Housing for whom?

Pub date October 28, 2008
WriterKatie Baker

› news@sfbg.com

San Francisco is currently experiencing an unprecedented shortage of affordable housing, a reality that threatens to change the city’s socioeconomic character. If city officials stay the course, building mostly market rate housing, even more lower and middle-class families will be forced to move elsewhere.

Proposition B would stabilize — and probably increase — affordable housing funds by setting aside 2.5 cents out of every $100 in property taxes, or about $30 million a year, in a specific affordable housing account. Prop. B would not create any new taxes, and would allow for public participation in deciding how funds are spent. A long-term revenue source seems the only way to combat the affordable housing problem, yet Mayor Gavin Newsom has called the measure "unnecessary" and "ballot-box budgeting at its worst."

Newsom’s Oct. 15 press conference announcing that San Francisco is on pace to build a "historic number" of affordable homes by 2010 is likely an attempt to dissuade voters from voting for Prop. B. Newsom cited a dizzying array of statistics to support his claim that Prop. B is unwarranted: with 13,000 new affordable homes currently in the works, he insinuates, there is no need for such a measure.

Yet he doesn’t address the question of how the city will facilitate such an affordable housing boom without Prop. B. According to Doug Shoemaker, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH), the city spends around $220 million a year on affordable housing from multiple sources in multiple programs. He admits that this money is essentially impossible to track; which means it’s equally impossible to judge how productive the programs actually are or how much money is left.

Based on the San Francisco Planning Department’s preparation to update its Housing Element next year, as well as information provided by the MOH, Newsom’s statistics are grossly exaggerated. The discordance between Newsom’s embellished statistics and the department’s numbers illustrates that we need a more coherent solution — whether that means more funds, more organization, or both — to solve the affordable housing crisis.

In his press conference, Newsom asserted that "newly adopted and pending neighborhood plans will create over 13,000 new affordable homes." Although he failed to specify exactly when these homes would be completed, one would assume he meant by 2010, since the press conference was an update on the Home 15/5 initiative (which vows to produce approximately 15,000 new housing units between 2005-10).

According to affordable housing activist Calvin Welch, this plan is "an outrageous lie, a cynical lie, based on [Newsom’s] absolute and complete certainty that no one will understand what that means." The SF Planning Department’s Housing Need Assessment backs Welch’s sentiment: from 1999-2006, the city only produced about 800 low- and very-low affordable housing units a year. It would take more than 16 years to produce 13,000 new and affordable homes at that rate, leaving aside the question of how to pay for them.

Think it’s unfair to judge Newsom’s statements based on the past? Newsom also said in his press conference that "1,547 affordable homes have been completed since 2006." But statistics provided by the Mayor’s Office of Housing show that only 646 of these 1,547 housing units are below or at 50 percent of the area median income, or AMI. In other words, most of these units aren’t as affordable as one might think.

These dismal statistics prove that the Home 15/5 initiative so far has failed to significantly increase the city’s production of affordable housing. Since Newsom opposes Prop. B and has refused to spend affordable housing money allocated by supervisors in the past, it’s unclear how he plans to create 13,000 affordable housing units anytime soon.

Newsom also said that the Home 15/5 plan "increases the city’s production of housing affordable to low- and very-low income households to the highest levels ever, comprising 33 percent of all new homes built." This percentage is similar to the SF Planning Department’s production goals for 2007-14: the city strives to create 31,000 housing units, 39 percent affordable. Both aims fall far below the SF Housing Element’s objective, which states that 64 percent of the city’s housing units should be affordable. But they’re a start, or would be — if they actually come true.

A look at the SF Planning Department’s housing production statistics show that only 4,705 low- or very-low affordable housing units had been built as of June 2008. That’s a mere 19 percent, a far cry from Newsom’s 33 percent assertion. It wasn’t just a slow year — the number of moderate and market-priced housing built over the same period surpassed target production goals by more than 500 units. If San Francisco continues to produce at this speed, the city will not only fail to produce enough affordable housing units, but will increase the ratio of the very rich among city residents.

With help from Prop. B, the city could start working its way toward meeting the mandate of the city’s Housing Element, which states that two- thirds of city housing should be affordable. Unfortunately the Housing Element may also be under attack this November: the Planning Department is holding a public scoping meeting Nov. 6 — two days after the election — to discuss preparations for an environmental impact report.

Although 64 percent affordability may seem like a lofty goal now, a decrease in Housing Element aims and the lean budgetary years ahead could mean a continuation of policies that build mostly market-rate housing that remains unaffordable to most San Franciscans.