Housing crisis requires creative thinking

Pub date June 10, 2014

EDITORIAL Does the construction of brand new high-end towers represent the only possible opportunity for new affordable housing in San Francisco? To hear the arguments of those bemoaning the passage of Proposition B, the ballot measure overwhelmingly approved June 3 requiring voter approval for increased building heights along the waterfront, one would think so.

Shortly after Prop. B had been decided, the Washington Post ran a headline proclaiming: “Voters in one of America’s most expensive cities just came up with another way to block new housing.” The idea seems to be that by making it harder for developers to build waterfront towers incorporating a small percentage of affordable units, San Francisco has sealed itself off from any new affordable housing, forever.

To buy this argument, you must resign yourself to a world where the only conceivable pathway for housing average-income people is to hope high-end developers decide to incorporate them into massive complexes for the wealthy on a narrow strip of waterfront property. Which just isn’t a terribly creative solution.

Surely, alternatives exist. The city is brimming with clever people who are skilled at creative thinking and aren’t afraid to dream big. Why not apply some brainpower to the housing crisis? Here are a few ideas.

• Change city law to allow people to build their own backyard cottages to rent out at affordable prices. Here we must holler at the Public Press, which is hosting a conference Fri/13 called “Hack the Housing Crisis,” and recently calculated that San Francisco could theoretically add another residence to each of its 124,000 single-family lots if the city were to legalize backyard cottages. That would increase the total number of households by 33 percent; no luxury towers required.

• Make the most of public land holdings. A Budget and Legislative Analyst’s report dating back to March of 2012 determined that city agencies have in their possession at least 27 underutilized “surplus” properties. Under the Administrative Code, the top priority for such lands is affordable housing, yet they go unused. Why not prioritize the transfer of these parcels for 100 percent affordable projects?

• Figure out some alternative financing schemes. Recent changes to federal law sanction crowdfunding for real-estate projects, an option that didn’t previously exist. Say some affordable housing people got together, started an online fundraising campaign, bought vacant properties for conversion into affordable units, and secured public funding to make the whole thing pencil out. Real estate investors won’t give a project a green light unless they’re guaranteed a stupidly high return; maybe under this scenario, thousands of nontraditional investors who care about the city they live in could reap small bonuses for pitching in.

And by the way, developers are still free to propose highly affordable projects under Prop B. In fact, voters might be much happier to sign off on that idea than high-end luxury condo towers.