The League’s Thoughts on the Housing Crisis

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One of the big topics in the Mayor’s race is the Housing Crisis. (Another is homelessness, which is totes connected.) We’ve been calling for reforming Prop 13 since we were founded and for building 100,000 new units of housing since 2014. We’re all about building more housing as long as we prioritize protecting vulnerable tenants and building as much affordable housing as is feasible, along with the vital infrastructure to serve all those new bodies.

We’re pissed off at those Forest Hill NIMBYs who blocked affordable housing for seniors, and pissed that the Mayor’s Office of Housing didn’t fight for the project. We’re also pissed off at the developers who are trying to use state law to build less affordable housing than our local laws requireand the state legislators that are enabling them.

You want to upzone the suburbs? So do we! But, we’re skeptical of this idea that, “if the government would just get out of the way and let developers build as much market-rate housing everywhere, everything will be better.” When in the history of capitalism has it worked out to fully deregulate an industry and “let the market decide??”

Like it or not, housing development in the City is a blood sport. Most developers only care about maximizing their profits, and some opponents will want to kill market-rate housing projects no matter what. To avoid those brutal, protracted battles, we need leaders to negotiate clear, fair rules that give developers the certainty they need to build while also maximizing public benefits through affordable housing, transit improvements, and community funding. Jane Kim has the track record of brokering those tough negotiations. That’s a big part of why she’s our first choice for Mayor.

The way some YIMBYs go after Jane Kim and claim she is “anti-housing” has gotten way out of hand. Our endorsement of Jane comes with plenty of receipts on her housing record. As Supervisor, Jane has personally negotiated and facilitated more new housing in her district than any other Supe, including going well beyond the local requirements for affordable units and community benefits. Literally “in her backyard!”

So, fo real: Jane Kim is not your enemy! You may have policy differences with her, but she’s not your enemy. Neither are we.

We all want housing to be more affordable, even if we have different theories about how to do that. Economic theories are about tradeoffs, and we want policies that protect the vulnerable and preserve cultural diversitypriorities economists call externalities that aren’t covered in Econ 101.

(Economics is an important piece of the puzzle, but some perspective: economics is not a hard scienceit’s a social science that has been shown to be subject to bias.) We’re not just talking about tech bros either - everyone who’s read an economics paper or two thinks they're a housing expert these days!

The League also isn't a crew of policy experts, even with all the research that we do. We lay out facts, translate wonk, and put stuff in political context, but at the end of the day, we look for guidance from the experts who have worked in the affordable housing development sector for decades.

Housing policy is fucking hard. Here are just a few of the complications: California’s housing and tax policies have been a mess for decades. The power of global capitalism is huge, and it only cares about making moneynot building livable, equitable communities. Building housing has gotten even more expensive because of a national, generational shortage of construction workers.

And it seems like everybody is afraid and pissed off. Long time tenants are afraid of getting evicted. Lots of newcomers are pissed off that they can’t afford to live here. Many homeowners are afraid of change.

We need to work together to find real solutions.

In general, we want to live in a city where neighbors look out for each other and where there are still small landlords that dig rent control for just that reason - because it helps communities stay intact. We want to live in a city where seniors and communities of color organizing against their own displacement don't get shouted down while trying to raise valid concerns about policies that impact them. We want to live in a city that respects the diversity of longtime residents and also welcomes new folks to the weird San Francisco dream by planning for growth. We think we can do both.  

Crafting real housing policy that doesn’t screw poor folks is hella complicated. So how do we make real change in our housing clusterfuck?

We stand by our 2014 outline for how to address the housing crisis:

  1. Build 100,000 new housing units
  2. Take 100,000 existing units permanently off the market. Make them into co-ops or land trusts, or put a deed restriction on the building that says it will always be rental housing and it can never be sold or refinanced.
  3. Radically overhaul our transportation network so our streets can accommodate that 25% growth in population!

