John Baker

John Baker

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.

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(10) comments

kevinburke

Great post, John! We need more housing in South San Francisco so the commuters at Oyster Point don't drive up rents in other towns.

Maxmaxmax

This is a wonderful piece thank you, John. Decisions made in South San Francisco effect the whole region. The thousands of jobs in South SF and people commuting to them from other jurisdictions are evidence of that. if South San Franciscans didn't want to urbanize with density they should have fought just as hard to block the jobs(not that i'm opposed to job creation). An urbanized South San Francisco will be a more environmentally friendly South SF, with less traffic and better quality of life. It is time to embrace change, with more housing on both sides of 101. It's the right thing to do.

cicerone

I completely agree with John on addressing the housing crisis. I have small children and I want them to eventually live near me. But I disagree on the details. In particular, I think even 7 stories is too tall for our community.

We can have dense housing (in select areas like this site) and lively streets without towers. Look at Paris or many neighborhoods in San Francisco for that matter. The 2-5 story range is my ideal goldilocks range. The key is narrowing the streets and modifying rules about setbacks, parking requirements, etc.

vincent wei

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR.............More Housing Would Mean More Californians..... If California had added 210,000 new housing units each year over the past three decades (as opposed to 120,000), California’s population would be much greater than it is today. We estimate that around 7 million additional people would be living in California........ In some areas, particularly the Bay Area, population increases would be dramatic. For example, San Francisco’s population would be more than TWICE as large (1.7 million people versus around 800,000).

"Build it and they will come..."....and in fact, there are negative consequences.

If the state had done all that, California's housing prices still would have continued to grow and would still be higher than the rest of the country's now..... If California had done all that, the report says, the 2010 state median housing price would have been a solid 80 percent higher than the US median, instead of 200 percent higher, which is what actually happened.

http://www.lao.ca.gov/reports/2015/finance/housing-costs/housing-costs.aspx

Cliffmoon

Great piece, and I whole heartedly agree that the best place for density is right next to high capacity public transit like BART and Caltrain. To the other commenters calling for more local controls and giving bay area cities the ability to opt out of their obligation to allow that housing be built: there's no getting around the fact that we live in a major metropolitan area. Utilizing the local democratic process to restrict growth of housing has only backfired over the last several decades and left us with more displacement, more traffic, and a lower quality of life. Jobs and growth are good problems to have, and by situating housing next to transit and job centers we can mitigate many of the drawbacks of that growth. However, if we keep going down the same path of blocking home building we'll only see more people commuting in from the central valley and Gilroy.

Hikertom

Cities should be required to provide one unit of housing for every job that is created. The worst traffic congestion isn't caused by high density housing. It is caused by people forced to commute long distances on clogged freeways because there isn't enough housing close to public transportation and to where they work. If cities don't want their populations to grow then they shouldn't allow office buildings to be built.

Leora Tanjuatco

Thank you for this eloquent piece, John. People tend to forget that "units" are actually bedrooms, and a stable home can permanently improve the lives of an entire family. Please keep up the good fight!

BebekkaC

South San Francisco is unique because it is small town, that community feeling so lost in so many cities along the Peninsula and my own birthplace, San Francisco.

I agree, high density housing should be next to a BART station, so this land that the City is telling developers to build high density (albeit was decided in the 2011 General Plan far longer ago than what is facing us now, congestion, traffic and loss of quality of life that made SSF distinct - was planned seven years ago) It is time to reevaluate the traffic by an independent traffic study, not one led by the city that sends out surveys with focused answers to get their agenda accomplished.

The big giant, Genentech, and the 43 other biotech firms on the East side, prime real estate with vast amounts of opportunity for housing, twice have been denied residential housing because Genetech says "NIMBY" although the million dollar Bayfront views would be so desirable to any home buyer.

So, this development that Mr. Baker is touting should be built, I agree, on the east side where there is so much land, not in an overly-congested area as El Camino/Chestnut/Westborough and Hillside in SSF. It's time to look at who the City is representing, and reevaluate where this housing should be built.

The new Community Civic Campus is going to be two stories tall, that's it, folks, and to have 8 - 15 stories with up to 847 new units times how many people times how many vehicles is beyond a nightmare.

The need for housing, as Mr. Baker comments, is based on the explosion of the economy starting with Silicon Valley, and now SF where builders and developers have ruined the vibe of San Francisco for which so many newcomers moved there...and is unrecognizable to all who once loved that city.

We don't want and will not be another San Francisco that lost its way and caters only to the wealthy newcomers. Surely, these $800,000 on up condos cannot be for the SSF residents whose median income is $78,000 - $85,000 a year.

Christopher Conway

I think it is a decision the people of South San Francisco should make. It is there town and it would most affect their lives. It is that simple, we live in a democracy and if you have a concern, bring it to a vote. Outside influence in local decision making is authoritative and unwelcome. Not making a comment on this specific project but I believe the good people of SSF can make the best decisions for their city.

BebekkaC

South San Francisco is unique because it is small town, that community feeling so lost in so many cities along the Peninsula and my own birthplace, San Francisco.

I agree, high density housing should be next to a BART station, so this land that the City is telling developers to build high density (albeit was decided in the 2011 General Plan far longer ago than what is facing us now, congestion, traffic and loss of quality of life that made SSF distinct - was planned seven years ago) It is time to reevaluate the traffic by an independent traffic study, not one led by the city that sends out surveys with focused answers to get their agenda accomplished.

The big giant, Genentech, and the 43 other biotech firms on the East side, prime real estate with vast amounts of opportunity for housing, twice have been denied residential housing because Genetech says "NIMBY" although the million dollar Bayfront views would be so desirable to any home buyer.

So, this development that Mr. Baker is touting should be built, I agree, on the east side where there is so much land, not in an overly-congested area as El Camino/Chestnut/Westborough and Hillside in SSF. It's time to look at who the City is representing, and reevaluate where this housing should be built.

The new Community Civic Campus is going to be two stories tall, that's it, folks, and to have 8 - 15 stories with up to 847 new units times how many people times how many vehicles is beyond a nightmare.

The need for housing, as Mr. Baker comments, is based on the explosion of the economy starting with Silicon Valley, and now SF where builders and developers have ruined the vibe of San Francisco for which so many newcomers moved there...and is unrecognizable to all who once loved that city.

We don't want and will not be another San Francisco that lost its way and caters only to the wealthy newcomers. Surely, these $800,000 on up condos cannot be for the SSF residents whose median income is $78,000 - $85,000 a year.

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