Mike Blake/Reuters

San Francisco voters will be asked to revisit a ‘grand bargain’ bill that enabled its affordable-housing trust fund.

Leaders in San Francisco, including Mayor Ed Lee, say that developers should be required to build more affordable housing to go with the market-rate housing they plan to build. This position is shared by a number of housing organizations and civic leaders. But a ballot measure to do exactly that—to boost the existing requirements for new affordable housing—is giving these supporters pause.

In June, San Francisco residents will vote on a slew of measures, among them Proposition C, which would more than double the required on-site affordable-housing requirement for new developments. Raising this requirement from 12 percent to 25 percent could double the amount of below-market housing coming online in San Francisco, the thinking goes. So why don’t housing advocates care for Proposition C?

The San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association has warned that Proposition C could “undo the grand bargain” that created the city’s housing trust fund. The San Francisco Housing Action Coalition says that the results of the city’s own analysis of the ballot measure are “not encouraging to those who believe that increasing overall housing supply is essential to addressing our housing affordability crisis.” And earlier this month, The San Francisco Chronicle urged its readers to vote against Proposition C.

“It’s overwhelmingly likely that it will pass,” says Tim Colen, the executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition. “Our concern is that we don’t know that it could deliver what it promises.”

With Proposition C, San Francisco may have have swung all the way over the swing set. An inclusionary zoning standard of 25 percent affordable housing may be too restrictive for developers. One provision of the ballot measure would establish an Inclusionary Housing Technical Advisory Committee to gauge the economic feasibility of the new requirements—but only after those requirements had been voted into place. One problem with Proposition C, according to Colen and others, is that it puts the cart before the horse.

“The proponents of Prop. C are working on the theory that, if some affordable housing is good, more of it is better. If we double it, we get double the amount of subsidized below-market housing,” Colen says. “On the other side, there’s a certain amount of skepticism, or a certain amount of nervousness, that that’s a very drastic increase that was largely pulled out of the air, without any prior analysis.”

If the ballot measure passes, developers could find that—given the costs of land and construction in San Francisco and the requirements to preserve 25 percent for below-market uses—investors will simply refuse to fund residential projects going forward. That won’t stop development, of course: It will only funnel development toward other uses, such as commercial or hotels.

Proposition C is an update to a successful ballot measure that established San Francisco’s Housing Trust Fund in 2012, replacing redevelopment funds that were wiped out at the state level and disappearing at the federal level. That 2012 proposition set the current requirement for on-site affordable housing at 12 percent. Sarah Karlinsky, the senior policy advisor for SPUR, has said that the June ballot measure bears a “significant risk of destroying the coalition of market-rate and affordable-housing advocates that has been able to do so much good for San Francisco by replacing the loss of redevelopment funding.”

Hiking the on-site affordable figure to 25 percent (and changing the requirements for off-site affordable and in-lieu fees, to boot) introduces uncertainty to development—especially with no study beforehand. Introducing a committee that will then study these requirements after the fact, potentially tweaking the levels still further, introduces more uncertainty to the process.

This ballot measure does have some sense to it. It would grandfather in projects that are already in the pipeline, for starters. More importantly, though, it would amend the city’s charter to give power over setting inclusionary development levels to the Board of Supervisors, where that authority belongs. A yes vote would remove the issue from the cycle of endless ballot initiatives and give it over to representative democracy. But at the same time, a yes vote could freeze affordable housing development for good.

Proposition C is yet another example of how rule by the ballot box interferes with so many ordinary functions in San Francisco. Subjecting housing policy to the rigors of electoral politics distorts the policy at hand, as the Chronicle shrewdly notes. Ballot measures ask too much of voters—often asking them to approve one very good idea with one very bad one. It brings to mind an old Mitch Hedberg bit, about a medical questionnaire. “They’re yes and no questions, but they’re very strangely worded,” he says. “Like, have you ever tried sugar, or PCP?”

Maybe that’s why no one can quite make up their mind on Proposition C. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce is neutral on the ballot measure. So are SPUR and SFHAC. So give the last word to the Chronicle: “Their silence can’t disguise the risks in this housing plan.”

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