Mayor London Breed at State of the City

Mayor London Breed at her State of the City address.

Mayor London Breed may bring her affordable housing crusade to the ballot.

In a shot across the bow to her critics and entrenched NIMBY factions, Mayor London Breed announced a surprise proposal during her State of the City address last week: a charter amendment to guarantee as-of-right approval for 100% affordable housing, provided it meets local regulations.

Facing increasing pressure to tackle San Francisco’s housing shortage, and flanked by a Board of Supervisors that opposed her initial tenure as Acting Mayor, Breed appears poised to tackle the increasingly controversial issue of housing head-on. In this instance, she will need support from a majority of the Board, or a successful grassroots signature-gathering campaign, to see it through.

“If an affordable housing or teacher housing project is proposed within zoning, then build it. And build it now,” Breed declared. “No more bureaucracy. No more costly appeals. No more ‘not in my neighborhood.’ It’s simple: Affordable housing as-of-right because housing affordability is a right.”

If passed, such a charter amendment would dovetail with State Sen. Scott Wiener’s streamlining bill SB35, which streamlines projects that contain affordable housing units in proportion to a city’s failure to meet its state-mandated housing quotas by income level. Breed’s charter amendment would maintain this automatic approval even if San Francisco had theoretically met all of its housing goals.

2018 study by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation suggested that lengthy and complex permitting processes within local governments was “the most significant and pointless factor driving up construction costs”—including for nonprofit affordable housing.

“For us, the lion’s share of a project’s soft costs [i.e. costs beyond land, labor, and materials] is taken up by the conditional use process,” said Sam Moss, Executive Director of Mission Housing, a nonprofit developer that broke ground on its first affordable housing project in a decade just last year. “We had several project managers attending weekly community meetings for nearly a year before submitting designs for a recent affordable housing development,” Moss explained, “and that’s really just to ask neighbors if they’re okay with affordable housing nearby. If we’re serious about affordable housing, we need to cut out the red tape and take it as a given that every neighborhood desperately needs this.”

Randy Shaw, Executive Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC), said the charter amendment could put the Board of Supervisors’ progressive bona fides to the test. “Considering every Supervisor says they support affordable housing, the vote to place this on the ballot should be 11-0,” Shaw said. “But some San Francisco politicians put the interests of homeowners owning $1 million plus homes ahead of affordable housing, so whether the new ‘progressive’ Board walks the talk on the charter amendment is uncertain.”

Added Shaw: “If the Board does not provide six votes, signatures would have to be gathered for the March 2020 ballot.”

If Breed took that path, it wouldn’t be the first signature-gathering effort for a ballot measure to streamline affordable housing. Laura Foote, Director of the housing development advocacy group YIMBY Action, noted that her organization had unsuccessfully worked to gather signatures for such an initiative just last year. Foote saw Breed’s proposal as a vindication of sorts for YIMBY Action’s support during the mayoral election. 

“YIMBY Action has been working for a truly by-right approvals process for Affordable Housing for years now,” Foote explained. “Our process has a million ways housing can be thwarted, and NIMBYs take advantage of every single one. This is the opportunity to prove that we mean it when we say we want Affordable Housing in every neighborhood. We need to decide as a city that zoning-compliant Affordable and Teacher Housing is always important and always should be approved.”

As much as nonprofit developers like Moss yearn to be free of the requirement for Conditional Use Permits (CUPs), Breed’s demand is easier said than done. In the political bizarro world that is San Francisco, streamlining approval for affordable housing has been a controversial issue over the past several years.

In 2015, when then-Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced a proposal to streamline approvals for 100% affordable housing, members of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods (CSFN) testified angrily against the proposal at a December meeting of the Planning Commission.

One member described it as a “direct frontal assault on the neighborhoods,” adding that “the Planning Commission needs to hear all of these 100% affordable projects because the locations of these sites are not fixed, they could be anywhere, they could be in a residential area.”

At the same December 2015 hearing, Fernando Martí, Director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations (CCHO), spoke ambivalently about the proposal, describing the conditional use permitting process as “about providing public input and leverage to make better projects.” Martí added: “In my memory there have been two projects that were appealed via the [conditional use] process. They were very difficult projects and we came to testify in support of them.”

But Patricia Scott, Executive Director of the Booker T. Washington Community Center, was on the front lines of getting one of those two projects approved, and her perspective was strikingly different: “Anything that would shorten this process would be helpful,” Scott testified. “We were in court for nearly five years, we spent nearly $500,000 on attorney’s fees…to build 50 units, half for kids who age out of foster care, half for people making 55% of [Area Median Income] and below.”

In response to Mayor Breed’s proposal, Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee told the San Francisco Examiner that his constituents still preferred to have input over affordable housing projects in the District. The last time neighbors in District 7 weighed in on affordable housing, at a church in the Forest Hill neighborhood, relentless opposition and the threat of multiple lawsuits halted it completely.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose history of shepherding affordable housing into his district is less than stellar, was also dismissive of the proposal.

Nevertheless, Mayor Breed may find support in unlikely places. Supervisor Gordon Mar, who handily defeated Breed’s preferred candidates in the District 4 election last November, recently announced that he would pursue legislation to streamline the construction of in-law units, mirroring Breed’s own efforts last year. Mar told the Examiner after the Mayor’s address that the proposal sounded like “a good idea.”

What makes a great bike lane? How do activists push to get one built? And what happens to ridership after you build it? Join us to tackle all these questions with People Protected Bike Lanes co-founder Matt Brezina at our upcoming Beacon event - People Protected Bike Lanes: A Mobility Movement.

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