Wednesday: Design Review Board to Consider Powhattan Housing Proposal



There’s a neighborhood design review board meeting set for tomorrow night, Wednesday, February 26 at 7 pm at the Precita Neighborhood Center, to discuss a proposal to construct four single-family homes on the undeveloped “triangle” of land at Powhattan and Bernal Heights Boulevard.

Your Bernalwood editor knows nothing about the backstory here, but in consideration of the proposal, and our own YIMBY orientation, we would like to share a statement that we encountered recently in the Bold Italic, which provides a useful framework for thinking about these sorts of issues:

You can fight development or you can fight evictions, but you cannot logically fight both.

27 thoughts on “Wednesday: Design Review Board to Consider Powhattan Housing Proposal

  1. Behold, everything wrong with the SF planning and permitting process in a nutshell: a meeting that will only be attended by people with too much free time on their hands, in which they will debate whether a plan which already conforms to the local zoning regulations may proceed.

  2. The word is out. I witnessed a couple surveyors measuring up the northwest end of Bonview at Coso, according to google maps there are two undeveloped lots. With houses selling 50% over asking at $1.6m+ there is no better time than the present. What did Lex Luthor’s dad say about land…”You can print money, manufacture diamonds, and people are a dime a dozen, but they’ll always need land. It’s the one thing they’re not making any more of.”

  3. The logic behind the Bold statement is flawed, though it works if we consider “evictions” and “development” simply as concepts. But they aren’t concepts. They are realities, with various conditions, consequences, possibilities, politics, biases, outcomes. “Evictions” and “development” can represent different things at different times in history, and in different places. In San Francisco today, “development” means something different from what it did a generation or two ago. So no need to get swept up in a frenzy at its mere utterance; it is actually something more to dread, for many people.

    We are in a pretty extreme place and time in terms of housing and neighborhoods in San Francisco, with Bernal Heights and neighboring areas being great examples of the extremes. Look a few blocks south of Alemany, or even closer along the fringes of Bernal. We all know that there are places that many people will not dare walk in late at night, but we never go to those places anyway (and certainly never talk about them). Will “development” of housing “raise up” these areas? Sadly, the past “development” of housing there–the only sort of affordable and large-scale housing that has been built for a very long time in this area–has made for a crime-ridden core of catastrophe. (Yes, you may use that, but please cite responsibly.)

    So I think, at this point in San Francisco’s history (and with its disposition; there will be no widespread plans to build up 4 or 5 more stories across the City), one can very “logically” fight both evictions, which overwhelmingly afflict those who are being priced out of the City, and also be against many plans for development, which are overwhelmingly not being drawn up to favor those who are being priced out of the City (or even those barely able to hang on as renters and who can’t buy a home or condo anywhere here, a substantial percentage of the population).

    How much of the development in the vast area south of Market and in China Basin–empty less than a decade ago; do we even remember the driving range?–will be housing for low-income people? Show me a housing development in San Francisco that will (as a majority) house people earning, say, even less than $100,000 a year–a pretty decent sum, not edging towards “poor” by a long shot–and I will show you a crowd lined up outside Big Lots hours before doors open on Black Friday.

    Contrary to popular delusion–at least on this blog–Bernal Heights is no more YIMBY-oriented than any other place in the City (and it may even be less inclined than many places, with so much that is considered “precious” to preserve, and with the relatively recent influx of wealth making millionaires of people who bought their homes for modest amounts a decade or less ago). When it comes to property values, people are as cutthroat, cautious, and myopic as anywhere–with some not even tolerating legally parked buses, for instance, and grousing about the poor (and often mentally ill and chemically dependent) who spend just too much time in our parks for the residents’ comfort (I heard this complaint from someone whose home’s value, naturally, has quadrupled since buying the property). Or they don’t want another housing development perhaps, since it will block their view of a tree. Whatever it is, anyone who owns a home in Bernal is most definitely cautious about what’s in their backyard.

    At least we can be guaranteed that the development of any housing in Bernal will be of the sky-high-priced variety, even exceeding the likes of the condos put up on Harrison (just south of Cesar Chavez) a few years ago, and any refurbishment project that took a Bernal dump and made it a gem (not that one can be begrudged for doing that).

    “Development” affects different people in different ways, but in this area of town I don’t see how it can benefit anyone (on the slim amount of acreage available) besides those who are already very well-positioned to buy a home here already (and we know who they are, even if it is upsetting for people to be anonymously pointed out in cyberspace; get used to it, as is the Bernalwood Slogan, since the rest of us have grown so accustomed).

    As Bernalwood readers know, a topic that touches on housing on this blog invites the most heated (and often distressing and angry) of discussions. No “development” of housing will change this fact. It will only highlight the mounds of cash being put on the table all the more, and the growing gaps in the community, whoever we think we are.

