When San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced on December 18 that sixty units of new affordable housing at 474 Natoma had 2800 applicants, he took two critical actions that housing activists have sought for decades. First, he issued a directive requiring city departments to prioritize affordable and moderate-income residential projects in the planning and permitting process. Second, he issued a directive subjecting every permit application that would displace residents or result in the loss of a rental unit to a full review by a multi-agency working group prior to the permit’s approval. Landlord and tenant representatives will be part of the working group.

Tenant activists have long been frustrated by speculators securing over the counter issuance of permits for work that potentially displaces tenants and eliminates affordable housing. Until Lee’s directive, activists only remedy was to appeal these permits to the Board of Appeal---which required them to learn about the permits within the appeal period and then to secure four of the five votes on the body. Now a super-review body will catch all of these permit applications without an appeal being filed, saving rental housing and ideally stopping any permit-caused displacement.

Housing Preservation is Key

After decades in which activists rather than city departments bore primary responsibility for preserving rental housing, Mayor Ed Lee has responded to the current crisis by making housing preservation the city’s business. While some may assume a new “Working Group” would have little power, the directive specifically empowers this group of agencies and housing representatives to request “all relevant information from the applicant” and to make a recommendation to city commissions and staff prior to the permit's approval.

This is the strongest step that could be taken to prevent building permits from removing rental housing or displacing tenants.

I and other attorneys in my organization (the Tenderloin Housing Clinic) have spent countless hours at the Board of Appeal trying to stop permits from displacing tenants and eliminating housing. Under the mayor’s directive, many of these cases will be stopped prior to the permit’s approval.

For example, I had a case where the landlord sought to reduce the tenant’s unit from a two bedroom to one. The kitchen was also being altered. The renovation was clearly designed to get the longterm tenant to move. We won at the Board of Appeal, but had the tenant been forced to hire an attorney she could not have afforded the cost of the appeal process and would have moved. Now, this type of outrageous misuse of the renovation process will be stopped by the Working Group, making a public appeal unnecessary.

For all the debate about the impact of building new housing on affordability, nobody disputes that preserving our existing housing supply is the most cost effective strategy.

40,000 Units in Pipeline

With 40,000 housing units in the pipeline, it’s vital that nonprofit projects get Planning Department priority. Under the mayor’s directive, they will.

When asked whether tech was to blame for the city’s housing crisis, the mayor said “We are all to blame. Every former mayor, supervisor and others involved in housing.”

The event raised two other important issues about the city's housing boom.

First, the reason so many units are under construction today is that from 2008-2010, construction was artificially delayed due to builder's inability to get financing. Thousands of these units had been delayed due to the eight year Eastern Neighborhoods rezoning process, and when the zoning was finally completed they could not get the loans to build. So we have units being built today that should have been completed under normal circumstances as long as five years ago, adding to the current year boom.

Second, a media member asked the Mayor about Art Agnos's claim that all inclusionary housing should be onsite rather than built offsite. The Mayor politely noted that the housing crisis required multiple strategies and the city should not limit itself to a single approach.

In case anyone besides Agnos opposes off-site inclusionary, ask why families with kids are better off living in Rincon or downtown than in a more kid-friendly neighborhood like the Excelsior or Mission. TNDC has two family housing sites in SOMA and a key site at Eddy and Taylor in the Tenderloin and it would be great if a downtown developer funded these offsite projects to meet their inclusionary goals.

The city needs to make changes to its inclusionary housing law to facilitate that affordable family housing gets built in diverse neighborhoods. And considering that Ellis Act evictions are eliminating affordable rent-controlled housing in areas like North Beach and the Castro, redirecting inclusionary funds to projects in these areas makes great sense.

Finally, the huge media swarm at the mayor's event confirms that housing is San Francisco's top issue, and should remain so in 2014.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron