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On October 26, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to reject a 495-unit housing project that survived the city’s notorious regulatory gauntlet and won strong support from Mayor London Breed and a coalition of progressive groups and moderate. The answer may turn out to be a turning point in California history. The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development immediately said voting against a project with more than 20% affordable housing in an area with good transit access appeared to violate two state laws intended to removing barriers to new housing. Now Gov. Gavin Newsom has agreed and essentially declared war on complacency and housing indifference from the city — and many other local governments.
On Tuesday, the real estate agency launched its first-ever official investigation into why it takes longer in San Francisco than anywhere else in California to approve and complete projects. Its intention is to put in place a practical framework that ensures that projects that tick certain boxes have clear paths to completion – tackling the phenomenon of “shifting goals” from developers tackling a series of obstacles to realize that there will always be new ones.
This certainty is crucial. The nearly one million unit housing shortage has led to the state becoming the epicenter of poverty in the United States and losing population for two consecutive years. Wide-ranging spillovers seem inevitable. Tech workers earning over $200,000 can get by. But if what once seemed comfortably middle-income families are hammered by million-dollar house price tags and $4,000 rents, who will serve in law enforcement? Teach or provide day care? Do you work in catering and services? California’s charms don’t offer unlimited protection against people moving to cheaper states where home ownership doesn’t look like a distant prospect akin to winning the lottery.
That Newsom is leading this charge against his hometown. For all its progressive reputation, one of the wealthiest cities in the wealthiest state of the world’s wealthiest nation is a hotbed of housing resistance. Far too many residents view housing projects through the lens of the potential for them to harm their lives. This absolutism causes them to use a kitchen sink approach to NIMBYism that continues to adopt new tactics regardless of their consistency with past tactics. While new state laws have limited the legal and regulatory tools provided by environmental rules to block projects, critics in San Francisco are trying a new tactic: portraying new housing projects — even those with major reservations for affordable units – as being stealthy steps towards further gentrification of a city that may seem downright feudal in its division between the wealthy elite and struggling workers. That adding more units is the only realistic way to remedy a shortage is rejected.
But while this problem may be acute in San Francisco, it’s everywhere in modern California. In San Diego – which, according to a February analysis, is the most unaffordable place to buy a home in the United States – leaders who recognize the need to add at least 100,000 units by 2029 have a more approach constructive than in many cities. City leaders have enacted “density bonuses” that allow developers to build more units on parcels if the additional units are affordable to middle-income households. And last month, a panel of housing advocates and industry veterans created by Mayor Todd Gloria recommended changing the rules to allow cheaper building materials and make it easier to remove older, “historic” structures. and comply with certain water pollution mandates.
But just like in San Francisco, many local NIMBYs refuse to acknowledge that binding state laws require cities to act in good faith to add housing stock. They also don’t disavow dirty fights. In November, a measure placed unanimously on the city’s ballot by the city council would lift the coastal building height limit by 30 feet for a 1,324-acre area of Midway District that includes the sports arena – a site that seems ideal for a booming high-rise residential area due to its proximity to public transport and highways.
But this limited project may not be what critics are up against. Instead, the mayor may well claim to want to turn San Diego into Miami Beach. It’s not true. Yet that doesn’t matter to those who want to preserve the city as their memory in perpetuity – no matter what the cost to others.