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West SoMa Plan May Direct Funds to Affordable Housing at Transit’s Expense

5:23 PM PST on February 28, 2013

A provision in the new zoning plan for the western South of Market District has come under scrutiny by city supervisors because it would direct a larger share of developer fees for some projects to go towards affordable housing at the expense of transit and street improvements.

When the West SoMa Area Plan went up for approval by the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee on Monday, it originally called for one-third of some developer impact fees that normally go toward transit, streets, and open space to instead be spent on affordable housing. An amendment from Supervisor Scott Wiener has tentatively scuttled that provision by setting the revenue levels closer to those in the larger Eastern Neighborhoods Zoning Plan. The plan is set to return to the committee for approval on Monday, where Wiener's amendment could still be rescinded. After committee, it must be approved by the full Board of Supervisors.

Wiener said that while he's a strong proponent of raising subsidies for affordable housing, an increase in population will come with an added strain on the transportation system at a time when transit is already woefully starved of funding. "To me it's very counterintuitive, and I don't think it's good policy, to reduce transit impact fees when we're increasing population," he said. "Whether it's transit, or it's pedestrian safety upgrades, our capital needs are so dramatic."

Jane Kim, supervisor of District 6, which includes West SoMa, said she sees the need to increase transit funding, but stood by the original provision because it was agreed upon by a majority of residents who participated in the plan's development. She sees it as "a net gain for the city."

"I have to represent the community that I serve, and affordable housing is just the top priority for that neighborhood currently," said Kim. She also argued that the provision's impact on transit funding could be minimal, since it would only apply to developments larger than half an acre where developers opt to add extra height to their buildings. Only 13 sites, at the most, would be eligible. "Realistically, I'm not even sure if four or five parcels will consider this," she said.

Under the originally proposed plan, development fees were projected to generate $22 million for transit, open space, and streetscape improvements, according to Corey Teague of the Planning Department. By removing the provision to divert extra funds toward affordable housing, Wiener estimated that number could be increased by as much as $6 million.

The debate bears strong similarities to the discussion around Wiener's recent effort to extend Transit Impact Development Fees to large nonprofit developments. That proposal was shot down in December, after the Board of Supervisors caved to opposition fueled by misinformation spread by the Hospital Council of Northern California. Documents circulated to small nonprofits and affordable housing advocates led many to falsely believe that they would have to pay the fee under Wiener's proposal. The issue is expected to surface again before the Board of Supervisors by next year.

Fernando Martí of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, who wrote an op-ed in the Bay Guardian calling proponents of Wiener's TIDF measure "single-minded in their pursuit of funding," defended the decision made in the community planning process to make affordable housing revenue a higher priority than transit. "We've been here before, where we pit affordable housing against public transit, as though it were a zero-sum game," he said. "The way that people look at this is, how do we create stability, how do we fight gentrification, is to say we need to create more affordable housing out of that increased growth."

Wiener's amendment was approved with a 2-1 committee vote, with Supervisor David Chiu in support and Kim against. The committee plans to reconsider the West SoMa plan on Monday.

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