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San Francisco mayoral debate: Candidates promise housing, axe for planning department

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At debate organized by YIMBY groups, Breed, Leno, and Alioto pitch housing and take aim at department heads

Photo by Vincent Noel

Mayoral candidates London Breed (current president of the Board of Supervisors, former acting mayor), Angela Alioto (former supervisor), and Mark Leno (former supervisor, state assemblyman, and state senator) convened with YIMBY Action and San Francisco Housing Action Coalition at the Swedish American Hall Monday night to debate housing, win over YIMBY voters, and address what moderator J.K. Dineen called the city’s “pathetic track record of building housing.”

All three candidates promised more housing to one degree or another and all made a point of criticizing San Francisco’s long and difficult entitlements process and, if elected, promised less red tape. (They also took time out to joust at each other over how each finances his or her campaign, drawing occasional boos from the packed house.)

Note that the following comments have been edited for space. The candidate’s full comments can be heard here.

J.K. Dineen: This one is an opening statement: What is your vision for an affordable San Francisco and what concrete steps will you take to get us there?

Angela Alioto: The problems we’re having today are because we allow massive corporations to come in, which is fine, but we don’t have any plan for the housing, from the parking to the traffic to the everyday quality of life issues.

San Francisco is one of the great cities in the world, but we’re not allowing for a plan of where are we going to house people before we bring in 3,000 to work in one building, how are they going to get around?

We need every type of housing, and when housing projects come up before us—there’s a very large building at 16th and Mission that’s 50 percent affordable, everyone is voting against it, I voted for it, why wouldn’t we want this amazing housing? We want it, but we vote against it.

Alioto in February.
Courtesy Alioto For Mayor

London Breed: I grew up in public housing along with a lot of my friends. When we became adults and wanted to live in SF, many of us were pushed out. I didn’t understand; why weren’t we building more and making a direct connection between the people we know who need housing and the housing that we build?

In my mind I have a vision for a San Francisco utilizing underused properties like the purchase of the McDonald’s at Haight and Stanyan, where we move our city forward and include real opportunities to build faster and built housing all over this city. One hundred percent affordable housing developments should not be boggled [sic] down in red tape constantly.

Since 2012 we created one unit for every eight jobs we created. We have make sure that as we produce more jobs we produce more housing.

Mark Leno: We have to protect tenants and our existing affordable housing stock. That’s what I did when I amended the Ellis Act to protect 12,000 of our low income folks from eviction by amending SROs out of Ellis. We’re still seeing a lot of evictions because of the Ellis Act, evictions by some speculator and not your landlord, and I would take those folks to court to protect our affordable stock.

Do you believe San Francisco neighborhoods should be densified: The Richmond, the Sunset, perhaps North Beach, Noe Valley? If so, how? Which streets? Give one specific example?

Breed: I was a co-sponsor of HOME SF, which would allow for an increase in density along transit corridors. Another great example is Haight and Stanyan, where we’re gong to maximize the number of units on that property, which we should do when there are opportunities, including on the west side.

Leno: Clearly on Upper Market we’ve built a lot of new housing. Geary Boulevard is very broad, and anyone who has been to Paris knows you can build five, six stories on a broad boulevard with transit access.

Folks say, “If I wanted dense housing I’d be on the east side,“ but they bemoan that their kids or grandkids can’t afford to live in the city, and that’s an opportunity to open a conversation.

We’re not talking about eight or ten stories in your residential neighborhood, but just to the side of your neighborhood along Taraval, another very broad boulevard, we could do higher development specifically on corner sites with transit.

Alioto: I want everybody to be able to live in this city. It’s a very special city, so where we put our housing that we desperately need is extremely important. You can’t take the soul of the city away from the city by just building all over the place.

When Scott Wiener is talking about a transit hub [with his proposed SB 827 bill] he has to be talking about a large transit hub, not a bus way. There are certain areas where you can’t go up to ten stories. Geary has been really picked on in this campaign, but having said that you can’t go into single resident corridors and build ten stories.

