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  • Mallory Moench

Affordable housing showdown: S.F. Mayor Breed’s allies challenge progressives’ streamlining measure

A San Francisco housing advocacy organization allied with Mayor London Breed is challenging the Board of Supervisors’ affordable housing streamlining measure that is poised to appear on the same November ballot as the organization’s measure, potentially creating confusion among voters.

The Breed-backed Housing Action Coalition got its measure on the ballot through signature-gathering after the supervisors failed to advance the mayor’s previous efforts to voters.

The letter sent to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, a possible first step on a road to a lawsuit, is the latest battle in the war between Breed and her allies and the progressive majority of the board over dueling measures as city leaders bicker over how to fix San Francisco’s massive affordable housing crisis.

The two similar measures, which streamline 100% affordable housing projects, teacher housing and mixed-income projects with certain amounts of affordable units, differ in how affordable the projects need to be and whether supervisors should retain approval over each project’s funding. The measures have divided politicians, unions and some affordable housing developers.

Supervisor Connie Chan and her colleagues criticize the Breed-backed proposal for requiring fewer affordable units in mixed-income projects and allowing some units to have a higher income level as not “truly affordable.” Breed’s allies say Chan’s measure sets the bar for affordability so high that it’s financially infeasible to build.

The Housing Action Coalition presented a letter Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors arguing that Chan’s measure is both “illegal and unethical” because it didn't undergo the necessary environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Ironically, the group regularly slams its opponents for often weaponizing the same law to block housing projects.

The city’s Planning Department determined that Chan’s measure didn’t require environmental review.

The letter threatened that if the city places the measure on the ballot, the organization would “pursue all legal remedies available.” It’s not clear whether their legal arguments would hold up in court.

The letter attacked the measure as “not being put forward to streamline housing production.”

“It is a cynical ploy to confuse and distract voters and divide the pro-housing vote,” it read.

Chan dismissed the challenge as a “bogus claim” and said the “so-called appeal is just a letter to the Board of Supervisors.” The Housing Action Coalition intended its letter as an appeal - a precursor to a lawsuit. The Planning Department said the determination that a proposal doesn’t qualify for CEQA can’t be appealed to the board.

“Sounds like they're very desperate and scared that San Francisco voters will find out that their measure wouldn’t produce real affordable housing,” she wrote in a text message.

The YIMBY measure is not subject to CEQA because it got on the ballot through signature-gathering.

The twist of pro-housing advocates known as YIMBYs (Yes in my Backyard) filing a CEQA challenge is rich in irony. CEQA appeals are often used to block housing projects, such as a controversial nearly 500-unit project on Stevenson Street last year. Supervisors voted in favor of an appeal to halt the project because of concerns about gentrification and environmental impacts.

Todd David, senior adviser at the Housing Action Coalition, defended the organization’s use of an environmental law they’ve lambasted.

“The irony that I see is a Board of Supervisors who regularly utilizes CEQA to block housing is now ignoring CEQA to block housing,” he said.

Chris Elmendorf, a law professor at UC Davis, said that the legal arguments in the letter were “actually very good.” He is a San Francisco voter, but is not working for or taking money from either side, but said he believes the YIMBY measure is “a reasonable step” to curtail multi-step approvals that can slow down or kill housing projects.

“It’s hilariously good,” he said of the coalition’s legal arguments using CEQA to fight the supervisors’ measure. He compared it to hoisting the supervisors “by their own petards,” quoting a Shakespeare phrase that means someone is “blown into the air by one's own bomb.”

The city’s Planning Department did look at whether the supervisors’ measure should undergo CEQA review, but determined that the proposal didn’t qualify as a “project” under the law because it wouldn’t result in a “direct or indirect change in the environment.”

The letter cited past case law to challenge this argument, saying that the measure would impact environmental factors such as transportation impacts, noise and air quality.

Elmendorf said the city’s reasoning that this policy won’t affect the environment at all “does not pass the laugh test, the smell test, the anything test.” He agreed with the letter’s comparison of the measure to the San Francisco Housing Element, the city’s policy plan for how to build enough housing to meet a state mandate, which is subject to CEQA review.

The Planning Department said it made its determination because CEQA analyzes physical environmental impacts, but the measure doesn't propose construction or change any physical development controls, only modifies the review process using existing controls.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the letter was not an official appeal.

Mallory Moench (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter:@mallorymoench

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