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Rage-inducing density bonus law returns to Board of Supervisors

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New rules would reward market-rate development for affordability concessions with taller buildings

Construction cranes on top of a San Francisco building. Jorg Hackemann

A proposed law that would make residential skylines taller, while also injecting more affordable housing into new developments, returned to the Board of Supervisors this week, after setting tempers ablaze last year.

The Affordable Housing Bonus Program (AHBP) would grant automatic height upzoning to new buildings on certain parcels near transit lines if developers agree to set aside more units for affordable housing.

AHBP has laid low for months after just half of it passed, granting density deals to 100 percent affordable buildings. (Such a deal has been invoked only once so far.)

Sheila Fitzgerald

District Four’s Supervisor Katy Tang told Curbed SF that the other half of the law—the part that rewards market-rate development—required additional research to move ahead. Not to mention a newly comprised BOS after the November elections.

Sure enough, the program reared its head once again at a committee meeting on Monday.

“The city doesn’t really invest any dollars into housing for middle-income and workforce households,” Tang said at the meeting. “The majority of public dollars go to low income households—which is absolutely necessary, but we’re missing a huge segment of our population.”

Although Tang is City Hall’s big advocate for the law, only a few of the affected parcels are in her district, the Sunset. The neighborhoods with the most potential for taller building under the plan are the Bayview and the Financial District.

The Planning Department and Mayor’s Office see AHBP as a reasonable tit-for-tat deal to secure additional homes. SPUR praised it last year, saying:

It will increase the overall supply of housing (both affordable and market-rate), it will encourage higher densities at appropriate locations near transit, it will create a much-needed middle-income housing program, and it will improve the feasibility of certain vacant and underutilized sites. All without public subsidy.

But critics see it as an attack on the integrity of their neighborhoods. San Francisco Magazine laid out their grievances in 2015:

They foresee it spreading the same pestilence that has already afflicted other neighborhoods: waves of wealthy techie arrivistes, intent on disrupting the quaint character that west-side homeowners have cultivated all these years.

“You may not feel it for a year or two years,” warned [Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods] president George Wooding of the slippery slope to a denser, taller west side. “But one day it’ll be in your backyard, and you won’t know what hit you.”

The program has been amended several times since then, including prohibitions on evicting tenants for the purposes of demolishing homes (and building taller ones) and limits on what parcels qualify.

California law requires that the city have some sort of density bonus program to offer developers, although the state isn’t particular about the details.

Under state law, developers already have the option of circumventing San Francisco rules and building higher after only a few basic concessions, although few attempt it.

The Planning Commission will consider yet more AHBP amendments (after approving the previous version in piecemeal fashion last year) on Thursday.