There are plenty of areas where you can build 11 stories high and it would look the same as it does now, I was the legislator for Mission Bay, we did a lot of planning for that, we can duplicate plans like Mission Bay in different areas of SF. In my area you couldn’t build nine stories high. SF is a very limited property place, density is the only way we’re going to get affordable housing.

[Note: Dineen tried to repeat this question, as he felt the candidates were not specific enough, but because of a mix-up with the sequence of answers he ended up not returning to it.]

I want to get your take on Senator Scott Wiener’s SB 827, will you support it?

Leno: As I’ve said from the start, I understand the concept behind the bill and I have great regard for the author. The concept being that we incentivize and in some cases mandate greater height and greater density along transit.

I took an opposed position until amended, and I have not digested all of the recent amendments. If we can protect lower income areas that would be up zoned [thus making] the properties more valuable and giving incentive for them to be displaced, [that protection] is a good thing.

I will say, Scott is trying to address many parts of the state that are building no housing at all, like the Mayor of Brisbane saying he’s going to construct a commercial park with 3,000 new jobs and leave the housing to SF. But there should be allowances for SF, which is building more housing per capita than any city.

Renouncing all local planning control is a very serious issue. One size fits all zoning can have enormous unintended consequences. It’s a work in progress, it will continue to be amended, and the process will continue.

Breed in 2017.
Pax Ahimsa Gethen

Alioto: I would love to see the final document. We’ve seen so many renditions of this bill that when it comes around I’ll finally decide. I am hesitant to ever give anything that the city and county of SF possesses to the state, that’s a major issue with me. Our zoning an permitting and density being released to the state is nothing I think should ever happen.

Now, does our zoning and permitting need serious help, do those departments need to do their jobs and not allow builders to spend money for ten years never getting to build, that’s outrageous, and if the department heads can’t get their acts together they should be replaced. Don’t make them spend hundreds of thousands on EIRs and things that are not exactly needed. If they did that, would we even need Scott Wiener’s bill?

Breed: I support Scott Wiener, having had conversations with him about tenant protections, exclusionary housing, and defining transit corridors. We do have to be strategic about identifying sites and not causing massive displacement.

I want to talk about middle-class housing. What would each of you do to create the housing that everybody is always talking about, for teachers, police officers, nurses, reporters?

Alioto: It would depend on which reporters. But I absolutely believe you have to have housing specifically for emergency services, nurses, teachers—there’s a new program in San Jose that’s absolutely incredible where 480 teachers are being housed in a building in downtown San Jose. We need to look at the best practices in other cities.

I hear my opponents, my friends, speaking about affordability, but what’s affordable? People cannot buy their groceries after they’ve spent what’s allegedly affordable in rent. We have to do serious city planning. How many new jobs are coming in and how are they going to live? Can we plan for them, have a coalition of government, tech companies, and you, the citizens?

We need to get everybody at the same table and say, “Hey, Mr. Tech, if you’re bringing 3,000 people, where are they going to park? Are you going to contribute to housing for teachers?” That’s the way to plan for the future.

Breed: The only reason I decided to run for office is I got tired of watching all of this money get spent and never understanding why it wouldn’t work for my community.

That’s part of the reason I pushed so hard for neighborhood preference, making sure people who live in a neighborhood have priority access to affordable housing in their community. It wasn’t about taking away from low-income families—because I was definitely one of those families—it was about trying to make sure we develop housing that includes middle income families.

We may think that 120 percent of area-median income is a wealthy family, but not in SF with the cost of living. We have to make sure we are building more housing faster; supply and demand is also part of the issue.

Leno: Only about 10 percent of San Franciscans can afford to buy market-rate housing now, and only 15 percent can afford to rent. Those earning 55 percent of AMI can nowhere near afford market-rate housing. The entire region is suffering, so we need to work with our regional partners. We’ve been thinking small ball, we need to think bigger or we’ll just keep spinning our wheels.

This question comes from an architect: It can take years to get a permit, this adds to constructions costs. What will you do to speed up this process?

Breed: We have to make 100 percent affordable housing projects that are code compliant move forward quickly. We’ve got to stop letting people get in the way of projects. We need to make some changes and get rid of some of the red tape. As mayor I want to remove many of the obstacles in the planning code that make it difficult to get housing built.

