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SF supervisors seek ‘pro-housing’ status amid tough talk from Newsom

San Francisco Mayor London Breed (left), City Supervisor Rafael Mandelman (center) and City Supervisor and Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton (right). | Camille Cohen ; Chris Victorio for The Standard

San Francisco is out to prove to the state that it does, in fact, want to build more housing.

City policymakers are banding together to apply for a “pro-housing” designation from California’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) that, if approved, could unlock grants for housing and infrastructure. 

But the effort strikes some as ironic, given the state’s open investigation into the city’s housing policies and practices, which cited the snail’s pace at which housing is approved in the city. At a Wednesday bill-signing event, Governor Gavin Newsom called out the investigation and vowed to hold San Francisco and other cities accountable to housing targets

“That makes me laugh, otherwise I would want to cry,” said Robert Fruchtman, volunteer lead with San Francisco YIMBY. “I am honestly stunned that the city thinks they can pull one over the state.”

The effort to seek a pro-housing designation was brought by Mayor London Breed and co-sponsored by Board President Shamann Walton and Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, and came before the board’s Budget and Finance Committee on Wednesday. The committee voted to forward the application to the full Board of Supervisors. 

The designation would give San Francisco preference over other cities when applying for housing and infrastructure funding and grant programs from the state. While 13 other jurisdictions have applied for the designation, just Sacramento has received the designation so far.  

Construction on houses on San Leandro Way in Balboa Terrace on Sept. 15, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. The limited housing and real estate supply in the San Francisco Bay Area continues to pose challenges to renters and those looking to buy. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

San Francisco will have to use current policies to prove it is “pro-housing” according to metrics like the “establishment of permit processes that take less than four months” and the “absence or elimination of public hearings for projects consistent with zoning and the general plan”—two metrics the city likely cannot meet. 

Housing developers and pro-housing advocates have voiced growing concerns over the city’s permitting timelines, onerous fees and political culture, which together make San Francisco among the slowest cities in the state to approve new housing. 

To win the pro-housing designation, San Francisco needs to earn 30 points in categories that include favorable zoning and land use, acceleration of housing production timeframes, reduction of construction and development costs, and by providing financial subsidies. 

The state then would have 60 days to review and provide feedback on the application. Alicia Murillo, a communications specialist with HCD, clarified in an email to The Standard that earning the 30 points does not automatically qualify the city for pro-housing designation. In addition to the application, she wrote, HCD will check things like a city’s compliance with all statutory housing laws.

Mandelman also cited local policies such as not requiring parking minimums and its local density bonus program as helpful in building the city’s case for the designation. He disputed the idea that the state would take legal challenges by pro-housing groups into account.

“Unless and until a judge makes a decision and that works its way through appellate processes, I'm not sure how relevant it is,” Mandelman said.

Also on Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom came to San Francisco to sign dozens of state bills aimed at funding and streamlining housing production and addressing homelesses. He also used the opportunity to reprimand San Francisco for its slow rate of housing production, dating back to his time as mayor, and said he is focused on accountability for cities not keeping pace. 

“Just build housing,” Newsom said. “It's not even that complicated…They’re running out of excuses.”

All the while, the city is in the midst of an effort to get its latest Housing Element Update, which requires it to make a plan for 82,000 new units by 2031, certified by the state in time for an early 2023 deadline. 

Based on the state’s response to its latest draft and what he sees as inadequate responses to housing policy reform thus far, Fruchtman isn’t convinced the city will get approval in time. 

“They're definitely applying at the right time, considering within a few months the city won't be able to check the box saying we’ve adopted a compliant housing element or are in compliance with state housing law,” Fruchtman said. 

On Tuesday, Supervisor Gordon Mar called for a full Board of Supervisors hearing specifically on the Housing Element Update, alluding to the sharp consequences if the state doesn’t approve the city’s plan.

“We have one shot to get this right,” Mar said.