The phrase “developer dirty bomb” entered the chat surrounding the San Francisco Housing Element debate at Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting, as affordable housing activists argue the soon-to-be-final draft of the plan gives short shrift to racial equity.

As of press time for this post, the San Francisco Planning Commission is still in session discussing the final draft of the San Francisco Housing Element, a state mandate requiring that each county submit a plan to build enough housing to keep up with their population growth. (You can watch their meeting live on SFGovTV 2. It’s very boring, but very important!) In San Francisco, we’re directed to build 82,000 new housing units by 2031, which is a far more ambitious clip than the pace at which we’re currently building.  

So creative measures are required, so the city doesn’t miss out on hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions, in affordable housing and transit funding we'd miss out upon if we don’t get our Housing Element plan approved by the state's January 31 deadline, some mere six weeks from now.

One of these creative measures is called a “circuit breaker” by supporters, but being called a “developer dirty bomb” by its detractors: using funds from 2020’s voter-approved Prop. I real estate transfer tax to build affordable housing, therefore lessening affordable housing requirements on developers so their large housing projects are more palatable with more market-rate housing.

At Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting, Gilbert Williams of the activist group PODER chose the “developer dirty bomb,” language, saying the move would “nullify every attempt at equity in the housing element,” adding that “large swaths of the city would be upzoned and primed to be destroyed and rebuilt with luxury housing, while current residents, businesses, communities of color and cultural districts will be pushed out.”

The Housing Element is an every-eight-year exercise, and this year’ SF Housing Element purports to focus more on racial and social equity than any other previous iteration. But the San Francisco Public Press reports on how affordable housing activists feel the Housing Element is completely inadequate on racial equity, despite these alleged efforts.

The current Housing Element Plan acknowledges the problem. “San Francisco’s housing problem is a racial and social equity challenge and an economic problem,” the current draft of the document says. It adds that “many communities of color, especially the city’s Black and American Indian communities, have experienced deep, multi-generational, dispossession, harm, and near erasure, experiences that have yet to be fully told, documented, recognized, and repaired by City actions.”

But at a November 15 Board of Supervisors meeting, some supes noted that San Francisco is well-ahead of its market-rate housing goals, and lagging behind on its affordable housing goals.  District 5 supervisor Dean Preston pointed out the city has met “150% of our market-rate housing goals in this cycle, and not even half of our affordable housing goals.”

Council of Community Housing Organizations policy director Charlie Sciammas agrees. “It’s great to have all the lofty goals, but if the city hasn’t committed to put in place all the pieces we need to make sure we can bring it to fruition — that means a strong start to our public investments, and transforming our public institutions to truly prioritize affordable housing — it’s hard to count this as a win,” he tells the SF Public Press.

But Planning Department officials insist it is simply an economic reality that developers will not build projects that are majority-affordable projects, because these are not worthwhile revenue-generating investments. And that runs the risk of severely hampering housing  production at a time when San Francisco needs to boost housing production.  

“We have an economic paradigm within which we function, which requires private investment, and our job is to guide those private investments,” Planning Department community equity director Miriam Chion tells the SF Public Press. “We would be failing if we didn’t provide that.”

This is the conundrum that will likely define the Housing Element debate that will grip City Hall (and city department meetings) for the next six weeks. The plan touts its commitment to social and racial equity, but activists wonder if this is meaningless lip service.

As one unidentified public commenter said at Thursday’s Planning  Commission meeting, merely “writing and saying that the Housing Element is centered on racial and social equity, to me, is like Republicans saying their thoughts and prayers are with gun violence victims.”

Related: Housing Element Drama Update: SF Still Set To Be 22,000 Units Short on State-Mandated Goal [SFist]

Image: Joe Kukura, SFist