Jun 15, 2023
27 mins

We Are San Francisco: 'Solving Housing' with Sam Moss

Ben Kaplan  0:00  

Hey, BART riders. Hey San Francisco. I'm Ben Kaplan. And this is the podcast where we define who we are and who we want to be. We are diverse, we are innovative, we are inclusive, we are change makers, problem solvers, activists, leaders, citizens,

Sam Moss  0:19  

we are open minded, optimistic, because hope for a better tomorrow, and you and you and you gotta get in the hole.

Ben Kaplan  0:27  

This is the podcast. That's more than a podcast for Cisco, they are the world champion, our San Francisco.

Hey, San Francisco. Today I'm chatting with Sam moss. He's EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF MISSION Housing Development Corporation, one of the largest nonprofit residential landlords in the city. According to Sam subsidized low income housing faces the same hurdles that other developments face months of preliminary meetings, years of paperwork, negotiations and more meetings, and then seemingly endless permits before breaking ground. So is there a better way? Let's find out with Sam moss.

Sam, you have an interesting viewpoint for this, because it's widely discussed and talked about that housing in San Francisco is dysfunctional in every sense of the word. But the question is, why is that? Is it a political problem? Is it a bureaucratic problem? Is it an operational problem? And why does it seem tension seem high right now, especially coming out of the pandemic?

Sam Moss  1:41  

The short answer is all of the above. It's a problem of all of those issues politically bureaucratically, financially, having enough money to actually build the housing, and you know, coming out of our pandemic, I think we live in a different world, the world changed really fast. And I think that that has something to do with how hard it is currently to build, you know, housing in San Francisco, we created system a long time ago, when, essentially a long, long time ago, when segregation became illegal. The country created what are called our zoning laws and our planning departments, San Francisco, Berkeley specifically, but then San Francisco right after really kind of pioneered utilizing redlining. So making sure that only low income people can get loans and buy homes and live in the more downtown industrial pipes. And then, much like the suburban world that was coming about in the 50s. In the 60s, more white affluent, richer, people were allowed to have loans and live in the outer parts of San Francisco, let's call them the suburbs. As far as I'm concerned, the sunset and most of the Richmond is a suburb compared to, you know, downtown San Francisco, and even a lot of the surrounding neighborhoods. So what we did was we created a zoning situation where anyone with 150 to $200, and time on their hands can file an appeal against any permit that's given for any construction. I mean, any construction,

Ben Kaplan  3:06  

you're talking about this idea of discretionary where basically, it sort of empowers anyone to delay or stop a project. And why is that a problem?

Sam Moss  3:14  

Well, it's a problem, because the fact that every permit in San Francisco is discretionary means that when your neighbor wants to add a rooftop deck or a back deck or an adu in the backyard, things like that up until very recently, and I mean, very recently, like the last couple years, all of those permits were discretionary. So if you didn't want it to happen, you could just file a discretionary review application, which is essentially an appeal to the permit, and you could jam someone up for six months or a year, and no one in their right mind can carry construction loans can carry debt, you know, after a while it becomes monetarily impossible to do the project. And so in effect, discretion is a way for people to kill a project while telling themselves, they are just trying to change this one thing. I don't like this parking, I think it should have more parking, I'm gonna file discretionary review. I support affordable housing, it's just that if you had eight times the amount of parking, then I would support it. So I'm going to file this appeal. Well, you go back, can you say, well, the building won't support itself. We can't afford to build the building. If we have that much parking? Well, I'm sorry. That's what I need. And back and forth, and back and forth. And up until very recently, the last couple years, literally, that was the way affordable housing got built in San Francisco. That was the way that market rate housing got built in San Francisco. And while I do admit that the situation is dire, and that we're in a severe housing crisis in San Francisco, I do think that because of some statewide bills, because some advocates have decided to bypass local control. There are statewide bills now especially for affordable housing that let us build without having to ask permission without discretion.

Ben Kaplan  4:52  

I want to unpack what you say because there's a lot of subtle things you said in sort of subtext of what you said. One of the interesting things is this notion of discretion. generi ability discretionary review reinforces the status quo, sometimes we just think of discretionary as like someone just gonna find something wrong with anything, it's just gonna waste something and just kind of muck things up. But this idea of reinforcing the status quo because it prevents new housing from being built change. And of course, that's really significant. Now, in this post pandemic era, because everything's changed, there's a lot of change going on. So regardless of where you are on the issue, it seems like we've got to adapt, we've got to change in San Francisco, and any system that reinforces the status quo almost is opposed to progress. Yeah, we have progressive values, let's make progress. But that reinforces the opposite of progress.

