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Affordable Housing Advocates Rally to Block Affordable Housing Measure: What the Hell?

 Is this fight even about housing, or is it about personality politics?


Our region has its share of unexplained mysteries: What happened to the Alcatraz escapees? Where was the Highway Seal going? How many metric tons of L'Oréal clean gel does Gavin Newsom go through in a year? And now there’s one more: Why isn’t San Francisco's affordable housing community rallying around a proposal that would make it easier to build much-needed affordable housing?

This week Supervisor Scott Wiener, a candidate for Mark Leno's expiring state senate seat, introduced a measure for the June ballot that would simplify the approval process for housing projects that are 100 percent affordable for middle- and low-income residents. For these developments, the measure would waive the requirement for a conditional-use permit, a process that can take months. Getting affordable housing built faster: Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But the same proposal met with pushback at a December Planning Commission hearing—even from some members of the affordable housing community, whom the measure is meant to help.

So, what gives? To follow the logic of the measure's critics is to pile weirdness upon weirdness. Strangely, their complaints have a familiar ring, almost as though they were ripped from the testimony of NIMBYs railing against…affordable housing. 

At the December hearing, the Council of Community Housing Organizations, a coalition of affordable housing developers, advocated for caution; codirector Fernando Martí worried about "disempowering" planning commissioners from hearing projects. In response to a question from San Francisco about why CCHO (pronounced "choo-choo," incongruously enough) opposes Wiener's legislation, codirectors Marti and Peter Cohen sent an email that began: "First, a clarification, we DO NOT OPPOSE the legislation. CCHO has not yet taken a position." They continue: "the legislation was not developed in consultation with affordable housing developers or even with the Mayor's Office of Housing, and came as a surprise to many."

Cue disagreement right off the bat: Wiener calls that objection "absolutely false." In fact, the whole idea for the legislation "came out of the mayor's working group on housing, and it came from two members of CCHO: the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation and Community Housing Partnership," he says. "This is not a secret."

What, then, is the danger of Wiener's proposal? A criticism that came up often at December's Planning hearing was, essentially, that more people need more opportunities to weigh in more via more process. "The conditional-use process is a rewarding and positive experience for the developer and community," says Joseph Smooke, director of the Housing Rights Committee's Richmond District Housing Rights Center. But even without the usual scrutiny, developers of 100-percent affordable projects would still be required to notify the neighborhood, and unhappy neighbors could (and, you can bet, will) drag projects into Planning's languid discretionary review process. That's not enough to satisfy Smooke. Under Wiener's proposal, he says, "You're putting the burden on the public to challenge the project." The onus should be on the developer, he argues: "If a developer has done their job and engaged the community, then it's a pretty smooth and amazingly positively reinforcing process."

Smooke's harmonious version of building entitlements doesn't track for Ali Gaylord, director of development for Northern California at the affordable housing developer Bridge Housing, which supports Wiener's proposal. "Even if it was that kind of kumbaya vision, you're still working towards financing deadlines," she says. Shaving, say, six months off the timeline saves money, because, as Einstein definitively proved, time is money. "Even if the conditional-use process worked perfectly, it can delay projects from three to six months," she says.

Wiener filed the ballot measure in order to create pressure at the Board of Supervisors to pass the proposal as legislation, rather than putting it before voters (he can pull it off the pending ballot if he so desires up until March 4). Whether his colleagues pass the measure or we all vote on it in June, it figures to add a bullet to Wiener's affordable housing bandolier for his forthcoming state senate race against fellow supervisor Jane Kim.

A recent Chronicle story stated that, privately, Wiener thinks that the opposition to his measure—from Kim's surrogates, notably—is rooted less in policy differences than a desire to deny him a political slam dunk. And yet, Wiener flatly disavowed that idea to San Francisco, saying only, "Jane and I have supported a lot of each other's legislation. I don't want to get into senate politics."

An aide for Kim says she has not yet taken a position on Wiener's ballot measure. Something tells us that she, too, will find something not to like about it.


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