    • Three quick clarifications:

      1. Can’t find a reference right now, but I’m pretty sure that one of the housing developments in China Basin — right near the site of the much-lamented former driving range — that was just completed has a significant affordable component. FWIW

      2. No one ever said Bernal Heights is YIMBY. But Bernalwood is militantly so. My hope is that this will prove infectious.

      3. Bernal Heights will always remain expensive, for the foreseeable future, because the neighborhood is zoned for single-family housing, with significant restrictions on building mass relative to lot size. In other words, we can build a few more infill houses, but the desire to preserve the character of the neighborhood is enshrined in code, so greater density in Bernal simply isn’t an option at present.

      4. No development scheme is perfect. But the law of supply and demand is ironclad. Citywide, it is simply impossible to address the issues of affordability and displacement without more development. The challenge here — and IMHO, the area in which most activists and civic officials have almost nothing substantive to say — is to devise acceptable frameworks for development that enable greater density and increase the overall housing supply (without becoming NIMBY shitshows). If we want to get real about this issue, we need to become more tolerant of mixed-use schemes that may not be optimized for any one interest group, but which are, in aggregate, best for us all.

    • You raise a lot of valid points.

      Of course Bernal’s development will be for the rich. Our special-use district guarantees it by limiting the intensity of usage, both in RH1 zoning and height/square-footage limits. Incumbents who bought on the hill presumably did so because they like the existing character of the neighborhood, so they are likely to fight any intensification because it will fundamentally alter that character. Unfortunately, this is the case across the city. I think you can get support for the notion of greater density—as long as it’s in someone else’s neighborhood.

      We have billion-dollar transit infrastructure investments underused because the surrounding area is zoned RH1. And where the zoning does allow for density, there is an outcry against proposed developments because…why?

      Of course current development targets the top of the market. Developers will choose projects which offer the greatest return, and until that segment is tapped, those are the projects we’ll see. The city’s requirement for below-market-rate units could be incrementally effective, but the trend to cover that requirement with cash for units elsewhere slows the development of those units and defeats the goal of mixing different strata in the same neighborhood.

      Whatever the solution, it’s likely to take a long time to show results because we have decades of housing stock growth to catch up on.

      • Thank you for some excellent replies, both informative and cordial. It means a lot.

        I would be interested to know how much of the development in China Basin has a “significant affordable component.” Such terminology can be tossed quite freely about, but be bereft of meaning to those who struggle to find anything “affordable” to purchase in the City. (Heck, it can be bereft of meaning to thoughtful people just about anywhere, depending on its essence.) Truly, I am interested in this, in case the information comes over the airwaves.

        Indeed, one lingering factor in evictions (and something affecting city planning for the future) is a lack of creativity and willingness on the part of people who, either by virtue of being elected or simply being involved deeply in the issues, have not come up with better plans for mixed-use schemes and other living configurations, just for instance. As we know, many displaced artists became victims of the demise of live/work spaces, at least the affordable ones (yes, below market rate; Get Used to It, again) that they had occupied for many years. As we also know, some of the evicted were among the most renowned of the City’s artists, including in Bernal Heights. Of course, some places were not exactly up to code, but to be “up to code” in SF requires agility that could be an Olympic sport (sometimes for good reason, but sometimes its bureaucratic rubbish, but that’s the City that has been bought and paid for).

        What I fear–at least for mixed-use schemes–is that they will cater almost entirely to interests that have their hands in the City’s pockets already, such as entities that are getting tax breaks to exist here, and not the increasingly beleaguered members of civil society who both advocate for the “have-nots” (relatively speaking) but have far less leverage in policy-making. As mentioned above, changes take time, but I wonder how many of us will be around to see a lot of changes in development, The Jetsons style.

        Todd, I appreciate that Bernalwood, as a blog somewhat independent of its base while celebrating it as well, eats sweet NIMBY bits for breakfast. I have enjoyed the blog for years and thank you and others for making it a vibrant and compelling place for sharing news, ideas, happiness, and gloom, sometimes within the scope of a single post. And any forum that freely allows to appear the sanctimonious, snotty sentiments of the self-referential David Kaye is as open a place in the world as can be.

    • One thing I’d add: developments that add significant supply at the upper end, even without any setasides for below-market units, help the cause of affordability elsewhere in the city.

      So even if the Mission Bay developments were entirely market rate, the fact that the buyers there are buying there, and not something somewhere else in the city, incrementally improves the pricing picture everywhere else.

      Now, you could argue that they might not have bought in the city absent those developments being built, and that’s possible — but in general, the people who had the means to purchase there would also have had the means to purchase somewhere else in the city.

      • And the flip side: the more low-income housing built here, the more people seeking low-income housing will come to SF from other places.

      • Nice straw man there, Rusty. Most people relocate because of they have or are getting a job, not because of existence low-income housing at their destination. BTW low-income housing units are assigned by occupant application and lottery subject to income verification; not quite a handout at the soup kitchen is it?

