San Francisco Could Face a Reckoning Over Housing Policies

The clock is ticking for San Francisco. The state made clear last week that it’s ready to go all the way to blunt the city’s notorious NIMBYism if changes aren’t made. 

On Aug. 9, the Department of Housing and Community Development announced its first ever review of San Francisco’s housing policies. The probe will be led by the department’s new Housing Accountability Unit, which has been on the warpath against localities accused of contributing to the state’s housing crisis.

From a press release:  

According to San Francisco’s self-reported data, it has the longest timelines in the state for advancing housing projects to construction, among the highest housing and construction costs, and the HAU has received more complaints about San Francisco than any other local jurisdiction in the state. A recent article points out that U.S. Census data shows that Seattle – a city of comparable size – approves housing construction at more than three times the rate of San Francisco.

“We are deeply concerned about processes and political decision-making in San Francisco that delay and impede the creation of housing and want to understand why this is the case,” said HCD Director Gustavo Velasquez. “We will be working with the city to identify and clear roadblocks to construction of all types of housing, and when we find policies and practices that violate or evade state housing law, we will pursue those violations together with the Attorney General’s Office. We expect the cooperation of San Francisco in this effort.”

Over the next nine months and beyond, the HAU, in partnership with others, including the U.C. Berkeley Institute of Urban and Regional Development, will conduct a comprehensive analysis of San Francisco’s housing approval policies and practices. This review will synthesize and update existing research with new data and examine discretionary decision-making patterns that lead to abnormally long housing delays. The Policy and Practice Review will identify barriers to the approval and development of housing at all income levels, including housing that is affordable to lower- and moderate-income households.

HCD will collaborate with San Francisco to secure legally enforceable commitments to boost housing production and will apply the lessons learned to jurisdictions across the state.

“In California, we are facing a housing crisis of epic proportions, and it's going to take all of us, working together, to solve it,” said Attorney General Rob Bonta. “The California Department of Justice's Housing Strike Force is working closely with state and local partners to enforce and defend state housing laws and support California families wrestling with the high cost of housing. We will continue to work with HCD to enforce our housing laws to alleviate this ongoing crisis.”

The announcement was met with praise from San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco). It came one day after HCD program manager Paul McDougall sent a letter to San Francisco’s Planning Department criticizing the draft plan it submitted for future housing. San Francisco has until Jan. 31, 2023 to adopt a housing element that would allow for the construction of 82,000 new units between 2023 and 2031.

For years, San Francisco has been accused of styming development, resulting in one of the most unaffordable housing markets in the nation. Projects are routinely blocked on environmental grounds and the Board of Supervisors has embraced anti-development policies for decades.

YIMBYs like Scott Wiener hope those days are finally coming to an end.

“The days of SF & other cities flouting state housing laws are over,” Wiener tweeted after the announcement of the state review. “Accountability is here.”


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