resistance to gentrification that has been hamstrung to some extent by weak land use controls in the face of massive market pressures.

For all its success, the Tenderloin model is not likely replicable in the current context of that “tectonic shift” in migration that Jacobus writes about. Nor is there currently the political will to put in place the kind of strong zoning that helped the Tenderloin. Nevertheless, the answer today shouldn’t be to discourage communities from fighting for self-determination or berate them for not throwing arms open to “the market”—there are a host of policies that could be put into place now that focus on stabilization and prevent displacement.

Affordable Housing Activists United (Or, Make No Mistake About a “Split”)
And lastly, in what is otherwise a thoughtful article, Jacobus makes a curious assertion that last November’s ballot measure to temporarily pause development in San Francisco’s Mission District—which had lost 177 housing units to no-fault evictions from 2012 to 2014, had a 27 percent decline in Latino residents between 2000 and 2013, and had lost 26 percent of its households with children in that same decade—in some way “split the housing advocacy community” and that, “many committed advocates succeeded in convincing San Francisco voters that the moratorium would only make things worse by further restricting supply.”

Let’s correct that. Prop I did not “split” the affordable housing activist community. But it did split affordable housing advocates from market-rate housing advocates. It was very clear all along that Prop I was not a solution, per se, to the urgent crisis, but a pause to give time to develop and implement solutions.  Affordable housing activists were on the same side of support for that measure and were aligned with community advocates who were not looking just for a “technical” solution but also an organizing response to the disruption caused by the real estate market at ground-level. Jacobus mistakenly lumps together all “housing advocates” – whether affordable housing activists or market-rate advocates—in that landscape and thus inaccurately asserts that there was a “split.”

Where the distinction between affordable housing activists and market-rate development advocates becomes clear is around the increasingly dramatized argument about supply-side housing policy (which is now called “filtering” in the new think-tank literature, as “trickle-down” is evidently passé). We affordable housing activists say more supply at the affordability levels needed; market-rate advocates (sometimes claiming to be on the side of affordable housing) say more supply at any affordability level and everything will filter/trickle down. It’s a simple contrast, but stark and ideological.

Overall, though Jacobus may end his article in support of building more market-rate housing—he is a market rationalist after all—he also lays the foundation for why a supply-side approach to the affordability crisis doesn’t necessarily work, and certainly doesn’t work in every place. Perhaps his most important line, in the middle of the piece, is:

“The first step is to let go of the idea that the market is going to offer neighborhoods that are both highly desirable and economically diverse.”

The debate about getting local housing policy right will be ongoing, and we will continue to see serious fault lines of disagreement. Rick Jacobus’ article adds more fodder and some useful nuance to that debate. And the supply-siders just got brought down a notch or two.


(Photo credit: Red Hot Market by Damien D., via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

ADUs Done Right

18 03 2016

A diagram from the SF Planning’s Department’s handbook on building ADUs.

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs for short; also called in-laws, secondary units, or granny flats) have often been touted as a way to create “naturally” affordable housing (rather than being price-restricted, as traditional affordable housing is) and add density to the City with minimal impact to the character of neighborhoods.  CCHO’s stance has always been that even supposedly “naturally” affordable housing needs regulations and tenant protections to actually guarantee affordability for San Francisco residents.  Even developers and property owners building “naturally” affordable units won’t necessarily resist the temptation of a hot housing market and high rental prices.

Finally, however, we have an ADU measure that comes with these guarantees and protections baked in.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced legislation this Tuesday that would allow property owners across San Francisco to create new legal ADUs – units with rent control and prohibited from being used as short-term rentals, or from canabalizing existing commercial space, or from being built in buildings that have evicted tenants, and prohibited from being subdivided and converted from rental units into mini spec condos.  These are exactly the regulations that CCHO called for in previous forms of ADU legislation last year, but unfortunately were rejected.

This is an impressive proposal to expand the supply of rent control housing through secondary units across the City, and it is good to see specific controls to ensure long-term affordability to serve the needs of low-income and middle-income residents.

Innovation + appropriate regulation.  ADUs Done Right.  Thank you, Supervisor Peskin.

Read the SF Examiner’s article on this legislation.

Inclusionary Housing: More for the Many, Not Just the Few

1 03 2016

Our latest op-ed in The Examiner, just in time for today’s Board hearing, where Supervisors will vote on placing the Inclusionary Housing Charter Amendment on June’s ballot.  Read the original article here.

Residents hold signs calling for "Inclusionary Housing, not Exclusionary Housing" as Aaron Peskin speaks at a press conference about the charter amendment.

Residents hold signs calling for “Inclusionary Housing, not Exclusionary Housing” as Sup. Aaron Peskin speaks at a press conference about the charter amendment.

This Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors is poised to put a very important measure before the voters on this coming June’s ballot. If they vote yes, which seems likely, it will be one small step for the Board, one giant step for San Franciscans.

You see, our city’s “Inclusionary Housing” policy — which requires market-rate developers to build mixed-income communities by providing a portion of their housing units at below-market rates (actually affordable prices) — has been locked up in the City Charter since 2012. This was bad policy from the get-go and has meant that as development has boomed and housing prices have skyrocketed, our elected leaders have been unable to make adjustments to the inclusionary housing policy to keep up with that boom economy.

If the Inclusionary Charter Amendment is successfully voted through this Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors, San Franciscans will be able to un-lock the inclusionary policy from the Charter and bring it back into the citizen process. This is widely agreed to be a “good government” decision, putting the process of hammering out the details of policy back in the hands of our elected lawmakers, who can move quickly to respond to public need and financial reality, instead of requiring prohibitively expensive and time-consuming electoral campaigns through “ballot-box planning.”

Beyond being good government, this measure is a serious opportunity to increase affordability in San Francisco. The measure will initially double the number of affordable units a developement is required to provide, by going back to the 15 percent low-income units required before 2012, and adding a new 10 percent of units affordable to middle-income San Franciscans. That initial requirement can then be adjusted by the Board of Supervisors as needed as market conditions change over time. In fact, it is the anticipation of the ballot measure itself that the Board will craft fine-grained implementing legislation if the measure is passed by the voters in June.

