Skip to main content

Housing activists plot their next move as ballot measure fails

A rally on steps with a "Carpenters Union supports affordable homes" banner; people gathered, one in the foreground wearing a suit.
State Sen. Scott Wiener attends a press conference promoting affordable housing in San Francisco at City Hall on Oct. 29, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Now that it looks like Proposition D has failed at the ballot box, housing activists are looking to the state to fix San Francisco’s housing shortage.

Next up for debate is the Housing Element—or an eight-year plan to build drastically more housing in the city—which is the subject of a hearing at City Hall on Tuesday. But even if that plan passes the board, those advocates aren’t confident that the 82,000 new housing units required by the state by 2031 will materialize after the failure of Prop. D.

“It’s a massive missed opportunity,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener. 

The latest election results show Prop. D, which sought to cut out red tape for certain housing projects, losing by about 5,000 votes. Its rival, Prop. E—put forth by the city’s progressives—has also failed, sending the city back to the drawing board on housing with weeks to go before a key state deadline

“Proposition D was never going to be a panacea,” said Corey Smith, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition. “We woke up today, and the affordability and displacement crisis still exists […] At the end of the day, I’m not going to be discouraged or throw my hands up in overall defeat.” 

Smith chalked up the loss to the competition from Prop. E, which he says killed Prop. D’s chances. Prop. E failed more decisively, losing by around 20,000 votes after the first week of election returns. 

Corey Smith with Housing Action Coalition attends a press conference at City Hall on Oct. 26. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Prop. D’s failure is a big setback for the YIMBY movement, which has been successful in the state and wider Bay Area but has barely made headway in its home turf in San Francisco. The housing-supply advocates and their allies raised millions in favor of Prop. D. 

State Sen. Scott Wiener said although voters may have been confused as to which ballot measure would have the greatest effect on making it easier to build affordable housing, together they attracted a clear majority. 

“Almost 80% of San Franciscans supported some version of housing streamlining, and that is the silver lining here,” Wiener said.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman sees the Housing Element Update, up for discussion at the board tomorrow, as City Hall’s main opportunity to fix San Francisco’s housing process and to plan its growth. 

The stakes are higher this year than in the past: The city is facing elevated housing targets—nearly three times as high as the last cycle’s—and worse penalties, too. And if the city fails to certify its plan by the end of January, the “builder’s remedy” will kick in, stripping San Francisco of its control over its own zoning-based housing approvals.

Meanwhile, the state has initiated an investigation into the city’s housing policies and practices and is expected to release its first round of preliminary findings in January before a final report in July. 

“The voters have not solved this problem for us, and we need to do the work,” Mandelman said.  

Without the streamlining for affordable housing projects that Prop. D would have guaranteed, Wiener and Smith aren’t sure much housing will actually get built in the next eight years, as the cost of building has skyrocketed. 

“I think that Prop. D passing would have made it much easier to get those numbers,” Smith said. “Now that [the board] allows affordable housing projects to continue to be sued, what’s the plan?”

There is a fail-safe baked in state law, however, Wiener said. 

If the city is still behind on its state housing targets in four years, Senate Bill 35 would kick in, allowing all permits for new housing construction to be approved automatically.

As for Wiener’s plans to take on the city’s permitting woes from his seat at the state Senate, he says to stay tuned.