Ambitious Bay Area Housing Plan Sticks Uneven Landing in S.F.

In the CASA Compact, Bay Area leaders may have a regional housing plan at last. But will a contentious proposal about density and transit overshadow it?

Bay Area leaders agreed on a landmark housing plan centered on production, protection, and preservation. Photo by Mike Koozmin

After an 18-month discussion, Bay Area leaders have agreed on a non-binding yet controversial regional plan that will send proposals to the California Legislature regarding rent control, zoning reform, and expedited development.

The 10-point Committee to House the Bay Area Compact, dubbed “CASA,” has been hailed as a rare but necessary solution to the regional housing crisis that boils down to three objectives: producing, preserving, and protecting housing. But a contentious Jan. 18 meeting saw hours of public commentary and criticism centered over development interests. The most notable legislative component is a revived version of a controversial 2018 bill that sought mandated density around transit.

It’s been more than a year in the making. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Government initially convened CASA, a regional group of leaders and stakeholders that includes the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and San Jose. A powerful, 18-member Steering Committee included representatives from the tech and development industries, as well as housing nonprofits and labor groups, many of whom are not elected by the public, causing opponents to brand the entire exercise as undemocratic.

San Francisco is central to the debate. Whereas Mayor London Breed approved, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman was vocally skeptical of the city ceding zoning reform to the state, and he ultimately voted against the compact.

First, though, a little context. CASA is an attempt to do what the Bay Area should have done a long time ago: Treat housing as an issue that can only be solved at the regional level. The compact has provisions that address a number of affordability concerns, such as just-cause evictions and emergency-rent assistance. But the path to get those tenant protections is murky, especially in light of the November defeat of Proposition 10, which would have repealed the notorious Costa-Hawkins Act that strictly limits rent-control in California.

Stakeholders approved several other elements, such as turning public land into affordable housing, removing regulatory barriers to developments like accessory dwelling (or “in-law”) units, reforms to the housing approval process, and minimum zoning requirements near transit. All of these things sound like commonsense proposals, but many housing advocates worry that the loss of local control could backfire. Unless a stronger emphasis is placed on affordable housing production, critics say, real estate interests could be the winner of this compact.

Then there’s the issue of how to pay for goals like 35,000 new units every year for the next 15 years. CASA identified several potential revenue sources — taxes on vacant homes, plus sales taxes, gross receipts taxes, and parcel taxes, along with general bonds — to help meet the $2.5 billion that may be needed on an annual basis.

Zoning is another bone of contention. State Senator Scott Wiener remains laser-focused on reviving last year’s controversial SB 827 (which is now known as SB 50, since it’s a new legislative session). It would require jurisdictions to allow developers who meet certain criteria to build extra units near transit, and Wiener believes this version has stronger tenant and anti-demolition protections. This time, “sensitive communities” — which the bill defines as areas facing challenges like low-income tenants — have until July 2020 to implement zoning changes. Whether that mollifies critics has yet to be seen.

“There’s a lot in there that I like, however, there are also a lot of things that I have trouble with,” Mandelman says, referring to SB 50. “I’m nervous about having our development controls from Sacramento.”

Wiener disagrees, effectively arguing that this specific issue is his baby and other legislators may well take up various pro-tenant components of CASA in the future.

“What we’re going to do is allow for more housing, but do it in a way that doesn’t replace existing residents,” Wiener says. “SB 50 preserves enormous local control. It’s impactful [sic], but it’s narrow.”

On Jan. 31, two weeks after CASA’s own members signed off on it, the San Francisco Planning Commission took up the issue. But if the Planning meeting was any indication, there’s going to be several more heated debates until a citywide resolution materializes. Dozens of people commented on CASA and SB 50, mostly coming out against the methods of housing production.

Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards was vehemently agreed. In his reading of the bill’s text, cities would cede power over demolition control, something Wiener has assured localities they would keep. However, Richards would support SB 50 if developments along transit corridors required even 50 percent of the units to be affordable.

“My fear on CASA is you need to join all these bills together because, potentially, they can work in concert with each other,” Richards said at the meeting. “If one can’t go into effect, they all can’t.”

Inevitably, the conversation around CASA won’t be separated from SB 50, which critics claim may upzone most of San Francisco just as SB 827 would have. The Planning Commission will have to analyze it once all the amendments are finally made.

As if all of this weren’t complicated enough already, there’s still the lingering question of how CASA dovetails with housing initiatives from the Mayor’s Office, and how it would fund affordable housing regionwide. Mayor London Breed announced in January that she would put a charter amendment on the 2020 ballot to fund a $300 million bond for affordable housing but it’s unclear just yet how that meshes with CASA.

The full Board of Supervisors may eventually decide on a resolution on SB 50. But even if the city weighs in, the compact’s potential as a regional planning guide may face yet another hurdle: suburban cities that have historically resisted development. That could put San Francisco progressives with reservations about the compact in an awkward place, not wishing to appear like NIMBYs.

A compromise seems necessary. Mandelman believes in rewarding cities that hit specific development targets with additional transportation-infrastructure funding and penalizing cities that fail to pull their weight. But, he insists, local control is still necessary.

“There’s a need for fine-tuning you can’t do from Sacramento,” Mandelman says. “I’m not completely ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

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