Jill Sander – San Francisco Planning Department
Harold Simon: You’re currently working on a community planning process to re-zone the Eastern Neighborhoods of San Francisco including South of Market and the Mission District. Why was there a need to rezone the area and how has the city approached the project? How does the city engage citizens? What kind of support services does the city provide to strengthen citizen participation, and what role do citizens play in the process?
Jill Slater: The city and county of San Francisco is surrounded by water on three sides and bounded by another county on the fourth side. Its 49 square miles of land is, therefore, a very valuable commodity. Land prices reflect scarcity in a city with no place to expand. Competition for how the city’s land is used can be quite intense. As a result, the citizens, stakeholders, and policy makers pay close attention to development and planning issues.
The Eastern portion of San Francisco (or about 15 percent of San Francisco’s land) is zoned for industrial use. This land has been zoned such for the past 70 or more years. When it was originally zoned to accommodate industrial activity, planners assumed that this land was undesirable for any uses other than industrial. As a result, most uses are permitted. In the past 5 to 6 years, as greater development pressures have arisen, this industrial land came to be seen as the most flexible land, the cheapest land, and the land with the fewest potential neighbor conflicts in all of San Francisco. Since 1998, over 4,000 live/work units have been built in this area. The huge influx of residents to this predominantly industrial area caused the displacement of hundreds of production/distribution/repair jobs, as well as hundreds of artists, and Latino and Filipino working class households.
The planning department reacted with a year-long community planning process in which almost 1,000 community members have thus far participated. The goal of this ongoing process is to determine more appropriate zoning and height limits for the land currently zoned industrial and for the areas immediately surrounding these areas.
About one quarter of the Mission District (the Mission) is zoned industrial while the remainder is zoned for housing and neighborhood shops. The Mission has a long history of community activism. South of Market’s (SoMa) zoning is very mixed in nature — permitting industrial uses as well as many types of residential and office uses as well. It has a tremendous diversity of residents and businesses in the area and they are not singular in their goals.
The Planning Department has held a series of public workshops in the Mission, SoMa, and two other areas of the city as well. In the Mission, up to 350 people attended each meeting. We served full dinner and provided entertainment such as local marimba bands and the turnout seemed unprecedented. These meetings had a very grassroots feel in that residents from all backgrounds expressed their interests and desires for their neighborhood. Priorities were affordable housing, family housing, and the protection of local jobs. In some instances, participants also pushed for more market rate office and residential development.
The outreach of the planning department included sending out postcards to every resident and worker in each neighborhood, providing fliers on the events to local community groups, and listing dates in the local papers. The planning department strongly encouraged local groups, business owners, and interested citizens to bring more people to these meetings.
The community response in each area has been strong and, in many cases, individual groups have come forth with their own proposals. The Planning Department produced a range of alternatives for review by the Planning Commission. The content of these proposals came from the community’s goals stated by workshop participants, research on the part of the planners, as well as ideas from the efforts of independent community groups.
Simon: Like New York City and a handful of other places, San Francisco revels (rightly so) in its diversity. But that diversity has led to cultural tensions. How has the city managed such tensions, especially when culture and class intertwine?
Slater: The primary source of tension is amidst different classes of residents in San Francisco. The diversity within San Francisco requires that developers, businesses and new and old residents must make compromises in order to coexist.
The Mission and SoMa are both areas where there are tensions between new and old communities. SoMa has long been home to a large Filipino community as well as the largest contingent of single resident occupant hotels. It was the center of attention during the dot-com boom — start-up companies wanted their office space here and the new technology employees wanted to live in the district’s trendy, new live/work condos. The Mission is a very attractive real estate option to homebuyers, and is also home to the largest concentration of working class Latino families in San Francisco. It is an area with beautiful Victorian homes and vibrant tree-lined streets. The Mission district has great access to shopping and public transit and is one of the sunniest areas in San Francisco.
The responses of the community during this planning process indicate that residents of all income levels want good places to live — with services that make up a true neighborhood, with good urban design, and the convenience of living, working, and shopping in close proximity to one another. The owners and workers of the retail stores, offices and production/distribution/repair businesses also need good places in which to operate — enough space to conduct a viable business with the protection from conflict with adjacent uses.
Tensions are relieved when policy makers understand the complexity of a situation in which diverse stakeholders express their demands. All sides must be listened to and well served by the outcome of the legislation.
