“Public Land Ideal for Affordable Housing”

SF Examiner, March 4, 2015

There's been a lot of talk lately about using our publicly controlled lands for housing development. This would be an important step in city policy. However, we need to go one step further and be clear to reserve public lands for affordable housing if The City is to meet its affordable housing goals for all residents of San Francisco.

Despite a 2002 Surplus Property Ordinance that resulted in two properties for affordable housing, The City has not aggressively pursued securing a portfolio of public sites for this purpose.

As new discussions get under way about the potential development of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission's Balboa Reservoir and City College of San Francisco seems poised to sell its property at 33 Gough St. to market-rate developers, it is more important than ever to establish a firm policy that underutilized publicly owned lands — a scarce and precious public resource — go to achieving The City's critical affordable-housing needs. The City needs to be very clear that there is a priority for low-income housing on every suitable public site. 

This is not just our recommendation, but The City's obligation, as set out in the housing element of the general plan and last year's Proposition K. Updated every five years, the housing element is a legally required plan for housing all of San Francisco's current and projected residents, including the amount of housing The City needs to build at each level of affordability.

According to the current housing element, 60 percent of housing built in The City should be affordable to moderate- and low-income residents. Furthermore, voters passed Prop. K last fall, mandating The City to achieve a minimum 33 percent balance of affordable to market-rate housing, as a step toward reaching the housing element goals.

We aren't currently meeting either of these goals. In order to start working toward them, it is critical that we secure land for affordable housing — and even more critical that we do not give away land we already have. Publicly owned sites create a unique opportunity for The City to get closer to meeting its housing obligations.

Steps have already been taken at the state level to pressure cities to reserve public lands for affordable housing. Just this past fall, Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, helped get bill Assembly Bill 2135 passed that compels land-owning public agencies to give a first right of refusal for affordable-housing development, and even encourages public agencies to sell their lands below market value to make affordable-housing development as viable as possible. It is unclear if San Francisco's public agencies are taking either the intent or the letter of that new law seriously.

But even with the added push of AB 2135 coming from the state level, there is always temptation for the particular agency that owns a piece of land to sell it to the highest bidder, whether for high-end offices or luxury housing. Thus, The City needs to firmly state a priority to dedicate any suitable site to 100 percent low-income housing. Suitable sites for this type of housing would have a development capacity of 50 to 200 units.

Who would these new homes serve? Affordable-housing communities typically rent to families making up to about half of the median income. That would be, for example, three-person households earning $50,000: retail, restaurant and hotel workers, childcare providers, home-care workers, students and artists. Some of these affordable-housing sites could also be combined with new parks and open space, as is planned for the former SFPUC site at 17th and Folsom streets.

There are also a few very large sites, such as the Balboa Reservoir, that can accommodate mixed-income master-planned developments with far more than a single 50- to 200-unit project. These would be the perfect case-studies to implement our city's housing element goals, making at least 60 percent of housing on those sites affordable to low- and moderate-income households, with the remainder for market-rate development that would cross-subsidize the moderate-income units.

Furthermore, if we are to truly meet the intention of Prop. K and prevent the displacement of our communities, we must strategically dedicate sites neighborhood by neighborhood, paying particular attention to communities where new market-rate development vastly outstrips affordable housing.

Even with a public-sites policy, our communities will have to fight hard to make that happen. But a clear policy priority for affordable housing will be an important starting point. While The City is still developing a comprehensive list of potential short-term opportunity sites, there are at least three sites that would make excellent models of public lands for public good: The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency-owned site above the new Central Subway station at Fourth and Folsom streets, the Port of San Francisco's seawall lot at Broadway and Front Street just steps from Chinatown, and the 17 acres of the Balboa Reservoir, potentially adding several thousand new units of critically needed housing to The City.

Let's fight to make sure public land really is used for the public good.

Fernando Marti and Peter Cohen are co-directors of San Francisco's Council of Community Housing Organizations.