Props D and E (2022-10)

2022-10-30 08:01:51 UTC

If you aren’t a San Francisco voter, this post is going to be academic to you.

I’ve filled out my entire ballot by this point, except for two of the local propositions, on which I’ve been dithering: Prop D and Prop E.

The two are set against each other, and in fact one is a modification of the other. They’re similar enough that it’s possible to diff them, although doing that didn’t clarify as much as I’d hoped it would.

Part of the problem for me is that I know precious little about housing policy. I am neither a developer employee nor a tenant advocate. I’m just another San Francisco voter trying to make sense of this mess.

The resources I’ve been drawing upon are:

I really wish I had something like a Prop E version of SPUR’s article: a detailed, policy-wonk explanation of why E is better and will get housing built without screwing the low end of the market. Sadly, I have not found any such thing. The League’s argument is the best I’ve got on the Prop E side.

What I have is the following overall sense, and enough awareness of my own housing-policy ignorance to warn you that half of this might be wrong:

The shared goal of these propositions is to cut red tape. Housing development is often held up on a number of processes, including CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review and discretionary review by the Board of Supervisors.

The upside of these processes is that they’re used to drag developers kicking and screaming into building affordable housing so that the low end of the market—people who can’t afford market-rate housing—don’t get left out and priced out.

The downside of these processes is that the developers, as you might have gathered, don’t want to build affordable housing for people who can’t pay market rate, so they keep on dragging their feet, and if the process goes on long enough, sometimes they’ll sell out and profit off the appreciation of the land value rather than actually build any housing, setting everything back at square one.

(That downside is, from what I can tell, what YIMBYs refer to when they label Supervisors who vote down unaffordable housing projects as “anti-housing”. If you aren’t letting developers build whatever they want so it can trickle down, you must not want any housing to exist at all.)

What Props D and E have in common is, they both cut through some of that red tape to get affordable housing projects from plans on paper to shovels in ground faster. (D calls it “streamlining”; E calls it “acceleration”. I have no idea what that change was meant to signify.)

There we start to get into the differences.

Prop D cuts through more red tape than E does. In particular, E (the Board of Supervisors’ prop) leaves the Board’s discretionary review power intact. That then means, according to SPUR’s comparison, that these projects are subject to CEQA review.

It does seem to me that holding dense, multi-family housing up on CEQA review makes no fucking sense. SPUR notes that CEQA applies to housing in order to help curb sprawl, which does make sense, but dense urban housing getting caught in that seems like a bug worth fixing. The environmental impact is hopefully some people will get to live closer to where they work and take transit instead of highways. I consider taking CEQA review out of the way of building housing in cities to be a desirable goal.

Moreover, both props apply only to affordable housing projects (but not all the same ones; I’ll address that in a moment). Why should Prop E preserve discretionary review and thus CEQA review on 100% Affordable Housing Projects? What’s to review? It should be a rubber stamp.

So the trade-off Prop E makes is that it leaves some pretty big knots of red tape still in place.

Prop D makes a different trade-off, which has become one of the principal arguments against it (it certainly features prominently in the League’s analysis): Prop D greatly expands the set of “affordable housing” that it would apply to, well beyond housing affordable to the low end of the market.

(The Voter Information Pamphlet’s summary of Prop D and summary of Prop E include breakdowns of what “affordable housing” projects they would “streamline”/“accelerate”.)

SPUR, one of the sponsors of the measure, is explicit about this as a goal in their comparison:

Prop. D would expand the streamlining to include moderate and middle-income households. A 100% affordable project that provides an average affordability level of 120% of the Area Median Income (AMI) would be eligible for streamlining, compared to 80% AMI Income under state law. Under Prop. D, this would allow 100% affordable housing projects to also include some middle-income units for households making up to 140% of AMI.

So the trade-off Prop D makes is that developers get to build “affordable housing” for a more profitable segment of the market, but that might mean people at the low end get screwed.

In summary:

  • Prop D cuts through more red tape, but has what might be an overly generous definition of “affordable housing”.
  • Prop E leaves Supervisorial power to hold up housing projects intact, but uses the existing, stricter definition of “100% affordable housing”.

Ultimately, what I want is something of a mix of the two. I want Prop E’s explicit effort to promote housing for the low end of the market that developers are eager to make Somebody Else’s Problem, but without Supervisorial review because why do you need it on projects that are already “100% affordable” by definition.

But that isn’t on the ballot, so I’m left with these choices:

  • Vote for Prop D and hope the trickle-down fallacy doesn’t screw poorer residents too hard.
  • Vote for Prop E and hope the developer lobby’s veiled threats that this will stop housing production don’t come to pass.
  • Vote for both of them, if I consider either one to be an improvement over the status quo. The perfect is the enemy of the good, so maybe it’s better to just pass one of them now. (If both pass, whichever one gets more votes wins.)
  • Vote against both of them, and hold out for my ideal proposition, which will definitely land on some future ballot through no action on my part.

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