San Francisco Chronicle: Mission housing project invokes law to exchange review for affordable units

April 7, 2018

By J.K. Dineen, read the article here

A 130-unit family housing project proposed for the Mission District will be the first in San Francisco to take advantage of a new state law that allows developers to skip expensive and lengthy environmental review in exchange for building a certain amount of affordable apartments.

Last week Mission Economic Development Agency, known as MEDA, and the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. submitted an application to invoke Senate Bill 35 at 681 Florida St., a site developer Nick Podell donated to the city as part of the community benefits package for his 195-unit, market rate development at 2000 Bryant St.

Under the law by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, developers of certain projects can bypass the environmental analysis typically required. In exchange for expedited approvals, the developer must commit to a certain percentage of permanently affordable units. The amount of affordable units ranges from 10 to 100 percent, depending on the community and how much housing it produces. In San Francisco, a developer looking to take advantage of SB35 must commit to making at least 50 percent of the units affordable.

The move to invoke SB35 is somewhat ironic because MEDA opposed the legislation, fearing it could exacerbate displacement and gentrification in some areas and that in some parts of the state the amount of affordable housing required is too low, just 10 percent.

“MEDA was — and remains — against SB35 as a one-size-fits-all policy of streamlining,” said MEDA Development Director Karoleen Feng.

But Feng said SB35 will cut the entitlement process on Florida Street by six months to a year. In addition, the project seeks to take advantage of HOME-SF, legislation passed last year that allows developers to build an extra two stories in exchange for increasing affordable levels.

Under HOME-SF, MEDA and the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. will be able to increase the height on the building from 65 feet to 85 feet — allowing for 44 additional units.

“State density bonus gets you the height, and SB35 gets you the time,” Feng said.

The project is the third in California to seek to invoke SB35. The first, in West Berkeley, is a 260-unit building on a parking lot across the street from the historic Spenger’s restaurant. The second is a proposal to replace an antiquated shopping mall near the Apple campus in Cupertino with a 2,400-unit residential complex.

Wiener said the three projects are proof that the law is working.

“SB35 is hugely beneficial to low-income people, as we are seeing in Cupertino and Berkeley and the Mission,” he said, adding he is “thrilled to hear that MEDA is using SB35, and I hope they can acknowledge that the bill is a good one, since they came out so strongly against it.”

He said it’s “absurd” that a nonprofit housing developer would continue to oppose a measure that makes housing production faster and less expensive.

“Their actions speak louder than words,” he said. “Their actions acknowledge that it’s a good bill that helps low-income people.”

If the City Planning Department determines that 681 Florida qualifies for SB35, and that it meets local planning and zoning codes, San Francisco will have just 60 days to conduct design review and approve the project.

The developer will not have to go through the Planning Commission for approvals, although the city can require that it go before the panel for an informational hearing, according to AnMarie Rodgers, senior policy adviser at the Planning Department.

Even though the developer will not have to do the rigorous analysis required by the California Environmental Quality Act, Feng said the project “would set a new standard for community outreach.” It will include a 9,000-square-foot community arts center and social services for residents, 30 percent of whom will be formerly homeless people.

Sam Moss, executive director of Mission Housing, another nonprofit developer, said the real benefit of SB35 is to take away opponents’ ability to slow down a project by filing a lawsuits under CEQA. An affordable senior housing development in San Francisco’s Forest Hill neighborhood recently died after neighbors threatened to file a lawsuit to stop it.

“The whole point of SB35 it gives you a tool to get around people who don’t want to see any housing built,” Moss said. “We have had to fight off appeals on every single affordable housing project in the Mission.”

The idea that housing can be built without heavy community contributions has split the affordable housing industry. Some groups embraced the bill as a tool against NIMBY neighbors, while others argue that often — especially in San Francisco — it is community outcry that has forced developers to increase the number of affordable units and add amenities such as child care centers, after-school programs and arts spaces.

“I received a lot of hate because I’m pro SB35, and now it’s really helping,” Moss said. “That’s fine — I’ll take it. We need the units.”

Rogers said she expects most of the projects that take advantage of SB35 will be 100 percent affordable.

“It’s really unusual for us to see a project that is 50 percent affordable and 50 percent market rate,” she said.