Simon: All the qualities of San Francisco that make it desirable can also create massive displacement pressures. What are the strategies you’ve used to balance the need for economic diversity with the need for development, and the needs of new residents with those of long-time residents?
Slater: For this specific effort, the primary tool at the disposal of the Planning Department is strong and clear zoning rules. These rules must facilitate a generous amount of space for new development — especially for housing. Housing that is built here must include housing that is affordable, that is built according to well-thought-out design guidelines, and that accommodates existing space for jobs. A big part of the work of this community planning process is to determine the proper balance between production/distribution/repair jobs and the pressure for more housing. The difficult task is to ascertain the importance of these jobs to the welfare, economic diversity and success of San Francisco as a place for all strata of people to live and work, and in so doing, to identify appropriate locations for housing.
Citywide, new residential projects with more than 10 apartments must provide 12 percent of the projects’ apartments at a price affordable to households who earn less than or equal to the median income in San Francisco ($91,500 for a four-person household). The Planning Department is currently trying to develop other incentives that encourage more affordable units in these areas. Regulating the number of demolitions permitted, as well as the number of subdivisions of existing apartments can also contain the speed and efficiency of the gentrification of a neighborhood. The approach is to preserve as much of the existing housing stock while ensuring that new housing comes in the form of affordable units as well as market rate units. In this manner, a broader range of populations is housed in one neighborhood.
Simon: You mentioned that San Francisco has an inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires a 12 percent set aside for affordable units, but only requires affordability up to the local mean — $91,500 for a family of four. What percentage of monthly income spent on rent is deemed “affordable”? How many households are cost burdened — paying more than this percentage of their monthly income on rent? Describe some of the strategies the city is implementing to meet the needs of these families, at the lower end of the pay scale, who are competing for the same affordable units with families closer to or at the median income level. Are there preservation strategies in place for non-subsidized, very-low and low-income apartments?
Slater: Almost everyone in San Francisco has something to complain about with respect to housing: it is too expensive, it is too sparse, it is too dense. As San Francisco increases in desirability, land availability becomes scarce, and housing becomes a very emotional subject.
The city of San Francisco has a mandate from the California State Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) to produce a certain amount of housing for distinct resident populations. The Planning Department negotiates what is feasible for annual production with the Association of Bay Area Governments and HCD. Once the various agencies come to a compromised agreement, the Planning Department’s Housing Element aims to reach these targets via its housing objectives, policies, and implementation programs. The number of housing units required reflects the city’s share of regional job and household growth.
In the recent past, the city has overproduced market rate housing that serves households who earn over 120 percent of the median income. In San Francisco, the median income for a household of four people is $91,500. This amount is inflated due to the fact that it is calculated based on a metropolitan statistical area that not only includes San Francisco, but other counties with some of the highest income earners in the country. As a result, efforts to define the middle class and lower middle class are skewed.
The city has, on the other hand, woefully under-produced housing that serves households of very low, low and moderate incomes. Subsidized projects generally target low, and very low income households, leaving moderate income households the least served. These “affordable” housing projects can serve households earning annual incomes up to almost $50,000! Those households earning above $50,000 but below median are traditionally thought of as middle class and are either housed in the rent-controlled housing stock, in homes purchased decades prior or in shared living situations. The remaining households that cannot compete with those targeted for subsidized or “affordable” housing and cannot compete with the wealthier households for market rate housing are often forced to leave San Francisco in search of cheaper housing.
A typical scenario in urban areas — the real estate market builds housing at market rates, and the government and non-profit housing developers produce housing for the lower income populations. (See table “Percent of Households Overpaying by Income Level”). There is little built in between these two extremes.
Methods for preservation of existing affordable housing stock at the Planning Department include staff-initiated discretionary reviews of all demolition permits. In other words, each project is reviewed by staff and brought before the Planning Commission for a final decision on the appropriateness of the demolition. In addition to oversight of demolitions, the Planning Code strictly discourages the merging of units. Included in the proposed zoning for the Mission are efforts to encourage the development of affordable units with a careful monitoring of the overall number of units produced. The priority in that neighborhood is that if and when units are built, the majority should be affordable or they should not be built. Another effort at preservation comes from the Mayor’s Office of Housing, which provides rehab loans for low income homeowners.
Jill Slater is a city planner who has worked with the city of San Francisco for the past six years. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. and a Masters in City and Regional Planning from the University of California at Berkeley.
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