June Initiative Boosts Housing for Working Families

by Randy Shaw on January 16, 2008

Supervisors Bevan Dufty, Sophie Maxwell, Ross Mirkarimi and Aaron Peskin submitted a ballot initiative yesterday that would slow the exodus of San Francisco’s working families from the city. The “Incentives for Family-sized Affordable Housing Units” initiative transforms the city’s inclusionary housing law into an engine for dramatically increasing affordable housing opportunities for working and middle-class families. Whereas current city law has resulted in 62% of “inclusionary units” (affordable units that are 15% of the project) being too small for families with children, the initiative filed yesterday promotes family housing by granting builders the right to build more units (“density bonuses”) for making all of their inclusionary units at least two-bedrooms or more. San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children (14%) among the top fifty cities in the United States. The city’s African-American families are twice as likely to leave. By creating hundreds of new affordable family units beginning as early as 2009, the June initiative will help reverse this trend. Here is the story of initiative’s background, and its broader implications for San Francisco’s future.

San Francisco’s soaring housing prices have forced working and middle-class families with children to leave the city in search of more affordable homes. Among some groups, as in the 43% decline in African-American families with children during the 1990’s, the family exodus from San Francisco has been particularly severe.

The city’s efforts to slow this family exodus have been hampered by a lack of federal, state and city funds. While the city has seen a boom in market-rate construction, most of these units are too small for families with children, and the city’s inclusionary law requires that the below market rate (BMR) units mirror those sold at market-rate.

In September, I attended a housing lottery at the Symphony Towers condos on Van Ness. There were 16 BMR units, but only one had more than one-bedroom. Over 100 families were competing for that single two-bedroom unit, the only family-sized unit out of the sixteen available.

It struck me as wrong that families with children were being denied access to affordable inclusionary units simply because market-rate developers built studios and one-bedrooms. This experience led me to call John Eller of SF ACORN to discuss how we could change the situation.

ACORN is the nation’s largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, with over 350, 000 member households in over 100 cities. Among Eller’s 6000 members are many union households and other working families who earned good incomes but were being priced out of San Francisco.

ACORN and I felt that we should consider moving a June 2008 ballot measure to address the housing needs of two-earner families whose $70,000-103,000 incomes (for four) were insufficient to buy a home in the city. I wrote two pieces for Beyond Chron floating the idea of the city taking new action to save the city’s working and middle-class families, and got a very favorable response.

We concluded that we could quickly create affordable family-sized units by changing the city’s inclusionary law so that working families with children would reap some of the benefits of the market-rate housing boon. This required input from builders regarding what incentives they would need to expand their BMR’s by making them all at least two-bedrooms and 850 square feet (the size set by city law).

When contacted, Sean Keighran and Angus McCarthy of the Residential Builders Association were eager to be part of the solution to the city’s family housing crisis. Our discussions produced a plan that would give density bonuses to builders who make all of their BMR units two bedrooms or more (if the market-rate units are two-bedroom, securing the bonus would require three-bedroom BMR units) These bonuses would enable builders to either add units to the existing building envelope, and/ or extend the building in the rear yard.

We initially hoped to include a small height bonus for buildings currently limited to forty feet. But Supervisor Peskin pointed out to us the complexity of applying this bonus to the city’s diverse neighborhoods, and we concluded that including height bonuses in a ballot measure was not a wise course.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty signs to put the initiative on the June ballot.

In floating our idea to various groups, we heard from the San Francisco Organizing Project (SFOP) that Supervisor Bevan Dufty might be interested in taking the lead on the measure. In late November we met with Dufty and his aide, Boe Hayward, in my office. They were so enthusiastic about our idea that they promptly forwarded our proposal to the City Attorney’s office to begin the formal drafting process.

Eller and I spoke to a diverse range of groups about our family housing proposal, and the feedback was very positive. We also got a favorable response from the Board of Supervisors. While legal reasons prevented more than four Supervisors from formally submitting the measure to the Clerk, the initiative will likely win the endorsement of a strong Board majority.

Some have asked why, if we have majority Board support, we are going to the ballot instead of using the legislative process. Two reasons.

First, despite Board support, the legislative process would invariably result in so much tinkering that the number of family units created would be reduced.

Second, San Francisco voters deserve the opportunity to send a message about the importance of keeping working families in the city. Once the voters speak out for family housing, it is much easier to win political support for a more pro-children city housing policy.

Since most of the city’s inclusionary housing is ownership rather than rental, the initiative will primarily increase affordable homeownership opportunities for working families. The initiative thus complements the housing charter amendment set-aside, which focuses on providing rental housing for those of lower incomes.

In order to increase family homeownership as soon as possible, the initiative encourages builders with projects in the Planning Department pipeline to revise their plans to take advantage of the density bonuses. This could have affordable family-sized units available for occupancy as soon as 2009.

The precise number of affordable family-sized units the initiative will create depends on the number of completed projects. Based on figures on housing entitlements from the Mayor’s Office of Housing, the initiative should add at least 150 affordable family-sized units each year.

And these family-sized units will be built at no public expense.

Combined, this initiative, the $33 million annual housing charter amendment set-aside, and the city’s ongoing housing developments represent an unprecedented effort to keep working families with children in the city.

If a Democratic President and Congress add sufficient federal housing dollars to this mix—which did not happen during the Clinton years–San Francisco’s family exodus could finally be slowed, if not reversed.

And future generations will look back on 2008 as the turning point.


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