The ballot measure will do two hugely important things: 1) set a higher bar for private development and ensure that projects contribute their fair share to housing our city’s residents during boom times; and 2) create affordable housing for the increasingly wide range of people who find themselves unable to afford living in San Francisco. In fact, inclusionary housing is one of the best tools we have to build housing for middle-income San Franciscans, as market-rate development investors have abdicated their traditional role of building housing for the middle classes, and there are no public subsidies available to help build affordable housing at those income levels. Instead of pitting low-income and middle-income housing needs against each other, this measure addresses BOTH needs.

In this way, the Charter Amendment accomplishes the real goal of inclusionary housing: Inclusion. As a resident who spoke during the three hours of public testimony at the Board of Supervisors hearing this past week put it, this measure will help ensure more San Franciscans have the opportunity “… to be part of the fortunate MANY, not the fortunate few.” Another resident eloquently told the Supervisors: “Now is your opportunity to vote for inclusion. … This is your time to be a hero.”

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors can all be heroes and move this important measure forward to the San Francisco voters.

A Really, Really Long Definition of Affordable Housing

18 02 2016

The term “affordable housing” gets thrown around a lot these days by a lot of different people, sometimes talking about pretty different things.  Everyone’s talking about it, we all want more of it, but it’s often a little fuzzy what the “it” actually is.  Even at CCHO, we can alternate between broader and more narrow definitions of affordable housing, depending on the context.  The basic idea of affordable housing is simple, but the landscape is complex, so we thought we’d take a minute to break it down.

100% Affordable Housing built by the nonprofit developer Community Housing Partnership.

Zgymundt Arendt homes, a 100% affordable housing development built by the nonprofit developer Community Housing Partnership.

The basic definition of “affordable”:

Housing is generally considered affordable when residents can pay their rent or mortgage as well as meet their other basic needs, and when that home is safe and secure for the long term. Policymakers and advocates typically consider someone’s housing affordable when it  costs no more than 30% of the household’s income, including rent or mortgage payments, insurance, taxes, and utilities. For homeownership the conventional wisdom on affordability is more like 35% of income.

According to this basic definition, lots of different types of housing could be considered “affordable,” depending on who is trying to afford it and how much it costs.  In San Francisco, however, homes meeting this casual definition of affordable housing are hard to come by on the open market, especially for low- and moderate-income people. In order to provide housing for households at these income levels in the city and in proximity to their workplaces, this affordable housing must be produced through a combination of subsidies and regulations.

This gets us to a much more specific definition, and what we at CCHO are talking about when we advocate for affordable housing: price-controlled, permanently-affordable housing.

Let’s examine both of those criteria in turn:

Market-Rate vs. Price-Controlled Housing

San Francisco’s housing stock can generally by divided into two types, market-rate housing and price-controlled housing – and this is one of the most important distinctions when talking affordable housing. It all comes down to who is setting the price and how that price is set. With “market-rate” housing, the cost to buy or rent is set entirely by the market – at whatever amount the owner can get. With price-controlled housing, the cost to rent or buy is in some way set or regulated and enforced.  Though sometimes (and frankly, almost never in San Francisco’s current housing market) residents can find market-rate homes that meet the basic definition of “affordable” (30% of their income or less), when we talk about affordable housing, we are specifically talking about price-controlled homes.

“Price-controlled” is a wide-ranging category, including everything from public housing and nonprofit-owned affordable housing to rent-controlled homes, where rent increases are limited by law.

What’s the difference between permanently affordable housing and rent-controlled housing?

Now that we are within the world of price-controlled housing, we can narrow things down even further by examining the second important distinction for our definition: permanently affordable housing vs. rent-controlled housing.


A rent-controlled apartment in Chinatown where protesters fight the Ellis eviction of long-term tenants.

Rent-controlled housing is an important piece of San Francisco’s affordability landscape, comprising the largest portion of the housing in the City that is still practically affordable to a range of San Franciscans, but it isn’t permanently affordable.  Though many people refer to San Francisco’s system as “rent-control,” it is technically “rent-stabilization,” because the “control” does not stay with the apartment when it’s re-rented to another person – it goes back to market-rate pricing when the tenant moves out. Rent control does not provide permanent affordability tied to a particular unit. However what it DOES do, very importantly, is keep the rent affordable to the tenant while they are living in the unit – which means stability for a person or a family over time. As one of the core purposes of affordable housing is to provide stability and quality of living for residents, especially for poor, working-class and moderate/”middle” income people whose needs aren’t met by market-rate housing, rent control is an invaluable part of keeping San Francisco affordable.

The passage of rent control in California cities is closely tied to the passage of Prop 13 in 1978. As landlords got a reduction and “stabilization” of their property taxes through Prop 13, many renters demanded a similar stabilization to their rents, and a few cities were able to pass rent control laws.  San Francisco’s rent control law, however, currently prevents any building completed after 1979 from being subject to rent control, so any rent-controlled units we lose (through demolition or conversion) cannot be replaced. It is thus incredibly important (and one of the main goals of CCHO’s work) to preserve the existing rent-controlled housing we have.

Permanently affordable housing developments, on the other hand, provide homes at low rents to residents who qualify and these restrictions stay with the unit, usually for the life of the building or at least 55 years. Permanently affordable housing is often price-controlled according to AMI, or Area Median Income. “Median” means that half the people in the area make less than that amount, and half the people make more. Based on AMI, the federal government classifies household earnings into different income levels: Very Low Income (those earning less than 50% of the median), Low Income (incomes between 50% and 80% of the median), and Moderate Income (those earning between 80% and 120% of the median).  Affordable housing units are built for a particular income level, and are price-controlled so that the rent or cost of those units equals 30% of that income level.  In order to be eligible for affordable housing, a resident has to qualify by showing that they are within that particular income level when they move in, though their incomes can change in the future and they would still retain their housing. When one resident moves out, the unit will remain affordable for the next tenant who moves in.

Different Types of Permanently Affordable Housing

Okay, so we are almost there!  There are several different categories of permanently affordable housing that exist in San Francisco, some of which are still being built, and some of which are no longer being built.

Most permanently affordable housing units rely on public subsidy to cover part of their costs.  Over the years, however, who is building affordable housing, what types of subsidies they’re using, and when they use these subsidies has changed.

Public housing in Bernal Heights.

Public housing in Bernal Heights.