Sam Moss  5:40  

It's true. And you know, when buildings historically have been built in San Francisco, and I just want to back up for people who live in San Francisco, like Fontana towers, which are out near Fisherman's Wharf, they're the really tall 15 storey concrete half circle buildings that you can see from everywhere, discretionary review, the down zoning of the west side of San Francisco, the creation of all this stuff came about because we built tall apartment buildings that blocked people's views from the richer people's views from up top and the hill, like, there wasn't this wasn't always like this, there wasn't always discretion discretion is a relative to how old San Francisco is still a relatively, you know, still a relatively young 4550 year old rule. So it's amazing how quickly things can become set in concrete, right like that they can't be changed. And you're absolutely right. discretion in and of itself is a way to, like I said, you know, kind of encapsulate life and Amber to hold on to the status quo. But you bring up a good point with the pandemic, that things have changed, and they're changing really fast. And, you know, the whole point of discretion is to slow down real estate construction, to make it take a long time, so that all of the Weber's can, you know, get on board and support it, and everyone can extract their community benefit from here and from there, and that takes a long time. And so I think one thing that's terrifying people about some of these statewide bills that mission housing love, because we don't think we should have to ask permission to build affordable housing in any neighborhood. I don't care if we're in Pak heights, St. Francis wood, or the mission, we should be if it's 100%, affordable, and it can fit on the site. And it's built to local safety standards and the building department standards. I don't think anyone should get to say no, and I don't think we should have to ask permission. And the fact that we're starting to be able to build it like that is terrifying people, not necessarily because the of the end result, but because it's going to happen in three years instead of 10.

Ben Kaplan  7:35  

Your mission, your purpose, your organization, personally, is to create affordable housing. But you actually were talking about affordable housing and market rate housing, in the context, everything. And my question is, given that a lot of San Francisco's problems, the root is a shortage of housing in general, if someone's going to create a unit, and it's going to add to the supply of housing should generally we be supportive of that, because we have a housing shortage. And even if it's a luxury, that it's not going to affect the people who most need help, but it's also just going to free up the market and have other people that's going to prevent them from seeking out housing at a lower rate that's going to drive up that price. So it's just a question because you're a real affordable housing advocate, should we just be focusing on that? Or do we want at this point, any kind of housing we can get, because we just have a severe shortage of supply.

Sam Moss  8:20  

So you know, I think it's important to support housing at all affordability levels, market rate and affordable but I do think it's extremely important to take a minute and look at where the building is being built, because of redlining, because even now, it's illegal to build an apartment building on the west side of San Francisco. And I say it's illegal because you have to ask for permission. It's discretionary. This zoning on most of the west side of San Francisco, most of the rich neighborhoods might be 45 feet in height, but it's only like one or two units allowed on a lot. So that's not an apartment building. The only places where apartment buildings are legal to build or the Mission District and the Bayview and the tenderloin and soma, and Chinatown, these low income neighborhoods. And so while I do believe it's important to advocate for housing and all affordability levels, I inherently in my soul believe that affordable housing in this country is a neoliberal hellscape. That is tied to market rate housing, whether or not we like it or not. And so I do think you can't just say only affordable but I also think it's important to have some nuance and look at where the luxury units, as you mentioned, are being built. I think the mission has handled, it's it's more than its fair share. I think the tenderloin and Selma have handled more of their fair share. I think even you know, outskirts of Chinatown getting close to the financial district have handled more than their fair share of market rate tall apartment buildings, I think pack heights and Westwood Park and the sunset and the Richmond and SeaCliff should start. And I think that if those more expensive units are being built in neighborhoods that have we have data we have census data that are Higher AMI is that I think we should absolutely be supporting it hardcore there. But I think in the already gentrified already displacement bombs have gone off neighborhoods, I don't think we should just blindly be supporting market rate housing in those neighborhoods. I'm not saying that there isn't a world where Marguerite housing makes sense. But I think that in those neighborhoods, it's important to have a little bit of nuance because, statistically speaking, they have already bared way more of the brunt than than their fair share. There's a ton of land in our cities, every major city in the country, but especially San Francisco, there is a ton of land on the west side of San Francisco for luxury condos. And anyone who says there isn't his lawyer, we tend to

