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Letting Aaron Peskin pass another anti-housing law would be a slap in the face for SF

Transamerica Pyramid building in San Francisco amid towers
Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

By Scott Wiener

It’s often said that much of San Francisco politics is rehashing the same fights over and over again, year after year. 

I’m reminded how true that can be with the debate over Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s Northern Waterfront downzoning ordinance, which would reduce the amount of housing allowed in his district under the bogus rationale that new homes are somehow inconsistent with historic preservation. (Spoiler alert: new homes and historic preservation are not in any way inconsistent.)

Peskin’s approach is to ban new apartment buildings of more than three units right next to the Transamerica Pyramid downtown, one of the most transit- and job-rich areas in the nation. That’s exactly where we should be building new homes. 

Peskin’s proposal falls squarely under the category of “everything old is new again.” For over a half-century, San Francisco enacted housing policies that helped tank housing affordability and led to a hemorrhaging of middle-income and working-class residents. Peskin is hellbent on taking us down that path again.

Peskin—who claims to be a progressive, but is actually quite conservative when it comes to housing policy—is proposing an ordinance that would prevent new affordable housing from being built in a swath of his district, eliminating the zoned density necessary for such housing to be financially viable. As a result, Peskin’s proposal would effectively block much of the Northern Waterfront from receiving funding from Proposition A, the recently passed affordable housing bond, for which the supervisor himself vocally touts his support.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Peskin has led efforts to block new housing under the pretense of protecting historic resources. In 2009, he orchestrated an attempt to designate nearly every building in San Francisco a historic resource, which would have frozen our city in an even deeper shade of amber and blocked any ability to grow and adapt to change.

Mayor London Breed wisely vetoed Peskin’s newest anti-housing proposal. The Board of Supervisors is now considering overriding that veto. I truly hope the board looks at the big picture and understands that a veto override would be a black eye for San Francisco. It would send a powerful negative message about the city’s unwillingness to fix its broken housing system. 

‘Restriction after restriction’

San Francisco used to build a lot of new homes and thus had a thriving middle class, with many, many working-class families throughout the City. Then, starting in the 1970s, the city stopped prioritizing new housing.

For nearly a half century, lawmakers enacted restriction after restriction to limit and obstruct housing construction. We methodically zoned for less housing, banning most or all apartment buildings in neighborhoods ranging from the Castro to Pacific Heights to the Sunset to the Excelsior.

At the same time, San Francisco erected more and more process barriers. Even projects that fell within zoning requirements could take years to get approved—if they were approved at all. To mix metaphors, every project became a political football in a mosh pit of competing interests.

As a result of decades of down-zoning and obstruction, San Francisco now has the slowest housing permitting process of any of California’s 482 cities or 58 counties. It’s actually not even close: The city with the second-longest permit approval process is dramatically faster than San Francisco. 

While San Francisco is frequently in a class of its own in a good way—it being the best city on the planet, which is why many of us fight so hard for it—when it comes to building housing, we have a singularly terrible track record.

San Francisco has finally started to make progress in ending this bad legacy of housing obstruction. Under the leadership of Mayor Breed—an unabashed housing champion—and with the support of various members of the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco is planting the seeds for a brighter housing future. The city adopted a strong state-required housing plan and is beginning to implement it. I’ve been honored to support San Francisco’s housing efforts by authoring numerous state housing laws to make it easier and faster for our city to get new homes approved and built.

But a vote rejecting the mayor’s veto of Peskin’s down-zoning ordinance would signal a reversal of that progress. It would give San Francisco a big, shiny black eye to anyone who’s watching. It would make clear that the city is actually not fully committed to a pro-housing policy and that any supervisor can simply pick out a neighborhood in their district and lock it down against any new housing.

The fact is, Peskin’s proposal isn’t actually about historic preservation. There are existing rules in place that protect truly historic resources without knee-capping our ability to build homes in the city’s center. Rather, this fight is about Peskin’s desire to say no to change, no to new people who enrich the fabric of our neighborhoods and our city, and no to transforming our city to meet the challenges the pandemic has wrought in our downtown.

There has been much hand-wringing lately over whether San Francisco has become less progressive. That’s not what I see when I look at the changes in how most San Franciscans think about housing, which is fundamental to achieving our equity and climate goals.

It’s not progressive to say no to new housing. San Franciscans are ready to start saying yes, and it’s time the Board of Supervisors heard them.

Sen. Scott Wiener has represented San Francisco and northern San Mateo County in the California Senate since 2016. A former San Francisco supervisor, his legislative work has focused on housing, climate, transportation and other core urban issues.

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