San Francisco’s Housing Crisis Is Solvable With One Law. Here’s How You Can Help

Housing prices are crazy, but they don’t have to be. (Courtesy Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/San Francisco Examiner)

Summary and quick actions (details below)

It is possible to solve the affordable housing crisis through a law that allows San Francisco to build many more new apartments (~200,000 new units). Below are the details for a ballot measure that can be put to a direct vote this November, but only if we can collect 10,000 official city signatures (which means we must inspire 100 volunteers to collect 100 signatures in just 3 weeks).

This opportunity was made possible (at the last minute) for two reasons: 1). Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal last week to change state-wide California housing laws and 2) Polling suggesting that a majority of San Franciscans actually want sweeping housing reform, but not the minority who vote in low-turnout non-presidential elections.

The 2016 election could be our last hope for a while.

Actions to take:

Why are signatures necessary so quickly and what happened to the fundraising page?

In order to allow residents to directly vote on a housing bill in the upcoming November election, the law requires the collection of 10,000 paper signatures from San Franciscans.

It is possible to pay signature gatherers, but is very expensive (over $10 a signature). If you happen to be super wealthy and want to help us get $100,000, please contact us or go to the donation page here. Otherwise, only volunteers will work at this point.

More FAQs

Q: How is it possible to end the housing crisis?

Rental prices are crazy because the city has refused to build enough apartments for new residents. San Francisco needs to add roughly 200,000 more units immediately to bring down rents and maximize the number of apartments reserved for middle and low-income residents (200,000 units is about 150,000 more than is currently planned).

The big barrier to meeting this number is a complex set of regulations designed to keep apartments from most of the city. This ballot will break down those regulations and permit (a lot) more construction.

Q: What are the exact proposed ballot measures?

The general strategy is to allow San Francisco to build a lot more apartments. There are 4 components to the law:

  1. Enact “as-of-right” zoning, which prohibits neighborhood interest groups from dramatically delaying any project they don’t like through bureaucratic regulatory processes (construction can take 8–10 years to approve in San Francisco, compared to a similar process that takes just 17 weeks in Seattle).
  2. End density regulations — much of San Francisco effectively prohibits anything but 2-story single family homes [pdf].
  3. Raise height limits in each neighborhood.
  4. Ensure each new building creates the maximum number of affordable units for residents making less than the median income. Generally speaking, more construction means a higher percent of subsidized apartments for those making the median income or less. For instance, Seattle’s Mayor put forth a plan to build roughly 4 times more affordable units than San Francisco (40,000) — a plan made possible thanks to Seattle’s famous commitment to density.

Why do you think it will win?

Preliminary polls show that a majority of all residents in San Francisco would support a lot more construction, but not a majority of citizens who voted in last year’s low-turnout election (about 60% of all San Franciscans support major reforms, but only 40% of those who say they voted in the previous election).

The 2016 election has turned out to be one of the most important events in American history and massive voter turnout is expected. This may be our one last opportunity for a majority of San Franciscans to make their voices heard.

Q: What does the money go toward?

San Francisco has a high bar to qualify ballot measures. Volunteers can help lower costs, but they typically require professional signature gathering businesses that charge a whopping $5–$10 a signature. Electronic signatures are illegal.

The money will go towards a pro-housing PAC to hire signature gatherers and organize.

Q: Why isn’t a politician proposing this ballot?

This is an ambitious law that is only possible thanks to changing city demographics (many new young people and renters).

This demographic has never voted as a large bloc and so it is an untested (but educated) theory that 2016 is the year housing reform is finally possible.

Second, it is politically very risky and that makes many career politicians and established organizations scared to propose an overhaul of the city landscape.

Here’s a little flavor of just how paralyzing the fear of public backlash is. One organization that helped me write the law told me they would only give me the bill language in an unmarked envelope placed at my door, so that there was no evidence linking them to the proposition. They feared the backlash of being associated with anyone proposing such a radical overhaul of the planing code.

For a lot of reasons, as a writer, my career isn’t at risk for trying to pass this law. Should it fail, I will try again (and again) until we fix the housing laws. But 2016 is our best chance.

Does this ordinance actually re-write the planning code?

It’s important to note that by law a ballot “ordinance” cannot rezone San Francisco. It can force the Mayor to do his job by convening an expert taskforce to write an alternative planning code under these conditions. This new planning code will still have to be ratified by the voters (again).

Re-writing the blueprint for the entire city is something only the government can do. If it was possible to re-write the entire planning code through a ballot without the city’s help, I definitely would have. City planners have been reluctant to redo the planning code because they don’t feel there’s political will. This ballot will force them to do their job.

Have more questions? Comment below and i’ll do my best to answer them. If not, please volunteer or donate today.

Also, no law is perfect and I want to be as transparent about the ballot measure as possible. Nerdy FAQ with more details is here.

I have questions, who do I contact?

First, please feel free to comment below. I’d like to make this campaign as public as possible. If you do have a private question or comment, you can email me at greg at greg ferenstein dot com.