Federally-Subsidized Housing (AKA, Public Housing and Section 8 Housing)

The way permanently affordable housing used to get built was primarily through federal subsidies.  Federally-subsidized affordable housing includes public housing and Section 8 housing, and some housing cooperatives.  Public Housing was owned and run by the federal government through local Housing Authorities. Section 8 housing was built by private developers receiving federal subsidies to cover the difference between what a low-income renter can pay and the fair market rent of the apartment. The important thing to know is that the Federal government no longer subsidizes the construction of new public housing – these types of housing were primarily built between the 1940s and 1970s.

St. Peter's Place, 100% affordable housing development for people with special needs, built by Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center.

St. Peter’s Place, a 100% affordable housing development for people with special needs, built by Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center.

Today’s Affordable Housing

Because the federal government is no longer building public housing and has cut way back on its funding for operating and maintenance subsidies, the way most affordable housing gets built today is through a complicated mix of funding sources (usually including money from local government and Federal tax credit investors).  In San Francisco, most affordable housing is built by community-based, nonprofit housing developers (most of which are members of CCHO), though there are also regional nonprofit and for-profit developers of affordable housing.  Another important distinction between the old public housing and new affordable housing, besides the quality of design and construction, is that typically these newer developments depend on substantial up-front investments rather than requiring ongoing public subsidies throughout the life of the building.  This means that the “affordable” rents that tenants pay are sufficient to cover the building’s operating and maintenance costs, making these developments less likely to fall into disrepair (like many public housing developments have as the federal government cut back on subsidies).

Typically, this newer permanently affordable housing serves various income ranges under 60% AMI (what HUD defines as “Low Income” in San Francisco). Some buildings serve specific populations, such as formerly homeless, low-income families, or seniors. Permanently affordable developments may be in new construction buildings or may be in rehabbed existing buildings, such as residential hotels (also called “SROs” or Single-Room Occupancy) or old hospitals. They often include on-site “supportive services”: case-management, treatment or job counseling, senior programs, food bank deliveries, family activities or childcare, or other supports. Smaller apartment buildings are also sometimes acquired and converted to permanently affordable housing – what we call “small sites acquisition and rehab” – a strategy that has been especially important in recent years to protect tenants vulnerable to evictions and preserve rent-controlled housing that could get “flipped” by speculators.

NEMA, a market-rate housing project with on-site rental BMRs.

NEMA, a market-rate housing project with on-site rental BMRs.

And Lastly, Inclusionary Housing Units within Market-Rate Developments (AKA “Below-Market-Rate” or BMR units)

Some affordable housing units are also built today by market-rate developers through inclusionary housing requirements.  This is one way in which cities are able to get units built for households with incomes between 50% and 120% AMI, for which there are no Federal tax credits or other subsidies, and compel developers to help mitigate the affordable housing needs created by market-rate housing. In 2002, CCHO and other housing advocates got the city to implement “inclusionary zoning,” which requires market-rate developers (of 10 units or more) to either build mixed-income buildings with on-site, price-controlled units, build these below-market-rate units at another site, or pay an “in lieu” fee to the Mayor’s Office of Housing for the development of affordable housing. The inclusionary housing ordinance in San Francisco requires these homes to be affordable to households at 55% AMI for rental apartments, and affordable to households at 90% AMI for ownership homes. The basic concept here is to use the profits from the market-rate units to offset the cost of the affordable, price-controlled units. Because there are no public subsidies to help build this type of “moderate income” housing, the City’s inclusionary program is the only source of units affordable to households making close to the median income. A measure on the ballot this June may make some important changes to inclusionary housing, including increasing the percentage of affordable housing required and adding an additional requirement for middle-income housing for people earning 100% and 120% of AMI.


So, there you have it!  When CCHO advocates for building new “affordable housing” today, we mean price-controlled, permanently affordable housing, generally built by nonprofit housing developers for people below 50% AMI, or inclusionary housing built by market-rate developers for people earning 55%-90% AMI (though this may soon expand to include people earning 100% to 120% AMI).  If you’re feeling overwhelmed by our very long definition, the most important thing to remember is why it matters to have affordable housing, of whatever typology: because it provides stability and quality of living for San Francisco residents, including the low-income, working-class, and moderate/middle-income people who are otherwise permanently shut out of the housing market. This is the housing that isn’t getting built by the market and helps keep our city affordable to all.

Freeing Up the Affordable Housing Gridlock: Process Improvements that Matter

16 02 2016

We weighed in on the debate around process improvements with our op-ed in today’s Examiner (read the original article here).

One way to improve process: make community meetings more meaningful by keeping good records of promises made.  Photo:

One way to improve process: give community meeting requirements real teeth. Photo:

As seems to happen at the turn of every new year, there is once again lots of chatter about “process improvements” and “streamlining” to speed up the timeline for approving developments. For developers, these are usually code words for eliminating community review and public hearings. But there are certainly aspects of The City’s bureaucratic process that should be improved for the benefit of developers, communities and city staff as well. Addressing the lengthy process for approving affordable housing could be one more way to improve our city’s Housing Balance achievements.

First, however, let us put to rest the notion from streamlining boosters that simply increasing the speed of approvals for market-rate development will increase San Francisco’s housing affordability. Hooey. The problem with affordability is fundamentally an issue of stark and rapidly increasing income inequality — San Francisco has one of the greatest degrees of income inequality of any city in the United States. It’s also the result of the harsh and rapidly increasing evictions crisis as rental housing is lost to the speculation market, and the result of the current imbalance between market-rate and below-market-rate housing production.

Simply speeding up approvals will not solve any of these much deeper problems. Furthermore, The City currently has more than 15,000 fully entitled housing units citywide waiting to be built, 87 percent of which are market-rate housing units, as well as another 23,000 units entitled in major project areas like Park Merced and Hunters Point, which indicates the real challenges are more related to financing and construction schedules than to the approval process of a large-city bureaucracy.

When making improvements, we need to make sure we don’t lose sight of what the permitting process is actually for. Process exists to make sure development is done right. An overarching goal of process improvements should be creating both an efficient and effective process — not simply speeding things up or eliminating community involvement.

In 2014, the Council of Community Housing Organization’s advocacy in a city working group, together with a broad set of stakeholders, led to a number of improvements in the permitting process without eliminating public engagement, a good first step in the right direction. What follows are three ideas we offer for the next step in this conversation: truly prioritizing affordable housing within the bureaucracy; standardizing notification, public meetings and design guidelines; and carefully streamlining environmental review for certain projects.

