SF needs affordable housing, not Prop’s cheap theater. E


San Francisco voters who open their November ballots to see a measure called the “Affordable Housing Production Act” might be excused for assuming that helping to build more affordable housing would be a prerequisite for earning that name.

Not in this town, unfortunately.

The measure in question, Proposition E, is many things. But it is not a “housing measure” in the ordinary sense of that expression.

It’s cheap political theater.

Consider that Prop. E actually makes it harder in some cases to build 100% affordable housing than existing laws. Under California law SB35, subdivisions built for residents who earn less than 80% of the project area’s median income receive what is called “ministerial” approval. This allows them to avoid various stages of costly and time-consuming government review, making construction easier and faster.

Despite the assertion of the authors of Prop. E that their measure “will build more housing than San Franciscans can afford,” its provisions are almost the same as SB35. Supervisor Connie Chan, the bill’s main backer, conceded in an endorsement interview that there were “probably no significant differences between the SB35 and what we’re offering.”

But that’s not entirely true. The bill manages to be both redundant and a step backwards.

Unlike SB35, Prop. E does not waive environmental review for projects that meet its criteria. This means that a single angry neighbor of a proposed 100% affordable development can bog the project down in lawsuits for years if, for example, a proposed building were to cast a few minutes of shade in a neighboring yard.

Chan said she didn’t completely eliminate review in the measure because “I really appreciate the balanced approach that allows our communities to have a say in what comes into their community.” This, however, defeats the purpose of streamlining. If San Francisco really wants more 100% affordable projects, it can’t give one person the autonomy to hijack development.

As for facilitating the construction of more mixed-income units, Proposition E fails so dramatically that it seems intentional. Planning Department studies show that San Francisco’s existing inclusive zoning rules, which require at least 22% of units in an otherwise market-rate rental project to be affordable, are already making it difficult to financially realize projects.

The prescriptive guidelines of Prop. E would make that almost impossible.

To qualify for permit rationalization under Proposal E, a mixed development would need to make nearly 30% of its units affordable and ensure that a higher percentage of those units are two and three bedroom units than what is currently required.

“If you want to profit from our bill,” Chan explained, “you have to give back something that the community needs.”

Of course, that level of affordability would be great. But if the numbers aren’t in pencil — and they don’t — everyone ends up with nothing. Soaring rents and house prices in San Francisco should have been a pretty clear signal by now that more housing is a community benefit at this stage of the city’s evolution.

So, if this bill is as bad as people say, why does it still have support?

Some argue supervisors put it on the ballot to stick a thumbs-up in Mayor London Breed’s eye and confuse voters by rejecting his affordable housing measure, Proposition D. There’s almost certainly some truth there -inside. But that’s not the only political consideration here. Prop. E includes language that insists that mixed-income developments use so-called “skilled and trained” labor for projects – which essentially translates to unionized members of the politically powerful building trades.

Yes, construction workers should be paid fairly. But San Francisco is responsible for building more than 82,000 homes by 2030 under state housing laws. And there aren’t enough unionized workers to handle those jobs.

A better solution is the “going wage” language in Proposal D, which guarantees all workers union-level wages as well as health insurance and access to apprenticeship programs that can put them on the line. path to union membership. Unions are always in a good position to win construction contracts in this language, but other workers can also earn a living wage, while ensuring that construction does not sit idle for lack of labour. It is for these reasons that the carpenters’ union supports proposal D and not proposal E.

San Francisco needs housing, pure and simple – and fair wages for the people who build it. The last thing the city needs is more performative politics or a focus on granting a monopoly to a small group of influential unions at the expense of other workers.

Prop. E gives the city a slice of the former and a large chunk of the latter.

This comment is from The Chronicle editorial board. We invite you to express your views in a letter to the editor. Please submit your letter via our online form: SFChronicle.com/letters.


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