How We Can Make Progress on Housing

While rents in San Francisco are down compared to where they were pre-pandemic, they’re once again on the rise as our economy recovers. San Francisco remains among the most expensive cities in the world and the reason why is no secret: we haven’t built anywhere close to enough housing for decades. In fact, the Bay Area has the worst ratio of jobs created to new homes created of anywhere in the country. What this has meant is that countless longtime residents and others who might want to move to our city have been priced out, forced to move further and further away or to different states entirely.

But we have an opportunity for change, and that’s going to take action at the local, state, and federal level. And in the months ahead we have a once a decade opportunity to address our chronic housing shortage and ensure that housing is built across our entire city.

Local Leadership: Cars to Casas

At the local level, our attempts to address this dire situation have faced stiff pushback from defenders of the status quo. This week we put forward another new solution, called Cars to Casas, which will streamline the process of converting gas stations, parking lots, and other automotive uses to housing. That legislation does two fundamental things:

First it gets rid of the long and unnecessary bureaucratic process currently required simply to say that it’s ok to build housing on what used to be a parking lot.

Second, it removes suburban-style density restrictions on these lots, which means we can add more homes on these sites without changing height limits.

Less bureaucracy, more homes. Across the entire city.

State Level Changes: Implementing New Laws

When local obstruction gets in the way, not just here in San Francisco but in cities across the state, we need the state to step in. We’ve begun to see success with laws like Senator Wiener’s SB 35, which have shaved months or even years off the approval processes for affordable housing projects.

This year we saw some positive action with a package of housing bills that were signed by Governor Newsom. This includes SB 9, which will have a hearing at the Planning Commission next week on how the bill will support more housing in San Francisco. The goals behind SB 9 are simple — allow the flexibility to create more housing on lots zoned only for single family homes. As we work to apply SB 9, I’m encouraging the Planning Commission to think boldly and expansively, because in the end this is how we’re going to make our City more affordable for everyone.

Federal Support for Affordable Housing

We also need more federal support for housing, and this week we had the honor of welcoming Marcia Fudge, who is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to San Francisco. We toured multiple sites with Secretary Fudge, and talked about how federal investments can help us transform — and add more homes — to our public housing.

We know that affordable housing is expensive, but we are also seeing significant investments from the federal government that we haven’t seen in a long time.

This is a real opportunity and I’m eager to continue to work with Secretary Fudge and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to create more opportunities to invest federal dollars here in San Francisco.

The Housing Element: A Real Opportunity for Change

But there’s another opportunity upcoming for San Francisco and cities across California to finally take real action on the housing crisis that hasn’t received enough attention, which is known as the housing element.

I’ll try to make this description as brief as possible, because nothing loses an audience’s attention faster than describing state requirements for housing production. But stick with me, because this is important.

California requires cities to regularly update their zoning to ensure that there are opportunities for new housing that meet expected population and job growth. In San Francisco, this happens every 8 years, with our next update coming in 2022. Historically though, the number of homes that the state has required cities and towns to build has been wildly below what was actually needed, and even when cities failed to meet these low goals, there were little to no consequences.

That changed in 2018 thanks to the leadership of Senator Scott Wiener and his bill, SB 828. For the first time, the process of determining how many homes different areas need to build will actually reflect the severity of the housing shortage we face, and the state has been empowered to enforce these plans to make sure they’re realistic.

What this means for San Francisco is we now need to make a real plan for to accommodate 82,000 new homes by 2031 — a target set by State and Regional Agencies that has been tripled compared to the city’s current targets. This target is powerful because state and federal funding at risk if those new homes aren’t accommodated. We no longer have the option of debating IF we need more housing. The discussion now must be HOW we build more housing. And if we don’t decide, the state will decide for us.

Here’s what I believe we need to see out of this process.

First, we have to learn from past mistakes. San Francisco historically allowed for dense, multifamily housing to be built across the city. This changed with mid-century zoning that outlawed buildings that had been built pre-1940s. One third of our housing (125,000 units) that predate zoning simply could not be built today. We can’t afford to outlaw our housing again. Every neighborhood in our city needs to do their part, and by allowing more housing throughout our city we can make our neighborhoods more active and more vibrant.

Second, we have to take this process seriously and acknowledge reality. If we fail to create a plan that actually allows for new housing to be created, or we try to technically meet the state’s criteria but in a way that is destined to fail, the state will reject our proposal.

Our city planners, in concert with community members, have produced a draft that provides a roadmap to meeting our goals. It’s critical that our Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors pass a meaningful plan to house our residents. The first goal of the Housing Element would establish City policy that housing is a “human right, foundational to health and social/economic stability.” To truly commit to this statement, we must create the means to provide that housing. The proposed Housing element would seek to add housing in “High Opportunity Neighborhoods” (policy III.5). This provides more equitable outcomes by creating housing in higher wealth neighborhoods”.

Third, we need to see this as an opportunity, not a punishment. New housing is good for our city and good for our residents. It will make San Francisco more affordable. It will mean that not just the wealthy will be able to afford to live here, but also those who have been priced out over the past 20 years, like artists, service workers, and people working blue collar jobs. It will support our neighborhood small businesses when they have more people walking to restaurants and stores along our commercial corridors. And it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions because fewer people will be forced to commute long distances to work in a city they can’t afford to live in.

Housing people doesn’t mean high-rises everywhere. Some of our most dense neighborhoods are low- and mid-rise buildings. San Francisco has built and can build this housing type again again.

Will it mean that we’ll see new buildings in our neighborhoods? Yes. But what makes San Francisco special is not our collection of buildings, it’s the people who make up this city. We pride ourselves on our diversity, it’s what makes San Francisco, San Francisco. It’s time we live up to those values with our housing policy.

45th Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco