SF Planning Commission


Commissioners Kathrin Moore and Dennis Richards are on track to be reappointed for another four-year term on the San Francisco Planning Commission. But the Commission doesn’t represent the majority of the City’s economic precarity.

Newly-elected Mayor London Breed recently told the San Francisco Chronicle that her first year’s goals included slashing the red tape “suffocating the city’s ability to create more housing.” By approving or denying their reappointment, Breed and the Board of Supervisors have the opportunity to streamline bureaucracy and lower the cost of homes in a city with the highest rents in the nation. Since San Francisco has added exponentially more jobs than homes over the past few years, this is the most urgent priority for civic leaders.

San Francisco’s byzantine planning process has all but eliminated new middle-income housing. It’s too expensive to build it. While luxury housing does still get built, a shortage of homes at all levels of affordability pushes less-advantaged residents to the periphery or to other cities altogether while limited housing stock goes to the highest bidder.

The Planning Commission can choose to streamline or delay new home building. As such, it’s essential that its membership represent the majority of San Franciscans who rent, and not just landowners who are not only far more secure in their living situation, but indirectly benefit from the housing crisis through skyrocketing property values. 

Why does the Planning Commission matter?

San Francisco has the world’s second-highest residential construction costs. Early this year, the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation published a study confirming that the main reason is all the hoops builders must jump through before City Hall permits them to construct, or even modify, a home.

If we are at all serious about lowering housing costs in this city and making it a welcoming place for anyone but the uber-rich, streamlining the process for building less-expensive homes is essential.

Renters need strong tenant protections and a greater supply of housing, which has been shown to reduce rents where it’s built. But they also need that supply to be less expensive to build. 

The San Francisco Planning Commission decides when and whether homeowners can use the discretionary review (DR) process to delay benign home renovations like adding new bedrooms and block new multi-family housing.

The Planning Commission has vast authority over almost anything people do on their property. Not only can the Planning Commission reject spurious DRs, they can approve or block Conditional Use Permits (CUPs) for anything from conversions of apartment buildings into condos to renovations, not just new homes. They approve public space proposals. They certify that projects’ environmental impact reports (EIR) are accurate and complete. They decide where to approve new Navigation Centers for people without homes.

One standard criticism of policies aimed at increasing housing supply is that new supply is too expensive for current residents to afford. But this is not inevitable. One huge reason why developers only build luxury high-rises in San Francisco is that bureaucratic red tape (like the DR process) raises the rents necessary for new homes to turn a profit. In cities where homes are cheaper to build, rents are lower.

Discretionary review was only waived for 100% Below Market Rate projects very recently, after years of political squabbling. But the overall process can still add delays which critics say will still affect how quickly subsidized housing is approved.

Who’s on the Planning Commission?

Simply put: none of the people who decide what gets built where actually live where it’s legal to build multi-family homes. 

Building apartments is illegal in around 73% of San Francisco. Meaning all the new construction is funneled into a few areas. Here’s where the 60,000 units in the pipeline currently are going to go:

Projected Pipeline of Units

Notice a pattern?

According to the San Francisco Housing Needs & Trends report, “Five neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city hold 60% of all of the city’s affordable units, including Tenderloin (18%), South of Market (12%), Western Addition (11%), Bayview Hunters Point (11%), and Mission (8%).” Not a single Planning Commissioner lives in any of those neighborhoods.

“One could be forgiven for thinking the commissioners viewed the Eastern neighborhoods as a containment zone for low-income housing and apartments,” Mission YIMBY organizer Steven Buss wrote recently. 

And when it comes to what gets built and where, the interests of homeowners and renters aren’t always aligned.

All but two Planning Commissioners own at least one home worth over a million dollars. There are more Planning Commissioners with second homes (two) than renters. Meanwhile, two-thirds of San Francisco residents rent.

Renters tend to be younger, less white, lower-income, and have less household wealth than homeowners. All of this puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to democratic participation and representation. The DR process entrenches systemic power imbalances because it’s much easier to file a DR to block new homes than it is to fight one to build them.

Neighborhood coalitions can file DR applications for free, and often do. Many of them oppose new multi-family homes and support more bureaucracy in the permitting process. And some of these coalitions turned up to support Richards and Moore at the July 25th meeting of the BOS Rules Committee. These include the “anti-development” Van Ness Corridor Neighborhood Coalition, which opposed replacing the 11”x17” notices developers must mail to neighbors with postcards in late Mayor Lee’s Process Improvements Ordinance. Other groups supporting reappointment included the Victorian Alliance and the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods.

Support from these groups is strong evidence that Richards and Moore will not be reliable advocates for building enough new homes quickly enough to make a dent in the housing crisis.

In order for representative democracy to work, it has to be representative. The San Francisco Planning Commission is anything but. If Breed wants to get more homes built and reduce red tape the right move is to replace wealthy white homeowners with low-income renters from gentrifying neighborhoods.

Cathy Reisenwitz writes about software for a living, sex on the side, and policy for fun. Her column “Unintended Consequences” appears regularly in the Bay City Beacon. She’s pro-sex, pro-feminism, and pro-market. Sign up for her newsletter and follow her on Twitter.

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