Op-Ed: The Displacement Bomb Set to Explode SF

And You’ve Never Even Heard of It: The Density Housing Program
Joseph Smooke | 12/09/2015
Areas of the Castro neighborhood targeted by the program
Photo Credit
All infographics by Joseph Smooke

For the good of the City, your old apartment building could be torn down! You'll be figuring out the next few years living elsewhere, while some developer builds a new “affordable” unit for you. You will have to wait a few years to move back, if the new building even gets built.

Don’t worry, though. This isn't just about you. It’s your neighbor’s place too. And your whole neighborhood. In fact, the San Francisco Planning Department has placed a developer “incentive” bullseye on nearly 31,000 parcels in every corner of the City. Colored blue on their maps, these vast areas also include your neighborhood corner store, produce market, pub, and restaurant. These homes and businesses are standing selfishly in the way of progress according to the proposed Affordable Housing Density Bonus Program.

If the City implements this program, instead of your rent-controlled home, there will be midrise buidings where the wealthy get to live wherever they want, but you’ll be relegated to a “Below Market Rate (BMR)” unit. To live there, you'll have to recertify your income every year. And if you no longer qualify, you’ll be pushed out to a hood near a distant BART or Caltrain station. Meanwhile, your neighborhood produce store will probably be replaced by an artisanal donut shop.

If you want a vision of the future, head over to Hayes Valley, Planning’s dream of how redevelopment transforms a diverse neighborhood into an exclusive playground of boutiques for the rich, along with some micro-units, and “BMR” affordables.

Remember that Redevelopment of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s promised “one for one” replacement. People who were displaced from their Victorian style homes in the Fillmore were told they could return after the Redevelopment Agency built new co-op and other BMR housing. The new housing was promised to be modern and price controlled– an upgrade from the aging Victorians considered by the Agency to be blight. However, in reality, this was the demise of the thriving African-American communities in San Francisco.

This is exactly the same rationale being applied in 2015. At the latest presentation to the Planning Commission on December 3, Planning staff told them that displaced tenants would be given priority to return, and that the new housing would be more affordable than the rent controlled units they currently live in. But they couldn’t say where seniors, parents, children, the disabled, artists, and workers would go while displaced. Or how long they'll be displaced. And Planning couldn’t say how people will can qualify for the new units if they make less than 55% of the Area Median Income (AMI). Even once San Francisco's new minimum wage gets to $15 an hour, you’re only hitting about 45% of the AMI for full time work.

There's also no plan for holding these hundreds of new landlords that will own and manage the BMR units accountable. How will we know that any particular building is renting 12% of its units at the right rates to people with the right income levels, and the same with the other 18% that are for a higher BMR price and income level? 

The Planning Dept. says that it needs to fast track this program through the approval process, with the approval hearing scheduled for Planning Commission on January 28, 2016, because we’re out of compliance with State law. The State requires that each jurisdiction show how it will implement compliance to this law. But the City has not received a notice from the State penalizing San Francisco, so it doesn't seem like compliance is really an issue. Planning has said other reasons to fast track are to deal with the City’s affordable housing crisis, and respond to the voters’ call for a Housing Balance between market rate and affordable.

However, the proposed Bonus Program ignores the fact that San Francisco’s housing stock is way out of balance. We keep losing rent controlled units, and are building a tremendous amount of market rate, luxury priced housing, with some crumbs of BMR. The “below market rate” units have become a punch line rather than an actual solution. Why don't BMR units work? Because the market is so outrageously expensive, there’s too much room “below market.” These units are much too expensive for working class or fixed income San Franciscans. Plus, there are so few BMR units that you literally need to win a lottery to get in.

Presentations by the City make it seem like the Bonus Program is targeted to the west side-- commercial streets like Geary and Taraval. But as you can see from the Planning Department's map, it inlcudes entire neighborhoods, and not just on the west side.

What can we do instead? We still need affordable housing and lots of it! Instead of targeting entire neighborhoods which would mean demolishing thousands of rent controlled apartments and the essential network of small business that provide affordable and culturally responsive goods and services for a diverse city, Planning needs to take a more nuanced approach. Take a look at this collage of sites in the Inner Richmond. There are surface parking lots, large and small, that could be developed as affordable housing. The parking would not be lost because it could be incorporated into the new building.

The City should be using its Housing Bond and Housing Trust Fund dollars to buy as many of these sites as it possibly can-- or purchase the air rights like what Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center and Bridge Housing did to create affordable senior housing over existing retail with parking. The only way to achieve the Housing Balance is to stop the loss of rent controlled units and to build 100% new affordable housing. This is true development without displacement which is what San Francisco desperately needs!