SF Mayor London Breed struggles to build consensus with supervisors on housing plan

By Dominic Fracassa

With stratospheric rents and home prices threatening to exile all but the most affluent from San Francisco, officials and advocacy groups agree on one thing: creating affordable housing for low- and middle-income residents is critical.

But at a time when City Hall is brimming with champions of such projects, why is Mayor London Breed having such a hard time persuading the Board of Supervisors to support her sweeping plan to make them happen?

Breed wants voters to amend the City Charter in a way she says would speed up approvals — by at least a year — for buildings where 100% of apartments are considered affordable, and for housing reserved for educators.

The mayor needs six signatures from the board to put the measure on the November ballot. So far, Supervisors Vallie Brown, Ahsha Safaí and Catherine Stefani have signed on. Breed has until July 26 to pick up the remaining three. But it appears unlikely that she will get them, raising questions about her ability to build consensus with board members.

Breed voiced her frustration about the roadblock to the board Tuesday.

“Supervisors, I’ve heard concern about the proposed Charter amendment that I have submitted to you all for your review. I don’t understand why it’s such a challenge,” she said. “We know San Francisco is unaffordable. We know we have not, over the years, built enough housing citywide. ... I’m tired of talking about it. I want to see results.”

To veteran political consultant Jon Golinger, Breed’s top-down style is the reason for the stalemate.

“When you’re serious, you bring all the stakeholders to the table,” Golinger said. “You work through the nitty-gritty details and then you introduce it, rather than the other way around ... which is what you see here.”

While Breed’s approach may have rankled supervisors and affordable housing advocates, others say it’s the housing proposal itself that’s the problem, in part because it reduces public input on proposed development and because it would amend the City Charter — effectively chiseling the changes in stone.

Like Breed’s other, less sweeping proposals around housing — accelerating the construction of in-law units, for example — her Charter amendment would eliminate what she sees as bureaucracy holding back production. The proposal has four main components, all related to teacher housing and buildings with 100% affordable apartments.

• It would end city staffers’ right to halt approval for subjective reasons, such as quibbles over the placement of windows or light wells.

• Such developments would be green-lighted if they met the checklist of requirements under the city’s building and planning codes and zoning restrictions.

• The measure would eliminate lengthy reviews of those projects under the California Environmental Quality Act.

• It would end public appeals of Planning Department decisions on such projects.

Although Breed proposed the ballot measure in late April, board members have been reticent to provide their opinions. Meanwhile, the board has paid close attention to a $600 million bond measure for affordable housing, co-sponsored by Breed and board President Norman Yee.

“No one to my knowledge has requested a briefing or a meeting to sit down and talk about” Breed’s plan, said Jeff Cretan, a spokesman for the mayor. “We’re in constant contact with these offices. You’d think board members would be eager to sit down to learn how we can streamline building affordable and teacher housing.”

But the few supervisors who were willing to talk about the measure cited broad concerns about removing public input through the appeal process, unease over what’s defined as “affordable” housing, and whether Breed should tinker with the City Charter.

“I understand that politicians like to show people they’re doing something by giving them something to vote on, but this is not it,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin. He and other critics of the measure don’t see bureaucratic reviews and public input as impediments to getting affordable housing built.

“This is a solution looking for a problem,” he said. “There is no rash of affordable projects being stopped or slowed down. The real need is for resources — money for building and acquiring land.”

Even the teachers union, the United Educators of San Francisco, has not taken a position on the measure that would provide affordable housing for city teachers and community college instructors who earn about $172,000.

But perhaps the proposal’s most controversial element is its elimination of public appeals, a prospect that concerns Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. Although appeals for additional reviews can delay developments and cause costs to balloon, Mandelman said it is important to allow residents to weigh in on proposed changes to their own neighborhoods.

“I think planners miss things. Planners have their biases. They’re not gods. And neighbors aren’t always right either. It’s a balance,” he said. “There’s a lot of value in a role for the public and the ability to shape projects through (existing) processes. You’re losing something when you give that up, and it’s not insignificant.”

The influential Council of Community Housing Organizations has also declined to take a position on Breed’s proposal. Spokeswoman Maya Chupkov said that while the group supports streamlining proposals, the main barrier to affordable housing is something else: “Funding,” she said.

In 2014, Mayor Ed Lee set a goal of creating 30,000 housing units in the city by 2020. As of December, San Francisco had produced 16,319 market-rate housing units and 6,759 “low-income” units, reserved for households making 80% or less of the area’s median income, according to the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development — that’s just under $95,000.

Only 627 units were reserved for moderate-income households, generally making between 80% and 120% of the median income. The vast majority of 100% affordable projects in the development pipeline are for low-income units, according to the mayor’s housing office.

Affordable-housing developers offered a mixed response to Breed’s proposal. Most said they were broadly supportive of ways to save time and money in the planning process.

Sam Moss, executive director of the Mission Housing Development Corp., said the ever-present threat of a public challenge to an affordable project forces developers to go to extreme lengths to procure community buy-in, adding time and money to the process.

Without them, “we’re still going to have community meetings, said Moss who is also a founding board member of YIMBY Action. With well-run affordable development, you have to have a sense of ownership from the surrounding neighborhood to have a good project. You don’t get that by shoving these things down people’s throats.”

Norma Paz Garcia, policy and advocacy director for the Mission Economic Development Agency, said two projects that the organization has been involved in have been subject to public appeals — but stressed that they weren’t particularly cumbersome. The projects, a 94-unit affordable development for seniors at 1296 Shotwell St. and a 127-unit affordable development at 2060 Folsom St., faced public appeals that cost each of the projects three to five months.

“It was never such an impediment that we weren’t able to move forward,” Paz Garcia said. “We assume this is a potential risk in any project.”

Maya Chupkov