In surprise move, Planning Commission may seek to halt some Mission housing

The Planning Commission will vote next week whether it should decide on one of San Francisco’s most contentious policy debates: whether market-rate apartment and condominium projects should continue to get built in the Mission District.

With a similar measure heading toward November’s ballot after the Board of Supervisors rejected a market-rate moratorium last month, the Planning Commission’s entrance into the debate is unexpected. It would be the first time the body has initiated a debate on interim controls for project approvals in at least the last decade.

“The building of market-rate housing is very extreme. We hear about the consequences every day. The stories are so hard to digest as you are confronted with people’s miseries that you have to take time out,” said Kathrin Moore, a planning commissioner. “What the outcome will be is in the stars, but there’s an attempt to figure out what can be done.”

The Planning Department released the resolutionfor the the commission to initiate a debate on six-month interim controls Friday morning. The commission will vote next week on whether to have a public hearing on the topic, which would likely happen within the next two months.

Interim controls are essentially a bureaucratic middle ground between a full-out moratorium and a special-use district. The controls would add extra scrutiny to market-rate housing, commercial and large retail projects by forcing them to get a conditional use authorization instead of a large project authorization. Projects with five or more market-rate units, that demolish one rent-control unit or convert community or arts uses would be on the hook for extra scrutiny.

“It took us awhile to figure out we can (instigate interim controls), but we apparently can… We feel responsibility to ask right questions,” Moore said.

Grandfathering projects

As the resolution is written, the interim controls would have a modest effect on the neighborhood. It would delay the approval of just 58 units of market-housing – a 52-unit project at 3314 Cesar Chavez and a six-unit project at 854 Capp.

Projects that have filed an initial application for a building permit or environmental application after January 1 of this year would be exempt, which include the contentious 1979 Mission St. and 2000 Bryant projects.

“To grandfather in all these projects doesn’t help the Mission. The ‘Beast on Bryant’ and the ‘Monster in the Mission’ are still allowed to move forward,” said Gabriel Medina, policy director of the Mission Economic Development Agency, which is backing the moratorium ballot measure.

But the scope of the interim controls could widen as the commission debates them, said commissioner Dennis Richards. “Everything’s on the table. We need to look at everything here,” he said. “We’re trying to take emotion out of it to see where do we draw the line here.”

He added that he expects the commission debate to be less politicized than a ballot fight or a board hearing: “None of us are running for office or grandstanding…We can actually have a more rational discussion here.”

Another debate looms

That discussion still will likely trigger another clash at City Hall between Mission activists looking to block market-rate housing and the people trying to build it.

Last month’s Board of Supervisors hearing last eight hours of emotional public testimony about evictions and displacement, sandwiched between denunciations of a market-rate moratorium as bad policy in a city lacking housing supply.

Tim Colen, executive director of the pro-development San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, said Friday that stopping projects that comply with zoning rules from 2009’s Eastern Neighborhood Plan would be “just bad policy.”

“We set out the goals and project rules (developers) were supposed to follow and we set an expectation they’ll pay a lot of fees that help the city. We don’t understand why if we set the rules we say we’ve got to stop them,” he said.

Looking at the numbers

The planning commission says those rules to preserve some industrial uses and produce affordable housing aren’t working as well as the city wanted. “This situation compels new action on the part of the city,” according to the interim controls resolution. “A finer grained analysis of opportunity sites for (production, distribution and repair) use and affordable housing in the Mission District is required.”

The resolution also lays out bleak numbers on how the neighborhood has started to change from a working-class, heavily Latino area of the city. The city estimates 900 households that make less than about $100,000 a year have left the Mission since 2010 and could accelerate over the next five years.

The neighborhood hasn’t seen much market-rate housing built yet. Just 499 new housing units have been built since 2010, according to city reports. But anxiety seems to be stemming from what’s coming forward.

The Eastern Neighborhoods plan anticipated 1,700 units to get built in the Mission over through 2025, but a swell of demand for housing in the neighborhood has propelled those units to get proposed earlier than expect. More than 1,300 units of Mission market-rate projects are in the city’s pipeline.

Mission Action Plan

At least in theory, a pause on project approvals would buy time for city officials and community leaders to put forward pieces of the Mission Action Plan. The plan, still in the early stages, is backed by the mayor’s office and would try “to create more housing and economic stability in the Mission” in the long term.

According to the Planning Department, long-term proposals include allowing Mission housing projects to pack in market-rate units more densely in exchange for the construction of more affordable units; a displacement and relocation fund for nonprofits; more regular housing bonds; and specific housing bond money dedicated to areas of the city facing high evictions.

Mayor Ed Lee has spoken out against the legislative and ballot moratorium proposals, but it’s unclear whether he would oppose interim controls considering his office is involved in the Mission Action Plan efforts. Christine Falvey, the mayor’s spokeswoman, didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Mission and proposed the moratorium at the board earlier this year, also didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Activists trying to collect the about 10,000 signatures they need to get an 18-month moratorium on the ballot are expected to be making their final push this weekend. The group has until Monday night to turn in enough signatures. Medina said “the community is confident that we’ll have the signatures.”

If interim controls pass, it could hurt the chances of a moratorium passing through voters – a potential “silver lining” to moratorium opponents, Colen said.

“Ballot box planning becomes a disaster,” he said. “A full discussion with the public being able to weigh in and being in front of commission is preferable outcome than sneaking through a ballot initiative.”


Source: San Francisco Business Times

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