A looming state requirement that San Francisco present plans to build 82,000 housing units is starting to hit crunch time, and right now our best-case scenario is stuck at shy of 60,000 units.
We still have about two more months of sturm and drang left over the extremely boring but nonetheless very high stakes drama known as the San Francisco Housing Element, a requirement that the city submit a credible plan to have 82,000 new housing units built by the year 2031. Every county in California has to submit a housing element — an amendment to its general plan — by this coming January 31, and every county in the state is handed a Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) that dictates the number of required units, ours here being the aforementioned 82,000. If we don’t hit that goal, we might be handed the “builder’s remedy” fate wherein developers could build whatever they pleased, without permits, until the city is in RHNA compliance.
Should we not be in RHNA compliance by January 31 the city could also lose hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for transit and affordable housing projects. So how close are we to 82,000 new units? At a November 15 hearing, Planning Commission director Rich Hiliis said we had “68,000 units in the pipeline,” which sounds like a reasonable stone’s throw from the goal.
But now a report in the Chronicle delivers a much gloomier housing assessment, saying that “city planners can only identify about 59,578 possible new homes across the city given current zoning and economic conditions.”
And that’s a best-case scenario anticipating maximum build-outs, in-law unit expansion, and fourplexification of existing units. We probably won’t get those maximum additional units, plus there’s a strong headwind of inflation and construction costs currently stalling projects.
City Hall cannot control national inflation and cost trends, nor can we influence interest rates. So the only tools we have remaining are to retool zoning laws, or draw down on fees or affordable housing requirements, even though affordable housing remains our most glaring need. Can we change any of these variables by January 31, to create more potential units? That seems to be where this game is going.
And even if we do, would the state even certify and accept the plan right away? Possibly not. As the Chronicle reports, “In the Bay Area, whose cities are collectively required to build about 441,000 homes, regulators rejected 18 out of 19 initial housing element drafts; only the city of Alameda had its draft approved.” Governor Gavin Newsom is ordering state regulators to really hold cities’ feet to the fire on this one, economic externalities be damned.
Of course, SF is also a city that has more than 60,000 units sitting vacant, enough to house the homeless population eight times over. So it’s fair to wonder if supply isn’t the only variable in the housing crisis. But these state mandates do not care about vacancies, nor how much affordable housing is available, it is purely a raw numbers exercise. And SF has two more months to get those raw numbers in line, or else face a raw deal on transit and affordable housing funds.
Image: Joe Kukura, SFist