Housing Near Transit for the Rich or Poor?
On a blazing hot Saturday afternoon, several hundred people marched through the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District as part of a growing movement against a developer’s plans for condo buildings at one of the Bay Area’s busiest transit hubs.
The proposed condo development of two 10-storey buildings and one five-storey building would be at the plaza located at 16th and Mission Street, where there is an entrance to a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station. BART is a public transit system of heavy rail and subways that connect San Francisco with cities in the East Bay, such as Oakland, and northern San Mateo County. The protest on October 4, 2014 was organized by Our Mission No Eviction and the Plaza 16 Coalition.
The development is one of the most resisted and most watched in the City. On the one hand, it fulfills not only City and County of San Francisco’s plans for transit-oriented development but the Bay Area’s regional agenda for focused growth near transit under state law SB 375. On the other hand, residents and activists say the development will escalate displacement and gentrification in the Mission District, a Latino neighborhood for decades.
“This is the fight, not just because of that one building, but that building connected to all the other thousands of market rate units that they want to bring down. They’re all looking at 16th Street,” said a speaker at the protest, Oscar Grande, in an interview. Grande is a Community Organizer with People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER).
“We got politicians that are pushing for transit-orientated [sic] development. They’re looking for smart growth. But it’s not smart if it doesn’t include folks like you and I. That’s why we gotta push. That’s why this is so important,” he continued.
San Francisco often tops lists of US cities for the most expensive rent, averaging close to $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Rising rents and evictions are pushing out longtime residents. According to a recent analysis by the California Housing Partnership Corporation median rents in San Francisco County increased by 22 percent between 2000 and 2012, while the median income declined by more than 2 percent, significantly driving up the percentage of income that households must spend on rent. Meanwhile 59% of very low-income households spend more than half their income on rent.
“When my parents moved to this country from Nicaragua, this was their home,” said High School Counselor Evelyn Ibarra, who participated in the protest called “No Monster in the Mission.” She continued, “This is where my brother and I were raised. My parents still own a family-owned business over here on Valencia and 21st and we’re seeing a lot of friends that we know getting evicted, or a lot of our families.”
“It’s just really sad to see a lot of people having to be dislocated to the East Bay as well,” she said, “I work in Pittsburg, and I see a lot kids who have to live all the way out there because they can no longer live here with their families.” Pittsburg, California is about an hour drive northeast of San Francisco.
Zoning for Developers or Communities?
The developers, Maximus Real Estate Partners, LLC are proposing buildings that would contain 345 housing units, most of which will be market rate, with 32,000 square feet of retail space and an underground parking garage. The proposed site at 1979 Mission Street currently has a Walgreens, Burger King, a Chinese restaurant and bar. The project is under review at the San Francisco Planning Department.
The City’s guiding principles for this project comes from the City’s “Eastern Neighborhoods Plan,” which emphasizes transit-oriented housing development. The Plan establishes the zoning controls for large areas of the city that were formerly home to a significant amount of blue color jobs in manufacturing, distribution and repair. The areas include the Mission District, Eastern South of Market (SOMA), Potrero Hill and the Central Waterfront.
As the neighborhoods began to change with the changing economy, the City initiated a community planning process that began in 2001 to plan housing and other development in these areas. In 2009, the “Eastern Neighborhoods Plan” was approved, despite objections by community groups.
The Plaza 16 Coalition* traces its origins to the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, which was formed during the first Dot-com boom in the late 1990’s. They led the creation of the “People’s Plan” to inform the creation of the eastern neighborhoods rezoning, but this plan was largely brushed aside. The “People’s Plan” includes requiring that all sites over 10,000 square feet be affordable housing to reverse family flight and limits heights of buildings to five stories to reduce incentives to build luxury condos. The Coalition is demanding this plan be a framework used for all developments in the Mission.
Transit-oriented development and “green-washing” issues of race and class
The project at 1979 Mission shows how land use policy favoring transit-oriented development, without a strong equitable development framework and protections against displacement, can intensify race and class disparities. Increasingly, housing located near transit is more expensive. A 2010 study by Northeastern University studied the impacts of newly transit-rich neighborhoods concluding “the most predominant pattern is one in which housing becomes more expensive, neighborhood residents become wealthier and vehicle ownership becomes more common.” The study continued to say “a new transit station can set in motion a cycle of unintended consequences in which core transit users– such as renters and low income households– are priced out in favor of higher-income, car owning residents who are less likely to use public transit for commuting.”
A further review of related literature on the subject, including “Public Transit’s Impact on Housing Costs” published in 2011 by the Center for Housing Policy, confirms the broad consensus in planning studies that “proximity to public transit does lead to higher home values and rents in many cases. ”People who can afford higher housing costs, are more likely to use their cars instead of public transit. Meanwhile, low-income households rely on public transit, and will use it often. A 2014 study by the California Housing Partnership shows that “Higher Income households drive more than twice as many miles and own more than twice as many vehicles as Extremely Low-Income households living within 1/4 mile of frequent transit.”
While the development at 1979 Mission would not install a new transit system, it’s easy to see the effects of building what the community calls, “luxury condos” as being similar to the effects described in these studies. The renters of these market rate condos would more likely be wealthier than most of the existing residents in the neighborhood and are less inclined to use public transit.
In fact, this proposed development on top of a major transit hub would provide 163 parking spaces, even though the City does not require any parking at this site. A basement parking garage adds significant cost to the development, making the base price for rent even more out of reach of local residents.
The new parking garage will also bring additional car traffic to the area. While the developers have plans to improve the impacted streets and sidewalks they also intend to apply for a credit with the City to reduce their impact fees in exchange for the road improvements.
