By Chris Reed

A weekend story about the gross failure of affordable housing policies in San Francisco contained plenty of public frustration and official consternation. But it also is one more example of the very shallow way this issue is almost always covered by California journalists, which means they are part of the problem. Here are the story’s key details:

When real estate developer Forest City began construction on a new apartment complex at 2175 Market St., it announced that it would build more affordable units than required by the city — 20 percent instead of 12.

The response was overwhelming. Forest City put a booth in the lobby of the building — chosen because it is centrally located, near public transit and well-recognized — and handed out more than 6,800 applications.

For 18 apartments.

Despite the odds, 2,595 individuals and families completed and returned the eight-page application. Their names were put in a lottery to draw 400 finalists.

Four hundred names for 18 apartments, 11 of them one-bedrooms.

CA’s piecemeal approach to affordable housing can’t work

This article bridles with barely disguised journalistic anger over the failure of local and state government to deal with affordable housing concerns.

Doug Shoemaker, president of the California branch of Mercy Housing, an affordable housing nonprofit, says this is the worst market he’s ever seen. Mercy just opened a 100-until affordable housing building for families at Fourth and Channel Streets. There were 2,995 applications.

“The demand is just intense,” he said. “It was a horrifying reminder of just how hard it is. I’ve been in this field for 20 years and for people looking for apartments this is the most depressing market I have ever seen. It is painful to watch any of it, but what horrifies us most is the homeless families.”

Sara Osaba, a single parent, can’t get over the irony. A former UC Berkeley student, she moved back to San Francisco from Vermont, where she was working for nonprofits, helping low-income immigrants.

“I’ve worked 30 years helping immigrant families find housing,” she said. “Now I’m one of those families. I’ve gone from being a contributing member of society to being essentially homeless.”

State emphasizes process, not results

But any anger should extend to California’s government beat reporters for the complete absence of context in their coverage of this issue. The starting point for understanding why the state is so bad on this big issue is a 2003 Public Policy Institute of California report. I wrote about it last year when analyzing a San Diego affordable housing policy fight with the same dumb dynamics as San Francisco’s:

The study cited profound flaws in the state’s primary affordable-housing law. It forces cities to plan for needs that are much more appropriately addressed on a regional level. It emphasizes process — laborious long-term planning — over results — more housing units.

The PPIC analysis identified high-cost states with similarities to California that had significantly more success with affordable housing. In New Jersey, the “builder’s remedy approach” gives developers concessions in return for helping a community meet its affordable-housing obligations. Giving developers a profit motive has yielded “far more housing units” than previous policies. California’s version of this approach is much more constrained.

In Massachusetts, the state radically simplified the approval process for residential projects in which at least one-quarter of the units had “long-term affordability restrictions.” To limit NIMBYism, developers can appeal permits rejected at the local level to a state board.

We say heed the PPIC instead of embracing a failed status quo. It’s foolish for the city to try to address a problem that needs a regional approach and a much smarter conceptual framework. Instead of a massive increase in the “linkage fee,” the City Council should pass a resolution imploring the governor and the Legislature to fix state law — one so flawed that it gets in the way of fixing the problem it is supposed to resolve.

Wouldn’t it be nice if sabermetrics of a sort came to public policy reporting, complete with analytics examining what the effects of well-meaning laws actually were? If this did happen, the idiocy of state affordable housing policies would be obvious and maybe then they would be changed.

Instead, in California, we have affordable housing dealt with in the worst possible way — by individual local governments that obsess with process, instead of with a coordinated, sophisticated state-run program, as seen in New Jersey and Massachusetts, that emphasize results.

Do reporters ever mention this? Nope. They’d rather be indignant than get to the bottom of why they’re indignant.

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Originally posted at CalWatchdog.