Mayor’s housing plan seen as threat to rent control

A proposal now before the SF Planning Commission is under fire by critics who see it as a threat to rent-controlled housing, and the Planning Department is countering them with a compromise.

The Mayor’s office and Supervisor Katy Tang are promoting the Affordable Housing Bonus Program as a way to create below-market-rate (BMR) housing so Mayor Lee can meet his goal of building 10,000 “affordable” new units by 2020.

The AHBP would allow developers of projects with 30 percent of on-site BMR housing guaranteed for at least 55 years to build up to two additional stories than allowed by zoning laws, and three stories more if the project is 100 percent affordable housing.

Planning Department officials say that the primary focus of the program is commercial corridors and the program would not apply to lots zoned for single-family homes or two-unit houses.

It does, however, include lots zoned for commercial and retail business and buildings with more than two residential units. A project with ten residential units or more would have to build the affordable housing on-site to qualify.

According to the department, 30,850 lots citywide could potentially be affected and 240 ‘soft sites’ — those most likely to be developed using this program — have already been identified. They also note that many of these ‘soft sites’ are parking lots or gas stations, and none of them have residential housing on them right now.

According to the draft ordinance, demolished rent-controlled housing must be replaced by rent-controlled units, however, these can be counted as part of the 30 percent affordable housing requirement to qualify.

Calvin Welch, a board member of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, which opposes the proposed ordinance, said:

“If you demolish a building with a rent-controlled unit you get credit as part of the 30 percent for replacing that unit. It’s not an additional requirement. … So it discounts existing rent-controlled units even more. It really puts a target on the back of rent-controlled housing.”

The catch, said Welch, is another San Francisco rent control law that comes into play:

“A rent-controlled unit is vacancy de-controlled. That means that at its first offering it’s offered at market-rate rent and only after the first offering is the annual increase limited.”

Welch added:

“So far from increasing the amount of affordable housing, especially for low-income people, it won’t. … It’s not even going to increase any low income (housing). All we’re going to do is churn the existing housing stock and rent control is vacancy de-controlled. If it’s vacant you get to rent it for the first time at existing market-rate rents.”

At a November Planning Commission meeting, Tommi Avicolli Mecca with the Housing Rights Committee called for all rent-controlled units to be disqualified from the program:

“Why can’t we simply say ‘no demolition of rent-controlled units, no evictions, no displacement,’ period, end of discussion? … No demolition of rent controlled units. It’s very simple. Why don’t we just have that as the policy?”

After public comment ended, commission Vice-President Cindy Wu expressed support for the idea of taking rent-controlled units out of the mix:

“We should consider whether or not to just abolish allowing this on rent-controlled units. What does that do to the program? I think there should at least be an analysis of that.”

On December 3, Planning Department Director John S. Rahaim presented the Commission with a compromise alternative:

“”What we would like to do … is require that if there is any removal of rent-controlled units they be replaced in the project in addition to the BMR units on site.”

Rahaim said:

“An outright ban might not be a wise thing; there are projects that we are aware of zoned for larger development that could provide a very high number of BMR units that might have one or two or three or four rent-controlled units on the site. And in the balance, it might be better in the long run to have 20 or 25 or 30 of BMR units on the site, as opposed to two or three rent-controlled.”

This did not, however, appease some of the housing and tenants-rights advocates who went before the Commission at that same meeting, like J. Scott Weaver of the San Francisco Tenants Union:

“We are extremely concerned with the impact that it’s going to have on rent-controlled tenants and while we appreciate the department’s attempt to write additional rules and attempt to protect these tenants, from what I’ve seen and what I can imagine, they are unwieldy and they’re unenforceable.”

Weaver added:

 “Who is going to make sure that this tenant is put back into one of these rent-controlled units, especially when it’s been five years since the tenant was displaced? …. Really it’s a developer bonus. It’s not an affordable housing bonus. If a particular lot is zoned for the development bonus the land owner is going to see dollar signs because he knows he can make a lot of money on that.”

Kearstin Dischinger of the department’s staff told the Commission that, right now, demolition is not the main cause of losing rent-controlled housing:

“The vulnerability around the loss of rent-controlled units, which are an important source of affordable housing for our city — they are about 46 percent of our total housing stock— isn’t really demolition. … It’s really change in tenure. I’m not saying that it couldn’t be but the main thing that we’re really seeing is really good, healthy buildings that are becoming ownership opportunities.”

But Weaver predicted this ordinance could change that:

“You think we have an eviction crisis now just wait, this is going to put it on steroids. … You’re going to see any kind of pretext for eviction that a landlord can think of. … A year from now, if this is allowed to go through, you’re going to be back at square one because it’s not going to become law. We’ll make sure, by initiative or through the Board of Supervisors that it never happens.”

The Commission is expected to vote on the proposal January 28, 2016.