Jan 30, 2024 - News

How San Francisco plans to cut red tape to increase housing

A photo showing an eagle-eyed view of San Francisco

Houses in the North Beach and Russian Hill neighborhoods of San Francisco as seen on Dec. 15, 2022. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Amid record homelessness across the nation, California and San Francisco officials are homing in on cutting red tape to bolster housing development and help solve the housing shortage.

Why it matters: State and local leaders have long focused efforts on funding affordable housing programs and addressing the root causes of homelessness, but experts say targeting policy to remove unnecessary bureaucratic processes must be a priority to make a meaningful dent in the housing crisis.

Context: An October state report found San Francisco "has the longest timelines and some of the highest procedural hurdles in the state for advancing housing projects to construction."

  • These delays end up creating barriers to addressing unmet housing needs, according to researchers from the state's Housing Accountability Unit and the UC Berkeley Institute of Urban and Regional Development.

What they're saying: There are several "hoops that affordable housing developers have to jump through in order to get the project to the finish line," Lisa Gutierrez, senior vice president for affordable housing at U.S. Bancorp Impact Finance, told Axios.

  • "Trying to find a way to eliminate some of those barriers will streamline housing, will get it delivered faster and ... I think will build it more efficiently from a cost perspective."
  • Dan Sider, chief of staff at San Francisco Planning, told Axios via email that generational accrual of land use controls — "each one adding to the last rather than revising or replacing it" — had made it nearly impossible to meet housing needs.
  • The agency has worked over the years to cut down on redundant hearings, duplicative neighborhood notices and arbitrary procedural requirements, Sider noted.
  • "After decades of down-zonings and obstructionism, we're due for a re-balancing."

State of play: Mayor London Breed has touted recent policies that streamline development as a fundamental transformation of how the city approves and builds housing.

  • That includes disputed zoning changes that would enable significantly denser development in select neighborhoods, primarily on the city's west side, and expand affordable housing units.
  • The proposal has ushered in fierce debate among residents and elected officials alike but is expected to evolve as it goes through the approval process with the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.

The big picture: This year, the city will begin implementing state-mandated housing requirements that include cutting permit approval times in half for most housing projects, streamlining the process for office-to-residential conversions and removing developer fees in some cases.

  • Director of planning Rich Hillis wrote in a letter to the state last November that the city is narrowing which housing permits are subject to additional administrative review.

What to watch: SF Planning is also examining the city's use of the California Environmental Quality Act, which aims to minimize development-related environmental damage but faces criticism for exceeding the scope of the law and blocking construction.

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