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San Francisco bill that would cut housing reviews stalled after pushback

Members of the Board of Supervisors listen to public comment during a meeting on Feb. 28, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

A San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee kicked the can on a key housing bill after a rush of amendments and vociferous pushback from some lawmakers and residents opposed to the legislation. 

The Constraints Reduction Ordinance, introduced by Mayor London Breed and Supervisors Matt Dorsey and Joel Engardio, would make a swath of changes to the city’s planning code to eliminate neighborhood notifications and other forms of discretionary review from many housing projects. 

The ordinance is an attempt at implementing the city’s Housing Element, a document laying out how San Francisco plans to meet a state mandate to accommodate 82,000 new housing units by 2030. But a Monday hearing at the board’s Land Use and Transportation Committee highlighted the political difficulties in diminishing local control, along with the potential perils of failing to execute the mandate. 

“A lot of these decisions are decisions you already made,” said Jane Natoli, a director at the pro-housing group YIMBY Action and an airport commissioner. “We are going to lose millions of dollars in affordable housing and transportation funds … We know [the state is] paying attention to what we do.”

Groups, including the San Francisco Tenants Union and the Race and Equity in All Planning Coalition, mobilized residents to oppose the bill over concerns about the possibility of rent-controlled units being demolished and a lack of attention to affordable housing. People speaking both in support and in opposition to the ordinance packed the meeting.

After hours of public comment, Supervisor Myrna Melgar proposed delaying the item until Oct. 2, saying she was working on further changes to the ordinance. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman is also working on amendments, Melgar said. 

The current ordinance includes demolition controls in certain sensitive areas defined as “priority equity geographies,” according to a Planning Department presentation. Those include parts of the Mission District, Chinatown, Japantown and Bayview. Outside of those areas, demolitions are subject to less restrictive controls as long as certain conditions are met, such as not removing more than two rent-controlled units and not demolishing units that are occupied or have a recent history of evictions and tenant buyouts.   

The Mayor’s Office also suggested amendments that include language around the city’s affordable housing needs and conditional use permits for large developments in priority equity zones. The amendments were a response to community feedback, said Aaron Starr, a representative of the Planning Department. 

Board President Aaron Peskin, who sits on the land use committee, likened the ordinance to “laissez-faire government” and said he was disturbed by what he described as “anemic tenant protections” in the initial drafts.   

Other supervisors dropped in to weigh in on the legislation, with Supervisor Matt Dorsey quoting from a letter the California Department of Housing and Community Development sent in June to the city’s Planning Commission urging policymakers to pass the ordinance. 

In the letter, the department told the city that the Housing Element is an “enforceable commitment” and cited a state review that found extensive roadblocks to building new housing in San Francisco. 

The state has stepped up housing enforcement efforts, at times using San Francisco as an example of dysfunction that stymies new housing construction.

Data from state officials show that San Francisco ​​housing projects face a median wait time of more than 450 days for approvals—the longest timeline of any jurisdiction in California. Builders and housing advocates have long argued that those wait times spike housing costs, making projects infeasible. 

Under state law, cities that fail to comply with their adopted Housing Elements can face a range of consequences, including the loss of state funding to support transportation and affordable housing.

Annie Gaus can be reached at