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SF has eight months to submit a plan for 80,000 new homes. If we don’t, we’re in an even deeper mess

Illustration by Mia Carson

Jane Natoli is a local advocate who sits on the Airport Commission and spends too much time thinking about the future of San Francisco. She resides in the Inner Richmond when she’s not biking all over the city.

It’s hard to find positive news on the housing front in San Francisco some days. Neighborhoods like St. Francis Wood are seeking to amber themselves off using historic designation to fend off recent state-level housing bills that would permit two homes on the same lot, allowing the neighborhood to keep the exclusionary status of its original design. Although its voters elected a housing champion to the state legislature, San Francisco’s governing body is still debating Supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s proposed fourplex—or four homes on one lot—legislation at the local level with no signs of urgency. The same supervisors still meddle in individual projects like 469 Stevenson St., voting them down for specious reasons, leading to protracted battles with state housing authorities.

All of this shows just how unprepared San Francisco is for its Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), an impending catastrophe NIMBYs in the city seem in complete denial of. In short, San Francisco has until Jan. 31, 2023 to submit a valid plan to build 82,069 homes, at a variety of income levels, between now and 2031. And all indications are that process is going to be a mess. San Francisco has submitted a draft plan for this next eight-year cycle, but only for approximately 5,000 homes a year—showing just how unserious we are taking this state mandate. That would total only 40,000 new homes, or less than half the requirement.

So what happens if San Francisco fails to submit a valid plan? No one really knows. There are provisions to the RHNA that kick in if cities fail to comply with state law, but these are largely untested, and I would expect the city to fight that if it even comes to it. We would really be entering uncharted territory. 

Thankfully, some of our supervisors get this. Rafael Mandelman introduced legislation to allow for fourplexes throughout San Francisco late last year. The Board of Supervisors has finally taken up this proposal. However, in typical fashion, instead of just pursuing a straightforward bill, other supervisors saddled the initial proposal with amendments that make something that already would not have done much entirely unworkable, such as dictating specific bedroom counts for some of the units to be built, adding rent control, and tacking on other onerous requirements such as delaying any such conversion for newly acquired properties for five years to ostensibly prevent speculation. 

Considering policies like Minneapolis zoning all lots for triplexes a few years ago, even the most straightforward proposal will not add many homes. It is not really clear what the supervisors are trying to accomplish with this now overly complicated fourplex bill. Even Supervisor Mandelman conceded that this will not add many new homes in its original form. As builders would say, these homes will not “pencil out,” meaning they would not make sense for people to build, given the costs. A few people may take advantage of the flexibility to add more homes on their property, but it’s not going to lead to some speculation boom the day after it’s passed. As is far too often the case, we try to make every single housing bill do everything until it accomplishes nothing. 

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t pass a fourplex bill at some point. We should, but even in its original form it would mostly be symbolic of our commitment to build more much-needed homes—and even that looks challenging at the Board of Supervisors level, where any proposal will have to pass. We are going to have to do so much more beyond fourplexes to provide the homes we need for current and future San Franciscans.

We cling to the belief that we know how to solve our housing crisis best and try to push away state control, but we have not shown any evidence that we are doing a good job locally as the debacle around fourplexes shows, which is why the state is stepping in. Four years ago, while most of the debate around state housing focused on state Sen. Scott Wiener’s ambitious (or contentious, depending on who you ask) SB 827, which would have dramatically increased where more homes could be built throughout the state, its lesser known companion bill SB 828 (also from Sen. Wiener) quietly chugged along, eventually passing and being signed into law. This bill didn’t immediately do anything, but it did strengthen the relatively arcane process of RHNA.

Previously, cities and regions were able to set hand-wavy goals for future housing for a variety of income levels on eight-year cycles: Beverly Hills famously committed to building three units of affordable housing in the last RHNA cycle. However, thanks to the diligent work of our state senator, cities and regions now have to set much more realistic goals. Beverly Hills is expected to plan for and build 3,096 during the next eight-year cycle. And if it, or any city in California fails to submit a compliant housing plan, there is now a stronger Housing Accountability Unit at the state level that has the teeth to actually enforce the law when cities submit vaporwave plans for new housing. But enforcement takes time, and we have not yet seen what might happen or how cities may fight this.

San Francisco’s previous RHNA goals were not as laughable as Beverly Hills’, but have not been nearly enough to keep up with our desperate need for more homes either. To put this in perspective, the only year during the past two decades when we built more than 5,000 homes was 2016. We need to be not merely planning but executing at twice that rate, for eight years in a row! People love to point to the pipeline of homes we have planned, but many proposed sites have infamously been in that same pipeline since before the previous RHNA cycle. Sites such as Visitacion Valley’s Schlage Lock sit empty still despite having been approved in 2014.

None of this is surprising, of course. San Francisco continues to lack any real appetite for allowing more homes, especially throughout the city’s West Side, where almost no housing, affordable or otherwise, has been built in the past few decades. San Francisco clings to allowing any neighbor who disagrees with any proposal for even the flimsiest reasons to delay or deny it. 

San Franciscans, at least those in higher offices, have shown support for housing. Mayor Breed has been an unabashed champion of our need for citywide action. We’ve elected strong legislators like former Assemblymember David Chiu, current Assemblymember Phil Ting and Sen. Wiener. Assemblymember Matt Haney just ran an unapologetically pro-housing campaign and won resoundingly. Unfortunately, that has yet to trickle down to the supervisor level, where they continue to debate mostly symbolic measures while time runs out for our city to submit a housing plan for the next eight years.

We’re a city of lofty ideals. We don’t just need, we deserve equally lofty plans to actually live up to those ideals. And we all need to do our part, including those of us who call the Western neighborhoods home. I’d like to look back on this opinion and find it alarmist. But if the debates around minimal measures and fights to even avoid modest plans for more homes are any indication, it is that San Francisco is unprepared for what is coming, and that’s not good news for any of us.

Follow Jane on Twitter at @wafoli

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