City Pushes Plan For More Density, Affordability, Across SF Neighborhoods

Are you willing to have taller buildings and more market-rate housing in your neighborhood in order to get more affordable units? 

City planners are proposing a policy that is asking neighborhoods across San Francisco to grapple with this question.

Called the Affordable Housing Bonus Program (AHBP), it combines recent legislation and legal decisions to argue for a compromise approach to more neighborhood development.

The above map, which you can explore here, shows how sweeping the changes could be for many neighborhoods. Via SF Planning

Under it, new housing built on neighborhood corridors including the Castro, Haight, Divisadero, Inner Sunset, North Beach and Polk could add up to two additional stories if 30 percent of the new units are permanently set aside for middle- or low-income residents.

The image at the top of this article, via the Planning Commission, illustrates the type of thought process one might go through to see how the plan would manifest itself. The red line represents existing zoning limits; the blue line shows the maximum height allowed under ABHP. 

The top image, with the taller version of the building drawn in. Via SF Planning

In certain parts of the city with existing higher-density zones, including parts of Western Addition, Tenderloin and District 3, the rules could allow for even more density.

The AHBP planners has spent the last few months doing a road show around the city with a variety of interested parties, including developers and neighborhood associations.

Next up will be a Planning Commission review at City Hall at noon on December 3rdIf the reaction so far is any indication, expect that meeting to be long and contentious.

Why Now?

In recent decades, San Francisco has both limited the height of new buildings across much of the city, and required that any new developments include 12% affordable housing on-site (or more, off-site).  The goals were preservation and affordability. 

When combined with the current regional economic boom and the chronic lack of new housing in neighboring cities, the result has become a housing crisis.

If the AHBP is enacted, the plan would bring the city into compliance with the 1979 State Density Bonus Law that requires municipalities to let developers build more if they build affordable.

San Francisco hasn’t followed the density bonus law to date, but it might have to soon, anyway. 

In 2013, a state court ruled that Napa County couldn’t place potentially prohibitive affordability requirements on a new development for low-income farm workers.

San Francisco’s proposed ABHP. via SF Planning Commission

It reinforced that cities and counties must give developers the ability to build up to 35% more units than would otherwise be permitted if they “seek and agree to construct” on-site affordable housing.

AHBP is also trying to dovetail the density-affordability approach with other city projects.

In 2014, Mayor Ed Lee issued an executive order aimed at building or renovating 30,000 homes by 2020, a third of which would be permanently set aside for low- and moderate-income families. That fall, San Francisco voters approved Proposition K, which codified the goals in Lee’s executive order.

Supported by Mayor Lee and sponsored by Supervisor Katy Tang in September 2015, the AHBP is intended to create more below-market rate housing, preserve neighborhood character (to a degree) and promote the city’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, which mandates that all market-rate development with 10 or more units pay into the Affordable Housing Fund.

The city is continuing to try to legislate more affordability, though. 

California’s AHBP guidelines. via SF Planning Commission

According to the Planning Commission, the state’s mandates aren’t “extensive enough to meet needs specific to San Francisco and does not incentivize middle-income housing.”

In a city where each new housing is estimated to cost anywhere from $469,000 to $650,000 per unit and building heights are widely limited to 40 feet, the AHBP would let the city comply with state law while handing developers strong incentives to create affordable housing. In addition to the 30%/two-story plan, builders who create 100% affordable developments could add three stories.

How Is The Plan Going To Work?

The notion of neighborhood densification is a controversial topic across the city, so the AHBP has tried to be inclusive from early on.

Planning and the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Development created working groups of stakeholders, liaised with community groups, and brought in outside help from David Baker Architects, who identified prototypical building sites and consulted on program design, and Siefel Consulting, who created a financial analysis.

Via the Residential Density Bonus Study

The full plan allows a sliding affordability requirement scale based on the total increase in units, as you can see in the chart above. 

It takes into account the city’s existing definitions for income levels.

San Francisco’s Average Median Income is $91,700 for a three-person household, $81,500 for two people, and $71,350 for a single person. San Francisco’s affordable housing programs are open to people who earn between 50% and 140% AMI, which means a single person earning between $35,000 and $99,900 can apply.

The types of developments are designed to mimic the pre-automobile neighborhood main streets that define the city’s main streets: retail on the bottom, housing on top. 

According to project details, the majority of new construction created by the program would be mixed-use development with street-level retail. Design guidelinescall for “inviting and active ground floors” topped by residential stories that “express complementary architectural character.” 

In its current form, some rules within the new ABHP could supersede existing neighborhood or district-specific design guidelines in practice, even if they follow the spirit.

In total, AHBP zones would span about one-fifth of the city and encompass 30,850 parcels of land. Once in place, supporters say the AHBP would enable the creation of 16,000 new housing units; neighborhoods that would see the most new AHBP units are the Financial District (11%), Western Addition (11%) and Bayview (23%). After the program has run its course, the neighborhoods with the most AHBP units would be Western Addition (26%), Bayview (16%) and Inner Richmond (7%).

