Publisher’s View: Housing

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A more than 20 percent increase in San Francisco’s property tax roll, combined with a state program, the Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund, which shifts a portion of “excess” local property taxes to public school systems in each California county, has showered $415 million of unexpected revenues on the City.  The windfall is indicative of San Francisco’s high property values and low student population; a rich metropolis, with few kids.

The municipal Charter requires that roughly $234 million of the funds be dedicated to budget reserves and to such uses as transportation, public schools, libraries, children and family programming, and tree maintenance.  The rest, some $181 million, can be directed as determined by the Mayor and Board of Supervisors.

Mayor London Breed and the supervisors appear to agree that a significant chunk of the monies should be dedicated to affordable housing and homelessness mitigation programs.  A portion – $5 million to $10 million – should also be deployed to pilot innovative demonstration projects that identify new, effective, ways to house people.  Some ideas to consider:

Provide incentives to double-up.  Single-room occupancy units could be outfitted with bunk beds and other space-saving furniture, with those willing to participate getting extra spending money, transportation vouchers, or the like.  Thing to evaluate:  cost-savings, mental health, how any pocket change is spent.

Leverage rent control for low-income families.  A significant portion of rent-controlled apartments are occupied by households that aren’t poor; they’ve just stayed in the same place for a long time, even as their income has increased.  These folks could be offered a cash-out, with the property owner required to house a needy family under a long-term below-market lease.  Things to evaluate:  how do program costs compare with the alternative of developing new housing.

Require public agencies to defend their hoarding of excess space, or it’s developed into housing.  The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Public Utilities Commission and Unified School District, among others, are hanging on to empty lots and derelict structures that could be developed into affordable housing or another beneficial uses.  Although Proposition K, passed in 2015, encouraged agencies to develop affordable housing on surplus land, they’ve been slow to implement it.  The burden of proof should be placed on the government, starting with a District 10 pilot, where extra land is automatically put to a beneficial use within a certain time period, as informed by a transparent stakeholder process, unless a citizen commission is convinced to keep it vacant and in the agency’s hands.  Things to evaluate:  how much land is actually repurposed, to what uses.

Place a recreational vehicle encampment or temporary housing at Candlestick or Hunters Point.   There’s plenty of land in the area; it should be used to help solve problems.  Things to evaluate:  is this a sustainable strategy?

Develop family housing at schools.  Buena Vista Horace Mann is already providing shelter to students and their families.  This concept could be made permanent, by building housing on top of existing campuses, or siting facilities that offer recreational activities and homes on asphalt playgrounds.  One or two District 10 public schools could be identified to examine this model.  For example, New School of San Francisco, along with San Francisco International High School, occupies a sprawling campus on De Haro Street, which could serve as the charter elementary school’s permanent site with space for family and teacher accommodations. Things to evaluate:  is the strategy cost-effective, safe, and emotionally sound?

Perhaps most importantly, the City and County should implement a comprehensive outcome-based budgeting system. The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing is finally establishing data collection and tracking mechanisms to help assess the well-being of its clients.  This effort should be extended to create a results-oriented budget tracking and evaluation strategy, to enable policy-makers to assess how well different approaches work, where monies need to be targeted, and whether taxpayer funds are being used wisely.  The current largely ad hoc public expenditure scheme needs to be replaced with an information-rich, transparent, goals-oriented, decision-making process.