Updated: Apr 8, 2020
Luxury Development and other projects with equity concerns are scheduled to go forward beginning April 9th amidst COVID-19 crisis despite significant community concerns of the lack of accessibility for vulnerable communities to participate.
Local government in the age of the Coronavirus has gone remote, with weighty public decisions going forward via webinar and conference call, for those privileged enough to participate. This movement to online is unavoidable to some extent, as public health measures and financial relief proposals caused by the virus must be put into place before the pandemic is under control. Extreme situations call for extreme measures, and essential business must be done so the government can at least attempt to help the people it serves.
But San Francisco’s Planning Commission recently announced that the residential and commercial development scarring San Francisco’s eastern neighborhoods before the virus struck is considered “essential business” that will continue in the time of Coronavirus.
Despite the public health crisis, the Commission has announced plans to continue greenlighting luxury residential projects and commercial development remotely beginning on April 9th. Speaking with Mission community advocates, they believe this decision states two things:
That the ongoing gentrification of San Francisco’s eastern neighborhoods is essential business that cannot be postponed in the face of a pandemic that requires a mobilization of resources and societal attention unparalleled in recent history.
That the inability of local residents who are besieged by illness, rampant unemployment, and disastrous economic failure for small businesses and self-employed workers, to robustly and meaningfully participate in decisions that will impact their neighborhood for long after this virus is contained, just isn’t important.
Maria Jandres, a Mission District small business owner and graduate of City College of SF, disagrees. She says it is close to her heart that community members are at the table for conversations about neighborhood development in the Mission, but it is not so easy right now. She is working through a lot of fear about loss of income and the safety of her family. She says it is hard to concentrate and focus in the face of such worries, to care for her young child, and to dominate limited technical resources in the house for lengthy public meetings when other family members need to use them.
To take one example; In 2015 the building at the corner of 22nd and Mission that used to contain the Mission Market burned down in a massive, traumatic and lethal fire. Despite earlier indications that the owner was considering donating the land for the provision of affordable housing to the neighborhood, the owner has recently announced plans for a 148-unit market rate housing project on the site. The preliminary project assessment for this new market rate housing development is going forward as a “virtual discussion” in the middle of a pandemic, with the blessing of the San Francisco Planning Commission.
Many believe this is unfair to neighborhood residents - and most unfair to vulnerable residents who are being disproportionately impacted by the crisis - and will be disproportionately harmed by the impacts of this luxury project. A lot of hard-working residents are scrambling to replace lost income, under quarantine or isolation to care for or protect vulnerable family members, considering closing long-held family businesses or solo practices or working long hours as “emergency employees” at essential businesses. Efforts to band together to make demands for community benefits or equity adjustments to the project are greatly handicapped by the pandemic and are probably almost impossible to craft without face to face neighborhood organizing.
The 2018 report from San Francisco’s Planning Department shows that the City met 96% of its goal for developing market-rate housing. Where the City fell painfully short was developing affordable residential units for low-income populations. New market-rate units are not an emergency. So why can’t a market-rate project assessment wait until a global health crisis is somewhat mitigated and meaningful participation of our most vulnerable can occur in the planning process?
With 1.9 million claims for unemployment insurance filed in California filed in little more than three weeks, we are fast approaching the 2.2 million claims processed during the entire 2008 Great Recession. To date, there are 17,165 confirmed Coronavirus cases and 430 total deaths in the state, and in one day of impromptu testing in Hayward, a Bay Area working class community, 25% of people tested emerged with positive results for COVID-19.
The Economic Policy Institute concluded that Black and Latinx community members are the least able to work at home, reporting that only 16.2% of Latinx workers were likely to be able to telecommute and participate in Zoom public meetings. The public health crisis only exacerbates long standing racial divides that show that barely half of very low income people have Internet at home, and Latinx families, who have historically resided in the Mission District have significantly lower rates of in-home broadband access, with 66% connected and 34% not connected.
While Mission community advocates express they understand that certain business should still occur at City Hall - the passing of protective tenants legislation and small stopgap business funding measures, for example. Community advocates opine that if the Planning Commission feels the need to operate, it should be focused solely on serving those most vulnerable during this crisis - advancing studies on how to increase much needed affordable housing and decrease surging displacement, passing protective land use measures, and creating critical shelter in place options.
Mission community advocates believe that for the Planning Commission to conclude that it is irrelevant that roughly a third of the Mission District’s Latinx population cannot, even if they wish to during this traumatic and frightening time, provide input into the fate of their neighborhood, is disheartening, unjust, and racist. They believe it is another way to further diminish already marginalized communities. Again. And for business that is “essential” only to developers and an economic elite.
In their eyes, there is no good reason these virtual hearings should go forward and many reasons why they should not.