By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – It is hard to know across jurisdictions what this all means, but HCD (Housing and Community Development) sent the San Francisco Board of Supervisors a strongly worded letter warning that they may be violating state law with an overly extensive housing permit process.
“HCD is concerned specifically that the Stevenson Project and O’Farrell Project that have been effectively denied without written findings as well as larger trends in the City/ County’s review of housing,” Shannan West, Housing Accountability Unit Chief writes.
They add, “HCD has both the authority and duty to review any action or failure to act by a city, county or city and county that it determines is inconsistent with an adopted housing elect or Government Code section 65583.”
The letter seeks information on two projects, one at Stevenson Street and one at O’Farrell Street in San Francisco where there was “effective denial of these housing projects” and in particular HCD is concerned “that the City/County’s actions are indicative of review processes that may be constraining the provision of housing in San Francisco.”
What is not clear from the letter is what recourse HCD has and whether this is a signal to all communities that HCD and the state are prepared to enforce housing laws much more stringently than they have previously.
In the letter, the HCD notes that the two projects cited in the letter “have sought different types of approval,” but they have a shared circumstance “of having prior Planning Commission approvals of significant housing projects being overturned by the BOS – without any documented findings.
“HCD is concerned that this represents a larger trend in the City/ County,” they write. “California’s housing production does not meet housing need. In the past ten years, housing production has average fewer than 80,000 new homes each year, far fewer than the 180,000 new homes needed.”
They continue, “The legislature has declared that housing availability is a priority of the highest order and that local and state governments have a responsibility to facilitate the development of housing for all economic segments of the community.”
They add, “As a result, the cost of housing has skyrocketed and San Francisco stands among the top two most expensive housing markets in the United States.”
HCD is asking the City and County to provide “written findings to HCD and each project applicant within 30 days, explaining the reasoning for and the evidence behind these decisions.”
They note that while the reasons were discussed in public hearings, “it is unclear what actions these project applicants are required to take to advance these projects.”
In the meantime, they point out, 811 potential housing units are in limbo.
As we have noted in recent columns, the state has taken a number of steps to strengthen their authority and attempt to facilitate new housing.
In the letter they express concern “about the significant delays in the approval of housing generally and in the City/County in particular.”
The HCD points out that the Housing Crisis Act of 2019 “imposed a strict five-hearing rule for housing projects”—hearings, under the law, include formal hearings, workshops, meetings and continuances.
The letter expresses concern that with six or seven meetings, “the City/ County may have violated the ‘5 Hearing Rule’ in the Housing Crisis Act of 2019.”
In addition, “HCD has significant concerns about the City’s compliance with the Housing Accountability Act (HAA).” Under that law, “a local government cannot disapprove or reduce the density of a housing development project that complies with applicable, objective general plan, zoning, and subdivision standards and criteria, including design review standards.”
What seems clear is that San Francisco appears to be in violation of state law on both projects, having denied them.
What is not clear is what HCD can actually do about this. This is very much worth watching because it is one thing to pass stronger state laws, but if the state has no ability to enforce the laws, the law are toothless if not ultimately useless.
The other key question is going to be—how will this affect other communities in the state. After all, San Francisco is the second largest city in Northern California. It is perhaps the highest profile city overall in the region. It is also, as noted, the second worst housing market in the country. It makes sense that HCD would crack down on San Francisco.
The question is then—what about the rest of the state and region? Is this just the start? And from the standpoint of a place like Davis, whose voters turned down a project that had 850 housing units, what will this mean?