In San Francisco, anyone can file an appeal to stop construction of affordable housing for any reason. A handful of San Francisco residents, more concerned with preserving their views or their parking availability, have abused this process to delay construction of much-needed housing.
Mayor London Breed is now seeking to streamline the approval process by ending the ability to file an appeal after project has been approved by city agencies. She needs six of the 11 supervisors to sign on to this ballot measure. So far, she has only three. I implore the rest of the supervisors to support this measure, or answer this question: Why should one person be able to weaponize disdain and force hundreds of low-income families to wait longer for secure, safe, and affordable housing?
In the current system, when an appeal is filed, it cannot be resolved until the responsible public body makes a decision. Reviewing an appeal can take months, sapping time and energy from the non-profit housing developer, city staff, and city decision makers. While the nonprofit waits for a resolution, construction costs rise and grant deadlines tick closer. Even the possibility of filing an appeal can increase the costs so much that the nonprofit developer has to walk away.
The ability to build affordable housing faster and more efficiently sounds like a no-brainer. But some supervisors question the importance of streamlining the affordable housing approval process.
Here are three recent examples of how a single disgruntled person was able to delay affordable housing projects in San Francisco.
2060 Folsom Street (Mission)
On September 9, 2015, non-profit developers Chinatown Community Development Corporation (CCDC) and Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) won a bid to build 127 affordable housing units at 2060-2070 Folsom Street. After many iterations of community feedback and design, the project was approved in July 2016. But 7 months later, on February 7, 2017, Margaret Eve-Lynne Miyasaki, who lived across the street at 2023 Folsom, put the project on hold by filing a discretionary review appeal. Miyasaki alleged that the affordable housing would cause problems with sewage and flooding; that the project was too high; that there was not enough parking; that the homes would bring in crime.
The Planning Commission rejected the appeal on March 23, 2017 in a 6-0 decision. They determined that the claims were false, or did not overrule the need for more affordable housing. The project would reduce flooding. Low-income people do not bring crime. The height, density and parking meets all objective standards for the site and were jointly written by the city. The appeal delayed the project by 43 days.
On January 30, 2019, 1,239 days after the bid was won, the developers began construction.
1296 Shotwell Street (Mission)
In 2013, the city acquired land at 1296 Shotwell Street for affordable housing. MEDA and CCDC won the bid in November 2015. The developer went to multiple community meetings and emerged with a proposal to build 94 homes for low-income seniors. However, a vocal minority opposed these homes. One neighbor called the project selfish for taking away the views of downtown from their house. Craig Weber of the Inner Mission Neighborhood Association appealed the environmental impact findings on December 30, 2016. The complaint alleged that the project would exacerbate demand for parking, that the project was too tall, and the project would bring in crime from low-income people.
The Board of Supervisors heard the case on February 14, 2017, and all eleven supervisors unanimously rejected the appeal. Said Supervisor Hillary Ronen: “I really, really found it offensive to equate affordable housing projects, and just equating people who are poor and low-income, with vagrancy, blight, vandalism and crime.” The appeal delayed the project for 46 days. The project began construction on June 30, 2018, 5 years after the city began the process to build affordable housing on the land.
88 Broadway (North Beach)
The city proposed to turn a parking lot on 88 Broadway into housing and held the first community meeting in July 2015. After 24 public meetings with the community, developers Bridge Housing and the John Stewart Company proposed to build 178 affordable homes for seniors, families and formerly homeless people. On November 27, 2017, Marc Bruno, of the St. Vincent de Paul Conference at Saints Peter and Paul Church, filed an appeal, arguing that the loss of the parking lot would increase automobile travel and increase congestion. But the Planning Department had already analyzed traffic impacts in their environmental report and concluded that there would not be a significant traffic impact. On March 8, 2018, the Planning Commission denied the appeal unanimously in a 7-0 decision. Planning Commissioner Rich Hillis commented, “It’s unfortunate that we’re here on an appeal by one person. I think it’s kind of bogus.”
The appeal took 101 days to resolve. Construction is scheduled to begin on July 9, 2019, four years (1,447 days) after the first community meeting.
Is it worth it?
The appeals process opens up our public governance to a few ill-meaning people who equate homes for poor families with crime, traffic, and sewage. To the appellants, parking and skyline views are more important than shelter for fellow San Franciscans. Why should we allow this practice to stand? This process needs to be reformed.
I thank Supervisors Vallie Brown, Catherine Stefani, and Ahsha Safai for supporting the effort to streamline affordable housing. To the others, I ask: what are you waiting for?
When 1296 Shotwell Street was appealed, Supervisor Hillary Ronen castigated the appellant for falsely claiming that low-income people bring crime. Why can one person lie to delay housing? Supervisor Rafael Mandelman campaigned on “stretching our finite affordable housing dollars as far as possible”. I ask them both: why have you not signed on? We need your leadership on affordable housing.
Other supervisors have quibbled with the proposed measure. Supervisor Matt Haney says that appeals are seldom used, and the delays are small. But every delay adds up. Why shouldn’t we look to speed up housing where we can? Supervisor Aaron Peskin thinks that streamlining appeals is “a solution looking for a problem”. Does he think it’s acceptable for 178 families to wait 101 more days for stable and affordable housing at 88 Broadway because one person complained about traffic?
Appeals impose a cost on the city. By forcing public bodies to contest projects that have community support, we waste the time of our commissioners and elected officials. Because non-profit developers have to budget for the cost of delays, appeals cost the city millions of dollars every year in increased costs, and San Francisco builds less affordable homes with public money. Because affordable housing is delayed, families have to wait longer to get housing security.
If San Francisco is serious about affordable housing, the awful appeals process must go. Contact your supervisor today and ask them to reform the spurious, noxious, and unproductive appeal process for affordable housing.