July 14, 2014 Housing Action Coalition

The Shortfalls of Ballot-Box Planning

Patrick Valentino, an SFHAC-member, real estate attorney and community activist, shares his views on the consequences of ballot-box planning for land use and housing policy.  
Political debates and ballot box planning will not build more affordable and middle income-housing. Having spent three months battling Proposition B, the “Waterfront Height Limits Right to Vote Act,” I can say with first-hand knowledge that elections are not the place to solve San Francisco’s complex problems, especially when it comes to housing and land use planning decisions. The recently introduced “Housing Balance” ballot measure proposes to meter housing production, essentially limiting the production of market-rate housing based on the existing total percentage of affordable housing in the City. Certainly, the majority of San Franciscans want to see increased production of permanent, inclusionary affordable and middle-class family housing. But to subject that important goal to an up-or-down vote at the ballot box is dangerous play with our City’s future, and to the people and families who are struggling to stay in their San Francisco homes.
While San Francisco voters are very smart and engaged citizens, it is the nature of campaigns that reduces important, complex and nuanced information into bite-sized campaign trash talk, giving voters a choice of words over a choice of solutions. It’s not the voters’ fault. A campaign about dueling housing affordability measures will not inform the public about the detailed analyses needed to fund, with private dollars, the production of low and middle-income housing units. With more than one-third of our voters making their decisions within a day of Election Day, the last slogan heard may sway their votes, instead of a reasoned understanding of how funding for more affordable housing takes place. Twenty-four hours’ notice isn’t enough to make a rational choice on a yay or nay vote for something so important to our city.
A campaign this fall will be about counting votes and not finding dollars for affordable housing. Developers are free market players and will react accordingly. Understanding how an increase in costs and process will affect the desire to produce onsite affordable at 30 percent is a task that requires detailed pro-forma analysis and stakeholder participation. We have already heard the prospects of the ballot measure will chill investment interest in San Francisco housing and work against the Mayor’s goal of building 30,000 new homes by 2020.
I spoke with hundreds of voters about Prop B leading up to the June election and even those who were opposed to tall buildings would say they didn’t understand all the ramifications of Proposition B because they would not, in their daily lives, take time to understand the complexities of the planning process, even if they could. If voters didn’t have the time to understand the ramifications of that measure, how can we expect them to dig in on a more complex process to produce affordable housing from private dollars?
Our best chance to make San Francisco more affordable is to build more affordable housing. We can achieve this through a big tent solution with all stakeholders participating equally to craft the best legislation possible. We can all get behind advocating for change, but we should not support another ballot measure that reduces solving housing affordability to campaign messages. The ramifications for affordability in our city are too important to be cheapened by the electoral process.
Image credit: SF Examiner
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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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