The San Francisco Planning Commission Does Not Reflect City Demographics

More commissioners own second homes than rent.
By Steven Buss | Jul 27, 2018 |
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By Steven Buss | Jul 27, 2018 |
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The San Francisco Planning Commission passes judgement on almost every single land use decision in the city, from redeveloping a laundromat into 75 apartments, to adding a few windows to your house, or even just replacing the trim around your exterior windows (good luck, they’re probably “historic”!). They hear your case and decide what you can do with your own home or business. There’s no accountability (they’re appointed, not elected), they don’t mirror the demographics of the city (they skew older and whiter, and are not renters), and they often take a reactionary conservative approach which opposes change.

Even when your project is 100% code compliant, and the planning departmentrecommends approving a project, the Planning Commission will often object, citing “neighborhood character.” Maybe your roof is a foot taller than your neighbor, maybe they think your windows are too big, or maybe they have heartburn from lunch that day and they’re feeling particularly disagreeable.

A force so powerful it can dictate how we live much of our lives ought to have, at a minimum, high standards for fair representation. But, as we see time and time again with appointed positions, rather than give more representation to people of color and low income renters we have given nearly all of the power to the privileged and wealthy.

Unequal representation

San Francisco is primarily a city of renters — 65% of us to be exact [1]. Yet there is only a single renter on the seven member Planning Commission. In fact, there are more Commissioners who own second homes than Commissioners who rent. While renters are worrying about making rent or getting evicted, the Planning Commission is almost entirely housing secure.

Though renters compose 65% of the City, they are only 14% of the Planning Commission

Is it any wonder, then, that we have a housing shortage which props up the price of the limited supply of homes, while preventing any meaningful growth in the number of apartments?

According to the San Francisco Housing Needs & Trends report, “Five neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city hold 60% of all of the city’s affordable units, including Tenderloin (18%), South of Market (12%), Western Addition (11%), Bayview Hunters Point (11%), and Mission (8%).” [2] Not a single Planning Commissioner lives in any of those neighborhoods. In fact, the neighborhoods they live in have almost no affordable housing, and since 2008 have actually lost 1307 units of affordable housing, while the eastern neighborhoods have produced 3601 units.[7]

One could be forgiven for thinking the Commissioners viewed the Eastern neighborhoods as a containment zone for low income housing and apartments. Just look at where the Commissioners live vs where it is legal to build apartments:

Those blue dots are first homes, the grey dots are second homes, green dots are renters, and yellow is other/living with family. The red areas allow no more than a duplex, the orange areas no more than a four-plex, while the green areas allow larger apartment buildings. The green areas contain over 60% of San Franciscans but only one of the Planning Commissioners.

Inequity

San Francisco is a city that claims to put equality, equity, and restorative justice first. We even have a requirement in the city charter that commissions and other appointed positions “be broadly representative of the communities of interest, neighborhoods, and the diversity in ethnicity, race, age, and sexual orientation, and types of disabilities of the City and County and have representation of both sexes.” [3]

Yet, in a city that is only 40% white [4], the Planning Commission is 57% white. Why did Supervisor Malia Cohen say she will “enthusiastically reappoint”[6] Kathrin Moore and Dennis Richards, who are both wealthy white homeowners (and the two oldest Commissioners, to boot), when the Planning Commission has never in its history been majority people of color or renters?

When only 14% of the Planning Commission is Asian in a city that is 33% Asian[4], why not nominate another Asian American Commissioner? Why is there just a single African American Commissioner, when true restorative justice demands we right the wrongs of our racist housing laws and give more power to African Americans, a group which has borne most of the worst planning decisions in the history of San Francisco.

The Planning Commission skews white, further entrenching the racist history of zoning.

In a city where young people have to choose between having a kid or staying put, why do we only have one Millennial Commissioner? We all know the trope about young people leaving San Francisco in order to have a family; it’s time we have more representation to fight for policies that make it affordable for us.

The Planning Commission under-represents all age groups outside of 45–55 years old. [5]

Shockingly, in no demographic category is the Planning Commission representative of San Francisco.

Fair representation

If San Francisco truly wants to live up to its values, we need a Planning Commission that reflects the diversity of our city. We must demand more renters, more low-income people, and more people of color on the Planning Commission. Call and email Supervisor Cohen and Mayor Breed and demand that they appoint more diverse people to the Planning Commission.

You can reach Supervisor Cohen at:
(415) 554–7670
Malia.Cohen@sfgov.org

And Mayor Breed at:
(415) 554–6141
MayorLondonBreed@sfgov.org

Thank you to Morgan, Jane, Mike, Keith, and Laura for your thoughts, suggestions, and edits.

Note: an earlier version of this story mistakenly claimed Commissioner Melgar is a homeowner; in fact she lives with family. Graphs & data have been updated. In addition, she grew up in the Mission, so the sentence about needing representation from the Mission was removed.

[This article was originally published on Buss' Medium account.]

Sources

1. “A significant majority of San Francisco’s households (65%) rent their place of residence; a much higher share than the region overall (45%). The majority of homeowners earn more than 120% of AMI while the majority of renters earn less than 120% of AMI.” (San Franciso Housing Needs & Trends Report, page 4)

2. Five neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city hold 60% of all of the city’s affordable units, including Tenderloin (18%), South of Market (12%), Western Addition (11%), Bayview Hunters Point (11%), and Mission (8%). (San Franciso Housing Needs & Trends Report, page 18)

3. (a) Unless otherwise provided in this Charter, the composition of each appointive board, commission or advisory body of any kind established by this Charter or legislative act of the United States of America, the State of California or the Board of Supervisors shall: 1. Be broadly representative of the communities of interest, neighborhoods, and the diversity in ethnicity, race, age, and sexual orientation, and types of disabilities of the City and County and have representation of both sexes
SF Municipal Code Section 4.101

4.

41.2% non-Latino White
33.5% Asian
15.3% Latino
5.1% Black/AA
ACS DEMOGRAPHIC AND HOUSING ESTIMATES
2012–2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates
https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=CF

5.

21.3% Under 25
22.7% 25–35
16.1% 35–45
13.6% 45–55
12% 55–65
14.4% 65+
ACS DEMOGRAPHIC AND HOUSING ESTIMATES
2012–2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates
https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=CF

6. https://twitter.com/MLNow/status/1012419344385523712

7. Table 1B, page 5, http://default.sfplanning.org/publications_reports/20180510_HousingBalance6_BoS.pdf

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