      • Yes I’d have to agree. It’s insanely hard to get one if these apartments. I doubt someone with little means would risk moving out here on the off chance they’d get one of those units.

    • Otis, these terms aren’t fuzzy at all, they are set by HUD and local housing authorities. Affordable housing amounts in any given project are also governed by local law, in SF is the inclusionary housing ordinance. With regards to housing development in Mission Bay (including China Basin, and parts of Western SOMA, Potrero Hill, and Dogpatch,) your answers are found here with our old friends the Redevelopment Agency:

      And here’s a map of affordable housing parcels:

      Affordability levels get defined according to how your household income compares to percentage of Area Median Income, updated each year per Census tract by HUD. These range from 50%-120% AMI, then adjusted by number of people per household for housing program eligibility (low end is 1 person @50%AMI = $33,900 up to 4 persons @ 110% AMI = $106,500 at the upper). Keep in mind that costs in the City are roughly $500,000 per unit up front to provide a unit of housing at all, before any developer’s profit:

      Once built, affordable housing units for rent or sale stay under administration of the SFHA or SF-MOH (depending on who sponsored the affordable component) for at least decades, some units in perpetuity. see here for affordable housing units in Mission Bay specifically:

      and citywide BMR program in general:

      tl,dr: “6,000 housing units, with 1,700 (28%) affordable to moderate [110% AMI], low, and very low [50% AMI]-income households. Redevelopment Agency sponsored non-profit developers will build 1,445 of the affordable units on 16 acres of land contributed by the master developer. The remaining 255 affordable units will be included in privately developed projects,….As of January 2010, 3,126 housing units, including 674 affordable units, have been constructed in Mission Bay. An additional 319 units are under construction.” These figures of course exclude the 350 beds of student housing in MB owned by UCSF. All other market-rate project are still required to meet inclusionary housing impact fees/Below Market Rate set-asides. For example: the entirety of 888 7th street (across from Caltrain) is the BMR component for 1 Rincon Hill.

      Whether this is “significant” is of course up to your discretion. The only real ways to lower the cost of new housing construction is make more land available (Bay fill); amortize the fixed costs over more units (increase zoning limits), or reduce wages for workers in construction (union busting). Take your pick.

  4. I’m offering no judgment on this proposal at all, since we do need more homes. In general, I favor higher density (tall) developments and fewer single family (short) homes. We need to be building UP – and quickly. We, as a city, really need to branch out from our desires to have a house with a white picket fence and no shared walls. So build there – whatever – but realize that this isn’t going to have any impact on evictions or the housing market in any measurable way. The city needs thousands of units in the $1500-2k/bedroom range in order to really change the market, not four tiny $1.5M bungalows that will house 6-12 people.

    For the record, if you drive down this road, that triangle has an excellent example of a parallax view when you view the southern homes and hills as you descend — it’s really quite eye catching. That (literally) moving view will be gone and the residents will get a non-moving view. So build there – go ahead – but drive down it and look left before it’s gone.

  5. Everyone who still clings to the belief that SF housing is somehow magically exempt from supply and demand, please take in this graph now:

    Build, build, build.

    • Interesting graph, although I’d like to see 200 data points, not 10. Would be nice to see if the shape of the plot persists if you include all US cities and metropolitan areas, or if at some point it breaks down, and where. A tangent, I know, but: Why aren’t we in a golden age of data visualization, instead of a golden age of data-plated link bait?

  6. Bernal Heights is one of the last sections of SF that has the most vacant lots. It’d be a excellent idea to have them developed. The South slope is ripe to build on, There are some areas that would be great as mixed use with storefronts, condos & apartments.

    • Wait, that’s not true. Bernal Heights has many fewer vacant lots than a lot of other areas of the city.

      I’m not arguing against building on the lots we DO have, I’m all for more housing. I’m just pointing out that your claim is not accurate.

  7. These will likely look a lot like the 4 homes approaching completion on Diamond and 29th. Massive . Diamond street alone is nutty. Even all the streets south of cortland have something going on each block. Build indeed.

  8. +1 on Supply and Demand.

    All this jockeying about affordable housing vs mixed use vs free market pricing allocations is the direct result of way too much demand for the supply. The only way to balance pricing out is to flood the market with supply. That would balance out the financial motivations to Ellis Act Evict, and you would only need low income housing set asides to create or preseve economic diversity in neighborhoods.

    I’d love it if anyone posting things contrary to supply and demand law would start with some sort of refutation of it. It would be more entertaining, at least.

  9. Mixed use and high-density developments should be in transit corridors, not on the top of Bernal Heights with its small streets and intimate neighborhoods.

    Anyone remember what happened to the mixed use project proposed for the old Goodman’s (now Lowe’s) site?

    As far as I know, none of these lots on Powhattan are scheduled for affordable development.

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