Merry Christmas from the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods

Local Politics
Dec 27, 2015 · 8 min read

“We’re not opposed to your existence, just not anywhere we can see you.”

Should we continue to allow opponents of affordable housing to block projects?

San Franciscans disagree on the value of market-rate housing, but there seems to be a consensus on our need for affordable housing. So, Supervisor Wiener proposed legislation that would reduce barriers to building affordable housing. Who would oppose this? Who would preserve a system that allows any single hostile neighbor to hold up a publicly funded affordable housing project?

I give you, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhods (CSFN):

Watch a member of the CSFN beg the Planning Commission to protect the Richmond from direct frontal assault:

Testimony here: 1:17:50

I think that this is a bad mistake…the Planning Commission needs to hear all of these 100% affordable projects because the locations of these sites are not fixed, they could be anywhere! It could be in a residential area…The public and the neighborhoods need your protection.…Affordable housing needs to be balanced against the direct frontal assault against the neighborhoods. We’re not against affordable housing, if it’s done in the right place, in the right location, on the wide streets such as Geary Boulevard…We don’t want it running north and south…on the streets that are unprotected. In Inner Richmond 75% of the blocks are unprotected....This is a direct assault on San Francisco neighborhoods. We need protection. We’re not against affordable housing — in the right place, on wide avenues, wide boulevards, on the south side of the street. Please do not pass this today, continue it for more input.

The president of CSFN, George Wooding, wasn’t as explicitly hostile to the very idea of integrated subsidized housing, but he also asked for a “continuance” (he’s asking for the decision on the proposed legislation to be postponed):

This proposal was given to us the day before Thanksgiving vacation, it’s going very fast…it’s very complicated, we need to be able to study it. We are supportive of low income housing…we have some major concerns about this legislation, we see it gets rid of some rights of appeal to the Board of Supervisors…this concerns us. We look to you guys as the wall that supports us…We don’t believe that it’s a bad thing to support affordable housing, but we definitely want this to be postponed to January 28.

Calvin Welch, co-founder of CSFN and Council of Community Housing Organizations (CCHO), misses the point of building subsidized housing, and blows off the cost of frivolous appeals:

It is fascinating to watch wedges driven between constituencies that should be together, but they’re not.… Joseph Smooke and Sue Hestor are absolutely correct…the development of affordable housing is about empowering neighbors…that is a process, a dialogue…that takes talking, that takes process…I’m sorry about what happened to Booker T. Washington, but that was an EIR…they got their conditional use permit appealed and passed by the Board of Supervisors lickety split…

Developing affordable housing is not about “empowering neighbors,” it’s about giving people who have nowhere else to go a place to live, providing stable, safe housing for low income workers, and ensuring that we have economic diversity in our neighborhoods.

I think the two constituencies Welch is referring to are CSFN and subsidized affordable housing developers. Considering so many CSFN members are opposed to the prospect of building affordable housing, I don’t see what an alliance with CSFN could offer to affordable housing developers.

Joseph Smooke, legislative aide to Supervisor Campos and founder of People Power Media, asked for a continuance to January 28 to tie the legislation to the Affordable Housing Density Bonus Program.

Foundational to affordable housing work is building community, by taking away the conditional use process, you take away a the opportunity for the community to have input.

I have to admit I found this testimony to be the most astonishing, given the articulated goals of the Mission moratorium and Plaza 16’s demand for 100% affordable housing at 16th and Mission streets. We already know what the “community” offers when it’s given the opportunity to give input on affordable housing. If the community’s input is to try to downsize, postpone or destroy an affordable housing project, what benefit is there to giving them the opportunity to have input?

Fernando Marti, co-Director of CCHO:

CCHO was not consulted when this came about. We had meetings about density bonus.…CU permits are about providing public input and leverage to make better projects…In my memory there have been two projects that were appealed via the CU process and they were very difficult projects and we came testify in support of them.

Marti is referring to the Booker T. Washington project described below, and the Larkin Street Youth Services project in the Marina. Marina residents fought bitterly, for four years, to keep 26 units out of their neighborhood.

Sue Hestor, CEQA lawyer and creator of “cumulative impact analysis,” spoke in support of the continuance:

I have a couple of real concerns…[this legislation implies] the public is the intruder, [the planners] have perfect knowledge…I think there is some wisdom in the community…a lot of people in the community deal with process all the time, they’re not banging down your door to cut down on process…

Sue Hestor is referring to the community she’s in, the community of people who make a living suing to stop projects from being built.

