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Design Your Own Housing Policy With UC Berkeley Interactive Page

Think of it as Sim City Planning

Developing housing in San Francisco is like trying to raise hot house orchids: Get it just right and something beautiful will blossom, but too much or too little of any one element and the whole affair could dry up and blow away.

With that in mind, UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation launched its Housing Development Dashboard, a suite of digital calculators that anticipate, as much as such a thing is scientifically possible, how four cities including San Francisco can calibrate policies to yield the largest net output of housing.

Variables include the fees per unit, the percentage of affordable units required by law, changes in city population or parking density, and permit times. Adjust one element up or down and watch the map change. Adjust all of them and see it go positively crazy.

The tools are in beta mode right now. It's finely tuned enough to even calculate the chances of new building on specific parcels, but users are cautioned that it's an algorithm, not a crystal ball.

With things as are they are right now, the Terner Center tools estimate that the city has the potential to build up to 40,214 new units, 4,201 of them affordable housing. Knock the affordable housing requirement down to five percent and you’ll see over 4,500 new units built, but lose a BMR yield of more than 1,400.

On the other hand, crank the requirement up to 25 percent and you’ll see up to 10,000 fewer units built, resulting in a net loss of more than 2,000 affordable housing packages.

But you could then offset those losses, for example, by doing away with Conditional Use Permits (maximum losses are now 1,742 BMRS), or cutting the average permit time down to 10 months (now we‘re losing only 363), or increasing density 20 percent (now we stand to improve on the current model by as much as 250 new affordable units), etc.

Making real policy changes is not so easy as clicking on a web tool, of course, and many will have an axe to grind about the Dashboard’s conclusions no matter what (which, again, are only an effort at best possible projections, rather than binding truths).

Still, they’re potentially useful guide posts. At the very least, it's fun to dive into the numbers: Apparently we could almost double the amount of new housing in the city if we were willing to do away with all fees and BMR requirements, knocked permit time down to two months, and threw caution to the wind on density. Who knew?