Other telling signs that new residents of the neighborhood are less inclined to use public transit are the private buses zipping up and down Mission neighborhood streets in service to tech employees, also known as “Google buses.” These luxury buses pick up tech employees living in the City to drive them to their offices Silicon Valley.
Affordability for existing residents
While access to transit is important, for many of the Mission residents and advocates city-wide, concerns about the project come down to affordability. They say developments such as the one proposed at 16th and Mission should be affordable for people who live and work in the neighborhood.
At the first action against the condo development held on February 1, 2014, a mother who lives in the Mission, Guillermina Castellanos, said in an interview translated from Spanish, “This building they want to build, it won’t be for our families. It will be for another class of families that have money. And we don’t have sufficient money to pay for these condominiums.”
Rising housing costs and evictions are pushing out Latino families. In the Mission District, between 1990 and 2011, Latino households decreased by 1400, at the same time white households increased by 2900 according to a 2014 study by grassroots organization, Causa Justa :: Just Cause.
When asked about their plans for affordable housing, a Lobbyist for Maximus Real Estate Partners Bert Polacci said in an email, “We are currently planning the inclusionary housing in the project as outlined by law.” The plans for affordable units within the new building will comply with the City’s minimum requirement. A total of 42 affordable units will be built among the 303 market rate units.
For new housing developments, the city requires that 12 percent of the units on site be affordable, also known as inclusionary housing. A developer can also opt to pay a fee instead, or build the below market rate units at another site.
Community advocates want all the housing units to be affordable, “The existing residents of this neighborhood … need to be at the table when planning conversations are happening,” said Causa Justa Organizer Maria Zamudio in an interview. “They need to decide what kind of housing they want, what they want it to look like, where they want it to go, what kind of affordability levels [they] are going to be at,” she continued.
This reflects another tenet of the “People’s Plan” that would require public input for all new buildings in the Mission District. Since the protest in February 2014, organizers have held community meetings, given public comment at City hearings, and held rallies to ensure public input regarding the development.
On their part, Maximus has had over 100 meetings with community and city-wide organizations, merchants, City agencies, and labor groups since late summer 2013, according to the website for the 1979 Mission Street development.
Surrounding businesses closing down
Beyond the impacts on housing affordability, there are concerns about the development’s impact to surrounding buildings, especially a Spanish immersion public elementary school, and businesses serving the area.
A merchant association leader said his experience is that when a development like this goes up, the surrounding businesses will be priced out. “What ends up happening is you get realtors talking with the existing merchants trying to find out when their leases come due, trying to find out who the property owners are,” said Erick Arguello of the Calle 24 Merchant Association in an interview. Then the realtors offer the property owners, “more money to bring in another business that’s going to be able to cater to this new market,” he continued.
As the Mission District has become gentrified, Arguello has seen owners being forced to move out and go out of business because they can’t afford increases in rent. One of the best examples of rapid gentrification taking over many parts of San Francisco can be found one block away from Mission Street on Valencia Street. Low-key taquerias, discount stores and other Latino-owned mom and pop shops have been replaced with high-end restaurants, clothing boutiques and other luxury stores catering to the new demographic of tech-employed hipsters settling in the neighborhood.
A report by the City’s Budget and Legislative Analyst published in October 2014 puts some stark numbers behind what merchants have been experiencing city-wide. In 1992, 518 businesses open for at least five years closed or relocated. In 2011, that figure skyrocketed by over 600 percent to 3,657 established businesses in San Francisco closed or relocated. The price of commercial property sales rates has also gone way up from $189.50 per square foot in 1999 to $675.10 per square foot in 2013.
Casting a Shadow on a Neighborhood School
The development is also hotly contested by the parents of the Spanish immersion public school located right beside the proposed site. At a Board of Education hearing on June 23 2014, the line of parents of Marshall Elementary and surrounding neighbors waiting to give public comment extended from the podium to the back of the room. That evening, the developers formally presented their plans to the Board of Education members for the first time.
The parents’ major concerns center on dust and noise from construction, and the shadow the condo development will cast on the school yard if it’s built. During her public comment in reaction to the construction plans, a mother of a recent Marshall graduate and current student, Bianca Starr, said “Not to sound dramatic, but it sounds like a war zone.” Both of her sons have asthma and she is concerned about how her younger son’s health will be impacted by the dust and the construction noise disrupting class time.
The developer estimates that construction would last for 21 months, enough to impact two school years. The developers have told the community about plans to mitigate the noise, dust and shadow impacts, including offering to build an elevated playground for the school. According to a spokesperson for the developers, Christian Lampley, approval of any construction on school property would have to be through the School District and the State Architect.
In an recent interview, President of the Board of Education Sandra Lee Fewer said, “The School District cannot look at this development in isolation when there is rapid development in this one concentrated area.” She has concerns about how these developments will impact the Board’s ability to serve every school age child who chooses public education. Echoing the remarks she told the developer at the June hearing, “A generous offer from the developer would be not to build an elevated play yard, but to build a new larger school.”
She and other members of the Board of Education are looking at the impacts of the development on the entire neighborhood. “It's not about one school,” she said. “Large market rate developments such as this have an effect on the neighborhood in general– the cost of neighboring rental units, ability to run a family business there. And it's also about being able to have a neighborhood that reflects the character and values of Mission District families that currently live there,” she said.
According to City Planner, M. Douglas Vu, the 1979 Mission project is currently undergoing its Environmental Review, which includes a transportation study and shadow analysis. After environmental evaluation, there will be conditional use hearing with the Planning Department when there will no doubt be more community resistance and public comment offered to the City and developers.