October 12, 2015 Housing Action Coalition

Why Voting on Land Use Ballot Initiatives Matters

Every Vote CountsWhen I hear people aren’t voting on November 3rd, I shake my head. Voter turnout was a dismal 53 percent in the November 2014 election. (Actually, that seems pretty good. It was 30% for the June 2014 primary election).  I’m trying to figure out why people do not bother to vote. Is it because they think that their vote will not make a difference in their lives? This reason couldn’t be further from the truth. Here are four examples of how voting has changed land use in San Francisco and how it affects us on a daily basis.

First, before I dive in, it is important to understand that there are generally two kinds of land use ballot measures – those that seek to affect the land use laws, generally by amending the Planning Code such that the changes can only be modified by the voters at a subsequent election (“ballot box planning”), and those that create funding through bond measures or City budget set-asides.  Bond measures must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the electorate.


1986 – Proposition M – Office Development Annual Limit

The Office Development Annual Limit (Annual Limit) Program became effective in 1985 with the adoption of the Downtown Plan Amendments to the Planning Code (Sections 320–325) and was subsequently amended by Proposition M (1986).  It is a classic case of ballot box planning.  The proposition was generated by a concern that the Downtown Plan would be inadequate to control growth.  It included an annual 950,000-square-foot limit on the total amount of new office space.  This provision would sunset within three years.  Proposition M (1986) made that provision permanent, cut the allocation in half for approximately 10 years to address the previously approved, but not yet built projects, and created a set-aside for smaller office buildings.  These limits have created a competition for the office allocation that has become especially critical during economic booms (like the one we are in right now), limiting the office supply and hiking rents, while slowing the negative effects of booms such as overburdening our transportation system.  Proposition M has proven inflexible in its almost thirty years, although there are rumblings in City Hall of going to the voters to amend it.

2012 – Proposition C – Affordable Housing Trust Fund

The Affordable Housing Trust Fund is widely seen as a success.  It sets aside City funds for affordable housing, starting with $20 million in 2013 and increasing by $2.8 million per year for 30 years.  The City’s entire housing community came together to fill the hole left by the dissolution of state redevelopment agencies that used to fund affordable housing.  With Prop C, the City began funding public housing rehabilitation, a first-time homebuyer program, and a program for tenants to buy their buildings.  State law also restricts the use of public funds for low-income rental housing without voter approval of the individual project.  Prop C allowed the creation of up to 30,000 units without further voter approval. Prop C reduced the Inclusionary Housing on-site requirement for new development from 20 percent back to the original 12 percent. Prop C is similar to this year’s Prop A Housing Bond in that it has broad support for creating affordable housing, though it did not require a two-thirds vote as Prop A does.  The last two housing bonds failed to receive a two-thirds majorities, and it is especially critical that Prop A passes to help address today’s housing crisis.

2014 – Prop B – Voter Approval of Waterfront Construction Exceeding Height Limits

This measure requires voter approval for any future projects on the waterfront that exceed existing height limits and is a notorious example of ballot box planning. The measure postponed the construction of high-rise hotels and condo towers along the Bay, in addition to three construction projects planned for the waterfront, until voters have a chance to approve or reject each one separately. Rather than relying on our appointed and elected officials to determine the appropriate height limits for waterfront projects, this Proposition forces expensive ballot measures for projects such as Pier 70 (2014 Prop F) and the Mission Rock property (2015 Prop D).  The voters are subject to simplified and reductionist mailers, rather than approval by the Board of Supervisors after environmental review and public hearings.

2014 – Prop K – Housing Balance Monitoring and Reporting

This ballot measure requires the City to monitor the balance between new market-rate housing and new affordable housing, and publish a biannual “Housing Balance Report”.  It also requires an annual hearing at the Board of Supervisors on strategies for achieving and maintaining the required housing balance in accordance with San Francisco’s housing production goals of 33 percent affordable housing.  While increased information can be beneficial, many are concerned that the Prop K is being used to push individual projects to achieve a 33-percent on-site goal on a project-by-project basis, in violation of 2012 Housing Trust Fund. Large developments like Mission Rock or 5M in SOMA have access to development tools that allow them to achieve high levels of affordability. However, a one-third affordability requirement for smaller housing developments is simply not financially feasible.

The land-use measures on the ballot on Tuesday, November 3rd deserve your attention and vote. The Affordable Housing Bond (Prop A), Mission Rock (Prop D), Short-Term Residential Rentals (Prop F), Suspension of Market-Rate Development in the Mission District (Prop I) and Surplus City Property for Affordable Housing (Prop K) will all impact San Francisco housing. The future of San Francisco is being determined in this election, and your voice needs to be heard.
If you need guidance on how to vote on this election, download the SF Housing Action Coalition’s Voter Guide.

About the Author
Larry Badiner worked in the San Francisco Planning Department for 25 years. He currently owns his own planning consulting firm, Badiner Urban Planning

Housing Action Coalition

The Housing Action Coalition is a member-supported non-profit that advocates for the creation of well designed, well-located housing at all levels of affordability. We believe more housing means more choices and better solutions.

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