Housing a defining issue in SF mayor’s race
By J.K. Dineen
The late Mayor Ed Lee cast himself a housing champion, a tower crane-loving bureaucrat who not only put unprecedented resources into subsidized, affordable housing but also pushed more controversial market-rate towers and mid-rises that have reshaped neighborhoods from Hayes Valley to Rincon Hill to Dogpatch.
None of the candidates running to replace Lee is such a straightforward promoter of any and all new residential development. Instead, they are taking nuanced positions to deal with a highly energized electorate that ranges from YIMBYs — the “Yes in My Backyard” movement, young newcomers who favor building the densest, tallest buildings wherever they can be squeezed in — to old-guard homeowners who blame the tech-propelled housing boom for everything from increased traffic to crowded trains, homeless encampments, and displacement of longtime residents and businesses.
The four top candidates running for mayor — Board of Supervisors President London Breed, Supervisor Jane Kim, former state Sen. Mark Lenoand former Supervisor Angela Alioto — strike many of the same notes around housing. They all say they support increased residential building, particularly below-market-rate units. They all cite the need for housing the middle class — the teachers and nurses and police officers who work in the city but can’t afford to live here.
Their starkest differences emerged over a piece of state legislation that’s now moribund — state Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB827, which would have given developers broad leeway to build multifamily housing complexes near public transportation, regardless of local zoning restrictions.
San Francisco’s next mayor won’t have any direct say over the bill, which stalled in committee in April but which Wiener plans to revive next year. Yet it has become a defining issue in the campaign.
Breed fully supported SB827, solidifying her position as the candidate of the pro-housing development YIMBYs.
At the other extreme, Kim characterized the bill as a neighborhood-destroying giveaway to developers.
Between Kim and Breed were Alioto and Leno, both of whom at times said they supported aspects of the bill but ultimately opposed it as being too broad and stripping too much local control from development decisions.
Wiener, D-San Francisco, said the bill has had a positive effect on the mayor’s race. “It flushed people out in terms of where they stand on housing,” he said. “I’m glad it provoked such a passionate debate — voters need to know where the mayoral candidates stand.”
The watershed moment on SB827 came March 15, when Kim held a rally outside West Portal Muni Station opposing the bill.
She said it would let suburban communities without robust public transit off the hook, putting additional pressure on San Francisco to meet the region’s growing housing needs. She argued that the city should focus on streamlining building permits of the 30,000 units that have been approved but not built. The west side, she said, could help alleviate the crisis with “more three- to five-unit buildings that fit the character of our neighborhoods.”
Kim’s supervisorial district includes the Tenderloin and eastern neighborhoods south of Market, and housing advocates saw her opposition as an effort to curry favor with west side homeowners who have long blocked multifamily development projects in their neighborhoods. Wiener, who has endorsed Breed and Leno in the ranked-choice election, called the rally “the most cynical move I’ve ever seen in politics.”
Kim’s opposition did indeed give her a significant boost among one organization of single-family homeowners. George Wooding, president of the anti-development Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, said Kim’s stance made her a front-runner among the group’s members.
“It’s helped her tremendously on the west side,” Wooding said. “All politics is local, and nothing is more local than what’s going to be built next to your house. She didn’t have much traction before — it was, ‘Who is Jane Kim?’ After that, her stock really went up.”
Laura Clark, executive director of the group YIMBY Action, said Kim’s rally had the opposite effect on her pro-development allies: They went all in for Breed.
“The West Portal rally with George Wooding and the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods was an ‘ahhhh’ moment for a lot of people,” Clark said. “I think it riled up everyone’s bases on both sides.”
Kim says her approach can also lead to more housing. She points to her role as an intermediary between community groups and market-rate developers in her district, where she has leveraged neighborhood opposition to push builders to add more affordable units and supply more cash for nonprofits that operate nearby. Development deals that Kim helped work out include the 5M project at Fifth and Mission streets being developed by Hearst Corp., which owns The Chronicle. Others include the Giants’ Mission Rock projectnear AT&T Park.
“People have seen what I have done,” Kim said. “My portfolio of development deals demonstrates the breadth of my work.”
