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  • SF Examiner -Peter Cohen and Fernando Marti

Planning for an affordable future in Central SoMa

A big change is coming to South of Market: The Central SoMa Plan is before the Planning Commission today. It is a massive neighborhood rezoning, estimated to generate 35,000 new jobs and at least 7,000 new homes by 2040. The Planning Department envisions “the creation of a sustainable neighborhood.” As proposed, though, the plan is poised to further stress our “jobs-housing fit” and affordability crisis.

It’s time for The City to seize the opportunity to be innovative around housing and affordability.

At the heart of the Central SoMa Plan’s challenges is the Planning Department’s unwillingness to plan for a real jobs-housing fit — that is, ensuring a match between the proposed housing and affordability levels, and the jobs and wages created by the proposed commercial development. There is a clear mismatch between the projected 35,000 new jobs from commercial development (equating to about 28,000 new households) and the proposed 7,060 homes.

As much as the challenges seem daunting, rezoning Central SoMa is also a huge opportunity: an opportunity to plan for adequate affordable housing, good local hire policies, robust displacement protections and other policies that create the stable and livable communities we are all craving these days. To seize this opportunity, there are changes that could be made within the current process.

Housing affordability is the key issue

Most troublesome is the housing situation for low- and middle-wage workers. We can estimate that up to 55 percent of new households in Central SoMa (nearly 16,000 households) will be low- to moderate/middle-income (under 120 percent of San Francisco’s median household income). But the Central SoMa Plan only proposes 2,670 low- and middle-income affordable homes.

In response to this conundrum, planning staff say that The City’s existing pipeline of planned housing may someday accommodate SoMa’s housing needs throughout The City — even though most of those pipeline units are not being built, even now in the middle of such intense demand. And the current pipeline of entitled affordable housing for the entire city is only 3,092 units, far less than what Central SoMa alone will need.

To the extent that new housing needs are not met within the Central SoMa Plan, it will simply put further pressure on residents and communities within the South of Market and other adjacent front-line neighborhoods like the Mission, Tenderloin and Western Addition.

The City can improve the plan by:

— Increasing the areas zoned for housing to the maximum analyzed under the Environmental Impact Report (adding approximately another 1,500 housing units).

— Conditioning planning approvals to expire within 30 months to make sure approved housing proposals result in units on the ground and don’t fuel more land speculation.

— Protecting the existing community by creating an “eviction-free zone,” to the extent that the plan does not create sufficient housing for its workforce.

— Taking acquisition seriously, prohibiting the sale or lease of publicly owned sites for private development, and establishing a first-right of acquisition for The City and nonprofits for existing rent-controlled homes and underutilized lots.

Middle-income housing

Creating moderate/middle-income housing for the expanding workforce is also a big challenge. The Central SoMa Plan includes major upzonings (and a last-minute addition of a state “sustainability district” streamlining of approvals), which confer significant value that can be recaptured for more affordable housing. Yes, the Central SoMa Plan includes new development fees for other important community benefits, but not going beyond baseline affordable housing requirements in this visionary plan is missing an opportunity to create more moderate/middle-income housing that is significantly in short supply in The City.

The City can improve the plan by:

— Tying additional “middle-income” units to the upzoning and approvals streamlining.

Workforce development

In addition to increasing the housing in the plan, The City should also look at the opportunity for San Francisco’s existing residents to fill new jobs. A strong local hire and workforce development component, if real rather than simply aspirational, can have a dual benefit: creating job pathways for local residents to reduce unemployment and underemployment, thereby also reducing the housing demand created by new workers.

The City can improve the plan by:

— Incorporating a workforce development and local hire component, not just for construction jobs but for permanent jo

bs in tech and other office employment sectors the plan focuses on.

We encourage the Planning Department to seize this opportunity to plan for an affordable future, and consider bold, creative and forward-thinking ideas for getting toward a real jobs-housing fit in Central SoMa.

Peter Cohen and Fernando Marti are co-directors of San Francisco’s Council of Community Housing Organizations.

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