It's the Housing, Stupid

Don't re-elect supervisors who've done nothing -- zero, zip, nada -- to address our housing shortage

How the political system works so San Francisco doesn't, Chapter 12,432:
In May, San Francisco's school district embarked on a plan to build some housing for teachers on the grounds of a new school on the city's west side. This project was to be done in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which really just meant that the financing for the project would get a federal guarantee. There would be 43 apartment units at Vicente and 24th Avenue, on the grounds of the new Dianne Feinstein Elementary School; the district's woefully underpaid teachers -- who start work in the $32,000-a-year range -- could rent the units at subsidized rates.

Of course, our astonishingly incompetent school district, upon having a good idea, screwed it up immediately by approving the project without consulting the neighbors of the school. Apparently, school officials thought the notion of teachers as neighbors was as unthreatening, in prospect, as having teachers as neighbors would be in reality. The neighborhood, being a good San Francisco neighborhood, quickly worked itself into an inconsolable NIMBY frenzy aimed at halting the project.

Among other things, the neighbors complained about parking problems the new teachers would cause. A parking garage was made part of the project; the neighbors didn't like that, either.

Other objections were raised, some ridiculous, none particularly persuasive to me. Among them was the vague fear that because the loans for building the apartments would be guaranteed by HUD, the apartments would inevitably become HUD housing -- HUD as in unemployed tenants, crummy construction, bad maintenance. HUD as in public housing. HUD as in ... poor people!

There was little substance to fears that anyone but teachers would occupy the apartments; there would almost certainly have been a waiting list as long as my leg of teachers ready to pay $700 a month for a one-bedroom place in a city where a bad one-bedroom in a bad part of town now goes for $2,000. And Parkside, with its just-painted rows of lime- and orange-sherbet-colored single-family homes, is anything but a bad part of town.

"This would be exclusively for teachers, but that didn't seem to matter," a school district official close to the project said. "We explained until we were blue in the face."

So the school district agreed that the project would not involve HUD. It is an understatement to say this concession did not suffice to quiet the neighbors.

It did not suffice, at least in part, because the school apartment plan had been grabbed up as an issue in the city supervisor race for District 4, which includes the new Feinstein Elementary. According to press accounts, everyone running for District 4 supervisor has come out in favor of the neighbors, and against the school district, in regard to the apartments. The incumbent, Leland Yee, seems to have clasped the no-teacher-apartments position to his breast with some fervor, even calling for a Board of Supervisors hearing into a project that did not involve city funds.

There is a reason that the horror -- the utter outrage! -- of providing public school teachers with housing became an issue in the supervisorial race. This November's election for the Board of Supervisors is, of course, the first under a new district system, and seven candidates are running in District 4. School board elections are also on the fall ballot. And a few hundred angry people from the lime- and orange-sherbet homes of Parkside mean a lot more to politicians facing election than they mean to you or me.

If you don't already know, you can probably guess what happened to the school apartment plan. Last week the school board withdrew it, saying the district will study the citywide need for teacher housing before embarking on any teacher housing project. The study will be completed before hell freezes over. Teacher apartments will open at Feinstein Elementary as soon as Satan finishes his ice-skating lessons.

There is one potentially persuasive argument against the school district's plan to build apartments at Feinstein Elementary. A person of intellectual honesty could believe that the San Francisco school district has proven itself so utterly incompetent at financial management that allowing it to branch into housing development is an invitation to disaster. I disagree with this view, but I am willing to acknowledge belief in the school district's overarching incompetence as reasonable, if those who so believe will take the next logical step, and do a little research, and vote against every incumbent school board member who could, in even the smallest way, be held responsible for presiding over the incompetent, wasteful mess the school district has become.

Really, though, the Parkside teacher housing brouhaha is not so much an illustration of the school district's problems, or Parkside's blatant, selfish NIMBYism, as it is a reflection of a general political culture that has lost contact with our times.

San Francisco could cut the ribbon on 5,000 low- and moderate-income apartment units tomorrow -- and still be short of housing. There is no imperative more pressing, no subject more talked about at the water cooler and the bus stop, than the need for more affordable housing. The city has enough room for thousands and thousands of units of new housing, and, in our roaring economy, many a developer is ready to pour foundations and raise walls.

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