A planning primer for the supes

Pub date September 17, 2008
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which comes before the Board of Supervisors this month, is more than a set of rezoning and fee proposals. It’s a blueprint for how San Francisco sees its future as a city. When the supervisors are done with it, the plan will either preserve and expand the city’s affordable housing stock and protect blue-collar jobs, or it will usher in a vastly expanded land rush for developers who will wipe out small businesses that employ local residents and build tens of thousands of high-end condos for rich single people who work in Silicon Valley.

The stakes couldn’t be higher — and not just for the Mission, Potrero Hill, South of Market, and Dogpatch districts, but for the entire city. Because if the supervisors can’t get this right, the pattern will be set for development that will profoundly change the demographics (and politics) of this city.

The language the board will wrestle with is complicated, but the fundamental concepts are simple. And that’s where the discussion needs to start. For example:

Affordable housing can’t be a token concession; it has to be the heart of the plan. The city’s own general plan states that 64 percent of all new housing built in San Francisco should be made available at below market rates. That’s because the vast majority of the people who need housing in this city earn far less money that it takes to buy a market-rate unit. Even with the nationwide housing slump, new condos in the city start at $500,000 for a tiny studio or one-bedroom unit; places big enough for families cost a lot more. Even families with two wage earners who have decent, unionized jobs (like teachers, firefighters, and bus drivers) can’t afford the lowest-end market-rate homes.

Most discussions of affordable housing seem to start with the premise that forcing developers to set aside maybe 25 percent of their units for below-market sale is some sort of a victory. That’s nonsense. If 25 percent of the units in the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan are affordable, that means 75 percent will go to very rich people — and a city in which 75 percent of the population is rich while most of the people who work in the city’s major industries can’t afford to live in town is not a sustainable city.

The supervisors should set affordable housing at 64 percent — that is, compliance with the general plan as a bottom-line goal. Any aspect of the plan that doesn’t advance that goal needs to be examined and changed. If the evidence shows that to be an impossible standard, let’s negotiate down from there instead of taking the city’s anemic affordability levels and trying to bump them a few points up.

For example, the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition has suggested that any height or density bonuses should be used for 100 percent affordable housing. Sup. Tom Ammiano is carrying that amendment to the plan, and it needs to be approved.

Developers have to pay to build new neighborhoods. You can’t just toss 40,000 new housing units into the eastern neighborhoods and expect to have a decent community. Neighborhoods needs parks and schools and bus lines — and the area targeted for this level of development has nowhere near the level of infrastructure it needs to handle the proposed housing influx.

So the developers who want to make money building housing also have to pony up for the public works and amenities that will make the plan viable. City officials estimate that the area needs $400 million worth of new infrastructure. The development fees currently proposed would cover less than half that. The ratio just doesn’t work: either the money is set aside — up front — to pay for neighborhood services and improvements, or the supervisors should reject the entire plan.

Blue-collar jobs can’t be sacrificed for more millionaires. The Planning Department admits that the current proposal will destroy hundreds of jobs in what’s known as production, distribution, and repair — jobs that offer decent wages for people who don’t have an advanced education. The city desperately needs those jobs. If the plan envisions new industries to replace the PDR facilities, those industries have to offer similar employment opportunities.

Residents of the eastern neighborhoods aren’t opposed to new development. But everyone in town ought to be fighting a developer giveaway that brings the city nothing.