It's been said many times by many, many people that it takes forever to get anything built in San Francisco. And as the city gets close to wrapping this first year in what is supposed to be an eight-year timeline for constructing 82,000 new housing units, a state agency has issued a report confirming that SF's approvals process for new construction is the slowest of any other city in the state.
The report, titled "San Francisco Housing Policy and Practice Review," was produced by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), with help from UC Berkeley researchers.
"San Francisco is an outlier on housing approvals, in part because of how it applies a blanket discretionary review process to all building permits," the report reads. "San Francisco’s housing approval processes are also notoriously complex and cumbersome, creating unpredictability and uncertainty. This results in an environment where only the most seasoned development professionals benefit from knowing how to navigate the local processes, and barriers to entry are imposed for new developers."
The report describes how it takes an average of 523 days for a housing project to get its initial entitlements in SF, compared to 385 days for the next slowest jurisdiction in the state. And it takes an average of 605 days for the city to issue a building permit, compared to 418 days in the next slowest jurisdiction.
According to the Housing Element that San Francisco managed to get passed and approved in January, the city is on the hook to get 82,000 new housing units built by 2031, which would mean adding 10,259 units each year — including 2023 — or 855 per month. The new report cites the fact that in the first six months of this year, San Francisco only permitted 179 new units in total, or about 30 per month.
A Chronicle investigation late last year found similarly lengthy timelines for getting projects approved, and drew a straight line between the city's arduous processes and the cost of construction itself. The complexities and slowness require big developers to hire extra consultants and expeditors, which drive up costs, and higher costs mean that more affordable units aren't getting built because they don't pencil — i.e. there's no profit for the developer in the end.
There seems to be a threat included in this report that HCD may still revoke its approval of San Francisco's Housing Element — something that could thrust the city into some chaos with that "builder's remedy" taking effect.
"A housing element is not a paper exercise — it is an enforceable commitment to the state that a city or county will take specific actions on specific timeframes over an eight-year period. Once HCD finds an adopted housing element compliant with Housing Element Law, the jurisdiction must work towards implementing the housing element," the report states.
"If HCD finds that a jurisdiction failed to implement a program included in the housing element, HCD may, after informing the local jurisdiction and providing a reasonable time to respond, revoke its finding of compliance with Housing Element Law until it determines that the jurisdiction has come into compliance."
The New York Times picked up on the report and spoke to Mayor London Breed, who said she "wholeheartedly" agreed with the state's conclusions about SF's processes.
Moira O’Neill, a research scientists at UC Berkeley who worked on the report, highlights to the NYT the contradiction inherent between San Francisco's progressive ideals, and the bureaucratic practices that keep housing so unaffordable to many people. "It’s really, really important to highlight not just for California, but for the country, how it’s possible to use procedural rules to be exclusive and block the ability to house people," O'Neill says.
And Gustavo Velasquez, the director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, tells the Times, "It is egregious, the enormous amount of constraints and barriers [city policies] impose on new housing development. The cost of housing is exorbitant because there isn’t enough of it."
Photo by Josh Hild