“S.F. Pushes for Some Affordable Housing on Public Land Sites, but Advocates Want More”

SF Business Times, December 12, 2014

After about a year of study on just how to develop underused public land in San Francisco, it's become clear this week that at least half of the housing built on those sites will be affordable for the low- or middle-class. That'll mean about 2,000 units earmarked for those uses by 2020, about a fifth of the mayor's overall goal to reach 10,000 affordable units in the next five or so years.

But will that go far enough? At least one advocacy group isn't taking any chances and wants to push a ballot measure to earmark San Francisco public land for affordable housing.

TODCO Development Co.'s John Elberling said the group will ask voters to force the city to set aside sites in the central SoMa zoning area — above the Central Subway site at 4th and Folsom streets, and a Welsh Street site owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission — for affordablehousing. Those two sites could support about 300 units together, Elberling said Thursday.

"We are looking at many options (for the ballot). But with regard specifically to the public property issue, we would definitely zone each of the those two city properties" for affordable housing, said Elberling, whose group advocates for affordable housing issues in the South of Market neighborhood.

City planners working on the Central SoMa zoning plan, set to be finished by 2016, have said they are looking to create one-third of housing as affordable there. That would be in line with Proposition K, which passed in November to set a one-third affordability goal across the city.

That push comes as city departments take inventory of which underused public sites should be handed over to private developers to spur badly needed homebuilding. (The Business Times spotlighted this issue in a cover storyMarch.) Mayor Ed Lee's administration is stressing that residents have made it clear in community meetings that affordable housing should reign in this public sites program.

The city says it will prioritize low- and middle-income housing, but cautioned that some sites may be better suited for other uses, according to a report presented to the Planning Commission on Thursday. Designating more sites for affordable housing instead of market-rate housing could handcuff the possible revenue that those sites could produce for city services like transportation.

Mike Martin, program director at the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, pointed to statistics at Thursday's Planning Commission meeting that he admitted has "fallen well short" of housing production needs outlined by the Association of Bay Area Governments.

The city has also produced about 41 percent of the low-income housing and 16 percent of the middle-income housing it needs over the past seven years. Those kind of numbers have spurred Lee to focus on producing 10,000 affordable units and 30,000 total units by 2020.

"It is our focus and our driving energy to pull together housing under this program," Martin said Thursday.

Another affordable housing advocate, Peter Cohen of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, told the Planning Commission Thursday that those housing statistics — where San Francisco is more than 50 percent short of its low- and middle-class housing needs — means the city should set its sights higher with the public land program.

"Why is there this arbitrary 50 percent goal in the portfolio? Make it 60 percent for low- and moderate-income housing needs," he said.

CCHO is advocating for the city to designate smaller sites that can produce 50 to 200 units for affordable housing only (for residents who make less than 60 percent of the city's median income). Larger sites of more than 200 units should include 50 percent of units as affordable, 10 percent for middle class (60 to 120 percent of the city's median income) and 40 percent of units for people who make more than 120 percent of the city's median income.

Elberling added that although the city is already looking to boost the city's housing stock through public site development, he was looking to "force the issue" with a ballot measure.

"You can't beat bureaucracies at City Hall. They're too tough. You have to beat them at the ballot box," he said.

Since January, city officials have met with local residents and held community meetings about potential public land development. They are planning to release requests for proposals next summer to ask developers to pitch plans for a handful of public sites. Those developers would be picked by the end of 2015.

The city identified these sites this week as those best suited to pilot the program:

  1. The Public Utilities Commission-owned Balboa Reservoir

  2. The S.F. Municipal Transportation Agency-owned Central Subway station at 4th and Folsom streets

  3. The San Francisco Unified School District-owned 1950 Mission St. site

  4. The S.F. Municipal Transportation Agency -owned Upper Yard near Balboa Park Station

The Balboa Reservoir site has been eyed for new development for years. It could hold up to 1,000 new housing units. The community process for starting site analysis at Balboa Reservoir will start next spring.

"These early projects will determine the success of the program," Martin said.

Public LandsNoa Chupkov