Prioritize Affordable Housing

We already have several city “directives” that prioritize affordable housing — the problem is that everything seems to be a priority for the Planning Department. One staff person should be dedicated solely to shepherding 100 percent affordable developments through both the Planning and Building Permit process, and the environmental review and the queue for Planning Commission hearings should always prioritize affordable developments. Secondary priorities should be assigned depending on the level of affordability, and high-profile projects, whether a Warriors Stadium or the America’s Cup, should not be allowed to bump affordable housing.

Standardize Public Notification, Community Meetings and Design Guidelines

Public Notification: The Planning Department has a dozen different notifications for different projects and permits, none of which make sense to the average person. We should have a universal notification system that simplifies notifications into just a few categories, with a standardized minimum 30-day timeline, and that makes notifications actually understandable and informative. The geographic area of notification should also have some logical relationship to the type and scale of the project.

Community Meetings: Required “pre-application meetings” are ostensibly an opportunity for the developer to hear from folks who have a stake in the project’s outcome and to respond to questions, improving the project from the outset and building a foundation for a constructive relationship with the community. In actuality, this requirement has no teeth. Meetings should be staffed by public officials, and recorded with a publicly-accessible record of issues raised and promises made, with adequate notification if those promises change. A little more time and seriousness building a relationship with the community on the front-end can save a lot of time later on.

Design Guidelines: The Planning Department’s outmoded Residential Design Guidelines, which set citywide expectations for design, are only for single-family and smaller buildings, and moreover are flawed in some ways (especially dealing with rear-yard development, which is now happening at an increasing rate as property values skyrocket). They are long overdue for an overhaul. And missing entirely are guidelines for larger multi-unit developments, a critical need as the City pushes for higher-density development in infill parcels and commercial corridors adjacent to existing housing. Good guidelines, developed with community input, will create much more certainty for both the developer and the community, and help standardize the review of individual projects.

Improve the Environmental Review Process

The environmental review process can reveal important issues and provide the community and City planners with information and a process to understand a project’s “fit” with its location. But there are certain situations that could warrant a reduced environmental review process if they were evaluated according to clear standards that have been vetted by the public. This could look like a checklist, similar to the existing Categorical Exemption checklist, that identifies specific situations that meet a certain threshold, such as affordable housing projects, where lengthy environmental documents or consultants may not be needed.

Those kinds of administrative reforms would be a significant step in freeing up delays in affordable housing development. In the end, process improvements shouldn’t just be about making things faster, but about making all parts of the process efficient and meaningful so they actually do what’s intended — create real engagement with impacted community members and make sure developments are designed and built in the best way for the community, the environment, and The City.

Hope vs. Fear: The Inclusionary Housing Measure

11 02 2016

Check our recent piece in BeyondChron (read the original article here):

The development at 55 Page Street included 17 onsite inclusionary units. Photo: Intracorp Companies.

This development at 55 Page Street includes 17 on-site inclusionary units. Photo: Intracorp Companies.

A big and exciting change is coming down the pike for the City’s inclusionary housing requirement. This June, a measure proposed by Supervisors Kim and Peskin will be on the ballot to take the inclusionary housing policy back out from the City charter and initially double the affordability requirement from 12% to 25% of units in a development project.

In his recent piece for BeyondChron (“What Is Best Way To Build More Affordable Housing“),Tim Colen of the HAC paints a doom-and-gloom picture of the proposed charter amendment, arguing that we are in grave danger of placing too large a burden on market-rate housing, and descending into a spiral of decreased market-rate development, leading to less affordable housing, fewer jobs, and general economic decline for San Francisco.

Though it’s easy to get caught in such a politically-charged fear spiral, the underpinnings of Colen’s argument don’t hold. In fact, this charter amendment is a necessary and timely opportunity to increase affordability in San Francisco.

Colen’s argument relies heavily on the deceptively straightforward supply-and-demand argument that the displacement and affordability crisis simply comes down to not having enough new market-rate housing. Displacement and the affordability crisis have many root causes, including drastic income inequality, unfettered speculation on housing, and the huge imbalance between market-rate and affordable housing constructed in San Francisco (read our previous piece on “Unpacking the ‘Affordable Housing Balance’” here).  To improve affordability, we need to improve that affordable housing balance, and increasing inclusionary housing requirements on private development is one effective means to start doing just that.

1600 Market Street is a 100% affordable off-site BMR project of first-time homeownership units.  Photo: Power Construction, Inc.

1600 Market Street is a 100% affordable off-site BMR project of first-time homeownership units. Photo: Power Construction, Inc.

Also wrong is the idea that any obligation placed on market-rate housing will threaten affordable housing production. In actuality, affordable housing construction in San Francisco is not so dependent on market-rate housing (read the reasons here in our piece “Don’t Believe the Hype”). Modest inclusionary requirements, as are being proposed here, are costs to development, just like construction costs, developer fees, and interest rates, and, just like other costs, get factored into the cost of land. In fact, the proposal simply restores the inclusionary requirement for low-income units back to 15% as developers were building until 2012, and then adds a new middle-income category for 10% of the units, which is much less expensive for developers to provide.    Our current inclusionary housing requirements were reduced by 20% in 2012, and locked in the City’s Charter.  According to the City’s Residential Nexus Analysis, the current inclusionary requirements do not even mitigate the need for new affordable housing that is created by market-rate development (meaning that, at the current level, we can never begin to catch up to the affordable housing need new development is creating, let alone fulfill the pre-existing need).  Whether or not our current inclusionary requirements were appropriate for 2012, they are not appropriate for 2016, when San Francisco’s housing market and affordability crisis look very different.

Market-rate developments should be expected to contribute significantly more affordable housing to San Francisco. And recent measures (like 2014’s Proposition K, calling for a minimum of 33% of new development to be affordable) show voters are on board with this.  It’s beyond time to set a higher bar for private development and ensure that projects are contributing their fair share to housing our City’s resident workforce.

Finally, Colen’s argument distracts from the two huge and necessary changes that this amendment makes: 1) a “good government” provision removing the inclusionary requirement from the Charter, allowing for future legislative amendments when appropriate; and 2) creating affordable housing for a wider range of the City’s working residents, including moderate/middle-income San Franciscans. Inclusionary housing is one of the best tools we have to build housing for moderate/middle-income San Franciscans, as there are no public subsidies available for those income levels.  Instead of pitting low-income and middle-income housing needs against each other, this measure addresses BOTH needs, adding a second tier to the City’s inclusionary housing requirement in the form of 10% of on-site units for middle-income households.  This means rental housing for households making up to 100% Area Median Income (for example, a teacher making $70,000/year, or a postal worker and a restaurant worker with a child making $90,000/year) or first-time homeownership opportunities for households making up to 120% AMI (for example, an electrician making $85,000/year, or a family of four with two teachers together making $120,000/year).

