California followed through on promises to investigate whether the San Francisco Board of Supervisors violated state law when it rejected two housing projects that were already approved by the city’s planning commission.
The city may have violated several laws when it didn’t approve a Mid-Market 27-story highrise with nearly 500 units, of which 19 percent were to be affordable due to “vague concerns” about shadows and gentrification, according to a letter last week from Shannan West, who heads the Housing Accountability Unit of the Department of Housing and Community Development. It also cited a decision to bar a microhome project in the Tenderloin that its developers said was “affordable by design” while supervisors worried it would become a “tech dorm.”
“While these projects have sought different types of approval, they share the circumstance of having prior Planning Commission approvals of significant housing projects being overturned by the BOS — without any documented findings,” West wrote. “HCD is concerned that this represents a larger trend in the City/County.”
West requested written findings supporting the board’s decisions within 30 days, to be sent to both the state department and the projects’ sponsors because it’s “unclear” how they can successfully advance their development proposals. “In the meantime, 811 potential housing units are in limbo,” she wrote.
The move came as the state ramps up efforts to ensure cities meet housing goals, a push that included expanding the Housing Accountability Unit. If the city doesn’t respond satisfactorily and further requests for compliance aren’t successful, the agency can refer the issues to the office of the state Attorney General, which can take the city to court. Earlier this month, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a 12-member “strike force” within the Department of Justice to enforce the state’s development and tenants’ rights laws.
“Local jurisdictions hold the keys to approve how much, how fast and where housing is developed,” HCD Director Gustavo Velasquez wrote recently. “So our challenge now: Placing an even greater emphasis on making sure local governments are approving housing, and at a much, much faster clip than they ever have before, and enforcing housing laws on the books whenever necessary.”
Granted, some opponents of the Mid-Market development said the supervisors “made the right call,” noting in an op-ed published in the San Francisco Examiner that not even the 18,000 market-rate units approved by the city in the last seven years have “helped our homeless neighbors out of [their] tents.”
The department store parking lot that developers wanted to turn into 500 apartments, about 80 percent at market rates, should instead have been 250 all-affordable units, they said. That hypothetical 100 percent affordable project, and many others, could be financed by the creation of a new Enhanced Infrastructure Finance District to sell $1 billion of tax increment bonds in the next 10 years, they said.
”This is not the time for finger-pointing,” they write. “This is the time for us to come together. This is the time to go big!”
The city’s planning department was expecting the state’s letter and Planning Department Chief of Staff Dan Sider told the San Francisco Chronicle it would have “findings” well before the 30-day limit. Although the department supported both developments, Sider said the board’s decisions were “their right and prerogative.”
State Senator Scott Wiener tweeted the entire letter, which also dinged the city for procedural violations such as having too many hearings for the projects, and called it “harsh yet entirely appropriate.”
Today the State, via @California_HCD, informed SF that the Board of Supervisors may have violated state housing law by rejecting recent projects (eg Stevenson St) & that SF may be violating state law with an overly extensive housing permit process.
Harsh yet entirely appropriate pic.twitter.com/H7J7q3gPd3
— Senator Scott Wiener (@Scott_Wiener) November 22, 2021
Several other pro-housing respondents on Twitter also applauded the move and asked the HCD to take on Palo Alto next. The South Bay city recently lost appeals to have its state-mandated housing quotas reduced.