Sunday’s SF Chronicle had another front-page story
about how families are leaving the City – due to the lack of homeownership opportunities for households making less than $150,000. As usual, there was little analysis about how we got there – and no policy solutions on how to stem this exodus. And we already know what anti-progressives like Plan C have to offer: more condominium conversions, even if it decimates our rental housing stock by evicting tenants who can’t afford to buy real estate. While that’s the wrong solution, progressives need to stand up with ideas of their own to address this glaring problem. Tenant protections are crucial, but until we also talk about expanding middle-class housing we are fighting a losing battle – as the City gets more gentrified every year. And as long as the Left keeps talking about housing for the poor (but not housing for the middle class), our capacity to grow as a local political movement will remain illusory.
Progressives cringe at the idea of standing up for households making six-figure salaries – but as the Chronicle article demonstrated, even families at the lower end of that spectrum are getting priced out of San Francisco. And with the cost of living being what it is here, it’s fair to call many of these folks “middle-class.” According to the California Budget Project, a household needs to make a whopping $196,878 to buy a median-priced home in the City. Census data shows that everyone – except those making more than $150,000 – are looking for greener pastures due to City’s lack of housing options.
It’s a political time bomb that the Left cannot ignore. Moderates are heavily courting this population, and their proposed solution is more tenancies-in-common (TIC’s) – coupled with a relaxation of the City’s cap on condominium conversions. It’s true that TIC’s are cheaper to buy than newly built condos – but it comes at the expense of evicting tenants and permanently depleting our rental housing stock. Promoting homeownership for the middle class by kicking out poor people is not a sustainable way to create an affordable City, but it’s one of the only “pro-homeownership” voices we’re hearing today.
Progressives won such a battle in November 2002, when 60% of San Franciscans voted to defeat Proposition R. At the time, “save rent control” was a more salient point for the electorate than “homes for San Franciscans.” But the real estate forces behind that measure are determined to strike again, and the City’s demographic changes – along with few pro-homeownership voices – could help them prevail. Rather than react to another landlord onslaught in the future, the Left needs to figure out how to offer a pro-active solution that would blunt such appeals down the road.
That means coming up with proposals that the middle-class “swing voter” can get behind, proving that we’re just as worried about them leaving town as we are concerned about the rent-controlled tenant who is one Ellis Act eviction away from moving to Modesto.
Of course, progressives have talked about homeownership for decades. Community land trusts and limited equity housing co-ops have helped low-income tenants buy their homes without displacement, but it requires heavy subsidies. And while tenant advocates don’t normally think of it this way, rent control is a great homeownership program because it helps upwardly mobile renters set aside their savings to make a down payment on their first home. But vacancy decontrol has undermined the feasibility of such a goal.
What we need is a message that resonates with middle-class families who will move to the suburbs if they cannot secure affordable homeownership options here. Part of that means a flexible inclusionary housing ordinance that allows for varying percentages of affordability. “Below market-rate” units in development projects that exclusively house the poor will not stem the tide of middle-class families who leave the City – as many of those unable to pay market-rate earn too much to qualify for the subsidized units.
One major lesson of Proposition F’s defeat earlier this month was that progressives must give middle-class voters a tangible reason to support their housing agenda. Many on the Left criticized labor’s deal
with Lennar because some of its “affordable” housing units were above 100% of area median income. But if we want to keep union members
living in San Francisco, expanded workforce housing is just as important as low-income rental housing.
Another proposal is to provide density bonuses for developers who agree to make all their “below market rate” units family sized. If all the middle-class units in new projects being built are studios and one-bedrooms (as is the vast majority), even families who qualify under the income guidelines cannot utilize this program – and leave the City. Supervisor Aaron Peskin has sponsored
legislation to facilitate such an effort – which will soon be heard at the Planning Commission.
Does this mean the Left should not focus on keeping low-income renters in the City? Of course not. San Francisco must always be a place where all walks of people can live and work, which means ensuring that our most vulnerable can stay here. But unless we also show a firm commitment to expanding middle-class homeownership, progressives will have a tough time winning elections down the road. The other side is playing to win, and they are heavily courting that constituency and telling them what they want to hear.
We need to fight back with a politically sound strategy – if we’re in it for the long haul.