Ben Kaplan  10:43  

take housing. As you know, we're a seven by seven city, it's a San Francisco issue. This is the policy for San Francisco, what you're actually talking about is some thoughtfulness on a neighborhood by neighborhood level. And if we could do that, and sometimes we just take it's one size fits all. But if we're talking about tenderloin versus Pak heights or Bayview versus Richmond, it's like totally different. Some of the considerations but yeah, I understand because there's a limited amount of use the term political will before political will and get things through. So he kind of tend to get everything you can in this thing and push it through. But actually, there's more neighborhood nuance to understanding each neighborhood and what's going on there really, isn't it then just all San Francisco is the same even though we're a pretty compact

Sam Moss  11:25  

area? Of course, you're right. Look, if you live in the sunset, and you work in the financial district, if you live on the ocean, and you work in the financial district, you still live less than like four miles from your office. I mean, as far as the suburbs are concerned, that's next door. So you're right, we are small and you can't get around. But yeah, we are a we have a lot of different neighborhoods with their own flavor. And I'll say that one reason that a lot of people are kind of holding on to discretionary review this like last gasp being grasp, dying grasp of it, is because you mentioned political will. The fact of the matter is, is that the overwhelming majority of people in San Francisco are pro housing now. And they don't think pack heights should be sealed and Amber and they don't think that Westwood Park should be allowed to be a basically a giant homeowners association. And you know, we're renters, the millennial generation especially has been locked out of home purchasing. And that was another way that we segregated people we said that if you own a home, you get more say pack heights gets more saved because they're they own their giant homes and their tax base as high as if Marguerite apartment owners don't pass on taxes to the renters in the first place. You know, and so that is certainly the way that San Francisco has done things. There's not to get too wonky. But about 20 years ago, San Francisco passed what's called the eastern neighborhoods plan. The eastern neighborhoods plan was how they were going to justify a previous decades down zoning of the west side, they made it so that you couldn't build more than one or two units on a lot in the west side, they made some of the height limits on the west side as low as 25 feet for entire neighborhood downtown areas. What they then did was they up zoned the east side, the mission, the tenderloin Soma, they created Mission Bay. Now the eastern neighborhoods plan was touted as a city wide community wide. Everyone came together to write it. And everyone agreed. But if you really go back as like if you historically if you talk to people, if you talk to people who are there, pack heights, the sunset, the San Francisco Coalition for neighborhoods, which I assure you does not mean the mission they got way more of a say they the west side, people got way more of a say in how it was written, right? Really expensive land use lawyers that live in own on the west side were hired by San Francisco to hammer all this out so that they can up zone the lower income neighborhoods so that on the face of it, even though the West Side went down, the East Side went up. And so San Francisco didn't have to say that it was reducing its housing capacity, it was actually increasing it. But what it was also doing was further segregating it. And that was like everyone jumped for joy. Like give us a high five we did this you know we up zoned areas were Urbanus like, No, you're not.

Ben Kaplan  14:02  

We look to solutions now. And I just wanted to parallel the era you were talking about with have this plan. We're coming together, everyone's equal in the plan, but some are more equal than others. Right? Are we gonna solve this through like political leadership in City Hall on someone smart there who's elected who's appointed someone else is going to be like, here's the plan. Wow, that's a great plan, let's do it. Or do we need to involve the communities in really actually having a say now, it's not a free for all right, we will never get anything done. But what can we do to pull that part of the plan? Because there exists something so most people don't realize there is a San Francisco General Plan. It's a development plan vision for the city. Does the community are they truly involved in a say in in going to be doing more? Or are we waiting for City Hall to you know, hasn't had a great track record and proposing something that could solve this, but suddenly to get an aha moment and do it or should we all come together with a community level?

Sam Moss  14:52  

I mean, I think that there's a worldwide love to say that we should all come together as a as a community. And I do think that especially if you're talking about develop Living in low income, formerly displaced neighborhoods that you absolutely need to have community involved. But at the end of the day, it really will take political will, if we're talking about San Francisco solving itself. And you know, I want to stress that because as far as I'm concerned, the train has left the station, the housing advocates in the state of California are going to solve this for every single city in the state. That's what the recent housing element engagement was about. That's what recent laws over the last seven years, mostly written and supported by NBS was about taking away local control in a way that stops rich, single family, homeowners from saying, no, they don't want anything.

