“Affordable Housing Eligibility Would Be Expanded Under Prop. K”

SF Chronicle, October 18, 2015

It was so San Francisco the way Cuihua Liang finally got an apartment — all thanks to an earthquake and a ruined freeway.

Eight years ago, the 39-year-old emigrated from China and moved into a single-room-occupancy space. She shared it with her husband and their two sons, now 11 and 6. But it was difficult cooking chicken wings and steamed eggs on the shared stove, and her boys didn’t have room to play.

Liang was put on a waiting list for affordable housing. In March, the family finally got lucky. A two-bedroom opened up in the Broadway-Sansome apartments, a 75-unit apartment complex built atop the site of the former on-ramp to the Embarcadero Freeway.

“I was on the waiting list for so long,” she said in Chinese. “I love everything about having my own apartment. I can watch TV while the children work on their homework. And it only costs about $400 each month.”

But those trash-to-treasure affordable housing units are hard to come by. An ordinance passed in 2002 was designed to transform surplus property into affordable housing, but it only actually converted two properties. Under the ordinance, the city did not aggressively pursue surplus sites because agencies often didn’t identify them.

That would change under Proposition K. It’s one of five propositions on the Nov. 3 ballot dealing with development and housing. The measure would expand the target income levels for affordable housing built on surplus and underutilized city property.

Depending on the size of the project, households ranging from very low-income, like the formerly homeless, to those making up to 150 percent of the area median income would be prioritized. In larger developments — 200 units or more — it would create mixed-income projects.

Strengthening ordinance

Under Prop. K, the surplus property identification process would be strictly regulated and overseen by the Board of Supervisors. City agencies would be required to list all sites a quarter-acre or larger in an annual survey — instead of just self-identifying what they consider to be surplus. It would also prohibit the sale of surplus property for 120 days if it’s being considered for affordable housing. And, if sold, 33 percent of the units would have to be below market-rate.

“Given the critical need for housing, there was a need to strengthen and update the previous ordinance,” said Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations. “Being in a small city, land is a very precious commodity and procuring it is extremely competitive. The opportunity to secure public-owned sites for housing is critical.”

The measure would not apply to open space and parks, or property owned by state and federal agencies.

It’s another piece of the puzzle when it comes to solving the housing crisis, said Supervisor Jane Kim, who sponsored the measure along with supervisors David Campos, John Avalos and Eric Mar. It heads to the polls with little public opposition.

“We aren’t just looking for vacant lots but underutilized lots and opportunity sites,” she said. “We are focused on reducing cost. Land is often the single largest line item of any development. If we already own the land, we are dramatically reducing the cost of housing.”

She noted that the city recently spent $18.4 million to purchase property for affordable housing at 17th Street and South Van Ness Avenue in the Mission, which was “$18.4 million that went out the door.”

“That’s great,” she said. “The neighborhood needs it. But if the city owns the land, that cost is off the slate, and we can focus on the funding of the actual construction.”

Prop. K had enough support to be passed as an ordinance by the Board of Supervisors this summer, but it instead unanimously passed as an initiative and was put on the ballot. Kim said it was done this way to ensure public accountability.

“The more widespread public acknowledgment of the measure, the more it will hold the board accountable to ensure the process is followed every year,” she said.

Cohen said awareness of the ballot measure is important because the ordinance preceding it was so ineffective.

“One of the primary ways Prop. K adds more teeth is it makes public agencies more accountable to following the requirements of our surplus lands policies,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we are going to miraculously have all of these sites fall from the sky, but there will be a more thorough review of what is out there and a faster process to have them cued up as housing opportunities.”

‘We need this measure’

The ballot measure has gained support because it would carve out affordable housing developments in dense areas of the city, like Chinatown. Malcolm Yeung, deputy director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, said the two newest projects in the neighborhood were built on public sites. The two apartment buildings — 810 Battery St. and 255 Broadway — were built on the destroyed Embarcadero Freeway.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Yeung said. “Without strong legislation or policies that push public sites toward affordable housing, districts and places like Chinatown aren’t going to see any more affordable housing. It’s just too dense. We need this measure.”

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Elections 2015Noa Chupkov