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

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. 


Because, for the duration of the forum, the real world doesn't exist and all that matters is the "think tank" of a bunch of people who could not organize a party in a brewery but who somehow think that what they think matters.

That said, some of the folks at this meeting actually have real jobs. But most of them are activists, advocates and non-profit profiteers.

Waste of space and time, so Steven loved it.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 5:35 pm

status and also the fact that he has a captive audience, forced to listen to him as he drones on. It's gotta be a nice break from the reality of progressive life in SF - e-cig bans, the mainstreaming of Burning Man and skyrocketing rent and housing prices.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

Nice work if you can get it and he can, at least for now.

But unlike Tim he didn't have the nous to buy a home and marry a lawyer, so he should enjoy SF while he can still afford it.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

I can't think of a major metropolitan area anywhere in the world that is "affordable" in its central core. New York, Moscow, London, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, Delhi, Paris, etc. are all expensive primarily because they attract those with wealth AND those who aspire to obtain wealth. While that may grate on those who believe that social interaction is the primary reason to move to a particular city, it has not proven to be the case in most of the world's history.

So, it seems reasonable to assume that the only way to make San Francisco's housing more affordable is to seriously damage the local economy. One way to do so would be to make living here difficult for wealthy individuals and/or making it difficult to do business in the area. We've done some of this, but not nearly enough to slow the boom created by the technology industry and its associated service companies (VC, Finance, Law, etc.) The problem with this approach is that it naturally loses some support among voters. For example, the tenant who strongly supports rent control may feel a little uneasy if his or her job is now moved out of state as a result of new corporate taxes.

The bottom line is that there is no good solution to this problem. Those who believe there is some holy grail with respect to making housing affordable to the average San Francisco resident is typically either trying to shill for the developers or pushing for some sort of socialized housing solution that would stand little chance of success with voters or in the courts.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 5:40 pm

such things as the SF economy. There is just the Bay Area economy.

If SF suddenly got a North Korean style communist government, the wealthy would simply move to adjoining counties and carry on. SF would become like Oakland. It would be affordable again but you would not want to live here.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 6:15 pm

New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong, etc. like San Francisco, are all tightly connected with today's global economy, which is tied to widening income inequality and easy access by land speculators. Ten, twenty, thirty years ago one could find housing at most or all of these places, at a manageable premium over less desirable outlying areas. Worsening inequality is sinking affordable housing everywhere.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 8:34 pm

to live AND have good economies.

There are crappy cities with crappy economies that are dirt cheap.

So you have a choice.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 19, 2014 @ 6:13 am

Build housing, lots of it. Build market rate housing, build middle income housing and build subsidized housing for the poor.

Tax it to build out our infrastructure.

You don't solve a housing shortage by making it harder to build things. San Francisco has been doing it wrong for decades, which is why we have a shortage in the first place. It's not like we haven't seen this coming:

Posted by GlenParkDaddy on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 6:07 pm
Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

As does wealth.

People like people like themselves.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 6:31 pm

So the idea that the solution is more of that is laughable.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 6:16 pm

Will any of this new housing block my view from Telegraph Hill?

It's hard to help the poor if I can't see them through my telescope.

Posted by Snoozers on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 6:21 pm
Posted by Guest on Mar. 18, 2014 @ 6:33 pm

Can't we just pass a law that banishes those under a certain income level (and all artists) to Fremont?

Posted by Chromefields on Mar. 19, 2014 @ 10:32 am

suffer great pains, privations and suffering. SF is just too comfortable and genteel to provoke the kind of emotional trauma that artists feed on.

If every word, image, note or brushstroke must be ripped from the heart in a swirl of anguish, then surely the killing field flatlands of Oakland are perfect for germinating such artistry?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 19, 2014 @ 10:46 am

Great joke: 20 activists get In to a room and try to solve the great SF housing conundrum. What's the answer? Don't build housing! Side note: tax the rich.
What a supreme effing joke. Seriously Steven.. You seem like you try, but you're just not terribly smart.
I have to imagine that at some point in the discussion you all recognized that nobody was considering building more housing and had a great laugh about how far everyone's head was up their own ass.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 19, 2014 @ 9:28 pm

I never did get where this idea comes from that building no homes will make housing more affordable.

If that were really true then think how cheap homes would get if we started destroying homes!

Posted by Guest on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 6:55 am

Didn't read it either. I could tell by the title that it wasn't something worth reading. Skimmed it just now because you brought attention to it. Sounds like a version of the same simplistic talking point- build build build.

You trolls have done the impossible. You make Sarah Palin look smart.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 7:49 am

Could it be more obvious that Steven entered this discussion with a predetermined outcome? That we must tax rich people more to capture wealth? Which, hey! that was his answer for the last dozen issues we faced.

Is there any problem that cant be solved by capturing more wealth from the rich?

Just make sure we dont build any new housing, because we cant build our way to affordability and not building will make things better.

Posted by Becky Backside on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 8:05 am

can he rationally believe that socialism can be brought to SF.

But hey, what else can he do for a living?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 8:14 am

Most Californians think that we should tax the wealthy more ( and it is becoming obvious that we should not build to the boom because it is impossible to build San Francisco up to affordability (

Posted by marcos on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 8:49 am

build any new homes? Do you think before you write? Ever?