Ben Kaplan  15:40  

Let me play devil's advocate on that for a second, I get the intent of hey, we just need some, you know, there's entrenched interests, and we need some way to do something that makes sense for the greater good. I sort of get that but I can understand people listening to you say that and saying like, so we're gonna have the state Sacramento come in here and say, with not a lot of knowledge, specifically of San Francisco and override local control makes, understandably when you say people like a little bit nervous, what do they know about San Francisco? How is this going to work? Do I get the intent being good,

Sam Moss  16:11  

the only false thing that you just said was not having a lot of knowledge about San Francisco, the way that the Housing Community Development Department of California HCD, which is Sacramento in this regard, the way they operate is is they entrench themselves in every major metro area, every city and they talked with housing advocates, both low income advocates, affordable housing advocates, the city, the bureaucracy, they spend years talking to them about what's working, what's not working, they let the state attorney weigh in legally on things that are working and aren't working. And then they craft the bill. It is not a thing where like some random dude who's worked in Sacramento for 55 years, and has like, never left his room with no window is just writing laws because he thinks they sound good. And I will say the devil's advocate you just played is the devil's advocate that people who know they really just don't want to stop everything have been using. It's just a it's just false, that the Sacramento that HCD especially is not aware of every municipality that they're affecting. It's it's truly false. And I will say that the reason people don't realize that is because it's not the cities that are making sure that happens. It's the housing organizers across the state. It's the nonprofit housing organizers, the nonprofit tenant advocates that are making sure that HCD knows who they are. And HCD is doing a really good job of reaching out to them, I have to say, this most recent five year house, it took five years to go through the housing element, shenanigans that we just finished. And so for the listeners, the housing element is a state law that says each city based on the amount of jobs you've added, you have to add this many housing units over the next 10 years. And San Francisco has been told they have to add 83,000 housing units 46,000 of which have to be affordable based on how many jobs we added during the last census period.

Ben Kaplan  18:00  

Sam are talking about housing, but maybe this is a broader theme overall for San Francisco, maybe for California's hole is this idea of good intentions with unintended consequences. What I mean by that because it affects housing, it was a thing like hey, we're for the environment, we're environmentalists, we think there should be some standards that developers are held to which everyone says, okay, that that makes sense. So we want to support the environment. Of course, we want that. But then in the implementation of that, we add levels of bureaucracy, checks, discretionary ability impacts the whole thing. And so suddenly dislike, we felt good, we passed a law we put this in because we support the environment. Yes, we all agree on that has some other unintended consequence. And it seems like housing is a prime example of that. But there's others too, and many other types were good intentions. But just unintended things happen that because governments are complex, and bureaucracies are complex, and permits are complex, and it sort of happens. What do you think that's a source of this is like we have really good intentions. We're progressive people, San Francisco, but things have side effects that sometimes we don't predict so well.

Sam Moss  19:07  

Yeah. Yeah, I think I think that's a problem. A lot of times ever, you know, I think our inclusionary housing law is a really good example. I think it was like seven or eight years ago, maybe a little less. So it's definitely before the pandemic San Francisco passed a new inclusionary housing is the amount of below market rate housing that a market rate developer has to build to get their permits. So if you build 100 units in San Francisco, it used to be that you had to build 20 units of them had to be affordable either on site or off site, or you could pay a fee, except that the community hates when you pay a fee. So even though we legally wrote that you can pay a fee low income community started saying we don't want you to pay the fee that segregation so now the fee exists, but no one's allowed to use the fee. That's totally subjective. So about six, seven years go by barely any market rate housing gets built. San Francisco just now reduced the inclusionary rate back to the amount it was before six, seven years ago, down to like 1512 to 16% right six, seven Years ago, when they passed the higher inclusionary rate, it was like angels were sprouting for everyone. And everyone was the most virtuous, awesome thing ever. And God bless the supervisors for caring about, you know, affordable housing. Well guess what, like 100% of 00. You know, like, you know, like, you could, you know, 20% inclusionary on zero units getting built means you don't get any unit. And I think that that's a good example of, of course, we want to have as much affordable housing as possible, of course. But I think that we get bogged down a lot too much in like percentages and how it looks in the you know, press release, and how it feels to say I'm voting for 20%, affordable, I'm demanding, you know, 200%, affordable, and that's great. But like, if you don't get any units, then people are still living on the street. And we still have a horrible housing crisis.

Ben Kaplan  20:45  

The interesting part, especially what you said, is this notion of, we've got to go from what makes us feel good, we feel like we're doing things to improve affordable housing. Of course, that is a good objective, of course, we should get to actually like creating affordable housing, people now have a place to live, as opposed to we feel good about enacting something that has a potential to it, but actually won't probably do anything like we've just got to become more results or outcome based as our focus as opposed to feeling like we did something that actually won't do anything. And that's the problem, because it's really two problems. One is we didn't do anything, but two is we think we did something so we're not going to do anything else. We're going to kind of stop and feel good. So it hurts us both ways. And it's those who need the affordable housing that suffer.

