The unanswered question: How do we bridge SF's affordable housing gap?

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The Bridge Housing media roundtable on March 14 couldn't answer the fundamental housing affordability question.
Steven T. Jones

Nobody has a good answer to San Francisco’s most basic housing problem: How do we build the housing that existing city residents need? It was a question the Guardian has been posing for many years, and one that I again asked a panel of journalists and housing advocates on Friday, again getting no good answers.

The question is an important one given Mayor Ed Lee’s so-called “affordability agenda” and pledge to build 30,000 new housing units, a third of them somehow affordable, by 2020. And it’s a question that led to the founding 30 years ago of Bridge Housing, the builder of affordable and supportive housing that assembled Friday’s media roundtable.

“There really isn’t one thing, there needs to be a lot of changes in a lot of areas to make it happen,” was the closest that Bridge CEO Cynthia Parker came to answering the question.

One of those things is a general obligation bond measure this fall to fund affordable housing and transportation projects around the Bay Area, which Bridge and a large coalition of other partners are pushing. That would help channel some of the booming Bay Area’s wealth into its severely underfunded affordable housing and transit needs.

When I brought up other ideas from last week’s Guardian editorial for capturing more of the city’s wealth — such as new taxes on tech companies, a congestion pricing charge, and downtown transit assessment districts — Parker replied, “We’d be in favor of a lot of that.”

Yet it’s going to take far more proactive, aggressive, and creative actions to really bridge the gap between the San Francisco Housing Element’s analysis that 60 percent of new housing should be below-market-rate and affordable to those earning 120 percent or less of the area median income, and the less than 20 percent that San Francisco is actually building and promoting through its policies.

Stated another way, about 80 percent of housing we’re building is for a small minority of city residents, or the wealthy people that these developers hope to attract to the city. And we’re not building housing for the vast majority of city residents. That is a recipe for gentrification, displacement, and destruction of San Francisco as a progressive-minded city.

Parker parroted Lee and other pro-development boosters, including SPUR, in arguing that city needs to make it easier and faster for developers to build new housing of all types. “In San Francisco, we do need to expedite the [housing] entitlement process,” Parker said.

But when asked whether meeting or exceeded Lee’s housing production goals would ever bring the price of market-rate housing down to the level where someone more 120 percent of AMI — which HUD recently set at $81,550 for single San Franciscans, or $116,500 for a family of four — Parker conceded that it wouldn’t.

The bottom line for San Francisco and its overheated real estate market is we can never built our way to affordability. The only way to build housing that most people can afford is with public subsidies, and San Francisco just isn’t asking enough from its wealthy individuals, corporations, and developers to create an Affordable Housign Trust Fund that is anywhere near big enough to meet the real demand.

That kind of assertion seems radical by the standards of today’s skewed political (and online) discourse. But when I raised it to a panel that included Bridge Housing officials, members of SPUR and HOPE SF, and a panel of journalists from such pro-development outlets as San Francisco Business Times, San Francisco Magazine, SocketSite, The Registry SF, KQED, and TechCrunch (as well as the more Guardian-aligned Mother Jones), nobody had any good answers or remedies to that basic question that we’ve raised again and again.

Instead, some of the business journalists offered a more sober assessment of what’s to come than most of this city’s pro-development boosters, noting a few signs of irrational exhuberance in the local economy.

The Registry’s Vladimir Bosanac said he’s observed a recent trend of developers buying up unentitled land, indicating more optimism in the sustainability of this development boom than market conditions might warrant. Adam Koval of SocketSite, an early predicter of the last dom-com crash, also voiced sketicism in the pervasive “this time is different” faith in the tech sector, noting how realms such as gaming and online coupons are losing steam and predicting that commercial rents are plateauing.

“I think there are some real gut checks coming up,” Koval said of the tech sector and the sustainability of its growth and valuations.

Perhaps it’s also time for a gut check by Mayor Lee and others who argue that we can build our way to housing affordability without any major new efforts to capture more of the wealth now being generated in San Francisco, wealth that might not be here later if we continue avoiding the question of how to provide the housing that San Francisco needs.