Pass Maxwell’s housing bill

Pub date December 20, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Every city in California has to keep a general plan on its civic shelf, and every 10 years the plan — a detailed outline of future growth and development goals — has to be dusted off and updated. Most of the time, nobody pays much attention: when decisions on individual projects are made, conformance with the general plan means a lot less than the political connections of the developers.
But hidden in those documents are often some fascinating and potentially important bits of information — and that’s the case with the Housing Element of San Francisco’s plan.
According to that report, San Francisco has a critical need for more housing, which everyone knows and accepts. But the details matter, and in this case, the document says that all housing isn’t alike — and that, in fact, the city needs comparatively little of the sort of market-rate (read: million-dollar) condos that developers want to build. What the city’s official planning guideline actually says is that given San Francisco’s population, economy, and job mix, 64 percent of all new housing built in the city should be sold at below-market rates.
That’s right: the carefully researched conclusion of the professional city planners is that almost two-thirds of all new housing has to be affordable to working San Franciscans — which means only one-third of new housing should be luxury condos for high-end buyers.
That’s a pretty radical concept — but when you actually read the Housing Element, it makes perfect sense. Only a small fraction of the city’s current residents can afford the mortgage payments or rents required for most new market-rate units. And most of the jobs that will be created in this city in the next 10 years won’t pay enough to allow workers to afford those new condos. Instead, what San Francisco is becoming is a bedroom community for people who live elsewhere — and that’s not part of anyone’s planning goals.
So Sup. Sophie Maxwell has introduced a resolution that would make it official city policy that all new housing built in the eastern neighborhoods — ground zero for new development in the next decade — meet the goals of the San Francisco General Plan. That would mean that city planners could only approve new housing if 64 percent of the units were sold for prices that working San Franciscans can afford.
Her legislation isn’t perfect — for one thing, it’s just a policy resolution, which means that Mayor Gavin Newsom and the City Planning Commission can ignore it. But it’s a powerful statement about the extent of the city’s housing crisis, the utter failure of the mayor’s housing policy, and the complete inadequacy of virtually every new private housing development proposal now on the table.
As Steven T. Jones reports in this issue, the resolution has set off something of a furor, even on the left — and the fact that Maxwell was forced to continue it for a month is a signal that the Residential Builders Association (RBA) — which wants to turn the eastern neighborhoods into a jungle of luxury condos without strong affordable housing requirements — still has disturbing political influence.
Sup. Chris Daly, who expressed a lot of concerns about Maxwell’s resolution (and helped force the delay), argues that the measure actually calls for a total moratorium on new housing in the eastern neighborhoods, since it’s unlikely any private developer will build projects with 64 percent of the units at below-market prices.
That may be true. It’s also fine with us. San Francisco doesn’t need to build more housing that’s totally out of sync with what residents and small businesses need. And a moratorium would force Newsom, city planners, and developers to talk seriously about how to meet the affordable housing needs.
We are not convinced that building units that sell for, say, $300,000 is an impossible venture for the private sector, and we’re totally convinced that with a little vision, the city can expand dramatically its affordable housing stock. For starters, the city needs to protect its existing rental housing by making Ellis Act evictions prohibitively expensive and tightly controlling evictions and condo conversions (something Daly has called for).
Daly also says that what the city really needs is a better Planning Department and a more visionary commission and director. We agree. But the question on the table is simple: should the city, as a matter of policy, abide by the housing goals in its own General Plan? That’s a no-brainer.<\!s>SFBG