From Urban Renewal and Displacement to Economic Inclusion: San Francisco Affordable Housing Policy, 1978-2012

By Rosen, Marcia; Sullivan, Wendy | Poverty & Race, November/December 2012 | Go to article overview

From Urban Renewal and Displacement to Economic Inclusion: San Francisco Affordable Housing Policy, 1978-2012


Rosen, Marcia, Sullivan, Wendy, Poverty & Race


Once notorious for urban renewal that diminished housing affordability and displaced residents, the City of San Francisco is now renowned nationally for its best practices in housing and community development. How did this "hot market" city with limited land for development, extremely low rental vacancy rates and high demand for housing move from archaic urban renewal practices to thoughtful policies designed to preserve and enhance housing opportunities for low -income families, prevent displacement of lowincome families, and create inclusive communities?

The answer is not simple. In a city that consistently places amongst the highest in the nation for its housing costs and is largely built out, production and preservation of homes affordable to its residents is an ongoing challenge. The successful evolution of affordable housing programs in San Francisco cannot be understood by simply looking at the local codes and ordinances, policies, development requirements and restrictions separately; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Moveover, the overall success of the housing system and policies employed is the result of an interaction of four key factors: dedicated community advocacy and strong coalitions; development of and access to substantial funding sources; a holistic vision of building "not just housing, but communities"; and constantly evolving housing programs that meet new challenges and opportunities. The interaction of these factors has allowed the City to take advantage of everchanging markets and political forces to maintain and develop strong local communities. This article describes the development and interaction of each of these four key components of housing program and policy development since the late 1960s and how they have resulted in the current dynamic affordable housing system in San Francisco.

San Francisco's Affordable Housing Movement and Community Vision

San Francisco's affordable housing and community development policies largely evolved during the late 1960s through the present day, spanning periods of rapid economic and demographic change, wide-scale commercial development, dramatic changes in land use, and exploding housing costs, which continue to threaten displacement of low-income residents. Prior to 1968, San Francisco's affordable housing stock was limited to public housing and other federally-funded housing that was developed as part of the City's urban renewal program. While mere was private market-rate housing affordable to low-income families, thousands of such units had been lost to urban renewal. No state or local funding sources were available for housing rehabilitation or development, and no community-based infrastructure existed to undertake this work.

Geographic limitations further exacerbated the housing problem. San Francisco has severely constrained development potential: It has limited land capacity; is roughly 47 square miles on the tip of a peninsula; and has no ability to expand through Bay infill or annexation. It is "built out," with almost all its available land developed. Consequently, as stated by Calvin Welch, San Francisco housing activist, lecturer in development politics, and former Co-Director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, "development in the City is a zero sum game, with winners and losers. [With minor exceptions], new development in San Francisco, residential or commercial, means the demolition and displacement of what was there. " With each new proposed development in San Francisco being a battle between competing land uses, a strong community movement was needed to protect low-income residents from displacement and enhance neighborhoods as urban renewal, private development and market interests sought to transform the city.

Extensive changes in the economic base and escalating housing prices in the city during the 1970s spurred formation of neighborhood and tenant organizations, bringing resident housing needs to the City's attention.

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From Urban Renewal and Displacement to Economic Inclusion: San Francisco Affordable Housing Policy, 1978-2012
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