Nerdy FAQ on the ballot initiative.

People have started to ask some nuanced questions about the ballot initiative I’ve submitted to solve the San Francisco housing crisis. So, I’ll do my best in this post to answer all the question. I won’t sugar coat this (because I always hate when politicians make things sound overly simple): this ballot is is not perfect and we had a (very) compressed timeline. Here’s the nitty-gritty

(FYI: we still need help getting this on the ballot)

Why does your law create a task force and not amend the planning code itself?

San Francisco’s powerful neighborhood groups have made it extremely difficult to change housing laws through direct democracy. Changes to housing zoning laws require an amendment to the city charter (the city’s constitution).

Unlike an ordinance ballot measure, a charter amendment requires about ~50,000 signatures, or in reality, a number of signatures that is nearly half of the voting electorate in an off-year election. At a price over $10 a signature, it could cost between $500,000–$1,000,000 to just place a charter amendment on the ballot. Crazy. It is also nearly impossible to collect that number of signatures in the time we had.

Additionally, we had the best housing law lawyers in the city give us pro-bono work and they couldn’t actually re-rewrite the entire zoning codes alone. They needed the city planning department. So, even if by some miracle we could have raised $1M and gotten the signatures, there isn’t anyone in the city who could have actually written the law.

Will there need to be another vote?

Yes. This is a two-step process. First we need to prove political will and have the city write the text for a new planning code. Then, the Mayor (or the people) will have to vote on a charter amendment to change the planning code in another election cycle. This is possible in 2017.

What does this do to housing prices?

That’s an economic question and hence it’s difficult to forecast. Our best comparison is Seattle, where a commitment to density helped the city keep housing prices stable for about a decade (!) and can now propose upwards of 40% of new development be subsidized for lower-income residents.

It is not known how long it will take San Francisco to ramp up their construction process or how that will impact prices. I do think it will end the “crisis”, by which I mean the percent of people spending +30% on rent, evictions, and the dearth of subsidized units. The city will still be expensive, but will likely to be more reasonable.

Are there any technical problems with the law?

Probably. While I did have help from the top lawyers and housing groups in the city, I ended up doing a lot of the work myself, mostly because many of the established groups worry this very ambitious law could cause a backlash.

So, as written, the mayor’s taskforce could legally disregard the spirit of the the law and refuse to do a report with the necessary language. I also suspect there could be some grammar and legal issues.

I’m quite positive that the law itself is clear: force the government to write the laws that allow sufficiently more housing. I suspect that should the ballot pass, it will be politically dangerous for anti-housing elements to oppose the will of the people.

Hence, I’m confident that (blemishes aside) the law is very clear: the people want more housing.

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