Density Program’s New Heights


Will taller buildings aid the housing crisis?



With the city confined to a seven-by-seven square mile area, San Francisco’s Planning Commission is exploring a new housing plan to increase height limitations of residential buildings.


The proposed idea, introduced by Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Katy Tang last month, is called the Affordable Housing Bonus Program (AHBP). The AHBP provides incentives for developers to include more affordable housing for very low, low, moderate, and middle-income households. Development bonuses, such as increased density, would be offered based on the percentage of affordable units provided.


The incentive for developers to join this program is that two extra stories could be added to projects in certain parts of the city if 30 percent of the units in the new building will be permanently affordable for low- and moderate-income residents. The breakdown requires that 12 percent of the units are available to low-income residents, and 18 percent of the units are reserved for middle-income residents (which equates to yearly income of $122,000 to $142,000 for a family of four). Publicly funded projects with 100 percent affordable housing would be allowed to add three floors instead of two.


The AHBP would apply to an estimated 30,850 parcels in San Francisco, in areas zoned as neighborhood districts where commercial use is either required or permitted on the ground floor, with residential units above. Projects that develop at least five units of housing would benefit from the program.


So what does this mean for the Castro?


Looking at the AHBP Web Map, several parcels on Castro Street between 17th Street and 19th Street and the surrounding area are zoned for the program. Housing rights advocate Tommi Avicolli Mecca said this program will have negative consequences for the tenants and small businesses currently occupying those spaces. One example of a targeted space is Harvey Milk’s former camera store, which is now the site of the Human Rights Campaign on Castro Street. A recent meeting with the Planning Commission discussed sparing such historical buildings, but according to Mecca, nothing is guaranteed.


“I think the big problem with the plan right now is that they are going to allow developers to tear down rent controlled buildings and also demolish small businesses,” Mecca stated. “You can come build affordable housing, but you don’t have to bulldoze our neighborhood. The mayor is saying he wants to build 30,000 new units by 2020. The reality is that he can meet that goal without tearing down rent-controlled units.”


Mecca noted that there are a number of vacant lots and buildings that have been abandoned that could be used to give developers an incentive to build there, instead of in areas where people are already living. Mecca worries that residents and small business owners are going to get displaced from the Castro, and will be forced to relocate outside the city. He expressed concern that this program will essentially change the character of the neighborhood by eliminating diversity and bringing in high-end retailers, chain stores and market-rate housing.


District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener disagrees with Mecca. Wiener sees the density bonus program as a powerful tool to increase the production of affordable housing. He says it’s a major potential source of new affordable housing throughout the city.


“The density bonus program will not lead to demolition of buildings,” Wiener said. “It’s incredibly difficult to get a demolition permit for older buildings in San Francisco. The density bonus won’t change that.”


City planners estimate the program would apply to some 240 sites throughout San Francisco, potentially bringing up to 5,000 below-market-rate units in the next 20 years. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, several proposals have come into the Planning Department that could take advantage of the density bonus program, including a 42-unit building at 1021 Quintara St. The density bonus would allow another three stories at 490 S. Van Ness Ave., a pure affordable-housing site, taking the proposed 72-unit building closer to 100 units.


Most recent developments in San Francisco have impacted neighborhoods that have been up-zoned for taller buildings like SoMa, Mission Bay, Upper Market and Dogpatch. The major difference is that the density bonus program would apply to major transit routes in the western part of the city that have not been rezoned. In addition to Castro Street and Divisidero Street, it would potentially affect Noriega Street, Taraval Street and Irving Street in the Sunset, Geary Boulevard and Balboa Street in the Richmond, as well as Fulton Street and Fillmore Street in the Western Addition. It could even reach outer Mission Street in the Excelsior and San Bruno Avenue.


An informational hearing was held at the Planning Commission meeting on December 3rd, but the Board of Supervisors will not vote on the AHBP until next year.

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