So, there’s no reason to create fear here. Only reason for excitement that we finally have some of the changes to inclusionary housing that San Francisco has long needed.

Density Done Right in the City

9 02 2016

CCHO’s latest op-ed in The Examiner.  Read the original article here.

People protesting the Planning Department's "Density Bonus" Program. Credit: Joe Rivano Barros/Mission Local.

People protesting the Planning Department’s “Density Bonus” Program. Credit: Joe Rivano Barros, Mission Local.

As San Francisco’s affordability crisis continues unabated, there is almost universal consensus that we need to expand housing opportunities that are affordable to working-class residents in all neighborhoods of The City. One way to incentivize new housing and compel developers to provide more onsite affordable units is through altering density limits.

For the last two years, San Francisco’s Planning Department has been developing its own version of a “Density Bonus” program, with tons of staff and consultant expenses and practically no community input until the last few months. However, this program and the approach to altering density it represents, leaves San Franciscans with a zero-sum game: Either accept redevelopment-scale rezoning — which potentially destroys existing homes and community-serving businesses, builds predominantly single-bedroom and studio units and streamlines development through the approvals process — or conversely oppose all development proposals of any kind. It does not have to be this way.

Last week, the Planning Commission faced more than five hours of public testimony about the program, most of it serious and substantive concerns about the negative implications of the legislation. It was a bruising hearing, and the planning staff barely afforded a continuance of a few weeks. The clear message was: We can do better.

We’ve all seen the abandoned gas stations in the avenues and vacant corner lots in Excelsior neighborhoods and one-story buildings facing the wide canyon of Geary Boulevard. Why can’t The City encourage desolate sites to be developed with real homes for working-class families that our neighborhoods so desperately need, as a counter to the current predominant “housing” model of developing unattainable luxury towers along the Bay? As a starting point, we propose several principles for doing density right:

Protecting residents, homes and neighborhood businesses

Any discussion about development must start with preserving what makes our beautiful, walkable, human-scaled and diverse neighborhoods: Protecting our existing residents, our existing housing and our community-serving businesses. At minimum, any program that creates new “incentives” for development should exclusively apply to sites with no existing rental homes — a precious resource — and should clearly be mapped that way. And in our commercial districts or light-industrial areas, any program that needs to relocate small business tenants should provide the same full relocation benefits, within the same general neighborhood area, that our affordable housing developers are already required to provide.

The right amount of ‘incentive’ and the right affordability

The proposed “Density Bonus” program offers developers increased density and additional heights in exchange for more on-site affordable housing. This basic principle is good, but two key questions need to be asked.

First, how much in additional profits will The City give to developers, and how much of that value should be recaptured by the public in terms of increased affordability or other public benefits? The proposed program uses a “one-size-fits-all” approach that doesn’t make sense, and would give some developments huge additional profit for very little additional affordable housing.

An example of this kind of giveaway is what recently happened with projects on Divisadero Street, where development capacity (and profit) more than tripled when The City simply eliminated the density limits (and that was without adding extra floors). Making sure generous incentives are reciprocated by ample affordable housing will require the type of financial due diligence analysis that has yet to be done.

Second, what should our affordability goals be in exchange for developer incentives? What income levels need to be served in order to keep our neighborhoods affordable and diverse? A straightforward approach would figure out how to house our city’s residents earning salaries from minimum wage to teacher salaries, and for a full range of family sizes. Translated into the “Area Median Income” levels, that would be housing from 45 percent to 85 percent AMI for single-income earners, and up to 60 percent to 120 percent AMI for two-income families.

Moreover, the affordability should be relevant to the local incomes within the community. When neighborhoods like the Bayview, Chinatown, Mission and the Western Addition have median household incomes well below the citywide average, how then does The City’s current proposal for all “bonus units” to be priced between 120 percent and 140 percent of the median income level benefit the residents of those communities? The City must be careful in picking who wins from Density Bonus.

Getting real family housing

Increasing density often means increasing heights and diminishing unit sizes, regardless of whether or not small units meet community needs. Instead, we can increase density while still requiring that developers provide predominantly family units and minimum unit square footages, or that building heights be appropriate to cost-effective building types. In any case, decisions about unit types should not just be set by planners, but also in thoughtful consultation with people in those neighborhoods.

Linking community improvements to new housing

As new development is financially incentivized for The City’s neighborhoods through increased density, there should be attention to the transportation infrastructure and other community improvements that may be needed to support that growth. The City’s recently adopted “Transportation Sustainability Fee” is a start, but only applies to large projects, and fees aren’t directed to help with the local transit impacts related to development in particular neighborhoods. To do density right, The City needs to decide how to hold increased development accountable for increasing transit service and other improvements.

Affordable housing not a ‘trade-off’

Finally, in the quest for “density done right,” the role of the public should not be diminished in some kind of “trade-off” for increasing affordable housing requirements. That is another zero-sum game. The process of building housing should also be about building relationships with the local communities that will live with new development for the many years to come. Design matters, ground floor retail matters, and transportation matters. Ensuring that the public has a role in shaping those outcomes and that developers are accountable is not unreasonable. San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods, and any density bonus program should approach it as a landscape of neighborhoods, not just a real estate map for expediting development.

How do we get there?

Few if any of the questions raised here are addressed in the Planning Department’s “Density Bonus” proposal — which is too bad, as The City really does need a viable program to create affordable housing for a mix of working-class households. The Planning Commission seems to still be struggling, and soon the Board of Supervisors will have the opportunity to weigh in. We hope they begin fresh and create a program that starts from a vision of what truly enhances communities.

Good Changes Ahead for Inclusionary Housing

1 02 2016
The ballot measure proposed by Kim and Peskin puts forth much needed changes to the City's inclusionary policy.  Photo: Lea Suzuki, SF Chronicle.

The ballot measure proposed by Kim and Peskin puts forth much needed changes to the City’s inclusionary policy. Photo: Lea Suzuki, SF Chronicle.

