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‘Get comfortable with being uncomfortable’: Breed lays out housing plan she knows will spark controversy

Google employees gather for free champagne and food as Mayor London Breed speaks to the crowd at the new Google office location at One Maritime in the Embarcadero on April 27, 2022. | Camille Cohen

San Franciscans will have to confront discomfort—and frankly deal with it—if the city is going to make a dent in its housing crisis.

That was the main message from Mayor London Breed about the city’s new, more aggressive approach to meeting housing requirements. 

“Part of my plan is going to be centered around changes that are going to make people a little uncomfortable,” said Breed at the San Francisco Business Times’s economic forum Tuesday morning in Downtown Oakland.

Breed issued an executive directive for her Housing for All plan, a series of policy proposals and strategies meant to accelerate the pace of housing development and meet the 82,000-unit goal laid out in San Francisco’s Housing Element, which has been approved by state officials. That number is split up between roughly 47,000 affordable units and 35,000 market-rate units.

That eight-year target would exceed the pace of housing construction of any point in the city’s history. 

But Breed pointed to 50,000-odd housing units that the city has approved but not built as evidence that unnecessary regulations are a barrier to getting shovels in the ground.

“We’re going to go from completing those units over the next 25 years to needing to complete those units over the next eight years,” Breed said. “This Housing Element is a bit of a booster; it’s a bit of a mandate.” 

Breed’s housing directive laid out several actions, administrative and otherwise. Cutting red tape? Check. Having city departments work together? Check. Working groups charged with implementing new policies? Check. 

Also on the list are seemingly common-sense measures like removing barriers to office-to-housing conversions, figuring out new financing methods to get projects started and, importantly, setting deadlines for when these ideas need to be presented or put into action. 

But alongside those are more radical changes that would roll back the local control that has long been a political third rail in San Francisco.

Discretionary review could be greatly diminished for certain types of housing developments, and large-scale rezoning of the city’s largely residential west side looks to be forthcoming. 

“We as leaders of the city—especially our Board of Supervisors—we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in the policy discussions that we have around housing,” Breed said. 

Inclusionary housing requirements, which supporters say protect communities from displacement but developers decry as cost-prohibitive, are also being revisited. Developers of market-rate housing projects are required to set aside 14.5% to 27% of their units below market rate depending on size—or pay an in lieu fee. 

“We promised the voters that when they approve changes to inclusionary housing that we would analyze the economic environment and make adjustments, but we’ve not done that,” Breed said. “I want community input, not community obstruction.”

As two examples of the latter she pointed to her own struggle in rezoning a stretch of Divisadero while she was supervisor and the delay in the development of 2550 Irving St. in the Sunset, which has been the subject of fierce opposition from neighbors. 

Another uncomfortable reality that San Francisco will have to contend with will be more aggressive policies to deal with the drug crisis and homelessness, such as arresting drug dealers and compelling people into shelter, said Breed. 

“At the end of the day, the biggest problem we have, of course, is that our cities are expected to do so much, and we are not run like corporations,” Breed said. 

“Everyone wants to see a fix, but nobody wants affordable housing or shelters in their neighborhood. Now we have to do something that people are uncomfortable with.”