Balboa Reservoir panorama.png

Balboa Reservoir

Last Monday night the Balboa Reservoir Community Advisory Committee held a hearing at City Hall to get a citywide perspective on a 50% permanently affordable housing project slated for a vacant lot near public transit and San Francisco City College.

The February 12 meeting was the 26th public hearing on the project, which has been slowly inching its way through San Francisco’s byzantine bureaucratic permitting process since 2014. Although the project could include 2,500 homes, the project is now 1,100 homes due to community opposition to building enough housing to meet demand (NIMBYism).

The meeting confirmed what a new study from the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation recently found: bureaucracy is the main reason San Francisco is the world’s second most expensive city to build a home in. “The most significant and pointless factor driving up construction costs was the length of time it takes for a project to get through the city permitting and development processes,” the authors noted.

San Francisco’s discretionary review process is the single largest contributing factor to high home building costs. Most of the country permits construction “by-right,” meaning if a project meets local zoning and code regulations the developer gets to build. San Francisco insists on an individualized approval process for each project.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the project’s fiscal feasibility report. The Balboa Reservoir developers had to hire a consultant to estimate whether building new homes will have a positive or negative impact on city tax revenues. Given that new residents will presumably pay taxes, they found project will bring $4 million to the general tax fund, $1 million to “other,” and $1.2 million to education funding. The project is estimated to cost the city $1.5 million for road maintenance, cops, and fire department. Next the report will go to the budget analyst for review, then to the Board of Supervisors

A spokesman from BRIDGE Housing, an affordable housing developer, testified that they are planning to include more townhomes than originally proposed in response to public comments saying that the area is a single-family home community.

A spokesman from Avalon Bay, the market-rate developer, discussed redesigning the project to take neighborhood character and scale into account. He said community activists requested a “stronger entryway” to ensure the project is “beautiful and compatible with the neighborhood.”

Parking was the biggest point of contention at the meeting.

Commissioner Jon Winston expressed concern over shared parking spots. “I want to be sure city college gets their parking and that parking for residents stays .5 to one.” One speaker claimed that without subsidized parking, City College’s existence is in jeopardy.

“I don’t think car shaming works,” said neighbor Monica Collins. “There are people who can’t afford to live here.” Collins went on to refer to insufficient parking as “ethnic cleansing.” Later Collins took the mic to clarify. “Nothing that I’ve said is my opinion. It’s the real deal.”

pasted image 0.png

Other speakers were less concerned about saving parking spaces. And some even preferred building homes for people over homes for cars. One speaker had the wild suggestion that the people who use a parking garage should pay for it. 

pasted image 0 (1).png

Others wanted to see the number of homes reduced even further.

“My name is Chris, and I’m concerned about the density of the project,” one opponent of affordable housing said.


Members and supporters of housing advocacy group YIMBY Action showed up en masse to support the project. 

pasted image 0 (2).png

The meeting raised as many questions for me as it answered.

How can a city not know whether new residents will be a net plus or minus tax-wise? If a fiscal feasibility report finds that building new homes will be a net cost to the city, does the city then amend the tax code or require the developer to make changes to the plan? If new residents will be a drain, isn’t the solution to amend the tax code, not force developers to shell out cash to consultants to tell you whether or not building new homes will cost the city money?

I’m also wondering whether it’s true that City College, which is free to attend, can’t maintain enrollment without subsidized parking. And if so, whether it would help to continue to subsidize.

The biggest shock for me was when city staff revealed that all 26 meetings over four years have happened before an Environmental Impact Report, design review, and local approval. All of those processes will change the project, meaning the fiscal feasibility report and whatever else we’ve been talking about over the previous 25 meetings won’t be accurate any longer. Why would you run these numbers before CEQA and community review? Those processes always change the proposal, which will mean the fiscal report is no longer accurate. Not only that, but staff estimates that these steps will take another two years to complete.

pasted image 0 (3).png

Potential timeline for Balboa Reservoir project.

The orange parts are points in time where the developers are required to offer the public an opportunity to appeal the project and delay the process.

As activist Bobak Esfandiari put it on Twitter, “WE DONT EVEN HAVE PERMISSION TO START THE REAL PROCESS YET FOLKS.”

Designating more projects by-right makes housing more affordable. The State Legislature should also pass SB 827, which will spur construction by zoning the areas around transit hubs for higher density.

Monica Collins may not understand what ethnic cleansing is, but she’s right to be worried about the fact that many people can’t afford to live in this city. Unfortunately our permitting process makes this all-but-inevitable.

Become a Beacon Supporting Member - join the community of those who care.

comments powered by Disqus