Mayor London Breed Mission Navigation Center

Mayor London Breed at the opening of the Mission Navigation Center

The Board of Supervisors has passed legislation meant to expedite shelter construction. But the city faces NIMBY backlash at the prospect of shelter expansion.

Two ordinances passed by the Board of Supervisors in March provide Mayor London Breed with new firepower in her push to add 1,000 new beds to the city’s shelter capacity by 2020. The ordinances could shorten the time it takes to open new shelters by as much as nine months by streamlining the building process and cutting excess red tape. While the ordinances are being hailed as a victory by many who want to see the city step up its efforts to combat homelessness, several projects to open new centers have faced strong pushback from residents who are opposed to shelters being built in their neighborhoods.

The first ordinance is the most sweeping: it would allow the Departments of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) to create a pool of vetted contractors from which the city could pull for future projects to expand current shelters or build new ones, rather than the current case-by-case style that the city uses, which can often take as long as six months.

Under the ordinance, HSH and the Department of Public Works (DPW) must submit reports on those added to the pool of pre-approved contractors. The ordinance would expire either when the city achieves a 30% reduction in homelessness, or after five years.

The second ordinance would invoke provisions of AB 932, a state bill authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) to encourage the creation of more homeless facilities by streamlining the building approvals process. The ordinance waives building permits for shelters, and replaces the permit process with a set of inspections and approvals by relevant departments such as Fire, Building Inspection, and DPW, who would then sign off on the project. This ordinance would stay in place until January of 2021.

With more than two-thirds of its homeless population living without options for shelter, the Bay Area houses a smaller percentage of its homeless population than any metropolitan area in the nation except Los Angeles, according to a recent study by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute. San Francisco’s waitlist for a bed in a shelter sits at over 1,200 names, each representing an individual who, without access to shelter, will face exposure to harsh weather and the vulnerability of living on the street.

“While voters and public officials are frustrated by the lack of places for the homeless to go, many vocally oppose locating homeless shelters in their own neighborhoods,” the report stated. “The permitting and approval of affordable housing, permanent supportive housing, and emergency shelters are subject to costly and time-consuming local government processes.”

In part, the report recommends simplifying the permitting process for affordable and supportive housing, as well as coordinating regional and state funding rather than continuing to fund services at a local level while the problem continues to worsen.

Since October, Mayor Breed has successfully added over 200 beds to the city’s existing shelters, but the current capacity of 2,500 beds is far short of what is needed to assist the city’s homeless population, which is estimated to be between 7,300-7,500 individuals. “Homelessness is a crisis in our city and we cannot continue to move at our normal pace,” Mayor Breed said in a press release. “We need to cut the bureaucracy that delays new shelter from being created in order to get our unhoused residents the care and services they need to help them exit homelessness.”

The new ordinances are significant not only for the scope of their ambition, but in that they represent a paradigm shift in the city’s priorities when it comes to fighting homelessness. Previous efforts to build centers to address the needs of homeless individuals have been met with opposition from residents concerned that such facilities would change the “character” of their neighborhoods.

The message has been clear: We agree that we need to fight homelessness, but we’d prefer if you would do it somewhere else. And the backlash has been less than gentle in tenor.

But by lifting “planning code barriers to opening shelters in certain zoning districts that currently have limitations or restrictions,” per a press release from the Mayor’s office, the city is undergoing a shift in favor of making sure that the burden of hosting new shelters can be shared more equitably between neighborhoods, instead of being concentrated in a select few, such as the Mission District and South of Market. New legislation before the Board of Supervisors would go even further to rectify the imbalance: a proposal by District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney would require each district that currently has no shelters to build one in their district within the next 30 months.

Even so, some of the city’s efforts to build new shelters could be an uphill battle. At a bitter meeting concerning a potential 200 bed shelter near the Embarcadero, Mayor Breed was shouted down by angry residents, and a NIMBY GoFundMe page titled “Safe Embarcadero for All” has raised over $98,000 to fight the project. While a number of residents are strongly opposed, there are passionate voices in favor of the shelters as well. A rival GoFundMe SAFER Embarcadero for ALL has raised $175,000 in support of the shelter.

Many residents of neighborhoods that have opened homeless centers have been pleased with the outcomes. The Dogpatch Neighborhood Association recently sent a letter to HSH voicing their support for a three year extension of their center’s lease, stating: “Since opening, the Central Waterfront Navigation Center has been a good neighbor, well-maintained and an invaluable resource in addressing the encampments in the neighborhood.”

Bruce Huie, President of the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association, noted that many, himself included, initially harbored reservations about a shelter being built in their neighborhood. But because of the positive outcomes, he said, skeptics like himself have been won over. “Several years ago we had massive encampments in our neighborhood,” said Huie. “Today, they’re not there anymore. There are still some people who live on the street, but things have gotten much better.”

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