"SF Seeks to Expedite Affordable Housing Construction"

Mission Local, January 26, 2016

In a meeting well-attended by pro-development groups and non-profit housing developers but with few other housing voices, the Land Use Committee of the Board of Supervisors unanimously recommended a proposal that would fast-track affordable housing projects.

The legislation, sponsored by Supervisor Scott Weiner, would remove a conditional use hearing for projects that are 100 percent affordable. Those projects would not have to obtain a conditional use permit shaving three to six months off their approval time, Weiner said.

“This legislation will make it easier, faster, and less expensive to build affordable housing in San Francisco,” said Weiner.

The legislation would have only applied to six housing projects entitled since 2010, according to the Mayor’s Office of Housing, and not all affordable housing projects trigger conditional use hearings.

A conditional use hearing is meant to elicit public comment when a project could have a negative effect on the neighborhood — like chain stores, bars, or cannabis dispensaries. These hearings take place before building permits have been issued and serve to determine whether a project is “necessary or desirable” for a neighborhood, sometimes resulting in project changes.

Given the housing crisis, Weiner said holding such a hearing for fully affordable housing projects would be counterproductive.

“There is no question about whether affordable housing is necessary or desirable,” he said. “We need dramatically more affordable housing. We need it now, as soon as possible.”

Those who came out to Monday’s mid-afternoon meeting were mostly supportive of the move. Several members of pro-development groups, like the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation and the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, said the common-sense reform would signal a commitment to building more affordable housing in the city and building it quickly.

“This is low-hanging fruit,” said Laura Clark of Grow SF. “This is the kind of legislation that we need to rush through.”

Patricia Scott, the executive director of the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center, strongly praised the measure and cited years of neighborhood opposition to the construction of 50 affordable housing units for youth in the Western Addition.

“They did everything they could to stop this, talking about size, the density, anything that would obfuscate the fact that they really did not want these young kids in the neighborhood,” Scott said. She said the approval was “a nightmare process” that might have been shortened by removing the conditional use requirement.

“It was that long period of time that increased the cost, and I urge you to support this legislation,” she said, saying the project was delayed some 10 years and went from $26 million to $38 million.

Still, some opposed the measure. Eileen Boken, a city resident, said the legislation seeks to make approval marginally easier rather than making a substantive change to planning policy.

“Rather than looking at other options…this legislation seeks to improve the process by cutting corners,” she said.

That point was echoed by Fernando Martí of the Council on Community Housing Organization, which has not taken a position on the measure. Speaking over the phone after the meeting, Martí said he was supportive of the measure but that it was not the most significant change to expedite affordable housing projects.

“It’s an odd thing to pull out of a big packet of [possible changes],” he said, mentioning “bigger roadblocks” like low planning staff levels and the time-consuming nature of environmental review for projects. Addressing these issues would help shave more time and money off the process of planning affordable housing, he said.

“In the big scheme of things, getting rid of the conditional use requirement would help,” he said.

Some spoke out against the measure because it would remove a public forum for neighbors of a project to share their input.

“Let’s work for affordable housing, but let’s make sure that residents and neighbors have an opportunity to ensure that neighborhood character is not destroyed in the process,” said one speaker.

Spokespersons from non-profit housing developers like Mercy Housing and Bridge Housing pushed back on this claim, saying they must develop long-lasting relationships in a neighborhood — regardless of conditional use hearings — if they hope to be chosen by the city for future projects.

“If we trip up and don’t reach out to the community on a project, we don’t get another chance,” said Robert Stevenson from Pantoll Advisors. “This is fundamentally the way affordable housing gets developed.”

Even without a conditional use review, all projects would still undergo neighborhood notification and could trigger discretionary review. The latter would put the onus on opponents of a housing project to voice their complaints, however, rather than on developers to ensure neighborhood support.

The measure now goes in front of the full board for consideration.