Photo by Sergio Ruiz for SPUR.
Last month, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee issued an executive directive calling for the city to speed up housing production in order to deliver 5,000 homes a year on an ongoing basis. While the city has successfully created housing at a similar clip over the last three years, the longer-term track record hasn’t been so good: Over the last 30 years, San Francisco created only 1,900 units per year on average. The mayor’s directive argues that there is more that the city can and must do to sustain this increased pace of housing creation over the long term.
To build homes more quickly, the mayor’s directive calls for faster processing of approvals and permits both before and after land use entitlements. During the entitlement phase, housing projects go through environmental review and are reviewed by the planning department. The level of environmental review needed is the biggest factor determining the timeline to receive land use entitlement. Often a Planning Commission public hearing is required. Up to now, it has been typical for projects to remain in the pipeline for two years or more, and project hearings can be delayed for months without public explanation. This is the case even for modest projects. After that step, projects enter the “post-entitlement” phase, where they receive subsequent permits and approvals from a host of agencies including the Public Utilities Commission, the Municipal Transportation Agency, the Department of Public Works, the Fire Department, the Mayor’s Office on Disability and others.
Under the new directive, projects will be scheduled for Planning Commission hearings based on the level of required environmental review (ranging between 6 and 22 months), and if Planning Commission hearing dates must be delayed, city staff and the sponsor must present to the commission on the reasons for the delay. The executive directive does not address the Planning Commission’s ability to delay deciding on projects after a public hearing (known in Planning Department speak as a “continuance”). City departments must issue permits and other post-entitlement approvals within a year of entitlements approvals.
The mayor’s directive also addresses accountability for both the project sponsors and city departments. The directive will only apply to projects with sponsors who are working collaboratively and in a timely and responsive way. The directive includes instructions for 11 of the city’s departments to designate a senior staff member to be responsible for coordinating that department’s efforts to speed up housing, and each department will be required to report quarterly on its progress.
SPUR has long called for improvements to the permitting process. We applaud the mayor’s leadership and support the continued improvement of the city’s role in producing housing. Much of the conversation to date has focused on the lengthy entitlements process, but in fact obtaining building and other permits that are needed after the project gets its land use approvals can be a long and frustrating process as well. According to the city’s 2017 Q1 pipeline report, there are more than 46,000 units — including more than 15,000 units in three of the city’s “megaprojects” — that are entitled but do not yet have building permits. It’s exciting that this directive broadens the city’s attention to getting housing actually constructed and not just approved.
However, the implementation of the executive order will be tricky, particularly since the mayor indicated that the city will not devote new staffing or resources to this effort. What can be done differently without new resources, and why hasn’t the city taken these actions already? Many of the ideas discussed in the memo involve streamlining parallel processes, eliminating redundancies and improving interdepartmental coordination. The city will need to overcome a few major challenges. Chief is that, besides the Planning Department and the Department of Building Inspection, housing production is not the core mission of the other involved departments. In addition, while many of the named department heads report directly to the mayor, some of them do not. Some also do not have commissions or other governing bodies that have public hearings to facilitate an open process of meeting the directive. Lastly, projects that appear to be languishing waiting for permits may also be stalled by infeasible construction costs, a changing market or other project circumstances.
How will the city execute? It will start with making many plans. The Planning Department will have until December 1, 2017, to submit plans outlining how these faster timelines will be met. The 11 other departments will have until January 1, 2018. For the Planning Department, this could include looking at how responsibilities are allocated across the commission and department staff; consolidating hearings, notifications and staff reports; and streamlining the environmental review process, among other ideas. For other departments, it includes looking at review processes, improving interdepartmental coordination, and standardizing city process and standards for public improvements. The plans will necessarily include a mix of administrative process improvements and suggested legislation that will need to go through the Board of Supervisors.
Those long involved with San Francisco land use planning know that some of these reforms have been attempted unsuccessfully in the past. But perhaps the tide has changed. The public seems to feel a greater sense of urgency around creating housing. There is sure to be a fight over some of these proposed changes, but perhaps with transparency and education, there is a path forward to getting homes built faster in order to house more San Franciscans.