A big change is coming down the pike for inclusionary housing (the requirement on market-rate development to build mixed-income housing with below-market-rate units, or contribute funds to the City’s affordable housing development).  Since 2012, San Francisco’s inclusionary housing requirement has been locked up in the City’s charter –meaning that any change to inclusionary has to be done through a charter amendment voted on by SF residents and can’t be made by the Board of Supervisors legislatively.  Really meaning that it is impossible to increase the inclusionary housing requirement to align with the current housing market in San Francisco, which has dramatically changed since 2012.  This June, a measure will be on the ballot to take inclusionary housing policy back out from the charter and at least initially increase the affordability requirement from 12% of units in a development project being affordable for low-income residents, to 15% affordable for low-income AND 10% affordable for middle-income households.

If you aren’t feeling excited about this yet, you should be.  This is a big opportunity to increase affordability in San Francisco.  Our current inclusionary housing requirements were set back in 2012 as part of the compromises around the Prop C Housing Trust Fund, which helped restore affordable housing funds put into limbo when the State government dissolved the City’s redevelopment agency (and which some have tried to portray as a romantic grand bargain – though many of the outcomes of Prop C were good, the reality of some deal points today is less pretty).  Now in 2016, the housing market and affordability in the City look very different and market-rate developments should be expected to contribute significantly more affordable housing to San Francisco.  And recent measures (like 2014’s Proposition K, calling for a minimum of 33% of new development to be affordable) show voters are on board with this.  It’s beyond time to set a higher bar for private development and ensure that projects are contributing their fair share to housing our City’s resident workforce.

Beyond setting that higher bar, this measure does something else important – it acknowledges that a wider and wider range of the City’s everyday people are being shut out of the housing market.  Though low-income and working-class residents still have the greatest need for affordable housing and are the most vulnerable to displacement and exclusion from this great city, increasingly middle-income San Franciscans are finding that they are scrambling to afford to stay in the City, too.  Inclusionary housing is one of the best tools we have to build housing for moderate and middle-income San Franciscans, as local, state, and federal subsidies don’t apply to housing for those income levels.  Instead of pitting low-income and middle-income housing needs against each other, this measure addresses BOTH needs, adding a second tier to the City’s inclusionary housing requirement in the form of 10% of on-site units for middle-income households.  This means rental housing for households making up to 100% Area Median Income (for example, a teacher making $70,000/year, or a postal worker and a restaurant worker with a child making $90,000/year) or first-time homeownership opportunities for households making up to 120% AMI (for example, an electrician making $85,000/year, or a family of four with two teachers making $120,000/year).

So get excited.  We will finally have the change to inclusionary housing that we’ve needed – a measure that recognizes the real obligation private development has to contribute to affordable housing and works to address the ever-widening housing affordability crisis.

CCHO’s 2016 Housing Agenda: Finishing What Was Started

27 01 2016

CCHO 2016 Agenda photo2015 was clearly the Year of Housing in San Francisco. Not a week went by without newspapers and blogs writing about the City’s affordability crisis, or politicians and policymakers making pronouncements. The City issued a record-number of RFPs to begin new affordable developments, purchased new sites, rolled out (and quickly used up initial funding for) a program to acquire small buildings for preservation as permanently affordable housing, and began the first phase of public housing rehab.  The Board of Supervisors passed unprecedented eviction protections and established a new requirement to monitor the City’s affordable housing balance and loss of rent control units. In November, voters passed by overwhelming margins an affordable housing bond and a measure preserving surplus public properties for affordable housing. And the end of the year’s shift at the Board of Supervisors has already yielded new outcomes, as the Board takes new leadership (from both sides of the aisle) in preserving public assets and in protecting tenants.

As we look to 2016, we see that the accomplishments and struggles of 2015 are building blocks to a comprehensive campaign to institute real changes between now and the 2016 Presidential election. The 2016 landscape of legislation and ballot measures is bound to be complicated, with measures on everything from incentives for more market-rate development, to efforts to rein in short-term rental speculation, to new transportation taxes which may or may not result in a more equitable Muni system, to attempts at creating new departments – all of which will have profound effects on the continued viability of maintaining the City as the diverse and welcoming place it has been for generations. As a coalition of community-based affordable housing developers and housing advocates, we will be focusing on five immediate priorities for our 2016 affordable housing agenda, both legislative and electoral: Funding; Sites; Housing Preservation; Tenant Protections; Shaping Planning and Development.

Read the full agenda here.

San Francisco’s Most Massive Housing Construction Era Since Urban Renewal

7 01 2016

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

CNET_2014 constructionThe narrative in the mainstream media and from popular think tank organizations over the last several months is that San Francisco is dramatically “underproducing” housing and that this is the reason for The City’s growing unaffordability. We are evidently expected to believe this assertion just because it is, well, asserted. But this argument raises key questions, which have remained unanswered: Underbuilding relative to what norm? And, even more importantly, underproducing housing for whom?

Fortunately, San Franciscans are willing and able to see through the hype. Here are some facts:

San Francisco is currently experiencing its highest level of housing production since the 1960s’ Urban Renewal. According to the City Planning Department’s Housing Inventory, almost 3,500 units were built in the year 2014, and we can estimate another 3,500 homes were completed in 2015.

The last time we reached such levels of production was between 1963 and 1965, during the heady and controversial days when entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for new construction.

Thousands more units are currently midconstruction, or have been approved and are simply waiting for developers to start construction. According to the City Planning Department’s “Pipeline” data as of October 2015, there are almost 9,000 units of housing in various stages of construction and another 4,300 fully approved homes that have yet to begin construction. (This does not include the 23,000 units approved in the huge Hunters Point Shipyard, Treasure Island and Park Merced projects, which will be built in the coming years).

These numbers defy the notion that housing production has been at the anemic pace that the “build, build, build” boosters would like us to believe.

That said, our current challenge is to produce new homes that serve San Franciscans as the population of The City continues to grow. This is not just about the volume of construction, but about building homes that are actually affordable at the full range of income levels for The City’s residents.

While some may argue that 3,500 new housing units per year is “not enough,” the truly important question is: Who can afford those homes?

Here are some more facts:

More than half of what we are building should be affordable housing to keep up with job growth. According to the San Francisco General Plan Housing Element, about 4,100 total homes should be constructed annually to fully meet The City’s growing population needs at all income levels. Of that total, 57 percent of new homes (about 2,330 units per year) should be affordable to low- and moderate-income San Franciscans (aka, below market-rate).

