From left: Tim Colen, SF Housing Action Coalition; Gabriel Metcalf, SPUR; Mayor Sam Liccardo; Mayor Libby Schaaf; Mayor Ed Lee
In a Bay Area civic version of the Three Tenors, the three mayors of our region’s largest cities met last week to discuss one of the most pressing issues afflicting their cities—housing. An event held at the SFJazz Center in San Francisco and organized by San Francisco Housing Action Coalition gathered Mayor Edwin Lee of San Francisco, Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose and Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland in front of hundreds of industry participants.
Tim Colen, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition opened the event acknowledging the timing of this discussion. “Our interest in regionalism and hosting the discussion tonight is less because it’s a policy area a small group like ours can tackle, then because questions keep coming up in local conversations that we can no longer avoid,” he said.
Colen solicited the help of Gabriel Metcalf, president and CEO of SPUR, and the founder of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, to moderate the discussion, and the first question went to Oakland’s Mayor Schaaf whose East Bay city has seen a surge in development activity, interest and subsequent price increases. According to Schaaf, the city is in the midst of a development boom with 850 units under construction (40 percent of which are affordable), with another 11,000 somewhere in the entitlement process—the potential for transformation is great, she added, even though it is faced with challenges of its own.
“Oakland struggles a little, because we share the construction costs of San Francisco, but the rents are not the same.” The ability for developers to pencil in new construction is more challenged, “but we have got to build more housing,” added Schaaf.
The city has the second fastest rising rent rate in the country, according to the mayor, which is creating a lot of fear that the city will change, and than the new prosperity will not lift all the residents and that it will push out the current ones.
“We cannot build our way out of the problem, we have to do other things that also provide security for the people who are already here,” said Schaaf, but also realizing that certain forces cannot be stopped. “I cannot build a wall around our city. I cannot keep new people from moving here. In some ways we should be proud that people have discovered the awesomeness of Oakland.”
In San Francisco, which is experiencing its biggest building boom since the 1920s, Mayor Lee is faced with an economy that has perhaps outgrown the physical place, the housing stock and the transportation system. At the same time, the city may be outgrowing the ability of its citizens to deal with the changes, said Metcalf soliciting a response from the mayor.
“This is a very different time for San Francisco, historically,” said Lee. “We have to have those delicate conversations with historic NIMBY attitudes.”
“A lot of people instantaneously forget that we’re still coming out of [the] recession. And we’re very fortunate to have come out of it quite quickly. We’ve always had strong tourism, we’ve kept that, but we didn’t know that tech and healthcare would be such drivers of strong economic vitality,” said Mayor Lee.
The city is pushing forward a number of initiatives in an attempt to curb escalating housing costs that are changing the fabric of San Francisco.
“The past two years, we’ve invested over $13 million to prevent evictions,” he said. “We’re pouring in millions of dollars in neighborhood stabilization funds. Can we buy wholesale buildings under threat? Yes, we can. We’ve done that.”
At the same time, the city is also tackling head on initiatives that propose development mortaria as a response to increased housing costs and is trying to find solutions that work with the proponents of those actions. “This is a time not to moratorium ourselves to death,” Lee added.
Mayor Liccardo agreed and provided a practical suggestion that may enable a more balanced discussion around housing development.
“A more collaborative approach is probably what the MTC has started…around the One Bay Area grants, which is try to incentivize cities to build the housing using transportation money, which is really the only lever that I know of regionally that we have,” he said.
The discussion also focused on some very specific items that each city could do in addition to current initiatives that could ease housing development.
Mayor Schaaf’s sights went to the specific plans, which the city has been championing in several neighborhoods. “We’ve had a lot of success using areas for specific plans, and so one thing that we need to do is do more of them,” she said.
Oakland has completed five of these, and in each the hard community conversations led to a productive change in land use, created more density in some cases and in others helped preservations of the communities in their current form.
Another area that she would like Oakland to place more focus was public land policy as well as moving faster on policies that create stabilization and security for existing, vulnerable tenants. The city owns a lot of land and “when we’re not clear how to dispose of that land, it causes a lot of chaos,” she added.
Mayor Liccardo wants to focus on leveraging technology to try to create better accountability and transparency in the planning and permitting phase of the project, while Mayor Lee’s focus would like to be on more inclusionary housing options. “Middle income, workforce housing. We haven’t done that,” Lee said.
The last question focused on regionalism, and the possibility of taking away the ability of local, municipal governments to make decisions on housing, perhaps in a model that mimics what had been done in Portland and Seattle.
”In some ways [that] is easy for us, because we embrace housing, and we want to be urban centers, and our neighbors don’t. So, it’s always easier for larger cities to say yes to regionalism,” said Liccardo.
He explained that the composition of our region and its 99 jurisdictions adds to the issue. ”In some of these towns and cities, our interests are so diverse; it’s not easy,” he added.
”There is a range. You’re talking about something that’s pretty punitive and regulatory, and that’s the stick, right? I like how Sam [Liccardo] was talking about the carrot—if you don’t do your fair share, no transportation funds for you. To find more carrots is something that is more politically feasible,” said Mayor Schaaf.
Mayor Lee called on the concept of advanced citizenship and participation in the regional discussions. While there could be changes made in the land use policy that may create delicate changes that can be more incentivizing than regulatory, smaller cities should make their fair share contribution to good transportation as well as fair housing.
”We have to have that regional conversation,” he concluded.