Leno: We need to streamline the process. There’s some systemic problems with our Department of Building Inspection and our Planning Department. I would suggest there’s something wrong with the system if you have to hire an expediter to get your project through a public department. When I talk about a new direction at City Hall, I’m talking about getting as granular as what’s going on in these departments. The person at the counter should be saying yes; I’m here help.

Alioto: The problem is with the departments. I tried to build one of the most beautiful piazzas in the world—and, by the way, I will as soon as I fire all of these department heads. Gorgeous white marble piazza, just gorgeous, and the guy calls me and says you need to do another EIR. I say look, it’s not a ten-story building, it’s a piazza, it’s flat. They send it back to me and they’ve redlined everything. For ten years I did this. Finally, I said you guys all need to be fired.

Leno in 2010.

How do you propose to fix transit development?

Breed: Part of that is the changes we’ve been making to street design and making sure we’re making the investments necessary to improve our [public transit] fleet. I proposed legislation that to replace not just our entire bus fleet and our entire train fleet, I also pushed to make sure the MTA hired over 400 new train operators.

The N Judah, it was my mission to do something to change that, so we created a shuttle that does a little switchback up the hill. That has not been perfect, but it has made an improvement.

Leno: When the [last] mayor took office, the mantra was jobs, jobs, jobs; but we can create a new job a lot faster than new housing. So, a housing problem became a crisis, and now the mantra is housing, housing, housing.

If we’re not attentive and realize that housing will put pressure on transit, sewers, parks, and schools, we’re creating another problems. We need to be doing better; we passed $500 million for transit improvements in 2014, and only about 12 percent has been spent. If we’re going to ask voters for bond funding and then make excuses why we don’t get that money out the door, we’ve got problems.

Alioto: This is a $10 billion budget, the problem is not money. You realize that $1 billion is a thousand millions? More money for the MTA, seriously? MTA just loves to undo one street, go back and do it again, and it’s always the ones we use.

MTA is not doing the job. Get the busses there on time, get them the equipment they need, don’t go about the business of these ridiculous alleged improvements. We need to start at the top of the MTA and not get these constant renewable contracts and requests for more and more funding. $10 billion!

What criteria will you use to judge whether neighborhood concerns about density are worthy of consideration or simply bad faith blocking?

Alioto: Look, this is a historic city. Look at the room we’re in right now, if someone wanted to tear this down I guess I’d be one of those people who say you can’t do it. It’s a case by case analysis of whether it’s legit or obstruction like I saw with the piazza—total obstruction.

I know character is a buzzword, but you know your city and you cannot ruin the history of our city and bring it into the future with something we’re sorry you did. As far as the naysayers, just ignore them.

Breed: When the Booker T. Washington Center on Presidio tried to build 50 units for transitional-age youth, a lot of folks in that neighborhood, including the supervisor, tried to stop it because of views and other concerns. It took a long time to get that housing built, but today that housing is serving 50 people, some of them formerly homeless.

Yes, this Swedish Hall we’re in is beautiful and protected and landmarked, and these are the kinds of places we want to protect—but more importantly, we have to look at places like the McDonald’s site we just purchased, we have to look at empty lots to provide more housing and maximize their potential. The outcome may not be what everyone wants, but what’s most important is we come up with the right agreement.

Leno: Back in 2001, at the corner of Market, Castro, and 17th, there’s a building owned by a man in his sixties who wanted to offer it to the city at minimal cost [as a queer youth shelter] because he had been a homeless youth himself. I thought we’d been given a gift from heaven.

I have never gotten so much blowback in my life. Up and down 17th Street, there were pictures of me—not a bad picture—with a circle and a slash through it. And it said “Anyone But Leno.” So, how to not run for San Francisco Supervisor: Open a queer youth shelter in every neighborhood.

But we held hands and we knew what we were doing was right. Angela is right, it’s case by case basis, you listen but you make executive decisions.

The San Francisco mayoral special election will take place on June 5.