Moderate politicians push “affordable housing” definition up to higher income brackets

San Francisco, its General Plan Housing Element, and various city codes have always had a very specific definition of what they mean by “affordable housing”: homes that are affordable to those making 120 percent of area median income (AMI) and below, the kind that generally require public subsidies to build from scratch in San Francisco. That group is defined annually by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development using the latest data, and this year in San Francisco, it is defined as individuals making $81,550 or less year, or households of four people making $116,500 or less, according the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

But Mayor Ed Lee and other neoliberal and pro-developer politicians and political groups in town have in recent years been trying to redefine what the city means by “affordable housing” to reach up to 150 percent of AMI, definitions that made their way into the Proposition K housing policy statement on the November ballot and into a City Hall hearing yesterday [Thu/25].

The Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee held a public hearing to respond to the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report, “The Mayor’s Office of Housing: Under Pressure and Challenged to Preserve Diversity,” which called on that office to be more transparent and aggressive in addressing the city’s affordable housing crisis, writing “the need for public transparency and fair access to housing opportunities has never been greater.”

MOHCD Director Olson Lee agreed with almost all of the report’s recommendations, pledging to provide more information to the public and complete an overhaul of the department’s website by the end of the year, making it easier for the public to apply for subsidized housing and more easily track where public resources are being spent.

“We agree with the grand jury report globally,” Lee said at the hearing.

But two of the three supervisors on that committee used the occasion to push this redefinition of “affordable housing” in San Francisco, with Chair London Breed pressing Lee and MOHCD on what it’s doing to serve those higher income brackets who want the city’s help with housing.

“Even people at 150 percent AMI can’t afford to buy a median-priced home today,” Lee acknowledged, pledged his office’s resources to help address the problem.

Sup. Katy Tang also pressed the point, telling Lee that “to stretch it to 150 AMI is really important,” clearly defining what she meant when she said, “San Francisco needs to continue building and really accommodate family housing.”

While it may be true that with median home prices in San Francisco now reaching $1 million, an individual making $101,950 per year or family of four making $145,650 — that is, 150 percent of AMI — would be hard pressed to buy real estate in this booming housing market.

But it’s not like this relatively small group of people (refresher: “median” is the middle point, meaning half the citizens make 100 percent of AMI or below) is being forced out of the city, like those truly low-to-middle income people traditionally served by affordable housing.

Peter Cohen and Fernando Marti, co-directors of the Council of Community Housing Organization, tell us they’re concerned about this upward creeping definition of affordable housing, even though they strongly support Prop. K, which calls for 33 percent of housing to be affordable to 120 percent of AMI, but also for half of all housing to be affordable to those at 150 percent AMI and below.

They’re fine with the city doing what it can to encourage more housing affordable to those in the 120-150 AMI range, but they’re adamant that money from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and other public resources don’t subsidize housing for that group.

“It’s going to be a continuing discussion,” Marti told us. “But legally, we can’t talk about city subsidies going into that sector.”

Hopefully, the transparency reforms that MOHCD is pledging will allow the public to make sure that upper-middle-class San Franciscans — the very people whose influx (encouraged by the city’s economic development policies) is driving up the cost of housing for everyone — aren’t also cannibalizing the city’s already inadequate affordable housing resources.