“SF Officials Wary of Governor’s Efforts to Streamline Housing Plans”

SF Chronicle, June 10, 2016

Affordable housing, the issue that has dominated San Francisco politics for the past three years, is suddenly the hot topic at the state Capitol in Sacramento.

That might seem like a good thing, but not all San Francisco housing advocates are happy.

In a move that came as a total surprise even to insiders such as state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who is the chairman of the Senate budget committee, Gov. Jerry Brown introduced legislation last month to streamline the environmental review process for proposed housing projects that are consistent with local zoning.

If enacted, the proposal would allow planning staff to rubber-stamp what are known as “by right” housing developments that conform to the city’s zoning and include 10 percent affordable units, or 20 percent if the project is not close to public transit. It would allow developers to avoid the lengthy public environmental review process that addresses concerns about the impacts on traffic, wind, shadows and noise. Activists often use the review process to win concessions on affordable units, open space and other public benefits.

Reducing regulation

At a news conference on his revised budget, Brown laid out his argument for the plan, complaining that it costs $500,000 to produce a unit of affordable housing in San Francisco and suggesting that it needs to be less expensive and faster to put up residential units.

“The general idea is if you want some assisted housing, you’re going to have to reduce some of the regulatory burdens that are faced by developers,” he said.

While he has not explicitly said so, the consensus in Sacramento is that the reforms Brown is proposing are part of a quid pro quo: He agreed in Thursday’s budget deal to spend $400 million on statewide affordable housing that Democrats wanted, but the money won’t be released until the by-right language is agreed to.

Not surprisingly, market-rate developers across the city are cheering Brown’s proposal, which has the potential to reduce the city’s expensive and time-consuming approval process. Outside of San Francisco, the initiative could force antidevelopment suburban and rural communities to accept badly needed multifamily housing.

“I would view housing reform as one of the major pieces of unfinished business for Jerry Brown,” said Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of the generally pro-development San Francisco urban think tank SPUR, which has come out in support of the legislation. “He was an urban mayor. He understands the planning process. And I think he is hoping to leave things a little better than when he arrived, in terms of California’s housing crisis.”

But in San Francisco, which produces more affordable and market-rate housing than most other California cities, Supervisor Aaron Peskin calls the legislation “a huge giveaway to developers.” He points out that the city has produced 13,391 market-rate housing units since 2010 and 7,064 affordable units. San Francisco has 11,000 entitled units and another 20,000 in the approval pipeline, more than any other city in the state.

On Tuesday, Peskin introduced a nonbinding resolution at the Board of Supervisors proposing that Brown’s plan include a performance provision, under which cities that are successfully building affordable units — at least 25 percent of production — be exempted from the by-right approval process. But a vote on the resolution was delayed until this Tuesday after Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced an amendment to the resolution that calls for changes to Brown’s legislation but not an outright exemption.