Most voters think other people should pay more taxes. So what? In practice higher taxes means higher taxes for everyone.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 9:08 am

Exactions for new housing should be set such that half of all projects do not pencil out economically. Thus, half of all housing currently proposed should get built, half should not.

Most Californians want to tax the shit of the rich. Your quarrel is with the majority of Californians as much as it is with me. But I bet you're one of those libertarians who think that one dollar should equate to one vote, huh?

Posted by marcos on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 10:01 am

You presumably meant extortions and not extractions.

CA voters do not want to tax any one group unfairly. What they do support is taxes being paid by others but not themselves. We have a tradition of protecting minorities and so your quarrel is with the constitution.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 10:30 am

Half of anything is not nothing unless anything is nothing which it is not.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 10:43 am

Unless the profit margin on a development is more than 50%, then it cannot be possible to give away 50% of the proceeds without the project no longer being viable.

You could try and negotiate for half the profit, but not half the cost. Two very different things.

Smarter, shrewder people than you handle these negotiations, and the pound of flesh extorted is as much as it can be.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 10:55 am

Noncomprehensive imbecile. Respond to my statements, not your hallucinations.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 11:11 am

A 50% haircut would make far more than 50% of projects not worth doing.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 11:24 am

Your idiocy appears intentional. There is a difference between a 50% take and a take that causes 50% of sub-optimal projects, projects that would place more burdens on the public sector than public benefits they'd provide, to fail to pencil out.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 7:53 am

is because much beyond that the project isn't viable. It might be if the city guaranteed sales and profits, but of course it can not and does not.

It's about risk as much as anything. Nobody is going to build if the haircut means a decent chance of a loss.

Put another way, all investors look at the projected risk-adjusted ROI. If it is less than another location because of the haircut, the funds will go elsewhere.

Far smarter people than you can do these sums in their sleep.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 8:03 am

luxury high-rise can afford that, like the stunning Rincom Hill towers. Maybe we should build more of those?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 8:12 am

The reason why the pound of flesh is 10-20% is because developers purchase elections and demand more.

I think that most San Franciscan would be very comfortable with half of all ventures not penciling out and those investment dollars going elsewhere since they are not coming to us and we're expected to bear the downside of their speculative profiteering.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 8:51 am

election proves you wrong. People want new homes.

10% of the project could easily be 50% of the profit, so the city is already getting as much as it can.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 9:09 am

Prop B and C were your shit sandwiches and went down 2:1 and 3:2.

There are whole Vegas buffets full of ways that electeds have taken their victories as license to enact policies that are opposed by significant majorities.

Bring it on.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 22, 2014 @ 7:29 am
Posted by Guest on Mar. 22, 2014 @ 7:54 am

Hi Marcos,
As you actively advocate for no new housing, are you mentioning the appreciation on your mission district condo?
Publicly available information shows that you have refinanced repeatedly to take money out.
If you are going to advocate a no growth approach, you should mention that you financially benefit from said approach.

Posted by Becky Backside on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 10:38 am

but it is well known here and elsewhere.

With marcos's descent into total political irrelevance, he is advocating ever more idiotic policies just to try and get some attention.

Even ridicule is preferable to being ignored, he evidently thinks.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 10:50 am

Others enjoy playing Charlie Brown to the Lucy that pulls the ball away before every kick. After three instances where the poverty nonprofits leveraged my work for their own political chits, I declined to donate any more time. If I produce for the poverty nonprofits I am relevant. If I do not I am irrelevant. That points out to me that unless one legitimates the poverty nonprofits and their dependence upon the economic and political elites, one cannot be politically relevant in this context.

No, seriously, Lucy is not going to pull the football away this next time, really, because you think you're going to kick a field goal you really always will. T-ball and trophies for all!

Posted by marcos on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 11:16 am
Posted by Guest on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 11:23 am

He does take it regularly and indiscriminately, but dignity doesnt factor in.

Posted by Becky Backside on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 11:57 am

You need to go back and refine your research before you spout more lies.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 11:12 am

You have a vested interest in NIMBYism

Posted by Guest on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 11:24 am

If that is directed towards me, the information is publicly available on any real estate site. You want me to post that Marcos? Since you are saying its BS?

Posted by Becky Backside on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 11:58 am

Never by me, but it's public information anyway.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 12:12 pm

Homeowners can refinance to get a lower interest rate without taking out any equity. They can do that over and again as rates fall until their monthly housing cost is 50% of what it was ten years ago and not pay a single point in the process. Your incorrect deduction that we did otherwise is a malicious lie.

If housing gets built, our home goes up in value. If no housing gets built, our home goes up in value. Homeownership has no bearing on this, the economics of the policy choices speak for themselves. The fact that the trolls and the poverty nonprofits are essentially on the same side on most of this, the side of the developers, likewise speaks for itself.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 2:11 pm

you feel it is perfectly OK to criticize them?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 2:33 pm

Becky backside is a lying liar lie face!

Love that I got you riled up Marcos. Is there any proof that you didnt take any equity out when you refinanced?

Posted by Becky Backside on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 3:05 pm

We played our financing more conservative than the tea party.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 20, 2014 @ 5:38 pm
Posted by Guest on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 8:11 am

We eschew spurious debt.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 8:52 am

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.