Of course there are other communities. Members of the community that actually builds affordable housing are unambiguously “banging down the door,” asking to cut down on process. Pat Scott, Executive Director of Booker T. Washington Community Service Center, described her experience trying to build 100% below-market-rate housing in the Western Addition:

Booker T. Washington began an affordable housing project housing for transitional age youth. Foster care is 72% African American children…so BTW decided to build housing for youth aging out of foster care.…I speak in support Wiener’s legislation…anything that would shorten this process would be helpful…we were in court for nearly five years, we spent nearly $500,000 on attorney’s fees…to build 50 units, half for kids who age out of foster care, half for people making 55% of AMI and below. I urge you to support Supervisor Wiener’s legislation.

Ali Gaylord from Bridge Housing:

We are on the front lines of our city’s struggles to provide affordable housing, we support Wieners legislation…time is money and there is a direct cost to increased process.

Rob Poole, from the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition:

I don’t think the process that Pat Scott described improved the project, I think it just made the 50 units take five or 10 more years to get built than they needed to. The projects are still going to be subject to discretionary review and EIR appeals, so there’s still risk to projects. The test to receive a conditional use permit is “necessary and desirable.” Affordable housing is necessary and desirable.

SFHAC is a developer’s member organization. They have market-rate and affordable housing developer members. Bridge Housing is a member, as are Mission Housing Development Corporation (MHDC) and Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC).

Tim Dunn from Mercy Housing spoke in support of the legislation:

Mercy Housing supports this legislation…Schedules for affordable housing are determined by funding cycles, so “only 3 months” might make us miss a funding deadline. For example in Hayes Valley, the site was identified in 1999 as an affordable housing site…we need a CU because of parcel size. We are racing with planning to get the conditional use permit in January because there is a February deadline for a state funding source. If we miss that deadline, that’s $8–10 million left on the table that can’t be used to help the citizens of San Francisco.

Finally, David Elliot Lewis, three-decade resident of San Francisco:

The amount of NIMBYism in this room is shameful…people say they support affordable housing but they don’t ... Look at what happened to Booker T. Washington — millions of dollars added to their budget [they missed being able to build at the bottom of the market] which means less services. I don’t care what people say. “I support affordable housing, but not if it’s near me, but not if it means removing CU.” That’s bullshit. Remove the barriers to affordable housing.

Once public testimony closed (at 1:50:31), the commissioners began to discuss the legislation. Commissioner Dennis Richards was visibly distressed by the proceedings. “It’s hard to listen to this acrimony,” he said. Richards has been a strong supporter of building affordable housing, but here he revealed that he is a stronger supporter of the right of opponents to interfere with its production. “This is the first time I’ve been asked to vote on removing a public review process,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable voting on this…I move to continue to February 15.”

If something isn’t happening in your city, it’s because there are people who actively don’t want it to happen. Getting it to happen means overriding the opinions of its opponents, sometimes by voting, sometimes by writing letters or testifying to counterbalance their letters and testimony. In this case, we have an opportunity to foreclose the possibility of neighbors opposing or appealing the conditional use permits that affordable housing projects need in order to get built.

Commissioner Rich Hillis supports the legislation. “Conceptually I have no problem moving this forward…at Booker T. Washington, and on Lombard Street, we did see people use this process to oppose affordable housing, on principle, and this would take that opportunity away from those people.…I believe affordable housing is necessary and desirable.”

If you like the idea of this legislation, if you want building affordable housing to be less risky, cheaper and faster in San Francisco, support the bill here. You can also write a supportive email to the members of the Land Use and Transportation Committee: Jane Kim, Malia Cohen, and Scott Wiener.

If you can take off work on Monday afternoon, January 25, seriously consider coming to City Hall sometime after 1:30 pm. Come testify in favor of the legislation. The people who most need affordable housing are in no position to be able to come testify in person, and the people who most oppose it have all the time in the world.

January 25, the next chapter comes out.

Appendix:

December 3 Planning Commission hearing here. Staff report here.

Richards made a motion to continue the decision to January 21:

Wu, Moore, Richards — Yes

Hillis, Antonini, Fong— No.

Motion to continue failed, 3–3.

Antonini made a motion in support the planning staff report with recommendation to preserve the requirement for a CU permit when demolishing a movie theatre or grocery store:

Wu, Moore, Richards — No

Hillis, Antonini, Fong — Yes

Motion fails, 3–3. The legislation moves to Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee with a technical disapproval.

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