Is the (Un)Affordable Housing Density Bonus Plan right for San Francisco?

What is the The Plan?:

The Density Bonus Plan (aka. HomeSF) is a citywide upzoning. This is unprecedented in the City’s history. It will allow builders to construct 2 additional stories (with an additional 5 feet allowed for ground floor retail) above height limits allowed by existing zoning laws. It will also allow for bulkier buildings taking up more of each land lot. It will allow for decreased parking allowances, fewer street-side loading areas, and less open and common spaces for tenants in new buildings.

The Plan initially targets small retail establishments, especially; gas stations, parking lots, financial services, open-space areas, empty lots, self-storage, motels, auto sales/rentals, car washes, mortuaries, adult businesses, massage establishments, cannabis dispensaries, and tobacco shops. Additionally, all tenants of commercial-only buildings will be at-risk for displacement. All neighborhoods will be at-risk for (even more) rampant gentrification.

There will be fewer controls on design of new buildings.

The Plan pays lip-service to providing “inclusionary housing”. What it doesn’t include is a plan to deal with greedy developers who violate or compromise agreements and, possibly, walk away with profits.

The Game:

Developers are currently required by law to build certain percentages of “affordable housing” in new construction. Instead of doing so, they may pay a fee (called an in-lieu) or offer to build off-site. The Plan allows Developers to double-dip. They will be able to build luxury condos, offer to build off-site, use the Plan to do so, and gain an additional two stories for more luxury condos and profit twice.

The Plan hinges on a calculation of area median incomes in our neighborhoods to determine what “affordable housing” means. Mixed-income housing is really for high net-worth (rich) people who demand services working-class and those with low and fixed incomes cannot afford. In addition to driving out lower income families, the Plan will increase area median incomes incrementally. Subsequent recalculations of the median income will fuel displacement and increase income disparity and, under the Plan, turn San Francisco into a de-urbanized Generia.

The Plan takes advantage of the current state of financing for increased long-term profits. Low interest and high foreign investment rates facilitate financing. Ordinary real estate calculations (location, location, location) will determine where construction above scale will occur first.

History: Public Process Subverted, Private interests served

The Tails on this legislation which tell the story of its origins and eventual passage are byzantine. The Public Relations story is one of “robust public process”. By and large the Plan was reviled and public officials who orchestrated the process were ridiculed as they soft-pedaled it around to the City’s many neighborhoods.

The Plan, authored by developer/investors was handed first to the Mayor then to the obedient appointee, Supervisor Katy Tang. Both the Mayor and the Supe were obligated (having previously received generous contributions to their campaigns) to pay back their donors who wrote the legislation.

The Planning Department and the Planning Commission, who primarily respond to the requests of developers, determined that the Plan’s citywide upzoning would not undermine the California Environmental Quality Act and was within the scope of the City’s General Plan. They found that the Plan would “serve the public necessity, convenience, and welfare”. This, in itself is an absurd claim — unless the “public” is not from here.

Zoning laws protect citizens from the predatory manners of greedy developers. That is why there are no fast food restaurant franchises actually in our parks, but, rather, next to them. That is why there are no hotel towers on Ocean Beach. That is why Mission Dolores has not been demolished and replaced by something that looks like Vida.

The Planning Department hired David Baker Architects and Seifel Consulting to determine the menu of options of zoning modifications and development bonuses that developers could choose from to increase their profits in this Plan.

Small, commercial-only buildings are Density Bonus targets. Most businesses which will be displaced by development will receive some kind of assistance. However, citywide, small business retention and relocation services are overseen by the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development — the same agency that draws the maps which determine where EB5 foreign investors’ “golden visas” apply.

“Housing opportunities mean equity” appears in boldface in the Plan. This non sequitur decorates the “centerpiece” of the middle income affordable housing plan from the Mayor who met with an FBI agent posing as a developer at the request of functionaries taking bribes on his behalf. (Later, the Mayor couldn’t recall the meeting and claimed that he has a lot of meetings and can’t recall them all and his bag people took the rap.) This Plan is from the Mayor who went on corporate-sponsored junkets to China and Brazil to talk to wealthy investors about putting their money into big development projects.

The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, the City Attorney, and Planning Director will execute the Agreements developers enter into under the Plan. They will determine acceptable compliance and provide remedies for breach of contract. We will be required to trust them.

The Planning Commission will determine eligibility and appropriateness of scope of projects using the Plan. The public will be invited to hearings.

In upcoming years, the Planning Department will review the success of the Plan. Working with Supervisors and the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, they may choose to expand it in 2020. The next likely target of the Plan will be zoning which restricts development to single and two family homes (RH-1 and RH-2).

Push-back

The California Constitution and the City Charter allow citizens the opportunity to repeal bad laws before they are enacted. This process is referred to as a popular referendum. As the Public Process in passing this Plan was subverted, the popular referendum is a reasonable option. A referendum is currently being circulated. The referendum period indicated on the Plan is 30 days ending July 13th. However, there are legal grounds for arguing for a longer period ending September 13th.

Until the end of summer and, likely, onward into election season, as awareness of the Plan and its potential for harm grows, petitioners and activists will advocate for ordinances directing the Planning Department to study creation of an Area Plans for all of our Districts. There is no confidence in phony public process run by politicians beholden to the real estate industry. We require not blueprints but a voice in determining the future of San Francisco.