SPUR Talk: Scratching Away at the Housing Crisis

Advocates are trying to work within political realities to provide more housing. Image:  Pixabay.
Advocates are trying to work within political realities to provide more housing. Image: Pixabay.

Yesterday evening the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) held a panel discussion about efforts to provide housing for families. The presentation, held at their downtown SF location, also doubled as a rally supporting legislation from Supervisor Katy Tang of District 4 (Sunset/Parkside), called Home-SF, which aims to increase the amount of work-force and family housing in the city.

“I got interested in figuring out how we can better utilize…sites along transit corridors, including in my district in the Sunset, where pretty much no development happens,” said Tang. “We felt the state bonus law was not extensive enough…it did not incentivize workforce housing. So Home-SF was developed.”

The Home-SF program, she explained, creates affordable homes for families making $60,000 to $140,000 a year for a family of four–too much to access housing programs that currently exist, but not enough to support a family in San Francisco. Under the new legislation:

  • 30 percent of all new housing is required to be permanently affordable
  • All new housing includes units affordable to middle-income, working class families
  • 40 percent of new units are required to include two or more bedrooms
  • No displacement of existing tenants

Furthermore, explained Tang, the program is only available in areas of San Francisco that are within ¼ mile of transit lines. It also has to be near schools and parks, again to help families stay in San Francisco.

The Home-SF program would build on state and local housing strategies to allow builders to go higher if they provide a certain amount of affordable housing. Image: Home-SF website
The Home-SF program would build on state and local housing strategies to allow builders to go higher if they provide a certain amount of affordable housing. Image: Home-SF website

“We’re a city with one of the fewest numbers of housing for families. The question is how do we make room,” explained Kearstin Dischinger, who is working on the Home-SF legislation for the San Francisco Planning Department. “And by that I mean housing for children.” That challenge, she said, is made incredibly complicated because it has to be accomplished without spending public funds. “That can be addressed by zoning,” she said, meaning that by conditionally lifting height restrictions it creates incentives for developers to build affordable housing.

Dischinger pointed out that this is an issue even for people who already have good, legacy housing in San Francisco, because too many workers can’t afford to live near where they work. “We have workers commuting one or two hours which impacts transportation, sustainability, climate, health,” she said, adding that it also makes the city less diverse, when its residents come from a single class of people.

She reiterated that Home-SF applies only in neighborhoods with commercial corridors, “where we have transit, but we have not seen a lot of development because of our zoning controls.”

Laura Foote Clark, Todd David, Kearstin Dischinger and Supervisor Katy Tang on last night's SPUR panel. Photo: Streetsblog
Laura Foote Clark, Todd David, Kearstin Dischinger and Supervisor Katy Tang on last night’s SPUR panel. Photo: Streetsblog

“I’m a parent of three public school children. Housing is just one thing families need,” said Todd David of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition. “We need really great public schools, recreation and parks…there’s so much to tackle in the housing conversation.”

One audience member said he was from New York where when they want more housing, they build bigger buildings. Indeed, Streetsblog found it incredibly odd that all these affordable housing programs are built to circumvent regulations limiting growth. Why not get rid of the regulations that are causing the problem in the first place? In other words, tear up zoning laws that restrict all areas within walking distance to a transit line to single-family housing. The excuse Streetsblog often hears is “it will change the character of San Francisco.” Maybe so, and there’s nothing wrong with passing new laws that mandate bay windows or preserving historic, ground-floor facades, but what’s the point of having a city with character once nobody can afford to live in it?

“Because the politics are like a knife fight in a phone booth,” said Laura Foote Clark with the housing advocacy group YIMBY Action. “The argument here all the time is parking, but there are lots of other fears that get built up into it. Lots of people look at the changing face of San Francisco and worry that they will be displaced.”

Either way, high-rise “projects just won’t get the votes,” said Tang. “Although it might be popular among people here [in the room], you have to keep in mind: will it survive the Board of Supervisor’s vote?”

“There’s a voting block that says don’t ever do anything to a single family home,” added Clark. In that light, the panelists explained, the legislation is carefully crafted to protect people from displacement–and to add whatever housing it can by adding a few more stories, rather than Manhattan-size towers. Still, “You’re going to hear a lot of tense conversations,” said Clark. “We need representatives of the community pushing Home-SF across the finish line,” she added.

David added the key to bringing around more support is to talk with the opponents about people, not wonky policies. “Tell them that project will house firefighters, teachers, and EMTs…ask who is against teachers living near you?” he said, adding that the only way to address housing is to stop putting forth extreme solutions. “There’s so much to tackle in the housing conversation. I want to talk about the value of incrementalism.”