Breed, who grew up in public housing, is the candidate most closely aligned with YIMBY. She worked to rezone parts of her district, which includes the Western Addition and Haight-Ashbury, to allow bigger buildings. She also persuaded the owners of the crime-plagued McDonald’s at Haight and Stanyan streets to sell the property to the city for affordable housing. Her hardest-fought housing measure was focused on local preference — giving residents an advantage in the lotteries that determine who gets to move into below-market-rate housing.
Breed’s support of SB827 was a big deal to YIMBYs, Clark said. The movement has at least 100 volunteers working on the Breed campaign.
“A lot of people are inspired by her pro-housing message but also by her personal story,” Clark said. “Having a renter who is a black woman and grew up in public housing and believes in building without displacement is inspiring for YIMBYs.”
Yet Breed has not always been an enthusiastic supporter of the “build, build, build” camp. She has frequently expressed frustration that so much of the new housing the city is producing is affordable only to the wealthiest buyers and tenants. She also supported a moratorium in 2015 on new housing in the Mission District, which put her at odds with YIMBYs.
But she’s also made accommodations for market-rate projects, such as One Oak St., a luxury condominium tower to be built at Market Street and Van Ness Avenue — holding out for an agreement from its developer to add 31 affordable units to the 72 it had already agreed to. All the units will be built in Hayes Valley, a few blocks from the One Oak site.
“Luxury housing provides a funding source for lower- and middle-class housing,” Breed said. “You can say ‘no’ and be obstructionist, but that does nothing. My approach is to be creative to make sure we are hitting different layers of affordability in a way that is evenly distributed.”
Breed’s ultimate support of One Oak and relaxed zoning rules in the Hub neighborhood around Market and Van Ness puts her at odds with Leno, who owns a commercial building near the intersection. He said Breed is inviting thousands of new units into the area without improving public transit.
“You cannot have these small dwellings and a 10-story building slammed next to them,” Alioto said. “You cannot do that to our beautiful city, just because, right now at this minute, you think you need density and height.”
Alioto says she would focus housing efforts on two ends of the spectrum — supportive units for homeless people and development for teachers, nurses, firefighters and police officers. She touts the 11,362 homeless placed in permanent supportive housing from 2004 to 2014, when she was working on homeless policy for Lee and former Mayor Gavin Newsom, a candidate for governor.
Whatever happens in the race, Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, said the focus on affordable housing in the mayor’s race has been unprecedented.
“This is the new San Francisco, which is a tech-centric boomtown at the hyper end of gentrification, and without question housing stability and housing affordability is the top issue,” Cohen said. “It’s been many, many years since we have seen housing and development at the center of a mayor’s race.”
“Have you tried to get on a train at rush hour at Market and Van Ness? It’s not pretty, and we’re talking about adding many thousands of new residents,” Leno said. “There has to be more focused attention on the impact these new housing units will create in terms of transit needs and open space and parks.”
Leno was largely absent from local housing politics during his years as a state legislator, but has been a major player in protecting rent control on the state level. In 2000, when he was a supervisor, he wrote the city’s first inclusionary housing ordinance, which required that 15 percent of market-rate developments consist of affordable units. In Sacramento, he sponsored state legislation that allows school districts to use surplus property to develop affordable teacher housing.
Leno said he would push the city to build 50,000 affordable housing units over a decade. He has not laid out a plan to pay for that many units — the city pays more than $300,000 subsidy for each affordable housing unit produced, which means that Leno’s plan could cost $1.5 billion a year.
“Yes, we need more housing, but we have to look at what kind of housing and figure out how to get there,” Leno said. “Our goals have been too low. We need to go bigger and regional and set a moonshot goal and make a commitment.”
Like Leno, Alioto supports more housing, but has not laid out a plan to pay for it. She says she would double Lee’s goal and build 10,000 units per year — but has not said where those additional units would be constructed.
After initially telling YIMBY that she could support SB827 if it was amended, she ended up questioning the wisdom of increasing building heights even along Geary Boulevard — one transit corridor that even anti-growth advocates say could handle increased density.