A Prop. M for housing

Pub date September 18, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Big buildings are all the rage in San Francisco these days, and even the environmentalists often go along.

As many as 23 new complexes of 250 units or more, soaring from five or six stories to more than 1,000 feet, are on the drawing board, working their way through the city planning system, and more are almost certainly on their way. And yet there’s very little of the sort of outcry that we saw in the 1980s, when skyscrapers were turning downtown San Francisco into a wall of glass and steel cut by deep, dark, crowded canyons of streets.

This time around the high-rises aren’t, for the most part, office buildings. They’re condominiums — housing. And if you ask many of the major urban environmental groups, what you’ll hear is that density — more housing packed into existing urban areas — is good. Density fights sprawl. Housing near workplaces encourages walking and biking. Housing along transit corridors encourages people to get out of their cars. Urban density is the future: tightly packed cities full of people who don’t commute in private cars are our only hope to fight sprawl, congestion, and global warming. It’s called the new urbanism, and in San Francisco it goes like this: the only way to handle the influx of jobs and population growth is to build another 60,000 or so housing units, on every bit of available land.

But there’s a fundamental flaw in that argument.

Leave aside for the moment the fact that San Francisco is already the second-densest city in the United States. Leave aside the fact that density will come back to haunt us unless San Francisco is capable of creating real neighborhoods, with parks and open spaces, schools, new bus lines, police stations, and all of the other public goods that provide safety and quality of life — and that there’s nothing in any current planning document that shows how the massive, massive price tag for that sort of infrastructure will ever be paid. In a state where property taxes are strictly limited and civic infrastructure is already way overwhelmed and drastically underfunded, it would take extraordinary development fees on every new housing unit just to catch up, much less move ahead.

But let’s just suppose we could eliminate that problem. Would this sort of density be a good thing? No — not if the housing that gets built is mostly sold at prices set by the open market.

The density argument has to go beyond environmental theory and planning policy — because the issue in San Francisco isn’t how tall the buildings are or whether they’re along transit corridors. It’s about who gets to live there. And programs that offer some so-called inclusionary units, which mandate that 15 percent of the new housing be a little cheaper than the rest, aren’t going to cut it.

The facts are clear: the new housing that’s been built in San Francisco over the past 10 years — the downtown-centered, environmentally sound, dense housing — hasn’t helped eliminate commutes or fight global warming. The exact opposite has been happening: the people moving into these expensive, mostly small (and therefore non-family-friendly) units are world travelers who want a perch in San Francisco, retired empty nesters who aren’t going to work anyway, or reverse commuters who work in the tech industry in Silicon Valley. In many cases these new condos are creating more car trips: people who work out of town are buying them — and people who work in San Francisco are so badly priced out of the market that they’re moving farther and farther away.

We showed this two years ago when we went door-to-door in the new buildings to see who lived there and where they worked. Marc Salomon, a green policy wonk, has done a persuasive study using voter registration data that comes to a similar conclusion (see "Our Three-Point Plan to Save San Francisco," page 16). People who work in this city have to leave town to find housing they can afford; a lot of people who are moving into new housing here don’t work in town. It’s environmental psychosis.

There’s only one way to change that — the environmentalists and the housing activists and the progressive policy makers have to acknowledge an incontrovertible fact: sound environmental policy in an urban setting like San Francisco has to start with sound social and economic policy, and in San Francisco that means abandoning developer-driven housing and starting over. It means testing all new projects not on the basis of how close they are to jobs or bus lines or how many cars they will allow underneath or what their density is, but on the basis of how much the housing will cost and who will be able to rent or buy it.

And by those standards, none of the new high-rise buildings in the planning pipeline is even close to a good idea.

In this week’s cover story we describe an alternative approach to housing policy. It’s a three-part program, and the first two elements — preserving existing rental housing and finding a new funding mechanism for affordable-housing construction — are either already on the progressive agenda or rapidly moving forward. The third element is something new — but it deserves serious discussion.

It’s the idea, first put forward by Salomon, of adopting a comprehensive, citywide housing policy that would resemble the 1986 ballot measure known as Proposition M. Prop. M was designed to limit the impact of runaway commercial office development, and it set specific priority policies for all new projects, including the preservation of neighborhood character. It also strictly limited the amount of new office space that could be built in any one year and mandated that developers compete for the right to build. The projects that best suited the city’s needs (not the developers’ needs) would get the go-ahead; the others wouldn’t make the cut.

Imagine how that would work for housing. Say the voters passed a measure that limited new for-profit, market-rate housing to 500 units per year. The developers who wanted to win that lottery would have to come to the table with good offers — plenty of affordable set-asides, green buildings, structures that weren’t out of synch with the area, money for parks, schools, and other neighborhood services…. What could possibly be wrong with that?

San Francisco needs a cap on new housing for the rich and a mandate that all housing meet community needs. A well-crafted Prop. M–<\d>style ballot measure might energize the neighborhoods, force elected officials to talk seriously about housing … and save San Francisco. That ought to be on everyone’s agenda.*