The City’s chance to invest in housing our workers

Will the Board of Supervisors vote to unlock $64 million in funding?

Fernando Martí, Kim Tavaglione and Kung Feng

Special to The Examiner: November 14, 2021

There was a time when workers in San Francisco, teachers, nurses, craftsmen, hotel and restaurant workers, nonprofit service providers — the folks who built, run and proudly serve this city — could afford a stable, middle-class life for themselves in The City.

That’s no longer the case.

The majority of the housing built in San Francisco is unaffordable to most workers. The October 2021 report “Housing our Workers,” authored by the Council of Community Housing Organizations, the San Francisco Labor Council and Jobs with Justice, found that of 50,000 union workforce members surveyed only 7% could afford market rate rents in The City.

Meanwhile, San Francisco already has far surpassed the amount of new market rate housing development required by the goals of its 2014-2022 General Plan Housing Element, while building only one-third of the needed low-income and middle-income affordable housing. That imbalance and resulting housing instability has become more severe with the impact of COVID and its economic fallout.

On Wednesday, Nov. 17, the Board of Supervisors has an opportunity to make a significant difference by passing a $64 million emergency budget supplemental legislation to kickstart affordable housing throughout The City.

The severe lack of affordable housing is impacting workers in profound ways. Over 40% of San Francisco workers don’t live in The City. We’re seeing workers forced into mega commutes that are unsustainable for themselves, their families and our planet. As the private “housing market” increasingly fails a widening range of working families, the investment in affordable housing must expand. Workforce housing is affordable and environmental housing.

As John Doherty of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 6 said in a press release, “It used to be that a blue-collar worker in San Francisco was pretty much guaranteed a middle-class life. With the seemingly ever-escalating cost of housing, that’s no longer the case, and that’s not right. Too many of our members, and indeed all working-class people, are struggling to make rent and face brutal commutes, same as our brothers and sisters in lower-wage sectors. We need to provide affordable housing that matches all worker needs, and solidarity means that won’t come at the expense of low-income workers.”

That solidarity is uniting the labor community in the struggle to house all workers.

Noticeably absent from many housing policy discussions are the voices of workers: A person who has to work three jobs, in warehousing, food service, and home health care to keep a roof over his head. An educator who faces the tough decision to move into her RV. A certified nurse’s assistant forced to commute from Sacramento.

The City needs to protect workers and their families from displacement, stabilize the naturally affordable housing stock that has been the foundation for The City’s working-class neighborhoods and incentivize building more low-income and middle-income housing that regular people can afford. It is a solutions set we refer to as “the three Ps” — protect, preserve, produce.

We have housing strategies as diverse and creative as San Francisco itself. Yet The City needs to ensure a range of housing opportunities that workers want, need and deserve, including co-ops, educator housing and housing preservation tools like the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act.

The solutions are clear. The main thing stopping us is a lack of public funding investments. Right now, a total of 109 apartment buildings are on the market in San Francisco, comprising more than 1,065 units, a rare opportunity to stabilize working-class communities and quickly add at-risk units to our affordable housing stock.

At Wednesday’s Nov. 17 Board of Supervisors Budget Committee, lawmakers will vote on an emergency budget supplemental to unlock $64 million in funding from the November 2020 Proposition I transfer tax revenues, with a priority to acquire as many of those at-risk buildings as possible across The City’s neighborhoods. That could result in 300 or more affordable homes citywide, and even greater if this money leverages new state funding deployed for housing preservation projects this coming year.

We have an immediate and tangible opportunity for San Francisco to demonstrate its commitment to housing our workers. A housing affordability crisis of this magnitude and impact requires substantial and serious policy interventions. We expect our policymakers and city leaders to react appropriately.

We promise this: the labor community will fight alongside their affordable housing advocacy partners to plan for and secure housing for all the workers of San Francisco.

Fernando Martí is co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations. Kim Tavaglione is executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council. Kung Feng is executive director of Jobs with Justice San Francisco.