As San Francisco addresses its housing crisis, one proven strategy demands consideration: increasing the number of units that can be built in a development (i.e. its density) without raising its height. Increasing density adds both market rate and affordable units (since inclusionary units are based on a percentage of the total), and goes beyond the debate
over whether San Francisco can “build its way” out of the housing crisis. Increasing density also enables developers to make market rate projects more affordable by building smaller units. This strategy will add thousands of additional units to the Eastern Neighborhoods, so why not extend this formula to other parts of the city? This includes the Outer Richmond, the Outer Sunset and other Westside neighborhoods where politicians promote new housing at their peril but which now must do their share in addressing the city’s housing crisis.
No single strategy can solve San Francisco’s housing crisis. And while stopping Ellis Act evictions is understandably the top priority for the city’s political leaders
, other measures should also move forward that help make new housing more affordable.
One proven strategy that avoids the type of political battles over height that occurred over 8 Washington is to allow developers to build more units within the building envelope. This does not mean simply building micro-units often associated with increased density: rather, it means replacing a policy that forces developers to build larger and more expensive units with one that promotes smaller, more affordable units that better respond to actual market demand.
Adding to the total unit count also means increasing the number of inclusionary housing units (affordable units required as a condition of development), since this is based on the percentage of the market units. Increased density also means more customers for neighborhood businesses, increased pedestrian safety, and a more active street life.
Housing on the Westside
If we are serious about pursuing all options for addressing the housing crisis, development on the vast Westside can no longer remain off the table.
In 35 years of engagement with San Francisco politics I do not recall any serious effort to promote housing development in this part of the city. If people think building housing on the waterfront is the “third rail” of San Francisco politics, that's nothing compared to trying to increase the number of housing units it San Francisco’s extremely low-density Westside neighborhoods (the outer Sunset, outer Richmond etc).
Historically, Westside activists have been so anti-housing that they have even opposed incentives for building new in-law apartments. And this is true despite the presence of large apartment buildings in the Westside, so that newly built similar structures of that size would fit the neighborhood’s character.
Because development on the Westside has been politically off-limits, San Francisco must cram all of its housing in SOMA, the Mission, Downtown, and in the broader Eastern Neighborhoods. This leads to divisive fights over height, transit impacts and gentrification in these areas while vast stretches of the city are allowed to avoid any responsibility for new housing altogether.
One reason it is not cost effective to build in the Westside is its archaic density restrictions that artificially limit the number of units in a project. But such strict density restrictions make no sense in today’s San Francisco, and the city can no longer afford them.
Although Westside voters tend to be more supportive of development and economic growth in other parts of the city, their own neighborhoods do not reflect these sentiments. We hear a lot about parents across the city worrying that their adult kids are being priced out of San Francisco, but preventing new housing on the Westside takes a key strategy for addressing this concern off the table.
If San Francisco is really serious about housing middle-class families, then increasing housing density must be part of the solution. And the under-developed Westside cannot be excluded from doing its share.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book is The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century