The affordability balancing act

I apologize for the long break, but personal issues kept me from putting together posts or coherent thoughts of any reasonable length about transit recently. I decided to broach land use because we will vote tomorrow on a number of things that are going to affect it for the foreseeable future. This is always going to be a topic that consumes much of the political energy in San Francisco unless we have a miracle or a really deep recession.

A lot of my arguments for transit development rely on transit being the great equalizer. Everyone in the city should be able to get anywhere reliably, reasonably quickly, and inexpensively. This makes it especially tragic when transit access is a reason for gentrification or displacement. We have seen this in the past—a well-known recent example is the gentrification along the L train in Brooklyn. Many have argued that running BART through the Mission was one of the primary reasons for its gentrification, as well. Other efforts to expand and improve transit in SF, such as Geary BRT, have raised concerns because they might lead to gentrification in the western areas. But this seems to put us in a bind! If we don’t improve transit in low-income, minority and poorly-connected communities, we fail to enact the goal of transit, which is to serve those people as well as everyone else. If we do, then improved access is seen as a nice amenity for wealthy people who want to move in, and when that happens, we’re not serving low-income and minority communities anymore!

What this means is that transit activists must also be affordable housing activists, or transit activism won’t be worth nearly as much. Housing along high-capacity transit lines must be dense and include lots of affordable housing. A number of policy developments are taking shape in this area. Proposition C, which we will vote on tomorrow, seeks to push the inclusionary zoning (IZ) percentage up to 25%, grandfathering in current projects between 13% and 14.5% depending on when they were proposed, and allow the Board of Supervisors to change the IZ percentage without bringing it to ballot. We gain a lot of flexibility in housing policy by passing this, so if we find that 25% is too high, it can be dropped later after study determines what requirement produces the highest number of affordable units. The Affordable Housing Bonus Program is an attempt to give developers density bonuses in exchange for more affordable housing, and eligible areas are generally centered on frequent transit lines. It’s been reduced in scope in response to fears about displacement, but will still be useful. Aaron Peskin wants to expand Scott Wiener’s in-law unit legislation to the entire city, which could potentially unlock a new source of rent-controlled units, as well.

The other major policy statement has come from Gov. Jerry Brown. Mr. Brown wants to institute as-of-right development if projects meet existing zoning codes and have 20% of their units as affordable, or 5-10% if in a “transit priority area.” This is defined as the area within a half mile of major bus lines, trains, or ferries. I think as-of-right development is generally a good idea as it is what has allowed Seattle and Brooklyn to get a handle on their increasing rents, and the amount of process required to approve projects in SF is absolutely brutal. It seems like the lower IZ requirement near transit lines is meant to remove as many barriers as possible to transit-oriented development, which is well-intentioned. However, transit line catchment areas are exactly the places we should be building the most affordable housing, and I’m afraid that this might backfire as proposed. Without lots of upzoning or enormous density bonuses, both of which would likely face huge political battles, it would be difficult to ensure a meaningful number of transit-accessible affordable units are developed. And we might have an even bigger problem than that—depending on the definition of “major bus line,” most of San Francisco might fall into the transit priority zone, and the effective IZ requirement might drop precipitously across the whole city!

I imagine the insanity of the crisis and of local housing policy led Mr. Brown to propose something so sweeping. It’s good to see that people are not only thinking about simple, incremental changes that won’t ruffle any feathers. However, we need to make sure this doesn’t gut our ability to provide transit-accessible housing for everyone, or we’ve missed the point of having good transit to begin with.