San Francisco has a dramatic imbalance between market-rate housing and affordable housing production. According to the City Planning Department’s Housing Balance Report released in September 2015, the citywide production of net new affordable housing over the 10-year period between 2005 and 2015 was only 15 percent. Looking at the City Planning Department’s Development Dashboard for 2015, only 18 percent of the new homes built were affordable to low-, moderate- and middle-income households. The other 82 percent of units constructed were market-rate housing.

And the future looks the same: Of the already-approved projects yet to be constructed, 87 percent of the housing is market-rate (13,179 units).

Those are sobering numbers in contrast to San Francisco’s official housing policy, which calls for more than half of all new construction to be affordable for a wide range of households.

Those who claim we are simply “underbuilding” housing are off the mark. Though our current totals of housing production are at a historical high point, we are effectively overbuilding expensive market-rate housing in proportion to affordable homes for low-, moderate- and middle-income San Franciscans. It’s more about balance than totals, and San Francisco today is dramatically out of balance in producing affordable housing.

Let’s solve that problem first and foremost, and dispense with the false assertions about underproduction.


Photo Credit: Seth Rosenblatt, CNET.

San Francisco’s Affordability Crisis Has Hit the Big Time

5 01 2016

48 Hills CASA playWe had to share this This American Life piece, featuring writer Jon Mooallem on the timely musical recently performed by his daughter’s afterschool program, CASA, about San Francisco’s eviction and affordability crisis.  Yes, that’s right.  A children’s afterschool program did an original musical about the housing crisis.  Add that to the list of “only in San Francisco.”

But beyond the amazing clips of small children trying to hit impossible notes and fantastically thinly veiled references like “Ron Scraper,” this piece and this musical are important because they get to the heart of the housing crisis better than some of our current policy wonks and city leaders.

Though it’s tempting, and important, to acknowledge the role that the influx of tech workers has had on the housing market, the real enemy identified in the play?  Greed and speculation.  If we work from the perspective of needing to regulate that first and foremost, like we attempted with Prop G in 2014 and Prop F this past November, we could slow the displacement and gentrification that are rapidly destroying our communities and are undermining the gains we make building new affordable housing.

Building more affordable housing is only one part of the solution to the housing crisis.  Fighting greed and speculation, like the kids of CASA advocate, is the other.


Photo credit: 48 Hills.

Inclusionary Housing Is for Mixed-Income Areas

9 12 2015

CCHO’s latest op-ed in The Examiner.  Read the original article here.

NEMA built its inclusionary units, affordable to renters earning 55% AMI and below, on-site.  Photo credit: Sadie S., Yelp.

NEMA built its inclusionary units, affordable to renters earning 55% AMI and below, on-site. Photo credit: Sadie S., Yelp.

Pro-development boosters are proposing to upend The City’s inclusionary housing policy by allowing market-rate developers to pick and choose winners and losers in deciding which neighborhoods get affordable housing.

In a bold move, these boosters have proposed the Planning Commission on Thursday eliminate the current requirement that so-called “off-site” below-market-rate housing must be built within one mile of the market-rate project. This is an allowed option for developers if the affordable units aren’t actually provided within the market-rate project itself, which is almost always the preference of neighborhood residents who absorb the impact of development. The developers’ proposal would allow them to build those affordable units in any neighborhood, irrespective of where the market-rate project is built.

This proposal is the complete inverse of the long-standing policy of inclusionary housing, which is that it’s a local mitigation to soften the effects of market-rate development on the community in which it’s built. An inclusionary housing policy, as the name suggests, is fundamentally about creating and maintaining inclusive, mixed-income housing and communities. Without question, this was the impetus for crafting The City’s inclusionary law in 2002, under the leadership of then-Supervisor Mark Leno, as those of us who were involved in that effort will recall.

Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has heard numerous cases recognizing “exclusionary zoning” as land use policies that had the effect of maintaining racially and economically exclusive cities and neighborhoods. Cities began to develop “inclusionary zoning” as a way to fight racial segregation, requiring that development, to the extent legally allowable, build mixed-income economically inclusive developments.

The City’s last legal “nexus study,” completed in 2007 (an update is about to be published), supported a maximum of 25 percent on-site inclusionary units for rentals and 30 percent for condos, and 34 percent off-site units for rentals and 43 percent for condos. But aside from the numbers, the important point here is that an inclusionary housing policy is not only a local mitigation for development but also about pushing back against segregated communities.

Disturbingly, the developer boosters’ proposal takes the view that our city’s inclusionary housing requirement is simply a “tool” for funding affordable housing production rather than a policy that directly mitigates the impacts of private development on communities where development happens, not simply wherever developers want it to happen.

At its worst, the developer proposal promises a culture of poaching between The City’s neighborhoods, with their proposal for an off-site geography “waiver” being used by developers to pit neighborhoods against each other for affordable housing. Under this scheme, the developer of a market rate project in the Castro/Upper Market would be allowed to turn its back on that local community and instead build an affordable housing project in the South of Market. The developer of a market-rate project in the Sunset would be allowed to “mitigate” the effects of that development by building affordable housing in the Western Addition. And the developer of a market-rate project in the Mission would be allowed to build an off-site affordable housing project in the Bayview. And so on.

With the Planning Department’s latest Housing Balance Report showing that seven of The City’s 11 supervisorial districts are projected to have zero affordable housing production in the near-term pipeline, this prospect of neighborhood-versus-neighborhood poaching could only further preclude getting a reasonable balance of below-market housing across The City’s neighborhoods. Some may see this resulting landscape of competing fiefdoms as “more effective” from a developers’ vantage point. But for communities on the ground, it does nothing but create intracity competition and uncertainty. And as policy, it would mean that we as a city are supportive of a policy that directs the high-end luxury housing to some exclusive neighborhoods and sends the housing affordable to working- and middle-class people to poorer communities (i.e., where land might cost a little less).

The Mayor’s Office of Housing and the Planning Department have proposed a modest expansion of the current one mile geography standard — to allow off-site inclusionary projects to be within 1¼ mile or within the same neighborhood as the market-rate project. Our group, the Council of Community Housing Organizations, would prefer truly rationalizing the allowed “off-site BMRs” geography to be only within the same actual neighborhood (and a quarter-mile buffer), but we support The City’s proposal as a reasonable middle ground.

Any further dilution of The City’s inclusionary policy is simply a step back to the old days of zoning for exclusionary neighborhoods.

