San Francisco's Housing Crisis

A response by the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition's

Urbanist Article March 1, 2003

The Basis of the Coalition

Over the last 20 years, San Francisco has built an average of 1,000 units annually. The Association of Bay Area Government's Regional Housing Needs Determination says we need at least three times that much. At the same time, tens of thousands of housing units are being built annually in the Bay Area's greenbelt, in new auto-dependent suburbs. In 1999, SPUR and Urban Ecology convened members of the environmental, business, affordable housing, and development communities to tackle the root causes of the lack of housing production in San Francisco. Disparate housing advocates and interests such as the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Mission Housing Development Corporation, Greenbelt Alliance, League of Conservation Voters, Merchants of Upper Market & Castro, and Planning Association of the Richmond gathered at SPUR to find common ground. The San Francisco Housing Action Coalition was born.

The founding organizations disagreed on many fronts, and the Coalition has never attempted to build consensus on such controversial issues as rent control or how much new office development to allow. Instead, we agreed to just one common goal: increase the supply of well-designed, appropriately-located housing. We are a minimalist coalition, and do not spend a lot of time doing consensus-building. You join the coalition if you agree with the goal, and don't if you don't.

Organizational Structure
The model of organization is inspired by community organizing groups such as the San Francisco Organizing Project. In this model, membership is made up of organizations (not individuals) -- and these membership groups provide a significant chunk of the operating funding. For the first four years of our existence, we were almost entirely a volunteer-driven organization, and existed on a sliding-scale dues structure. Building on our successes, and with fiscal sponsorship from Greenbelt Alliance, this year the Housing Action Coalition was able to secure foundation grants from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and The San Francisco Foundation. Together with membership dues -- now 25 organizations strong -- the Coalition was able to hire its first full-time staff person this January. With full-time staff on board, capacity on all fronts has been increased.

Major Accomplishments
The Coalition has drawn on its diverse connections and collective knowledge to pursue several strategies: regulatory reform, pro-housing public education, and housing project endorsements. Through regulatory reform, the Coalition has identified major barriers to housing development in the Planning Code and has advocated for proposed changes. Pro-housing public education has involved outreach, especially to neighborhood groups to help them understand the value of increased housing production. The Endorsement Committee takes a careful look at housing development projects and advocates for their approval, if they meet our critieria. The Coalition can boast several accomplishment to date:

1. Better Neighborhoods Program

One of the barriers to housing production is the lack of consensus around development. The lack of clear planning guidelines in many neighborhoods leaves developers without predictability in the development process. Not knowing what they're getting into, developers may face unanticipated opposition and regulatory barriers -- and they very well may avoid developing in the city altogether. At the same time, neighbors will likely not support new development unless it's coupled with neighborhood-serving amenities, such as well-maintained parks and improved transit. With the advocacy of the Housing Action Coalition, the Better Neighborhoods Program was the first time in a decade that the City Planning Department was funded to create specific plans that addressed all these issues pro-actively. (See SPUR newsletter, August 1999, "Specific Area Plans: Building Consensus for Infill Housing.") After two years of community workshops, the draft plans for the three areas -- Market and Octavia, Central Waterfront, and Balboa Park -- have now been released (see

2. Inclusionary Zoning

Inclusionary Zoning is a concept used in dozens of California cities to ensure that for-profit developers produce some below-market-rate units. Previously, San Francisco had a weak inclusionary guideline. After two years of negotiations within the Housing Action Coalition -- mostly between the for-profit and non-profit developers -- we worked with the City Attorney's office to craft an ordinance everyone could agree with: 12% below market rate units on site or 17% off-site. Introduced by Supervisor Mark Leno, it was passed overwhelmingly by the Board of Supervisors and signed into law by the Mayor in 2002.

3. 700 Units Approved

The Housing Action Coalition has endorsed 19 projects -- 11 of which have been approved thus far by the city, totaling 700 new units. In addition to a letter of support, Coalition members have spoken at Planning Commission and Supervisorial hearings in favor of the projects. The full Housing Action Coalition worked together to determine criteria for endorsing housing development projects. Developers themselves are not permitted to sit on the Endorsement Committee.

A Balance of Membership
Naturally, with such a pro-housing agenda, many for-profit companies with development-interests have expressed interest in joining the SFHAC. Early on, the group recognized the need to balance financial interest with advocacy interest, in order to be politically effective in a climate of developer suspicion. Therefore, the membership policy is that no more than 50% of our members can have a financial interest in development (and that includes developer's attorneys and architects). Our membership recruitment approach follows: one developer can join for every environmental or neighborhood group that joins.

Building a Pro-Housing Culture

A dramatic increase in the supply of housing is in the long-term public interest. However, that interest is sorely under-represented in San Francisco politics. For the Housing Action Coalition to approach its goal of creating housing that meets the needs of present and future residents of San Francisco , we ultimately must change the attitude towards housing development. In addition to specific reforms and projects, the Coalition must help shape public opinion. Through neighborhood planning, public meetings, the media, and old-fashioned community-organizing, the Housing Action Coalition hopes to shift the political climate of San Francisco from NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) to YIMBY (Yes in My Back Yard). Calling on the long-term, collective interest of the city, we hope to see a pro-housing, inclusive vision integrated at every level of government and the public. spur logo

Kate White is executive director of the Housing Action Coalition. Prior to that she was co-director of City CarShare. For more information, contact her at

Housing Action Coalition Mission

The Housing Action Coalition exists to advocate for the creation of well-designed, well-located housing that meets the needs of present and future residents of San Francisco. We aim to build a strong and diverse coalition of groups united by a shared interest in solving San Francisco's housing crisis.


  • Increase housing opportunities for San Franciscans of all income levels.
  • Preserve the city's existing housing stock and boost the amount of new housing that is produced each year.
  • Use well-designed housing to preserve and enhance neighborhood livability and character.
  • Make housing more affordable for both renters and buyers.
  • Promote a range of housing types that serves the diverse needs of San Francisco's residents.
  • Create or enhance pedestrian- and transit-friendly neighborhoods.
  • Make more efficient use of under-utilized land.
  • Improve the jobs/housing balance to reduce commute time and traffic.
  • Enhance neighborhood commercial vitality by adding housing in or near neighborhood commercial areas.
  • Reduce suburban sprawl by channeling growth into urban cores and away from the region's greenbelt.
  • Collaborate with organizations that share our mission in other counties around the Bay Area.

Priorities for 2003

  • Ensure adequate city budgets for neighborhood planning and EIRs
  • Pass secondary units legislation
  • Pass downtown housing legislation
  • Get rid of automatic conditional use permit requirement for buildings over 40 feet
  • Launch YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) campaign
  • Double membership
About the Authors: Kate White is executive director of the Housing Action Coalition. Prior to that she was co-director of City CarShare. For more information, contact her at lkatewhite@hotmail.comm.

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