Mission luxury housing moratorium falls short

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Shawn Gaynor's picture
A housing rights advocate untagles banner at San Francisco City Hall.
Mission luxury housing moratorium in tatters? Not yet say housing advocates, who vow to return with a ballot issue for voters this fall. Photo by Rebecca Bowe.

By Shawn Gaynor

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 7-4 in favor of a 45 day building moratorium on luxury housing development Tuesday, falling short of the 9-2 super-majority required pass the legislation as an "interim emergency ordinance," and setting up a likely ballot measure fight over the proposal this fall.

Following the defeat of the measure, Mission District Supervisor David Campos, who brought the legislation said, “The people of San Francisco have made it clear that the housing crisis must be addressed and that they won't stop fighting for their homes and community. I promise that I will not leave them to fight alone.”

Campos said the moratorium was necessary to give time for the city to make plans to build affordable housing on the few remaining empty building lots in the Mission large enough to accommodate major housing projects.

Supporters of the measure expressed fears that without the pause in luxury development, all remaining available land will be quick developed, leaving city planners no place to build the type of market rate and affordable housing units that they say can preserve the city's economic and racial diversity.

The debate focused heavily on the fate of 13 larger undeveloped lots in the Mission, where moratorium advocates said over 850 below market rate units could be built. Undertaking the construction of those unit would, in theory, give those long term residents displaced by the city's housing boom a place to go.

Supervisor Malia Cohen, who often votes in step with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee's pro-development agenda, broke with pro-development forces and voted for the moratorium, leaving supervisors Scott Wiener, Katy Tang, Mark Farrell, and Julie Christensen to stand against the measure. Cohen represents District 10, where concern is rising that the city's building boom could displace large numbers of long time residents in the predominantly African-American Bayview/Hunter's Point neighborhood.

Supervisors John Avalos, Jane Kim, Eric Mar, London Breed, and Norman Yee joined Cohen in supporting the Campos proposal with yes votes.

The board's pro-development minority insisted a freeze on luxury building in the Mission would exacerbate San Francisco's housing crisis by forcing the wealthiest home seekers to displace regular San Franciscans rather than move into new units. “We are literally going to shoot our self in the foot,” said Sup. Farrell who warned the measure would reducing the development fees that fund new affordable housing in San Francisco.

However, even pro-development stalwarts like the San Francisco Chronicle have started to sound the alarm over the city's nation leading rental and home prices, warning that the tech workers at the center of the city's economic boom have by-in-large been priced out and are starting to look to other regions of the country to launch their start-up ventures.

Mirroring the recent “Mission takes city hall” action, hundreds of upset San Francisco voters flooded city hall to be heard on the issue demanding something be done to fix a deepening housing crisis that has lead to the displacement of thousands of long time San Francisco residents. The Mission district alone has lost 8,000 Latino residents in the past 10 years.

Emotions ran high during nine hours of public comment overwhelmingly in favor of the moratorium, as the anxiety of being the next evicted ex-San Franciscan drove what seemed like the whole Mission neighborhood to appear before city hall. Those who could not fit into the capacity filled council chamber protested though out the building demanding some relief from an onslaught of evictions caused by a skyrocketing housing market.

It is easy to forget in the moratorium debate, that proposal brought by Sup. Campos was for a moratorium on luxury housing units only, and not a building freeze in general. It is easy to lose site of the fact that all sides of the debate want more housing units built right away.

But the driving factor behind opposition to a pause in luxury building, is that luxury building has disproportionally taken over the urban housing market both in San Francisco and nationally.

Recently the Wall Street Journal reported that 82 percent of new urban housing development was made up of luxury units – units that command rents in the top 20% of the market or over. By that yardstick it represents units renting for over $5,000 monthly San Francisco's current market. Any kitchen table economist can see that most San Franciscan's can't afford $60,000 each year in rental housing expenses. According to the most recent numbers from the Department of Labor Statistics, the mean wage in San Francisco before taxes is roughly $69,000 per year.

San Francisco is just above the national average when it come to the soaring percent of new units built as luxury housing. This means by definition the majority affordable and market rate housing that is being built, is being built as part of a municipal zoning requirement. By law, multi-unit luxury developers in San Francisco are required to produce 12 percent of units as affordable housing. That means most of affordable and market rate housing being built is only being produced by developers when they are forced by law to do so.

The San Francisco Planning Department has been very vocal in its view that new luxury units do not drive up rents in market rate units, and that these rates are being drive purely by overall housing demand. But it is obvious to conservatives and liberals alike that placing new million dollar condo buildings on either side of an existing San Francisco apartment building is bound to drive up the rent, driving out long term middle and lower income residents.

No invisible hand of the market is balancing San Francisco's housing needs with the housing stock being produced, because with few exceptions there are only luxury housing units and government required affordable housing units currently being produced at all.

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