Sam Moss  21:29  

Yeah, that's true. It's sad. I mean, the fact is, is that if we've just made it so that developers all had to feed out the affordable housing industry would leverage that money times three, and we'd have three times the amount of units. And people know that. You know, if Marguerite developer paid a fee into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, then a developer like Michigan housing would take $1. And we would turn it into three, that's what I mean, because we have state, federal and private investment. That's how we build our low income housing buildings. And if you make a market rate developer build units on site, they're paying for 100% of those costs. So you're, you know, you're getting a third amount of the units you could get. And like you said, those are units that are being built, those are families that are still on the street, those are seniors who are still homeless, and there's a real human misery. That can be quantified, really. And it's depressing when you think about that.

Ben Kaplan  22:22  

To wrap up, I want to just ask you about solutions now that there's a sense of momentum, this notion of political will. And it's kind of an interesting time, because in the city, there does feel like people are kind of fed up. And particularly I think on that you really feel on crime and safety, right, you sort of feel that and it probably would have been unthinkable that overtime pay for police officers would pass and the Board of Supervisors in a prior instance of that, but the political will was so strong, because people were just fed up at the state of safety in the city. So for housing, can we get the political will? Is this a unique time where if we came together in a unique way, and really united people, we could actually get something through that maybe it wasn't possible for the past 10 years, do you think we can get there?

Sam Moss  23:04  

I think that there is a world where that could exist. I'm not super

Ben Kaplan  23:08  

doesn't sound super convincing a worldwide can exist in VR world currently are we you know, the Board of

Sam Moss  23:13  

Supervisors of San Francisco combined with Mayor breed and their lack of seemingly any positive or constructive relationship these past couple of years doesn't make me feel warm and fuzzy about being able to come together and pass a real sweeping, you know, citywide housing bill. It's another reason why Michigan housing is so much more focused on state law than local law, because San Francisco really is to quote David Chiu, you know, a knife fight in a phone booth to make anything happen. And, you know, I do believe there's a world where it can happen, we pass affordable housing bonds every five years, that's the whole city coming together, I do think that the adults in the room will speak up. But I just I think that housing especially is so loaded that right now, I believe, state intervention and more state laws. The The thing is, is the state laws, all they do is force the cities to follow their own laws. That's it, like, you know, an apartment can fit on this lot. And it's zoned residential, we get to build it right, the state's not coming in saying like, you have to build housing in this neighborhood. You can't it's just literally saying you guys need to get rid of discretion, and let developers build and follow your own laws. And so I do think that it's unique in that if the state comes in, and as the actual parent, the actual disciplinarian, now the supervisors can just blame the state. Now the mayor can just blame the state. You know, Atherton can just blame the state. And what I'm super surprised about is that they're not just doing that, but also saying like, well, we don't have a choice. We need to go do this because I know for a fact that once the housing is built, and people see that the world didn't fall apart, it's good, especially affordable housing, neighborhoods get safer property values go up when Michigan housing builds a building in an expense, you know, we've built on the west side before we're building right now. And so I think that there is a world where what you said can happen, but I think it's going to take about five years of the state intervention happening and developers building in more single family home, lower density neighborhoods, and those buildings existing and the world not falling apart before San Francisco's rarely going to come together and make its own change. And you know, by that time, it might not be necessary. Who knows.

Ben Kaplan  25:27  

According to Sam Moss, San Francisco's housing problem is a combination of political, bureaucratic and operational issues. But one of the biggest obstacles is discretionary review. That's the process by which any individual or organization with their own narrow interest can slow down any attempt to create more housing. Sam says eliminating that slow down review process, along with taking a more thoughtful approach on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis could do wonders for our city. So what if we built an express checkout lane for creating new city housing? What if just like at your neighborhood supermarket when you have 15 items or less, we also had a housing fast track when you meet all of the city's written development rules? And what if we simplified those rules to speed up the process, add greater transparency and reduce overall cost? Sam says the ultimate solution may come from outside the city at the state level. But why wait with enough collective will and alignment? We could spark great change. We could find sensible solutions and we can make housing so much more affordable and accessible. I'm Ben Kaplan, and remember, we is greater than me. We are San Francisco

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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