San Francisco’s affordable housing crisis
Photography: Markus Spiering / EyeEm for Getty San Francisco is adding more jobs faster than it is adding housing by a factor of eight. Median house prices have risen $205,000 in the last seven months. Rents are up 43 percent over the last decade. Where will it end?

San Francisco’s affordable housing crisis peaked between 2007 and 2014, a period of huge demand and low supply. During that time, Bay Area municipalities issued building permits for only half the number of housing units needed to accommodate its rapidly growing workforce. Currently there is one available unit of housing for every 10 available jobs in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. But area activists, advocates, and architects hope to change that ratio through new infill strategies, one existing land parcel at a time.

The “Missing Middle”

Demand for housing is only going to continue to trend upward. No one—including current residents, employers, urbanists, and housing advocates—is questioning the fact that the area needs more housing, both market-rate and subsidized affordable units. Higher-density housing types—i.e., multifamily apartments—that blend in with single-family standalone homes such as the iconic Painted Ladies adjacent to Mission Dolores Park are seen as the “missing middle” that could relieve some of the pressure. However, since more than a third of the city of San Francisco is zoned for single-family use, filling in those gaps is currently impossible in many places. Homeowners are often wary of new construction, and they can be vocal about their concerns through California’s extensive and circuitous permit-review process, which is so arduous that sometimes buildings are already outdated by the time construction is finished.

“People who are opposed to [new] development can show up to the meetings, and know how to play the political and legal system, so they can—if not kill a project—at least draw it out until the economic cycle is not as favorable, and then the project becomes economically infeasible,” says Matt Taecker, AIA, principal of Berkeley-based Taecker Planning & Design and a recent chair of AIA East Bay’s Regional and Urban Design (RUD) Committee.

“Dense urban infill,” the urban planning term for the rededication of land in an urban environment for new usage, is one solution that advocates are increasingly pushing as the most logical solution to the Bay Area’s housing woes. Prohibitive zoning, however, in addition to high construction costs, make new projects a challenging prospect. According to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, the city is currently realizing only 57 percent of the full potential for infill housing development of its urban core. Urban designers and pro-development housing advocates have their fingers crossed for sweeping policy changes that will shift the way that developers can interact with existing space in the city.

Increasing Density Around Transit

In January, a bill to establish statewide standards for height, density, and required parking for new residential projects close to public transportation was introduced in the California State Legislature. Although Senate Bill 827 was rejected in April—with several lawmakers arguing that the provisions for affordable housing weren’t strong enough—pro-development housing advocates saw it as an important first step toward instituting policy changes that would shift the way new development responds to a housing shortage that is now both acute and chronic.

One of these advocates is Laura Foote Clark, executive director of San Francisco YIMBY [Yes In My Backyard] Action.

“Something that was completely unimaginable a year ago is now part of the discourse,” Clark says, noting that when her organization got its start several years ago, many people were telling them to tone down their message. “It’s where we have to go next. We all know that it doesn’t make sense to have single-family-only zoning next to a BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] station.”

Housing advocates and policymakers are also concerned about whether government-subsidized affordable housing will be able to keep pace with the number of new market-rate units becoming available. As of May 2017, new rental projects in the city must include 18 percent on-site affordable units. According to Taecker and others, high construction costs, in tandem with a lack of available funding, are delaying the start of affordable-housing projects in San Francisco’s Mission District and elsewhere.

Lawmakers across the state are looking at ways to move affordable projects through the entitlements process faster than standard market-rate buildings. An approved project opposite Candlestick Park will dedicate the majority of its units to housing families earning up to 60 percent of the area’s median income, with the building’s remaining 35 units designated for formerly homeless households and individuals.

Going forward, new projects like the Central SoMa Plan, which was approved in May by the San Francisco Planning Department, will seek to address the adverse effects of the housing squeeze. The plan aspires to create a neighborhood that can accommodate up to 33,000 new jobs and 8,300 new units of housing—33 percent of them affordable—by 2040. However, critics of the plan say that it isn’t doing enough to address the critical imbalance between employment and housing, an imbalance that’s fueling long commutes and unsustainable housing situations for teachers and other middle-income earners who face difficult choices when it comes to their housing situations.

“We’re struggling to hold on to teachers,” Clark says. “We had a member who lives in the South Bay [and] who is a teacher. He lives in his car, which he parks in a church parking lot and then drives to work every day.”

“You don’t build a city just once,” she adds. “This idea of zoning—that you freeze in amber your idea of a city—I think is a fundamentally flawed idea.”

While groups like YIMBY advocate for increased market-rate housing stock under the assumption that a sheer increase in the number of units will naturally create a saner and more equitable housing market, not everyone is convinced.

“I think the supply will never catch up with the demand,” says Brendan Dunnigan, AIA, a principal and director of HKS Architects’ residential portfolio, who typically works on projects in the Bay Area that are 250 units and above. “The numbers that I’ve heard have just been staggering in terms of how far behind we are in meeting that demand.”

Solutions Within the Existing Framework

While the slow-moving gears of state and municipal government try to find the best long-term solutions to the problem of too many people and not enough places to put them, architects and designers are exploring a variety of viable stopgap measures.

Additional dwelling units, or ADUs, also known as in-law flats, are one area where Taecker, of AIA East Bay’s RUD Committee, sees potential for success in adding more housing while avoiding many of the most prohibitive zoning regulations.

“One of the fastest ways to deliver more projects to market, and one of the ways that have the least in the way of political obstacles, are the idea of a ‘granny flat’ in back,” Taecker says. To that end, RUD is sponsoring an ongoing Grant for Housing Innovation research program, the first round of which focused on making the permitting process around building additional accessory dwelling units more accessible to homeowners.

In the longer-term, many planners and urbanists see moving away from car-centric infrastructure in major metropolitan areas as the only solution for moving forward in a sustainable way. Major urban centers like San Francisco are already the ideal that urbanists dreamed of when they conceptualized eliminating sprawl and bringing urban residents back to a more centralized, communal way of life. Concentrated economic activity; density that leads to interaction, which makes us all more tolerant citizens; opportunities for dérive, or drift theory, to play out in which our lives are enriched by aimless wandering through the city and serendipity—essentially all of the tropes of modern urbanism, real and fantastical, exist in San Francisco. New generations find that appealing, says Taecker.

Millennials really appreciate urban environments—most don’t want to live in the suburbs, and they want to live saner lives that are not constantly tied to their cars. From an environmental standpoint, it’s ideal. It’s what, in the 1990s, we hoped for.”

The process behind realizing that ideal, however, has raised a tangle of new problems.