The panelists asked audience members–and, indirectly, Streetsblog readers–to support the Home-SF legislation as it winds its way through committee. Tang urged people to speak at, or at least write in to, the next Land Use and Transportation Committee on Monday, March 13 at City Hall.

People stood in the back at SPUR packed presentation last night. Photo: Streetsblog
People stood in the back at SPUR’s packed presentation last night. Photo: Streetsblog

For more events like these, visit SPUR’s events page.

  • elizabeth frantes

    We are out of water. using contaminated groundwater is an even worse idea than Flint. The aquifer is sealed off, has been percolating with some nasty chemicals for decades, and pumping out the aquifer means that it will soon become saline, since the ocean is rising. SAN FRANCISCO REACHED THE LIMITS OF GROWTH A LONG TIME AGO. This is the result of the insane “Manhattenization Project” that destroyed the very soul of The City. Our infrastructure is falling apart, we can’t get our act together, and face reality. Those in charge MADE this city “family unfriendly” with the developers running things. Destroying affordable housing and replacing it with overpriced condos helped ruin what was a great city. You can’t build affordable anything anymore! Subsidizing a few “families” is not going to help, either. Our emergency services are circling the drain, we can’t handle even minor emergencies anymore. Perhaps it’s time to stop lying; “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron. The most inconvenient truth of all is that HUMAN OVERPOPULATION is causing all of the problems, and perhaps it’s time to stop the pronatalist propaganda. If families can’t afford it here, well, so what. SF was NEVER “family friendly” and jamming in more and more crapbox condos is not going to make things better. ANyone who would want to raise a family here should try and face reality, and realize that this is just about the worst place, and time, to do so.

  • bobfuss

    Translation: You’ve got yours and now you want to stop others getting theirs.

    AKA Nimbyism.

  • elizabeth frantes

    Nope. I don’t got mine, dearie. I’m one of those folks they just can’t get rid of. When I moved here, decades ago, there was affordable housing. There were jobs in all sorts of categories. We had true diversity, now, we don’t. I didn’t ask for the rents to skyrocket, I didn’t ask for the jobs to be sent overseas. Fact is, dearie, the City I loved was destroyed by auslanders profiting from the economic cleansing that kicked out the artists, musicians, and all of those folks who made this city cool. These carpetbaggers who displaced those of us who were already here aren’t even cool enough to be posers. Gonna break a leg jumping to conclusions, Bobby. I don’t much care for those who move here and then demand things change to suit their taste. i remember cashing my paychecks at Bouncer’s. When all of the condos got filled up with the displacers, they got the place shut down because the bands made too much noise. Well, Bouncer’s was there first. I just wish Herb Caen could come back! He’d be truly PO’d at how the City was destroyed. Some times, you gotta WAIT YOUR TURN. Adding more and more cheap ugly hirise death traps doesn’t improve the City.

  • bobfuss

    Sorry but you still sound like a NIMBY to me. Reading between your lines I’m guessing that you snagged a rent controlled deal that you have clung onto with white knuckles, therefore never paying the true cost of your housing.

    And one minute you praise “diversity” but then you whine about “auslanders” whom you admit to “not liking”. I guess you want the city to be “diverse” as long as it excludes people whom you personally don’t like.

    It’s natural to lament the passing of one’s youth and express nostalgia for a time long gone. But when that extends itself into seeking to impose a political ideology on others for no reason other than the fact that the city has progressed and you haven’t moved with it, and lack the job skills to compete, then expect some pushback, here and elsewhere.

  • Haighter

    Hi Elizabeth, you are right that we, as a planet, have increased our population incredibly. Locally, in the SF Bay Area, our population has increased by 1.5 million people in the past 25 years (including me!). The question becomes, where have all these people settled down? So far, because of the way our policies have been designed, many people crowd into apartments in SF – one of the people in the audience at that panel commented that he’s living in a 3-br house with 8 people – and also the populations of other suburbs on the Peninsula and in the East Bay have grown significantly.

    When you have more people living in less dense cities, and commuting to the big cities to work, you have the following problems: they use more water (this seems to be a concern of yours), they use more energy and drive cars more (this is a huge concern of mine, because of carbon emissions), and they also spend more of their lives commuting, which I think makes everybody’s life worse. I think it’s better for more people to be living in a big city like SF than to be living in suburbs.

    Given that many people exist already, including all of our school teachers, policemen, hospital technicians, and me, and we all need somewhere to live, the choice is really building more in a city like SF, or crowding in the city and also building more in suburbs. I vote for building in the cities.

