San Francisco

San Francisco


San Francisco is often considered the poster child of gentrification. It is the United States’ most expensive housing market, unique in its wide geographic distribution of gentrified neighborhoods. Furthermore, its gritty-chic urban lifestyle and historic architecture are nationally renowned and admired. At the same time, the city is one of America’s most politically progressive places; housing displacement and policy are at the forefront of political discourse. 

The Bay Area continues to be a global center of technology enterprise. Jobs are and have been created at much quicker rates than housing, and tech jobs tend to pay handsomely. Neighborhood advocates, liberally granted power of deliberation, fight in favor of preservation to prevent denser housing development ‘in their backyard.’ Because of several transit systems that connect San Francisco to its suburbs as well as San Jose, the capital of Silicon Valley — including the Bay Area Rapid Transit metro system, tech company buses, and CalTrain — the housing and labor markets are regional in scope. Often, small municipalities add workplaces without constructing new housing, shunting workers to live elsewhere. These factors exacerbate the lack of housing at all income levels in the area and are a major reason that people have sought out dis-invested neighborhoods for relatively inexpensive housing, leading to displacement of poorer, existing residents.

Who is vulnerable?

San Francisco’s poor, immigrant, and minority populations are most at risk of displacement. Historic disinvestment in Black neighborhoods caused these areas to feature significant stocks of cheap housing, as well as a relative political impotence to protect neighborhood stability.

Anyone renting from a private landlord is vulnerable to displacement. The state’s Ellis Act grants landlords the right to evict tenants if they desire to get out of the rental business. In practice, landlords will abuse this law to sell their property at peak prices, resulting in construction of new condominiums.

Furthermore, rent control does not apply to single-family homes or homes built since the 1980s, making residents of these housing types particularly vulnerable. Among Spanish speakers and immigrants, language and cultural barriers may stymie tenants’ efforts to resist displacement. State law controls rate hikes of property taxes, protecting homeowners from rapidly escalating housing values, yet pressure can be strong to sell out.

Policy Responses and Limitations

In 2016, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) were legalized for any area of the city with residential zoning. The City also has a program in place to guide residents through the legalization process for currently unauthorized ADUs.1  While this policy signifies recognition by the local government that San Francisco’s scarcity of affordable housing must be addressed through creative measures that embrace an already-occurring phenomenon, the process is both time-intensive and costly.

In early 2017, the City passed legislation to update a density bonus program that had been in place since the 1970s.2 The updated program, titled Home-SF, increased the amount of affordable housing developers are required to provide in order to receive density bonuses. Specifically, Home-SF offers developers a density bonus only if at least 30% of the project is affordable to low, middle, and moderate income families. A larger bonus is awarded for projects that are 100 percent affordable.3 While this policy rightly puts a greater onus on developers to help increase the amount of affordable housing in the city, the stricter requirements for receiving a density bonus, combined with the city’s already strict density zoning requirements, might scare some developers away and actually exacerbate the overall housing shortage.

In the most recent step taken by local government to tackle this issue, Mayor Ed Lee recently issued an executive directive to speed up housing production by streamlining project approvals and permitting requirements.4 This is seen as a step in the right direction by affordable housing advocates as well as market-rate developers, who all view this action as a long-needed overhaul of an overly restrictive local regulatory environment.

While these local policies signify that the City is prioritizing increasing housing production and affordability, state policies have created a more complicated legal environment. Older laws that are difficult to overturn or amend continue to complicate the development process, while newer legislation has yet to produce significant change.

Bayview - Hunters Point

Neighborhood Experience

Bayview is unique as San Francisco’s last majority-Black neighborhood. It is connected to downtown by buses, but not by BART. There is evidence of recent public investment, including a new public library building on its main 3rd St. Systemic racism and historic disinvestment have led to high rates of vulnerability in this area, yet racial solidarity also lends the area a strong sense of place and community. It has an exceptionally high rate of single-family home ownership, thanks in large part to generational inheritance. However, officials fear that homeowners sell out under pressure, that professional workers are ‘discovering’ the area, and that resulting rent increases result ultimately in exclusionary displacement, signaling the eventual demise of a community.

Neighborhood Analysis

Bayview – Hunters Point is constrained by various factors. Educational attainment is low, with only a quarter of residents holding a college degree. This rate is lower than San Francisco's rate by 56%, placing those who lack college degrees at a disadvantage in the increasingly tech-oriented local economy. Additionally, this neighborhood is low density, and strict zoning constrains the development of additional units. Lastly, the increasingly high cost of housing is resulting in exclusionary displacement, in which new low-income residents can no longer move in.

Strengths in Bayview-Hunters Point include a vibrant commercial corridor that serves as a community meeting place for its residents. Additionally, its high rate of homeownership translates into greater housing stability and financial stability compared to other neighborhood case studies. This translates into greater housing stability and financial stability compared to other case studies we have seen. Lastly, the neighborhood has strong community ties that have given the neighborhood a strong voice.

Opportunities in Bayview-Hunters Point are built upon its strengths. To start, although the housing is low density, there is available post-industrial land that could be developed into housing if zoning constraints were overcome. Additionally, its main commercial corridor is receiving major public investments that are strengthening its vitality. This is part of a redevelopment plan to facilitate development in the neighborhood, particularly for the adaptive reuse of the post-industrial land. Lastly, the neighborhood is connected by transit, giving it direct access to employment centers elsewhere in San Francisco.


Possible Policy Responses

Several items from the toolkit could be used to promote equitable development in Bayview-Hunters Point. San Francisco has several community preference policies for the affordable housing lottery.5  However, strong community organizing is needed to make sure people with community ties know what they need to do in order to benefit from new housing. Creating linkages to constructions jobs can help increase employment in a neighborhood with relatively low educational attainment. This would allow people in the neighborhood to benefit from the construction jobs created by the redevelopment of post-industrial land in the area as well as other development projects created throughout the city. An excise tax on higher income buyers could be used to discourage massive buy-outs of existing residents in this high home-ownership neighborhood. Finally, dividends from the highly profitable industries in the Bay Area should be harnessed to increase funds for equitable development programs such as affordable housing development, home-owner repair programs, and improvement loans for neighborhood-serving small businesses.

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