Projected increase in AHBP units, by neighborhood (via SF Planning Commission)

In practice, density bonuses would raise height limits by two stories and reduce the amount of required parking spaces. The AHBP’s local program mandates that 18 percent of new units in San Francisco are set aside for middle-income residents and that 12 percent be reserved for low- or moderate-income earners.

Although most of the city is zoned for four- and six-story limits, many neighborhoods, like Alamo Square, are home to older buildings that exceed height limits that were established later. In light of this fact, the city’s AHBP has no minimum unit threshold; increased density would be based on each project’s design and a requirement that 40 percent of the units have two bedrooms. 

The red line represents existing zoning limits around Alamo Square; the blue line shows the maximum height allowed under ABHP. (via SF Planning Commission)

To contrast, state density bonus requirements mandate that only 12 percent of units be set aside for low and moderate income earners with 1-8 percent additional for very low, low or moderate income residents. These rules apply to projects with at least 5 units and developers receive density bonuses on a graduated scale based on the number of units and the residents’ income distribution.

The AHBP’s Contentious Future

City officials and pro-growth activists tout the benefits of density bonuses, but homeowners in neighborhoods that could potentially be up-zoned are already registering their concerns.

Because the AHBP would alter city planning codes, the Planning Commission is holding a series of public hearings, the first of which took place at an open house at Noriega Public Library on October 30. According to San Francisco Business Times, many Outer Sunset residents who attended felt strongly that greater density would degrade neighborhood character and aesthetics. (Planning reports that only 66 new housing units were created in the Outer Sunset in the last 15 years.)

Although the proposed ABHP doesn’t alter height limits in districts where single-family homes are located, attendees still expressed reservations about obstructed views, shadowed backyards and greater parking congestion. According to Tang’s Western District Blueprint, the Sunset can accommodate 1.3 million square feet of new commercial space and 1,300 new housing units, 5 percent more than its current inventory contains. 

“Neighborhood character is a very personal perspective, so our job is to mediate that conversation around the more than 800,000 people who live in San Francisco and what they think the character of the city is,” said Kristin Dischinger, a project manager with the Planning Commission.

Percentage of new AHBP units, by neighborhood (via SF Planning Commission)

“Our character and our city values are also based on inclusivity and equitability,” said Dischinger, “so projects and developments that encourage and increase the amount of affordable housing are actually part of our neighborhood character and SF values as well.” 

Dischinger said the ABHP program area was created after planners reviewed any districts that regulated density by a ration of units to lot area and excluded areas zoned for single-family homes. “Almost the entire program area is within walking distance from Muni’s rapid network,” said Dischinger, who noted that the study did not factor in private commuter shuttle locations.

“All of the neighborhoods that are zoned as single-family won’t be impacted at all,” said Robert Poole, a project manager with the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, a non-profit that supports AHBP. “We don’t think we’re harming any of these neighborhoods by adding two floors to a number of sites. This program won’t be implemented over night; you’ll see the results play out over 20 years.”

Opposing groups, like the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, are less sanguine about preserving neighborhood character and say policy makers are ignoring residents’ concerns. According to a recent CSFN newsletter, zoning restrictions in the AHBP “will slowly be rescinded. Eventually, no neighborhood will be safe.” 

Taken together, CSFN asserts that efforts to legalize backyard cottages and in-law apartments, loosen roommate restrictions and enact Prop K will create a “domino effect” that “will erode neighborhood character with the increase in densification and height/bulk changes in addition to rear yards.”

ABHP-eligible parcels along Irving St. in the Inner Sunset. (via SF Planning Commission)

The results could even play out in some of the most notable projects already in the development pipeline. For example, depending on how the new density bonus rules are written, Transform Urban, which owns Kirkham Heights in the Inner Sunset, says it may add two additional stories to its planned redevelopment of the postwar housing complex.

After the October 30 meeting, Planning has extended the ABHP review period to the end of January. “We’ll have a new hearing on December 3. After that, we’ll take a vote and send it to the Supervisors’ Land Use Committee” before it’s considered by the full Board, said Dischinger. 

Imagine a building like the above replacing, say, the Stanyan McDonald’s parcel. Via the Residential Density Bonus Study.

The ABHP is likely to pass the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors before receiving the Mayor’s signature next year, but it’s just one aspect of an overarching strategy to create more affordable housing in San Francisco. Even though there are thousands of new market and below-market housing in the p, the city loses rent-controlled apartments as quickly as it creates new affordable housing.

The next Planning Commission review meeting is scheduled for Thursday, December 3 at 12 pm in Room 400 at City Hall. On Thursday, January 28, the Commission will meet again at noon in Room 400 to vote on its recommendations before turning the matter over to the Land Use Committee and the entire Board of Supervisors for a vote.

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