    If you are concerned about overpopulation in the world, I can recommend a
    book to you. It’s called “Countdown” by Alan Weisman. I read it a few
    years ago, it’s fascinating to see the effects of overpopulation in many
    countries. Actually some of the most interesting chapters were what some countries with shrinking populations are doing (Japan is the example I remember). Here’s a book review I found: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/sep/20/entertainment/la-ca-jc-alan-weisman-countdown-20130922

  • Wendall M

    Awesome response and great contribution to this dialogue. Additional shout out for finding common ground and showing (not telling!) how both of your goals can be accomplished. Thanks for this reply to @elizabeth_frantes:disqus

  • Haighter

    Thanks Wendall!

  • elizabeth frantes

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to get people to have fewer children? Don’t you remember those experiments with too many rats in a cage? maybe we should stop paying people to have children, and reward them for NOT adding to overpopulation. Makes less sense than paying farmers not to grow crops in a famine. having children is a choice, not an obligation.

  • Haighter

    The legislation that Supervisor Tang is proposing is mainly focusing on creating more 2-bedroom apartments, and subsidizing them so that people like teachers can afford them. Imagine 2 working parents living in one bedroom, and the kid or kids having the other (even this program is not going to create many enormous apartments for people with more than 2 kids).

    Most of the new apartment buildings have predominantly had studios and 1-bedroom apartments. And when there are 2-bedroom apartments, a family of 2 workers is often competing against a group of 3 or 4 workers who will happily couple-up into the 2 bedrooms. In my previous comment I mentioned someone at the panel who said he was living in a 3-bedroom house with 8 people, and my guess is that was 8 workers. This competition is why it’s been so hard for families to stay in SF. I want SF to be a city that is welcoming to all people, including those with children. We aren’t welcoming if there’s nowhere people can afford.

    (Interestingly, living in cities actually makes people have less children – so if you want to reduce overpopulation, then you should want to make cities as welcoming for families as possible).

  • elizabeth frantes

    Um, CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION. You have it backwards. People who don’t want children are more likely to wnt to live in cities. If I wanted kids, SF is the last place I would live. OK< SoCal is the last place I'd live, but that goes without saying, sorta like saying I wouldn't want to live in hell. The best way to reduce population is by ending all the subsidies. Why should people be forced to subsidize someone's CHOICE to breed? This ain't the Great Society, LBJ and a trade surplus has been over for decades. Until SF can fix its infrastucture, stop overdeveloping. Just like if you can't feed 'em don't breed 'em. Sorry, but if someone wants a low paying career and a family, well, it can be done, but you have to make your choices in life and pay for them, don't expect others to pay for yours. Why should certain job categories get subsidies and not others? We need security guards, food worker, etc too, they won't get in on this scam. But you miss the point. Before Manhattenization, we did have "family housing" in the Richmond and Sunset, Excelsior, etc. In fact many cities are finding out that "families" cost too much in social services and are discouraging them. Deal with reality. We are out of water. We have a city on landfill at sea level, which is rising. Who will pay for the new water treatment plant and an entirely new sewage system we will need? Note how the current admin gets the developer's money and leaves the costs, like improving the mass transit system,for the next crop, and they get money from developers . . . it's a death spiral, and analogous to how a cancer destroys the host organism, or how a meth head always needs more, once the crash hits. Balance is what matters.

  • there are two sides to explore here.
    first of all, cities evolve and many go through natural cycles of growth and decline. second, SF isn’t the only city that’s experienced change. however, what makes it stand out is that one specific element seems to have come in and displaced the status quo by attracting a lot of young workers with a lot of disposable income. you also have foreign investment in real estate, namely from asia, where foreigners come in and buy up property with cash. the real problem over the past 20-30 years of this rapid change is that the city has refused to properly handle these changes at the infrastructure level. more market rate towers and NIMBY attitudes only exasperates the problem.
    then you have the greater economic changes that the entire country has dealt with that includes shutting down blue collar industries for cheaper offshore facilities. sf has seen this decline over the years too. but, rather than turn into a rust belt city, it has the good fortune of having a strong white collar job presence which is only growing. the flip side is that these high paying jobs, coupled with limited housing, are jacking up the cost of living. it’s good fortune to those who can afford to live here, but the imbalance needs to be corrected. otherwise, sf will be home to only the affluent and destitute.

  • goodmaab

    We have enough 1-2 bedrooms going up, we need units for “families” meaning 3-4-5 bedroom units, which requires larger and improved amenities like transit, schools, pools, libraries, for the population growth, its a domino effect that you cannot ignore by just pumping in more housing…

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