Hillary Ronen

District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen ran for office on a platform of fighting displacement of working and middle-class residents and building affordable housing. Among her campaign promises was to oversee the construction of 5000 affordable units over the next decade. So far it’s been slow going - and an object lesson in how much easier it is for San Francisco Supervisors to stop new housing than to build it. 

After more than a decade of struggle over development and gentrification, the Mission is still in desperate need of replacement affordable housing. When San Francisco’s Planning Department worked with community groups and other City agencies to create the Mission Action Plan 2020, a target number of between 1,700 and 2,400 replacement units of affordable housing was identified for the neighborhood - a goal which, at the time MAP2020 was finalized, would require up to $1.7 billion in order to build, over a timeline of up to 15 years.

In the meantime, displacement fears continue to dominate. Most recently, in an event crystallizing the situation, another 18 residents lost their homes, when the two-story single-family home on Treat Avenue they were living in - which had no smoke alarms -  caught fire. Meanwhile, controversy still rages over the development of market-rate housing in the neighborhood, including the biggest tarbaby project, a 331-unit development at 1979 Mission dubbed “The Monster in the Mission” by activists.

It’s into this fire that Hillary Ronen, the District’s current Supervisor, elected in November of 2016 and succeeding her former boss, David Campos, has flung herself. Her initial foray into the issue, a campaign promise to oversee the building of 5,000 affordable units over the following decade, almost seems like a doubling down on the goals identified in MAP2020.

Ronen also recently introduced legislation, co-sponsored by District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, to create yet another housing-related set-aside from the State-mandated Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund (ERAF). This would create a new program to acquire Small Sites housing citywide, but this time dedicated to persons cycling out of mental health treatment.

Meanwhile back in the Mission, some long-suffering projects are just now making their way out of the pipeline. Going on three years later, little progress seems to have been made toward Ronen’s original housing promises.

"It's a big disappointment," says Roberto Hernandez, longtime artistic director of San Francisco Carnaval and dubbed by many as the "Mayor of the Mission."

“That's what she campaigned on, 5000 affordable housing units, and she hasn't built one," says Hernandez. “We've lost over 10,000 people, 8000 of whom are Latino. We've lost 29 businesses. She assured us… At the end of the day it just seems like it's not her priority, it's clear she's put her energy and time on other things like running for Board President. She helped Mark Farrell become Interim Mayor, so I asked her to set up a meeting with him to discuss budgeting affordable housing. She never set it up. Finally I jammed her up about it and she said ‘Oh, he's a fucking asshole,’ and left it at that. Well, you voted for him, right?"

Feeling the pressure, Ronen convened a hearing of the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee last April. The hearing lasted a little over an hour, identifying multiple concerns and disappointingly few answers.

The Supervisor made it clear up front that her focus was on getting 100% affordable projects built, rather than relying on inclusionary housing, given recent directives from the past two Mayors, as well as State legislation designed to expedite construction of affordable units. 

"I want to be clear that if there is the will, there is a way… To treat (100% affordable) projects, not just those seven in the Mission but anywhere in the City, as it actually is, as life-and-death. We need all department heads to work together to push these projects forward as a number one development priority," declared Ronen during the hearing.

Representatives from City departments made their case, reiterating they were doing everything they could to put 100% affordable projects at the head of the line. Nonprofit developers stressed the need for the departments to talk more to each other, recognizing the special needs of 100% affordable projects, in order to expedite them.

"When you talk about breaking ground, you're talking about starting to build a true community hub, where the nonprofit housing developer is expected to answer for all the woes that all of our generations of government have put upon us… I believe the best way to streamline affordable housing is for everyone on your side, on the government side, to start talking to each other," said Sam Moss, Executive Director of Mission Housing Development Corporation.

But the most important lessons of the hearing may have been the ones which were ignored. A number of departments, notably the Mayor's Office of Housing, identified land and construction costs, and the hunt for funds to pay for those costs, as a major factor in project delays. That didn't seem to impress the Supervisor. 

Nevertheless, money is a big part of the equation, which is why inclusionary housing – affordable units incorporated into market-rate developments, or affordable projects partially funded by fees paid by market rate developments – has been an attractive alternative.

However, the overbearing message from Supervisor Ronen, both in and out of hearings, has been in favor of an exclusive focus on 100% affordable. It's a hard goal to fulfill when the cost to build 100% affordable starts to approach $1 million per unit.

According to sources both in and outside of City Hall that we spoke to on background, that's on the high end, depending upon what infrastructure improvements need to accompany a given project. But the current average – close to $750,000 per unit – is still an astonishingly high number. Those costs are met by funding from local, State and Federal sources, with San Francisco still kicking in close to a quarter of $1 million per unit.

And in a pernicious irony, the policy bias against market rate housing, as expressed by rhetoric like Supervisor Ronen’s, as well as Board legislation to increase inclusionary housing requirements to prohibitive levels, has led to a drought in local funds for affordable housing.

Meanwhile, Mayor Breed, along with Board of Supervisors Pres. Norman Yee and four other Supervisors, have drawn up plans for a $500 million affordable housing bond to be placed on this November's ballot. The bonds, in conjunction with State and Federal funds, will enable construction of 2000 affordable units citywide over the next four years.

This is in addition to legislative initiatives from the Mayor’s office to help reduce costs and streamline entitlement and production of the very 100% affordable projects Ronen claims to support, including a charter amendment to guarantee as-of-right approval for such projects. That legislation was introduced at the Board last month with the co-sponsorship of Supervisors Brown, Safai, and Stefani - but not Supervisor Ronen.

These new units will hopefully be built alongside those affordable projects in the Mission which are just now coming out of the housing pipeline. Five projects are under construction, including one at 1990 Folsom, which broke ground late last week. Most of these projects, such as 490 South Van Ness,  were proposed almost a decade ago.

One wonders how many new affordable units might've been built already – or for that matter, how many informally affordable units, such as rent-controlled apartments, could have been preserved – had Supervisor Ronen taken another direction with her housing promises.

Robert Tillman, who finally got his 75 unit project, combining both market rate and affordable, quietly approved after years of loud administrative drama with Ronen and her supporters, had some observations of his own:

"As a practical matter, Hillary Ronen opposes all market rate housing in the Mission. That means no inclusionary housing, so the only option is fully subsidized housing, which there hasn't been the money for. It's nonsensical. She's not stupid. It's just grandstanding."

Asked for comment, Supervisor Ronen’s office offered us the following:

“Last week, we celebrated the fifth affordable housing development to start construction in District 9 in less than 12 months, the result of a powerful partnership between my office and community advocates. We have two more projects in predevelopment, and they will break ground in the near future. We are actively looking for two more sites, using funds that we fought to dedicate to the Mission, and funds that former Supervisor Campos was able to secure directly from the state. I am not done fighting to ensure that District 9 remains competitive for new project funding, to keep the pressure on, and to call attention to the fact that District 9 has both the desperate need for and the open arms to embrace affordable housing, so we can keep an active pipeline of affordable housing to come.” 

“I am taking a close look at the Mayor's proposed Charter Amendment to remove discretionary review and other approval steps for teacher and affordable housing. In principle, I absolutely agree with speeding up the time it takes to finance and build affordable and educator housing; in fact, I passed legislation last year to ensure absolute first-in-line priority for 100% affordable developments, not only for zoning, but through the entire city approval process. I'll be doing a thorough review of the Mayor's measure before it comes before the Board of Supervisors with the goal of ensuring that we put something before the voters that is meaningful and high impact in achieving our common goals for keeping educators in the city and providing affordable housing for low- and moderate-income San Franciscans.”

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