Do we need more luxury condos?

Pub date January 8, 2013
WriterTim Redmond

There’s no shortage of high-end housing in San Francisco. If you can afford to pay $6,000 a month for your rent or mortgage, you’re going to find a nice place to live. And there’s no study anywhere in any corner of the City Planning Department suggesting that current San Francisco residents really want new luxury condos downtown.

In fact, all evidence suggests the contrary — the market for high-end downtown housing is new residents, people who are moving here to take tech jobs, empty nesters moving from the suburbs, or world travelers looking for a pied-a-terre in one of the greatest cities on Earth.

But when the City Planning Department analyzes a project like 75 Howard, that’s not part of the discussion.

The Dec. 12 preliminary environmental study on the “market-rate” (read: $1 million and up for waterfront views) project never addresses the question of what value this type of housing would bring to the city. Instead, it talks about projections from the Association of Bay Area Governments, which says that San Francisco will grow by 52,000 households by 2030.

So a project that’s creating fewer than 200 housing units, and creating a net of 77 jobs, isn’t big enough to be a factor in the future of either jobs or housing.

But in the process, the study makes a remarkable statement, one that underlines everything wrong with city planning policy. Buried on page 48 of a 151-page preliminary study is the following: “In addition, the demand for housing by the net increase in number of employees would be more than offset by the dwelling units that would be constructed on site under the proposed project or its variants.”

That sounds like bureaucratise, and it is, so allow me to translate: The project will create 186 housing units and 77 jobs. More housing than jobs; what’s there to worry about?

Well: The 77 employees at 75 Howard will work in the restaurants and stores, or in the garage under the building, or in maintenance. Not one of them will make even remotely enough money to afford to buy one of the condo units in the building.

So the project — like so much of the development that happens in San Francisco — will create jobs for people who can’t afford to live here, and housing for people who don’t currently work here. That imbalance is utterly unsustainable, spells disaster for the future of the city — and is pretty much hard-wired into current planning and housing policy.