Prop B and the League's Thoughts on Housing

We weren’t involved in writing Prop B, so of course it’s not perfect ☺. We would love to see Prop B get revised in November with a more nuanced approach: like, if a waterfront project wanted to raise the height limit in order to build 50% affordable housing, that shouldn’t require a ballot measure to approve. Maybe there could be a similar threshold for projects that create a certain amount of public space?

Urban free marketeers love to Sanfransplain to us how to fix San Francisco’s housing problem. Since we are opposed to letting the market decide how to use our waterfront, they ask us what we should do instead?

Here are a couple of thoughts on key waterfront projects:

  • 8 Washington: (This is a cherry piece of land, kitty-corner from the Ferry Building.) Let’s double the amount of money they contribute to the City’s affordable housing fund, reduce the size of the parking garage from 320 to 67 spaces (1 for every 2 condos), switch half of the ground-floor retail space from restaurants to some kind of publicly available community space, and put a public roof deck on top! Boom.
  • Pier 30-32: It would cost at least $180 million to fix up these ugly, crumbling piers. Or we could tear them out for $40 million. Right next door is the Brannan Street Wharf, a brand new, beautiful little park. How about we tear the piers out, and extend the park? Maybe we could make a smaller pier for launching kayaks and/or a new home for the Port fire station. We could pay for all that with a smaller development on Seawall Lot 330 across street.

But What About Supply and Demand? Can’t We Just Build More Market Rate Housing?

We’re pro-development but critical of more luxury & market rate housing.

The 7 mile by 7 mile constraints of San Francisco severely limit the ability of market rate housing to solve the issue of affordability. We believe that decommodifying housing and passing anti-speculation and progressive property taxes are viable ways forward to keep San Francisco families in affordable housing.

But let’s consider supply and demand- how much new housing would be enough?

The City’s Chief Economist in the San Francisco Controller’s Office (Ted Egan) estimates it would take the construction of 100,000 new housing units to have the same effect of affordability as giving 50,000 families a $75K down payment bonus. That still only makes 25% of the housing market affordable- with a hefty $4 billion dollar investment. Our takeaways are 1) we’re fucked and 2) we have no real answers for affordability.

Geek out on the data: We are slated to build 189% of the City’s target of luxury housing. But we are woefully behind on building affordable housing.

Here’s Our Crazy Ambitious Plan

So new market-rate housing is part of the solution, but only part. Here’s our outline for a full solution:

  1. Let’s build those 100,000 new housing units.
  2. But for every new unit we build, let’s take an existing unit 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. And then all we need to do is radically overhaul our transportation network because we just increased our population by 25%! (The City’s population has basically been flat since WWII.) The San Francisco Transportation Authority did a fancy simulation of what traffic would look like if we built 50,000 new housing units. Their paper on that is called “Preventing Carmegeddon in San Francisco’s Rapidly Densifying Core.” It says the only hope to prevent total gridlock is to do “congestion pricing,” which means charging people to drive downtown. We’d also have to virtually stop building new parking garages, charge more for existing parking, and then make big investments in Muni, bike, and pedestrian projects to make San Francisco really Transit First.

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.

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