Truth about the eastern neighborhoods

Pub date April 3, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The next battle for San Francisco’s future will be fought in significant part in what the Planning Department calls the eastern neighborhoods — South of Market, the central waterfront, the Mission District, Potrero Hill, and Showplace Square. That’s where planners want to see some 29,000 new housing units built, along with offices and laboratories for the emerging biotech industry that’s projected to grow on the outskirts of the UCSF Mission Bay campus.

On March 28 the Planning Department released the final draft of a socioeconomic impact study of the area, which, with 1,500 acres of potentially developable land, is one of San Francisco’s last frontiers.

For a $50,000 report, the study doesn’t really say much. It puts an overall rosy glow on a zoning plan that will lead to widespread displacement of blue-collar jobs and dramatically increased gentrification. And it fails to answer what ought to be the fundamental questions of anything calling itself a socioeconomic study.

But within the 197-page document are some stunning facts that ought to give neighborhood activists (and the San Francisco supervisors) reason to doubt the entire rezoning package.

On one level it’s hard to blame Linda Hausrath, the Oakland economist who did the study: the premise was flawed from the start. The study considers only two possibilities — either the eastern neighborhoods will be left with no new zoning at all or the Planning Department’s zoning proposal will be implemented. Her conclusion, not surprisingly, is that the official city plan offers a lot of benefits. That’s hard to argue: the current zoning for the area is a mess, and much of the most desirable land is wide open for all sorts of undesirable uses.

But there are many, many ways to look at the future of the eastern neighborhoods beyond what the Planning Department has offered. Neighborhood activists in Potrero Hill have their own alternatives; so do the folks in the Mission and South of Market. There are a lot of ways to conceive of this giant piece of urban land — and many of them start and end with different priorities than those of the Planning Department.

Two key issues dominate the report — housing and employment in what’s known as production, distribution, and repair, or PDR, facilities. PDR jobs are among the final remaining types of employment in San Francisco that pay a decent wage and don’t require a college degree. The city had 95,000 of these as of 2000 (the most recent data that the study looks at), and 32,000 of them were in the eastern neighborhoods.

Almost everyone agrees that PDR jobs are a crucial part of the city’s economic mix and that without them a significant segment of the city’s population will be displaced. "There are two ways to drive people out of San Francisco," housing activist Calvin Welch says. "You can eliminate their housing or eliminate their jobs."

The city’s rezoning plan seeks to protect some PDR uses in a few parts of the eastern neighborhoods. But many of the areas where the warehouses, light industrial outfits, and similar businesses operate will be zoned to allow market-rate housing — and that will be the end of the blue-collar jobs.

When you build market-rate housing in industrial areas, the industry is forced out. That’s already been proved in San Francisco; just remember what happened in South of Market during the dot-com and live-work boom. When wealthy people move into homes near PDR businesses, they immediately start to complain: those businesses are often loud; trucks arrive at all hours of the day and night. City officials get pestered by angry new homeowners — and at the same time, the price of real estate goes up. The PDR businesses are shut down or bought out — and replaced with more luxury condos.

Thousands of PDR jobs have disappeared since the 2000 census, the result of the dot-com boom. And even the Hausrath report acknowledges that 4,000 more PDR jobs will be lost from the eastern neighborhoods under the city’s plan. That’s more than would be lost without any rezoning at all.

The vast majority — more than 70 percent, the report shows — of people who work in PDR jobs in San Francisco also live in San Francisco. Many are immigrants and people of color. A significant percentage live in Bayview–Hunters Point, where the unemployment rate among African Americans is a civic disgrace. What will happen to those workers? What will happen to their families? Where will they go when the jobs disappear? There’s nothing in the report that addresses these questions — although they reflect one of the most important socioeconomic impacts of the looming changes in the region.

Then there’s affordable housing.

According to the city’s reports and projections, two-thirds of all the new housing that is built in the city ought to be available below the market rate. That’s because none of the people who are now being driven from San Francisco by high housing costs — families, small-business people working-class renters, people on fixed incomes — can possibly afford market-rate units. In fact, as we reported last week ("The Big Housing Lie," 3/28/07), the new housing that’s being built in San Francisco does very little to help current residents, which is why more than 65 percent of the people who are buying those units are coming here from out of town.

San Francisco is one of the world’s great cities, but it isn’t very big — 49 square miles — and most of the land is already developed. The 1,500 developable acres in the eastern neighborhoods are among the last bits of land that can be used for affordable housing. And in fact, that’s where 60 percent of the below-market housing built in the city in the past few years has been located.

But every market-rate project that’s built — and there are a lot of them on the drawing board — takes away a potential affordable housing site and thus makes it less possible for the city to come close to meeting its goals. The Hausrath report completely ignores that fact.

Overall, the report — which reflects the sensibilities of the Planning Department — accepts the premise that the best use of much of the eastern neighborhoods is for high-end condos. Building that housing, the report notes, "would provide a relief valve" to offset pressures on the market for existing housing.

But that’s directly at odds with the available facts. The San Francisco housing market has never fit in with a traditional supply-and-demand model, and today it’s totally out of whack. Market-rate housing in this city has come to resemble freeways and prisons: the more you build, the more demand it creates — and the construction boom does nothing to alleviate the original problem.

The new condos in San Francisco are being snapped up by real estate speculators, wealthy empty nesters, very rich people (and companies) who want local pieds-à-terre, and highly paid tech workers who have jobs on the Peninsula. Meanwhile, families are fleeing the city in droves. The African American community is being decimated. Artists, writers, musicians, unconventional thinkers — the people who are the heart of San Francisco life and culture — can’t stay in a town that offers no place for them to live. Is this really how we want to use the 1,500 precious acres of the eastern neighborhoods?

The Hausrath study was largely a waste of money, which is too bad, because the issue facing the planning commissioners, the mayor, and the supervisors is profound. The city planners need to go back to the drawing board and come up with a rezoning plan that makes affordable housing and the retention of PDR jobs a priority, gives million-dollar condos a very limited role, and prevents the power of a truly perverse market from further destroying some of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. *