The coronavirus pandemic may have brought housing costs down a bit from historic highs, but that hasn’t done much good for working class residents here in San Francisco. More than ever, our neighbors are trapped between rents that are still too high, and incomes that have fallen or disappeared entirely. Efforts to stop evictions, our rent control laws, and housing subsidies are helping people ride out this crisis, but this moment is exposing the private housing market’s inability to provide housing for everyone who needs it at a price they can afford.
The passage of Props I and K in the last election offers an opportunity to look to a social housing model to stand along-side existing affordable housing programs. The Juvenile Justice Center that will be closed next year, with the adjacent Twin Peaks Gas station that can be wound down, are the perfect places to take the first step.
Social housing is a common and successful model all over the world. Social housing in places like Paris, Vienna, and Singapore, among others, is treated as an affordable option available to people at a mix of income levels, rather than housing of last resort. This approach, sometimes called solidarity housing, reduces the potential for segregation and stigmatization, but also allows a sustainable revenue model that reduces dependence on politically-motivated government funding. Through this it avoids the disinvestment that has often been a pitfall for American social housing, while building solidarity between neighbors. San Francisco can and should replicate this approach.
The US takes a different approach to subsidized housing development.The Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program is the US’s principal affordable housing program, and produces just over 100,000 homes a year. It is a critical source of housing funding, but is limited to low-income residents, and housing very low-income residents often requires additional operating subsidies. Developers of LIHTC housing like Chinatown Community Development Corporation, Mission Housing Development Corporation, and Mercy Housing all face the challenge of combining many different sources of financing at the federal, state, and local levels, with overlapping rules and regulations, complicated application processes, and a persistent shortage of money.
San Francisco supplements LIHTC production with an inclusionary housing program tied to market rate development. Unfortunately LIHTC and market-dependent inclusionary housing can neither meet the scale of San Francisco’s needs for deeply affordable housing nor fill the affordability gap for working class families. A program subject to local needs and priorities rather than those coming from Sacramento or Washington, D.C, and standing alongside San Francisco’s robust LIHTC and inclusionary housing program, can complement these programs and ensure more consistent funding, and more security for our most vulnerable residents.
Housing development and operation is often a profitable business. Solidarity housing would allow the rents coming from middle class residents to be redirected to rental assistance for lower income ones, as well as have that money reinvested in our city. By being free of the complicated restrictions of the LIHTC program, solidarity housing can offer homes to residents with a broader mix of incomes and generate these cross-subsidies.
San Francisco has many acres of city-owned surplus land, and through the Public Land for Housing strategy, has declared affordable housing to be a priority use on it. These efforts have borne fruit with projects planned or underway in the Mission, SoMa, and at Balboa Reservoir. The soon to be shuttered Juvenile Justice Center and the adjacent Twin Peaks Gas station site present a perfect opportunity for a solidarity housing pilot. With the voters passing a new revenue source, Proposition I, and a new authorization for public housing, Proposition K, this November, pieces are in place for a new approach to housing.
The latest round of Regional Housing Needs Allocation estimates — the state’s process for determining residential construction targets for Bay Area counties — say that San Francisco will need an additional 72,000 housing units over the next decade. The private market will not meet that need for the working and middle class while LIHTC and inclusionary zoning can fill only a part of the gap. This is an opportunity to add another badly needed tool to our city’s housing toolkit, through piloting a new social housing program targeted at all incomes, and all San Franciscans.