Lots of folks seem to want to do #1 and hope that #2 and #3 work out. That’s a recipe for an overcrowded, broken city of millionaires. If we’re serious about a more affordable future for our City, we have to tackle all three together.

We’d love to see progressives and YIMBYs work together on an equitable and compassionate approach to building a lot of housing. How can we all get on the same side?

It will require both camps to stretch outside their comfort zones. Here are some thoughts that have been percolating on what that could look like:

  1. Protect vulnerable tenants: Lots of folks think any new housing will be too expensive for them to afford and that building fancy new housing near them will make their housing more desirable, which makes them more worried about getting evicted. How do we address that?
    1. Repeal Costa Hawkins! This would allow us to expand rent control to housing built after 1979 and to implement vacancy control so landlords can’t jack the rent up when people move out.
    2. Repeal or severely limit the Ellis Act to reduce evictions.
    3. Work with tenant advocates to create enforceable tenant protections in any new upzonings. (State Senator Scott Wiener tried to add a “displacement plan” to SB827, but the lack of any enforcement mechanism was a huge red flag, and he never worked with any tenant groups on this to address the possible loophole of the Housing Accountability Act allowing demolition of existing housing.)

  2. Generate a ton of money for affordable housing and transportation improvements: Charging fees on new housing construction for affordable housing and transportation are problematic band aids. New housing creates so much demand for additional affordable housing and transportation, those fees only partially mitigate the impacts of new housing. They don’t address our ongoing challenges.
    1. Reform Prop 13! The “Make It Fair” proposition will close the commercial property tax loophole and generate something like $700 million EACH YEAR for San Francisco alone!
    2. Pass a bunch of other taxes and funding sources. Seriously, housing and subways are expensive! Gross receipts tax on corporations, income tax on rich folks, land tax on rich property owners, bonds, state redevelopment funding, carbon tax, congestion pricing. All of it. We need a Marshall Plan level of funding to move the needle on this stuff.

  3. Decommodify housing: Housing is a basic human right. It should be a basic utility like water and electricitynot an investment or get-rich-quick scheme or retirement plan.
    1. Convert existing housing to land trusts, co-ops, deed-restricted non-profit housing, and build the capacity of the non-profits leading that work.
    2. Give tenants and non-profits the first right of refusal to buy rent-controlled housing and single occupancy hotels.
    3. Pass the anti-speculation tax and other measures to disincentivize jerks who just want to make a buck off housing.
    4. Pass a vacancy tax to penalize property owners who keep housing vacant.

  4. Build a ton of housing: Lots of folks think this would the easiest part if government and NIMBYs just got out of the way. We’re not so sure. Historically cities and developers have prioritized building office space because it’s been more profitable than housing. But if we get broad consensus on the stuff above, there would be a lot more support for stuff like:
    1. Upzone areas with good transit service and commit to solid plans for growing that transit service to meet the increase in demand.
    2. Require the suburbs to build their fair share of housingespecially the places that only want to build office campuses.
    3. Add more rent-controlled housing to single family home neighborhoods by lifting density limits in combination with enforceable displacement controls and value capture.
    4. Incentivize more “accessory dwelling units” (AKA in-law units and backyard shacks).
    5. Create a public bank, a public mortgage company, and other government-backed ways to finance housing during the next downturn. Back in the 2000s, SF approved a whole bunch of housing that never got built during the recession.

Nothing to it, right? ;)

Well, this housing crisis was generations in the making, just like our growing income gap and chronic depletion of public financing for affordable housing and infrastructure. These problems are rife with complicated nuance, and we deserve solutions that are thoughtful and nuanced too.

The housing debates have become so toxic and personal, it turns off hella people who would otherwise want to make the situation better. We first need to come out of our fox holes and start building some trust. This is our latest attempt at that. If you're feeling that way, and are ready to build, there are plenty of community-minded spaces that are pro-housing with an equity lensso jump in and get engaged in the conversation! Here are some trustworthy organizations with good values doing great work to build and maintain vibrant, sustainable and inclusive communitieslike the kind we all want to live and thrive in!

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