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SF voters asked to decide whether to speed up housing construction

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Mayor’s bid will make development easier, but only if it wins at the ballot box

Fog rolling in from the right side of the photo over rows of colorful houses. Via Shutterstock

San Francisco Mayor London Breed wants to build affordable housing faster, but only if enough people put it on the November ballot.

Similar to her 2019 measure quashed by the Board of Supervisors, Breed announced the “Affordable Homes Now” measure on Wednesday. The proposal would amend the city’s charter to prune some of San Francisco’s infamously long entitlements process on housing projects that are either 100 percent affordable or that offer at least 15 percent more affordable homes than city law requires.

Depending on particulars, the faster process could trim as much as 18 months off of the process for qualifying housing projects.

The SF Planning Department estimates that the average permitting time for housing development clocks in at two to four years. And UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation estimates that obtaining permits takes an average of 3.8 years, with total development running a staggering 6.3 years.

Breed touts the proposal as a way of cutting costs on dire housing development, since delays are one of the primary drivers of cost inflation on construction—by the time groundbreaking happens, labor and materials often cost significantly more than they did when the project started.

San Francisco voters will likely consider the plan in November, although it will only make the ballot if some 50,000 backers sign their support for it by July 6.

In comments made on Wednesday, the mayor was frank about why she’s opting for an electoral strategy, saying “I have tried to work with the Board of Supervisors since taking office on some basic common-sense reforms to create more new homes.” After the board routinely slapped down her housing efforts in the past, she will try for an end-run around that process.

The new idea is a bit less ambitious than the one Breed attempt with city lawmakers in July—that measure would have ensured that affordable housing development would take no longer than six months, no matter what.

Note that under this new plan, affordable housing means homes priced for anyone making up to 140 percent of the city’s median income. Using 2019 standards, that would be more than $86,000 for one person and nearly $111,000 for a household of four.

Critics of SF housing policy frequently deride the idea that housing marketed at people who make six figures qualifies as “affordable,” but city politicos counter that such standards benefit middle income households—middle income being quite high in SF these days—who otherwise tend to get overlooked in favor of initiatives for lower income households.

If Breed’s Affordable Homes Now measure makes the November ballot, the plan will need only a simple majority of support to pass.