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Obama tells Bay Area to build more housing

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Unable to secure more than two minutes in public comment, White House publishes paper instead

Do these comments sound familiar?

"Housing production has not been able to keep up with demand."

"Barriers to new development cause working families to be pushed out of the best opportunities."

"Zoning, regulation, and lengthy development approval have reduced the ability of markets to respond to growing demand."

You can hear these same sentiments verbatim from any number of frustrated San Francisco YIMBYs any day of the week. But the document bearing these gripes comes from decidedly higher up the food chain.

The Obama administration just released its "Housing Development Toolkit," taking some cities to task for stifling new housing construction and tossing some suggested fixes our way.

The document’s characterization of troubled home markets is such a spot-on portrait of San Francisco in 2016 that you could almost take it a little personally. Is the president of the United States really singling us out? Well, a bit. San Francisco does merit special mention as one of the delinquent (in the eyes of the White House) cases in the United States, along with LA, Boston, and New York City.

(Who, perhaps not coincidentally, are our frequent club mates in surveys of cities with the highest rents and other housing costs.)

The doc notes that the number of renters paying more than a third of their income to housing has more than doubled in the last 56 years and now comprises half the renting population. Adjusted for inflation, rents are up 64 percent nationwide over that same period.

While the White House acknowledges that some restrictions on development are good tools—for protecting local environments, for example—the tone is pretty clear: U.S. cities, and particularly in the Bay Area, need to build more.

Some of the administration's suggestions are things we’re already doing: Licensing in-law units, for example, and largely doing away with parking requirements. Others are made tricky thanks to California-specific laws, like the suggestion that we turn up taxes on vacant land (Prop. 13 makes that hard).

And then there are some suggestions that mean that, whether he knows it or not, Obama is sticking his foot into some of the most intense political fights in the the city, such as:

  1. The White House recommends adopting density bonus programs. Technically, we have one, after half of the Affordable Housing Bonus Program passed muster earlier this year. But the more aggressive (and politically tougher) half is still biding its time. So contentious is the fight over it that one activist referred to the suggestion that we trade density for affordable housing as "ethnic cleansing," in a soundbite that may well work its way into the mythology of city politics for generations.
  2. "By-right" zoning also gets a thumbs up from 1600 Pennsylvania, and the paper even mentions Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal to fast-track virtually all California development that meets basic standards. Unmentioned is that Sacramento lawmakers chloroformed that bill, and it’s unclear if we’ll ever see its like again.
  3. Obama and company also recommend streamlining entitlements down to as sleek as they’ll go, even citing an example where affordable projects may be approved in as little as five days. Last year, a comparably minor proposal that we simply ditch Conditional Use Permits for 100 percent affordable buildings sparked furor. Although it did eventually pass, anything more aggressive has its work cut out for it.

It’s safe to say that local adoption of White House guidelines are something of a work in progress. Municipalities do guard our local development and entitlement rules pretty jealously—and arguably with good reason, since we’re the ones who actually live here.

Still, while the White House can’t do much to directly influence local laws, development boosters can sure do worse by way of a big name advocate in their corner.