South San Francisco is an older city, and I’m not talking about the fact it recently celebrated its 107th anniversary.
What I mean is that it is a community where the median age of a resident has risen from 26.8 in 1970 to 38.1 in 2010 as home-owning adults aged in place and younger people moved away to start families in more-affordable locales. In fact, South San Francisco has almost 3,500 fewer school-aged kids than it did when I was born, despite the city’s population increasing by more than 20,000 in that time (Note, I’m talking the physical existence of children, not just enrollment in our public schools). Families increasingly cannot afford to stay in this city.
That’s why meaningful housing construction, like the proposals for homes on the former San Francisco Public Utilities Commission location just south of the South San Francisco BART station, are important for South City’s future.
I recently completed a seven-year stint as a commissioner on the South San Francisco Public Housing Authority. I’ve seen the damage done to families by a housing supply that is far short of demand: runaway rents, soaring housing costs and an influx of money that is both directly and indirectly leading to displacement of some of our most vulnerable. The waiting list for our public housing is so long that the authority won’t even quote wait times. The waiting list for a Section 8 voucher is long as well, and good luck finding a landlord that will accept one.
We have a profound need to increase housing supply. I think many people in South City agree on that. However, some people say: “I support more housing, but this is not the right place.” To me, this location is the absolute best place to build housing on the Peninsula: hundreds of units, up to 160 of them affordable, literally right next to a BART station and a heavily used bicycle/pedestrian path, right next to the Peninsula’s longest street and within blocks of schools and grocery stores. It will be adjacent to what will soon be the newest, most advanced-technology library in San Mateo County. This is the place.
There’s reasonable discussion to be had as to how tall these buildings need to be. I’m guessing we initially had proposals of up to 15 stories because developers realize they will likely be trimmed down to seven (which is how tall the tallest new proposals appear to be). They didn’t ask for seven, because then it would be trimmed down to four. Personally, I think we need far more publicly subsidized housing — not just below-market-rate housing. But anything a project in this location can do to help our supply is appreciated.
I’ve heard or read many of my neighbors say something to the effect of: “No one asked for this.” Well … (raises hand) … I’m asking for this.
• I’m asking for this because I don’t want wetlands and farms in the Central Valley turned into blacktop.
• I’m asking for this because I do not want any more homes on San Bruno Mountain. Or on landfill in the Bay.
• I’m asking for this because helping people get homes, or at least provide homes to newcomers so those already here are less likely to be displaced, is the right thing to do.
The single-most meaningful challenge for our younger generations will be climate change. Building high-density infill housing near transit is an impactful way to meet our state’s ambitious climate goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent of their 1990 levels. The days of the super-commute have to end. And, I would suggest, if you want to ensure people in such buildings actually take mass transit, reduce or eliminate parking minimums for such projects.
I’ve read residents online complaining that “The Hillsboroughs of the world aren’t building their share of housing, so why should we?” To me, that’s like asking why I have to sort my recycling from the trash if my neighbors don’t. We should make sure there’s more housing, even if some of our neighbors don’t because we’re more ethical than them. We’re more environmentally conscious than them.
And finally, the leadership of this city is more responsible for the mess than them. The predecessors of the current City Council promoted policies that created thousands more jobs than housing units between 2000 and 2010. And you know what? Downtown South San Francisco is more active, our streets are a little cleaner and extra policing has made our gang problem less acute. But — and I’m not saying this is unique to South City by any means — we have fallen behind on our responsibilities to keep housing supply and demand balanced.
So I am asking the city to build this. The more units, the better. Please.
John Baker is a former chair of the South San Francisco Public Housing Authority and current trustee for the South San Francisco Unified School District. This essay is his own opinion as an individual and not necessarily representative of any organization of which he is a part.