Affordable Housing Construction


City planners worked to reform the rules that were slowing down sorely-needed affordable housing. After much debate, some worry that existing regulations for home additions may still slow down affordable apartments.

Shortly before his death, Mayor Ed Lee issued an executive order for the City’s departments to streamline the approval and construction of 5,000 homes per year. The order came amid baffling reports showing that the City’s housing production pipeline had stagnated, despite varied efforts to ease a catastrophic housing shortage—and, more importantly, approved projects were sitting in limbo, without shovels in the ground.

The problem seemed simple enough: there was too much for the Planning Department to do in order for new housing to be approved, and not enough staff to do it. The proposed solution includes a white whale for affordable housing providers: eliminating public hearings for qualifying projects, instead moving permitting to an over-the-counter administrative process.

To enable this, the Mayor’s Office worked with the Planning Department to develop a Process Improvements Ordinance, which was passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors last month. While the ordinance offers some respite for nonprofit affordable housing developers navigating the bureaucracy, some are critical of last-minute amendments that would maintain the status quo of red tape for single-family home additions, costing precious planning staff time.

A representative from the Planning Department testifying before the Planning Commission explained that the backlog of neighborhood notice requirements could impact larger projects, even those at higher priority with affordable housing.

The Planning Department noted that there were over 30 possible combinations of noticing requirements. “This invites opportunities for error that can delay a project by months, even a minor error,” the spokesperson said. Additionally, while mailed notices could total over 3 tons of paper per year, only property owners received notice—not renters—and only in English at that.

While the mailed notices would not be eliminated, they would be reduced to a postcard size, with full-page notices and newspaper notices replaced with online listings. These notices would be provided in multiple languages, and were initially proposed to be mailed out for  20 days prior to a public hearing date, rather than the original 30 days.

However, the original proposal would have eliminated notification requirements for single-bedroom additions to existing single-family homes, commonly known as “pop-outs,” which are permitted by the planning code. Planning Department representatives testified that the notice requirements for an estimated 250 applications per year for these additions required two full-time staffers.

While the proposal initially called for streamlining these small home additions in a similar fashion to larger nonprofit projects, it was not fated to be.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin of District 3 (Telegraph Hill, Chinatown, North Beach) introduced amendments that maintained existing notification requirements for pop-out additions, alleging that the Planning Department’s outreach over the proposal had been inadequate.

“We need to restore trust in the planning process,” Peskin said.

While the Board ultimately compromised by only streamlining 100% affordable housing projects, and maintaining existing requirements for pop-outs, Supervisor Norman Yee of District 7 (West of Twin Peaks) voiced some reservation to the idea of approving affordable housing more quickly.

“When there’s more input from community [members]…the projects end up being better than they started out,” Yee said. “Just because it’s affordable doesn’t mean we want ugly, inefficient buildings.”

In Yee’s district, input from the community forestalled a 100% affordable development of 150 units for low-income seniors at Forest Hill, with complaints of drug use and crime increasing in the wealthy, once famously-segregated neighborhood. The need for seismic retrofits, coupled with the threat of litigation and neighborhood demands for historic preservation, presented mounting costs for the site, and the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development ultimately withdrew the proposal.

“I don’t think our job is done,” Supervisor Peskin later said when his amendments were accepted unanimously by the Board. “The hurry to do this before Mayor Farrell left office did not create the space to have the kind of conversation with neighbors and neighborhoods that this deserved. I am open to have that conversation. I think that if we do it right…that when we bring people along and show them that we’re actually making improvements, it socializes it.”

Peskin asserted that the key priority of streamlining 100% affordable housing should be passed, while neighborhood notification requirements merited more scrutiny.

“Initially, I was a bit sad to see this legislation rolled back,” Supervisor Katy Tang replied. However, she added that she was eager to have consensus on incremental reform, concluding: “Overall, it’s better than what we have right now.”

But Sam Moss, Executive Director of affordable housing developer Mission Housing, argued that the amendments did more to hamstring nonprofit housing than Peskin’s amendments implied.

"While I'm excited that the Board of Supervisors have made it possible to further streamline affordable housing developments, I am disappointed that some would prioritize the demands of housing-secure constituents over the most vulnerable and disenfranchised residents in the city,” Moss said in an interview. “The ordinance is only as beneficial as the amount of department staff available to work on moving affordable housing through the pipeline. If a significant number of city staff are still doing work for neighbors busybodies who want control over what someone else literally does in their own backyard, then we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. While this may have been the status quo for the previous generation, we urgently need more affordable housing, and real solutions to get it built.”

The status quo Moss describes is documented as far back as the late 1980s. Journalist Warren Hinckle observed in his 1993 book The Agnos Years that the Planning Department under Mayor Art Agnos subjected homeowners to a herculean maze of costly fees and delays, discouraging even minor renovations.

“Permit delays of more than a year were not uncommon under the Agnos Planning Department for home improvements as simple as enlarging a kitchen and building a deck,” Hinckle wrote. “Should an individual be so brash as to attempt to build a new house in San Francisco he or she had best be prepared to wait years—and spend thousands of dollars in architects’ and attorneys’ fees—before getting permission to proceed. One single family home eventually built in a historic neighborhood on Van Ness Avenue required more than 20 public hearings held over four years before getting a permit. Stories abound of nightmare delays and frustrating silences from planning.”

But since Agnos’ time, San Francisco and the State of California have enacted vast regulatory reforms in permitting the construction of backyard units, affordable housing, and even apartments in Mission Bay—a major stumbling block at the time for the embattled Mayor Agnos. Without freeing up staff time to focus on big projects, however, nonprofit developers like Moss fear that affordable housing will still move through city bureaucracies at a snail’s pace.

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