A version of this piece originally appeared in the Richmond Review
Between 2007 and 2016, 15,541 new units of housing were built in SOMA. 1,022 units were built in the Mission. In the Richmond, we added just 321. This tiny number is a tragedy, both for those of us who currently live in the Richmond, and those who would love to join us if we could just make room for them. It betrays the spirit of a neighborhood which has historically welcomed newcomers from around the world.
Our district’s lack of new housing is not due to some oversight. The planning commission’s map does include a big rectangle above Golden Gate Park labelled “the Richmond”, and there is still demand for housing in beautiful neighborhoods near oceans, parks and world famous landmarks. The reason that we have built so little new housing is that it is illegal to build a building over 40 ft in height in almost the entire of the Richmond. 40 ft is about 4 stories. You cannot build a modern city with enough room for a modern population in 4 stories.
This is why SF’s California state senator, Scott Wiener, has introduced Senate Bill 827. SB827 is a small bill with big ambitions. The bill would raise height limits to between 55-85ft (5-8 stories) for buildings within a quarter mile of transit corridors. In addition, projects in these areas would have no parking minimums, and no density restrictions.
This simple change will allow the Richmond to build bigger buildings that house more people and fewer cars. These extra units will allow people who currently crawl into work from out of town along I-280 to hop on the 38 Geary instead. They will help the state of California reach its climate goals and reduce urban sprawl. They will be a vital step towards relieving the crushing pressure of fat rents, and of house prices incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t buy at the right time, when the right time was decades ago and a few years before they were born.
SB827 will not change the Richmond overnight. San Francisco will still have restrictions on demolitions and a laborious planning process. Instead, SB827 will allow us to build more units in the places where we do build. It will allow us to turn old gas stations and disused parking lots into not tens, but hundreds of units. This will mean more new local customers for more local businesses, and more new local businesses for those local customers.
Vulnerable communities are often wary of building programs, and with good historical reason. We should consider the potential displacement effects of any legislation that we pass, and SB827 is no exception. However, slowing down construction in a city that is bursting at the seams will not prevent displacement, and will not keep living costs from rising. Under SB827, San Francisco would keep all of its existing abilities to provide housing assistance to people of all incomes. The city would retain the same capabilities to keep strengthening renter protections, and the same control over local affordable housing ordinances. The city can even use inclusionary zoning to get more affordable units built in its extra stories. We need to build more homes and protect people in their current homes. Let’s do both.
The entire state of California is in a housing crisis. Housing is no longer an exclusively local concern. Californians aren’t going to disappear if we don’t build homes and welcome them in San Francisco. They all have to live somewhere, and I want more of them to live in the Richmond.