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State demands San Francisco pass housing bill—or else

Apartment buildings and housing in the Tenderloin in Downtown San Francisco, seen from above.
Apartment buildings and housing in the Tenderloin in Downtown San Francisco are pictured on July 25, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

In the latest bid to force San Francisco to approve more housing, California’s Department of Housing and Community Housing sent the Board of Supervisors a letter warning lawmakers to pass a key housing bill or risk falling out of compliance with state law.

The letter, dated Thursday, was sent to the supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee. It advised committee members that proposed amendments to the bill could put the city out of compliance with its Housing Element—a state-mandated plan to build more housing that the board approved in January

Called the Constraints Reduction Ordinance and sponsored chiefly by Mayor London Breed, the bill in question is intended to slash red tape for housing approvals by eliminating mandatory meetings and other processes for many housing projects. 

At the land use committee, however, the bill has been subject to a number of proposed amendments. One of those amendments created a carve-out that would apply to much of the city’s west side, according to the letter.

An earlier piece of legislation, called the Family Housing Opportunity Special Use District, aimed to ease the replacement of single-family homes with small-scale apartment buildings, particularly in the city’s heavily residential western neighborhoods. Some proposed amendments to the Constraints Reduction Ordinance would exempt those areas from many of the bill’s provisions. 

The state housing department said it had “concerns” about those changes, writing that they “may be inconsistent with the City’s obligations under Housing Element Law.” 

“San Francisco’s adopted and compliant housing element does not contemplate this carve-out,” wrote Melinda Coy, a housing accountability officer at the state housing department. “To ensure consistency … [the department] encourages the City to adopt the Constraints Reduction Ordinance as originally proposed.”

Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who chairs the board’s land use committee and was an author of the Family Housing Opportunity bill, pushed back on the letter and said its interpretation of the amendments was incorrect. 

Supervisor Myrna Melgar listens during a Board of Supervisors meeting at San Francisco City Hall. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

“I appreciate the technical assistance from [the state housing department], but at some point it becomes unhelpful politically,” Melgar said. “It just adds to the political noise.” 

Melgar said her bill was compliant with the Housing Element and that the committee is working with the City Attorney’s Office to clean up the legislation and help reconcile the two bills. The board’s land use committee is scheduled to discuss the mayor’s bill again at its Monday meeting. 

“My job is to have legislation that is clear and easy to understand,” Melgar said, adding that the state’s letter was intended to be helpful. 

Over the past couple of years, the state has tightened the screws on the city’s housing policies in an effort to kick-start construction.

Last year, it took an average of 523 days for a housing project to be entitled in San Francisco, according to the state housing department. That was almost 140 days longer than the next-slowest jurisdiction in the state. 

This week, the housing department published a first-of-its-kind report on San Francisco’s housing policies and dictated, among other things, that the Board of Supervisors pass the Constraints Reduction Ordinance within 30 days. 

The report contained 18 specific actions that the city must take to come into compliance with state housing laws or face the possibility of “enforcement action.”

Under state law, falling out of compliance with its Housing Element could put the city at risk of losing state funding for affordable housing and transit and even loss of local permitting authority. 

Melgar, who chairs the board’s land use committee, said she plans to push back on the mandate to pass the ordinance within 30 days. 

“I have full confidence that we will get it out of committee in a way that makes sense for the people of San Francisco,” Melgar said. “I don’t know if it will happen within 30 days.” 

Melgar added that the 30-day requirement “was never in the Housing Element or in the legislation. And I do intend to put that in our response letter.”