San Francisco Chronicle
Uphill battle for housing bonus plan
The city’s plan to give developers extra height and density in exchange for building a greater number of affordable units faces a showdown Thursday at the Planning Commission.
And the odds aren’t looking good for those who believe that squeezing more apartments onto transit corridors could help alleviate the city’s housing crisis.
In the works for more than a year, San Francisco’s affordable- housing bonus program, or
AHBP, is the city’s homecooked alternative to a long- standing state law requiring cities to give builders an extra two floors, provided they make a percentage of the units below market rate.
While the state law has been on the books since 1979, it was under the radar until a 2013 state Supreme Court case, Unidos del Valle de Napa y Solano vs. County of Napa. The court ruled that local governments must follow the state law or offer their own version of a housing bonus plan.
The San Francisco version of the law focused on so- called “soft sites” — parking lots, gas stations and one- story commercial buildings — along commercial strips like Van Ness Avenue, Ocean Avenue, Geary Boulevard, Irving Street, Balboa Street, Lombard Street, Geneva Avenue and outer Mission Street. In exchange for including units at 30 percent below market rate, developers in those areas could get two extra stories. Those doing 100 percent affordablehousing projects could get an extra three floors.
While planners see it as a modest proposition, the proposal created a small uproar, particularly on the west side of town, where homeowners saw it as setting the stage for an invasion of greedy downtown developers looking to replace quaint neighborhoods with boxy, SoMa- style apartment complexes.
Some affordable- housing advocates, who would seem like the plan’s natural allies, sided with the west side antidevelopment home owners, saying the AHBP’s proposed income levels required to qualify for units were too high.
“It’s going to get massacred,” said John Elberling, executive director of nonprofit developer Todco and an opponent of the plan. “I don’t know if it will get through the Planning Commission, but it will never clear the Board of Supervisors. They have managed to enrage every neighborhood in the city. Nobody wants to see large new projects appearing in the classic neighborhood two- lane commercial street.”
Along the way the city has done various things to make the AHBP more politically palatable.
The Tenderloin and Chinatown were removed. It was made explicit that no rent control units or historic structures would be touched. It dropped the median income levels needed to qualify for some of the units. It required 18month notification for commercial businesses displaced and directed the city to establish a relocation fee to help them move.
But still, program proponent Tim Colen of the Housing Action Coalition said, “It’s in trouble.
“It’s been nicked and cut to death.”
Colen and developers are quick to point out that even if San Francisco doesn’t pass its own AHBP, developers are already lining up to take advantage of the state law, which requires significantly fewer affordable units.
For example, at 333 12th St., the state density bonus program would allow developer Patrick Kennedy to increase his project from 140 to 200 units. At 793 South Van Ness Ave., the Toboni Group has applied to use the state density bonus to increase the unit count from 54 to 73. And at 2918 Mission St., developer Robert Tillman could increase his development from 55 to 75 units.
Tillman, who owns a laundry site he would like to replace with housing on Mission Street, said the “state law still applies whether or not the city passes the ordinance.
“There are a lot of people who are protesting who really don’t understand that the state density bonus applies no matter what San Francisco does,” Tillman said.
Kennedy said that at least two times neighbors sued to block density bonus projects in Berkeley. Both times the developer won.
“You don’t like the AHBP? Fine, go ahead and kill it,” said Colen. “But don’t complain in a few months when the Planning Commission starts granting the state density bonuses.”