A What's-Next Moment for San Francisco's Housing Crisis

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The San Francisco Planning Department swears that its new video campaign on the city's housing crisis isn't advocacy. A spokesperson for the department says that the video it released this week, which runs nearly six minutes, is strictly informational. "We want it to spark the appetite," says communications manager Gina Simi.  

Not everyone sees it the same way. Curbed San Francisco's Tracy Elsen calls the video "almost activisty." The San Francisco Housing Action Coalition has already appropriated the video for its own ends, reposting it with a directive: "Watch it and take action by sending an email to the Mayor and Supervisors telling them that housing affordability won’t improve unless we produce more housing to meet our growing future demand."

Planning put out the video in conjunction with its release of the Housing Element Update 2014, a survey of housing needs and goals that the city is required to release every five years. This document updates the city's policies and projections, just as it did back in 2009. Only this year, the department released a video, and it's seasoned with just the right amount of dramatic flavor. ("So why is housing in San Francisco so expensive?" the video asks. "There are several theories—but here are the facts.")

The most important facts in the video suggest that San Francisco understands its affordable-housing crisis and is working to solve it. But it's far from comprehensive, and a skeptical viewer could easily conclude that a solution may already be out of reach.

In one segment, the video illustrates the crisis with a familiar anecdote. For a two-person household living and working within San Francisco city limits, median income is about $70,000. Affordable housing is defined, roughly, as housing that costs no more than one-third of a household's income. So for this two-person partnership, an affordable rent is one that's not more than $1,750 per month.

Which is nowhere close to what San Francisco residents who are renting their homes are paying. And it's far beyond what workers making even San Francisco's generous $10.74 per hour minimum wage can afford. Using the slightly higher figure for area median income, the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that the "housing wage" for a two-bedroom home at fair-market rent in and around San Francisco is $37.62. Two people working full time at minimum wage don't make that much.

"If we don't plan for and produce housing along with job and population growth, the cost of housing will only increase," the video acknowledges, in another activist-y line. Yet what's really changed since the Housing Element Update 2009? Much of the building boom happening now is merely catchup following the housing crash, and centered around the luxury level at that. On the other hand, the elimination of the state's Redevelopment Funds for Affordable Housing saw state support plummet from $27 million in fiscal years 2007–2008 to $0 in FY 2012–2013.

There is some good news. The city is thinking about unloading public land that could be developed to add thousands of housing units. And as SPUR observes, Bay Area voters delivered promising votes on ballot-box zoning measures in the recent election: Voters "rejected NIMBY-led downzoning, approved height increases in their downtowns, reaffirmed urban growth boundaries and voted against sprawl development." And San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has pledgedthat the city will build or rehab 30,000 homes by 2020 as part of a blitz on affordable housing.

The mayor's plan has been the subject of scrutiny and skepticism. Within that 30,000-unit goal, for example, are 10,000 projected housing units planned as "permanently affordable." Yet these ostensibly new units include some 4,000 existing public-housing units slated for rehabilitation, according the San Francisco Public Press. Notwithstanding the numbers game, it's not clear what funding mechanism the city will use to maintain the remaining 6,000 new units (or the 10,000 units altogether) as permanently affordable housing. It's not enough to just build the housing for very low-income residents.

So the video really isn't a piece of advocacy, since it doesn't answer all these questions. A more strident production might have addressed the role of rent control in exacerbating, over many years, a housing crisis that has now come to a head. Nor would it try to play every side of the coin. "We are working diligently to build enough housing for everyone who wants to live here, protect the existing housing supply"—stop right there. San Francisco can't have this both ways without addressing the relationship between rent control and plans to rehab dilapidated existing housing units.

San Francisco is far from doomed, but there's little cheer to find in the trajectory of the city from 2009 to 2014. (Unless you're riding high on the Google bus.) Something that Vox's Ezra Klein calls the "strategic fallacy" might come into play here: For all the advocates and proposals, there may simply not be a solution to San Francisco's affordable-housing crisis. The crisis isn't new, and it isn't going anywhere.

(Image via kropic1/Shutterstock.com)

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