Why is SF such a hellhole? Discretionary review

Today I got an email from YIMBY Action asking me to sign a petition to support building 1,100 new homes, 550 of which are subsidized by the developer for low- and moderate-income families.

Why, you may be reasonably asking, would building affordable housing in the midst of an unprecedented housing and homelessness crisis require a petition?

Would the homes replace rent-controlled apartments or displace low-income families? Would their construction harm the environment?

The homes would replace a parking lot.

The reason you should go sign that petition is a little thing called “discretionary review.”

What it means is that nearly every city in the US permits new homes “by-right,” meaning if a construction project meets local zoning and code regulations the developer gets a permit to build.

Discretionary review means SF has given the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors the power to permit housing at their discretion. San Francisco’s discretionary review process is the single largest contributing factor to high home building costs.

Discretionary review makes housing less affordable in two ways. First, it means developers have to hire expensive consultants, including permit expeditors, to bribe public officials to get their clients through the bureaucracy faster.

Second, it empowers homeowners to stall an affordable housing project at any time for any reason. Which forces developers to pay for land they can’t build on for years as they fight with homeowner activists who have nothing but time to fight new housing. More than two years ago I attended the 26th public hearing on the Balboa Reservoir Project, which began in 2014.

Homeowner activist power incentivizes developers to make concessions that harm SF’s walkability and affordability.

Homeowner activists successfully pressured the Balboa developers to halve the number of affordable units and add more townhomes to make the development less walkable and less affordable.

As far as I know, no sitting SF Supervisor has put forward legislation that would do anything to help streamline the permitting process.

Which means, of course, that you should put all your money toward any challenger who promises to streamline the permitting process, upzone the west side, and adequately fund our addiction and mental health infrastructure.

I’ve recently started paying more attention to “VC Twitter.” And while I’m seeing a decent amount of outrage about how shitty SF is (there has been a 200%+ increase in tents in the Tenderloin and very little social distancing) I’m not seeing a lot of action or funding for fixing SF.

If you’re a VC or anyone with any money or just the will and time to sign petitions, helping isn’t rocket science. Support YIMBY Action and support candidates who support by-right permitting, upzoning the west side, and adequately funding our addiction and mental health infrastructure.

One Comment

  1. Theodore

    Yes, discretionary review is bad, but it’s not the issue with the Balboa Reservoir project. Many other things are discretionary without being called discretionary review.

    By the way, Supervisor Gordon Mar’s brother, former Supervisor Eric Mar, proposed legislation to streamline discretionary review. After months of effort and many community workshops all over the city leading to a plan endorsed by the Planning Commission, he ultimately decided that “now is not the right time” to reform discretionary review. All that effort was for naught. Now you can only find it in the Internet Archive.

    Discretionary review is only a small part of the tangle of laws designed to stop everything in San Francisco. This week’s actions at the Planning Commission were to certify the EIR and make the CEQA declaration that the environmental impacts are worth it, and also to modify the General Plan and the Planning Code and the Zoning Map to legalize the project, and to endorse the contracts that the developers still have to sign with the SFPUC before they can start. As far as I’m concerned, all of these are bad laws.

    Left out of this so far is CCSF. What would make sense is to build the main access roads to the development cross CCSF property at the northern and southern edges, and they need to sign a memorandum of understanding to do so. So far, it seems that the CCSF Board of Trustees hasn’t gotten around to it. (One of the trustees sits on the Balboa Reservoir Citizens Advisory Committee and talks with the developers every month, so the Board of Trustees shouldn’t be ignorant of what’s going on.) I wouldn’t mind if they eliminated all automobile access to the development, but the bank officials and Fire Department would probably veto it.

    All this is to say that YIMBY Action has a lot of work to do, and we need your help.

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