Prosperity Heights: When a Luxury Condo Becomes Neighborhood Housing

Public service announcements of yore extolled the gravity of the electoral process by placing reminders to vote atop photos of military cemeteries.

But next month's San Francisco municipal election is, in every way, nothing to die for. The only contested item involves a pair of dueling ballot measures regarding whether or not a luxury condo development far exceeding the waterfront height limit should be erected at 8 Washington.

There are many terms to describe what would be the most expensive condos to ever be built in San Francisco, with units that may fetch $5 million a pop. Mayor Ed Lee chose a counterintuitive one. “Prop B takes the next step,” reads his blurb on a mailer, “by transforming 8 Washington Street into neighborhood housing…”

While the term “neighborhood” may elicit nostalgia for touch football games in the street and “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!” memories, not many San Francisco neighborhoods look like that anymore. As the city changes, so do the meanings of words like “roomy,” “affordable,” and, of course, “neighborhood.” In this case, “neighborhood housing” can be used to describe prodigiously expensive waterfront condo towers which may yet serve as pied-à-terres for the international jet set.

So, Lee has pulled off a semantic feat. But he's not wrong: “There is no legal or planning definition of the term,” says Marcia Rosen, executive director of the National Housing Law Project and a former head of the Mayor's Office of Housing. Adds former Planning Commission President Ron Miguel, “'Neighborhood housing' has no specific meaning for me. But it depends, obviously, to whom you're speaking.”

And that's the genius of this approach. “Neighborhood housing” means something different to everyone who hears it — but never anything bad. “'Neighborhood' is a word with good connotations. If you say 'neighborhood,' it conveys something comfortable, normal — regular,” says Robin Lakoff, a professor emerita of linguistics at U.C. Berkeley. “I can't think of any way it could be used negatively. Who could be against 'neighborhood housing?' That's what propaganda is all about: Find a word with naturally good or bad connotations and put it into a context where it normally isn't used.”

No, you wouldn't normally use “neighborhood housing” to describe a project like 8 Washington — flummoxing even the development's ardent backers. “It would apply to something like lowering the height. Cheapening the construction. Fewer amenities,” says Housing Action Coalition Executive Director Tim Colen when asked to define “neighborhood housing.” When told this term was attached to 8 Washington — which he emphatically supports, and which does the opposite of these things — he gasps. “That's a stretch! It is really high-end.”

Colen asks who would think to call 8 Washington “neighborhood housing.” When told it was Lee, he gasps again. “No! For real?”

For real. That's how they roll in Mayor Lee's neighborhood.

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