Key Findings on Displacement & Gentrification in the Bay Area

30 11 2015
REWS map

The Urban Displacement Project includes interactive maps showing the stages of displacement and gentrification around the Bay Area.

The Urban Displacement Project of UC Berkeley, which CCHO worked with as part of the regional HUD Grant Process that ended this year, just released their Executive Summary, filled with important findings from their research into gentrification and displacement in the Bay Area.

Among the key findings:

  • “There is no clear relationship or correlation between building new housing and keeping housing affordable in a particular neighborhood”
  • “Gentrification and displacement are regional”
  • We aren’t even halfway through the housing crisis: “More tracts are at risk of displacement in the future compared to those already experiencing it”

And perhaps most importantly, what has kept at-risk neighborhoods stable? “Policy, planning and organizing” – or more specifically, “a combination of subsidized housing production, tenant protections, rent controls and strong community organizing.”

The crisis isn’t over, but we have the tools to help mitigate it.

Read the Urban Displacement Project’s full report here or visit their website at

The Fight Doesn’t End with the Election

17 11 2015

920x920Our very own Peter Cohen was featured on KTVU’s post-election wrap-up!

His conclusions?  It’s not the end of the fight for the Mission or short-term rental regulations, and though the Housing Bond was a big win, we need to push even harder for the funding and policies to make housing affordable in our City (how about a couple more Prop As?).

Here’s to carrying on the fight in 2016!

Watch the full clip here.


Photo Credit: Eric Risberg, AP.

How to Really Vote for an Affordable City

28 10 2015

Our latest op-ed in The Examiner.  Read the original article here, and vote YES on Props A, D, F, I, J, and K!

In this November’s election, voters have an opportunity to weigh in on six measures that together form an “Affordable City” platform for 2015: Propositions A, D, F, I, J and K.

The phrase “an affordable city” has become very popular in San Francisco, and almost every campaign, whether for or against a housing measure, claims its stance will result in an affordable city. And in some instances, this “affordable city” language is used as a divisive strategy, encouraging voters to pick and choose certain propositions over others for purely political purposes.

The reality is that our housing crisis is complex and, despite what some consultants and development advocates say, an affordable city will not come with a single ballot measure. Rather, there is a need for multiple meaningful measures to address the various facets of our housing problem.

What’s fascinating is that this November’s ballot provides a comprehensive set of measures that, taken as a whole, allows San Francisco voters to support an affordable city by protecting tenants, preserving neighborhood character and producing an equitable balance of affordable to market-rate housing.

Though complexity is often seen as the ultimate evil in campaign strategy, we think San Francisco voters can handle the complexity of these multiple measures, resist the divide-and-conquer rhetoric and see the ways these measures work together to confront our city’s affordability crisis.

Proposition A, the $310 million Affordable Housing Bond, provides the public resources we need for the production of housing units. A quarter of it will be used for the critically important rehabilitation of our public housing stock, another quarter will go to first-time homebuyer programs and teacher housing programs, and half of it will go to the development of new permanently affordable homes. The housing bond is an important first step toward a funding strategy to fulfill last year’s Housing Balance measure and make 50 percent of all new housing affordable to low-income, moderate-income and middle-income residents.

Proposition K will dedicate underused, publicly owned properties for affordable housing. In addition to funding, a critically important challenge for the production of housing is acquiring sites to build on. One of the exciting aspects of this proposition is that it sets up the possibility of “air-rights” development over existing public uses, which could potentially bring in new revenue to city agencies while providing space for affordable housing above those public facilities. The first example of this might be at the new Central Subway station at Fourth and Folsom streets.

Proposition I, the “Pause for a Plan in the Mission,” creates a much-needed 18-month hold on development approvals to create an antidisplacement plan for the Mission. If we are going to meet the mandated Housing Balance goals in the most hard-hit gentrifying neighborhoods like the Mission, The City needs to begin acquiring private sites for affordable housing and ultimately develop affordable housing strategies neighborhood by neighborhood. Prop. I will give The City time to start this important process in the Mission.

Proposition D addresses the housing balance in private development. The Giants’ Mission Rock project shows that not only is there a new expectation that private development build mixed-income communities, but that it is indeed feasible for large developments to provide 40 percent on-site affordable units and to price these for a broad range of incomes. What if every new development made at least that same commitment?

Proposition F preserves our existing rent-controlled stock, the largest category of housing that is still relatively affordable to most San Franciscans. Maintaining a Housing Balance is not just about producing new affordable housing, but also, and just as critically, not losing existing housing. The latest threat to our rent-controlled housing has come from the profits to be gained by keeping housing units off the rental market and turning them into so-called “short-term-rentals” for vacationers on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. Prop. F creates reasonable regulations that still allow individuals to legally rent out their bedrooms or units for up to 75 days a year, but also allows The City to enforce the rules on short-term rentals and ensures the “platform” companies are accountable for proper business practices of their “host” clients.

Finally, there’s Proposition J, the legacy business measure. The affordability crisis affects not only residential tenants, but also the vital cultural and economic resources
that our neighborhoods depend on. Prop. J creates a program for preserving long-standing neighborhood businesses, arts groups and nonprofits that have served our communities for decades.

There is no single measure that will solve The City’s affordability crisis. But this year, we have the opportunity to consider a slate of measures that work together and lift each other up. Together, Propositions A, D, F, I, J and K provide a platform to the voters for an affordable city.

Voting for an Affordable City: It’s About Ethics, Not Just Economics

28 10 2015

This upcoming Tuesday’s election is garnering a great deal of media attention, as debate rages particularly around housing measures Proposition I and Proposition F.

We think voters have an opportunity on Tuesday to support a slate of measures that work together to begin addressing the affordability crisis, including F and I.

As CCHO co-director Peter Cohen makes clear in Fox 2’s recent piece on the housing measures in the November ballot, these measures are about something bigger than just Airbnb and even the Mission – they are about trends that are happening in urban areas across the US:

“A number of these measures are not just a moment in time aberration, this is the kind of thing that’s happening in response to pressures on urban America as they become very popular places to be in…one of the pressures that’s happening is using housing stock as hotels.”

Voting YES on Prop F and Prop I is about saying what we think urban areas should look like and what type of City we want San Francisco to become.

We like the last word that CCHO co-director Fernando Marti has in this NBC piece about Prop I: “It’s an ethical mandate that we should have a diverse city, and that runs counter to the market.”