In Our Element

The San Francisco Housing Element is the City’s plan to build 82,000 units of new housing — 46,000 of them affordable — by 2031, in order to comply with state housing mandates.

This is the fourth and final article in a series exploring multiple perspectives on the plan and its potential impacts on both the building trades and the City. This month, we hear from local labor.

Union Jobsites, True Affordability Ensure Housing Element Benefits Workers

By Jessica Zimmer, Contributing Writer

As members of San Francisco’s unions prepare to build out, work in, rent, and, hopefully, own a percentage of the 82,000 new residential units slated for the City, they’re finding common ground in the vision of what the units represent: more work for unions and additional housing for union members.

Local unions agree that the City should take what they call the “high road,” meaning that it should award unions a significant number of residential construction labor contracts. On the high road, workers are trained at state-of-the-art apprenticeship facilities, earn livable wages, secure healthcare for their families, and are able to eventually enjoy a comfortable, dignified retirement.

“This path has thousands of willing and able folks ready to go to work day in and day out and to utilize their skills to help build our city,” said Vince Sugrue, political and public relations representative for Sheet Metal Workers Local 104. “The alternative is the low-road path, whereby there’s a (so-called) labor shortage because nobody wants to work for substandard wages in an extremely dangerous industry with little to no benefits.”

Sugrue said that if the City wants to reach the 2023-2031 Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) — the 82,000-unit residential target of the SF Housing Element — then it and developers should recognize that making profits on the backs of workers will not help solve the housing crisis.

Willing, Able Workers Are Waiting in the Wings

The City’s union leaders are confident that their locals can provide the number of workers needed to deliver the necessary new housing stock by 2031.

“If we don’t, we can train some more and accommodate travelers in boom times,” said John Doherty, business manager and financial secretary for IBEW Local 6.

The City’s building and construction trades unions are gearing up to get apprenticeship programs rolling, said Kim Tavaglione, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council.

“(The unions) are currently doing many pre-apprenticeships and attracting many women and minorities to the trades,” she said.

Tavaglione is right: A glance at Local 104’s current applicant list reveals about 1,000 people looking to become apprentices.

“Our premiere apprenticeship program has the capacity to quadruple the number of apprentices quickly,” Sugrue said. “We just need to see the market demand of hiring a skilled-and-trained workforce, as opposed to developers wanting to take a low-road approach.”

Unions Are All in on Affordable Housing

An additional goal for San Francisco’s unions is to see more than half of the 82,000 units dedicated to affordable housing. We spoke to members of locals who told us they’re more in favor of two- and three-bedroom units rather than studios and one-bedroom dwellings.

To accomplish wide-scale affordable housing, major improvements of public utility infrastructure, including sewer, water, and electricity lines, will likely be required. So too will enhanced public transportation, as well as more shopping areas near new units. Institutions such as public schools and hospitals will also likely need to be added in order to meet residents’ needs.

To forestall a scramble for resources, the City should avoid actions that pit different groups of working-class people against one another, said Cynthia Gómez, senior research analyst for Unite Here 2, the union representing hospitality workers throughout the Bay Area.

She said that including union members in the construction of affordable housing helps to guard against inequitable outcomes.

“Buildings — hotels, housing, offices, etc. — should be built by union members who can afford to live in the communities where they work,” Gómez said. “(Further, we should) not do away with requirements that make buildings and neighborhoods livable. Everyone, not just the wealthy, deserves housing with exposure to light and air and neighborhoods with green and open space.”

Equalizing the number of affordable housing units built across the City is another issue. It will require monitoring of how many units are getting built and in what neighborhoods.

“(Problems) will lead to lawsuits and delays,” Doherty said. “Density concerns are going to be the hot topic.”

Could the Citywide PLA Lead the Way?

Unions agree that San Francisco can minimize low-road residential development by finalizing project labor agreements.

But developers and out-of-town contractors often resist signing on to PLAs and hiring local union labor. The City can address this by creating policies that would require or incentivize the use of PLAs, thereby guaranteeing a local workforce and enriching local residents. The City can also directly encourage developers and contractors to work with signatory contractors to assure that labor standards are met and work-hours are properly documented. This will result in a win-win situation for all parties involved.

San Francisco’s Citywide PLA provides a model of how such action could move forward. The Citywide PLA is in effect for specific large-scale, bond-funded projects of San Francisco Public Works and the Department of Recreation and Parks that were bid on or after July 14, 2020. The Citywide PLA requires contractors performing trade work on covered projects to utilize trade-appropriate union hiring halls to employ workers and apprentices, among other stipulations.

San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Rudy Gonzalez said that the council is in talks with the City to ensure the Citywide PLA is complied with and utilized as extensively as possible to meet the construction demands of the SF Housing Element.

“Building housing under the Citywide PLA is a great way to ensure high productivity and value for housing developers, and, frankly, the PLA will apply to those projects that meet the threshold for eligibility,” he said.

Getting Real About Housing for the Hardest-Working

Gómez said that as the City oversees residential construction, its leaders should keep in mind that for the 46,000 units of affordable housing, “affordable” is defined as market-rate. For her union’s membership, market-rate is out of reach. That will leave a great many of Unite Here 2’s SFO employees, for instance, stuck with their current long commutes in and out of the City to work as they remain edged out of living there.

That’s unless a commitment is made to produce truly affordable housing in San Francisco — and plenty of it.

“The City’s own data show housing developers are overproducing housing for the highest-income earners and underproducing housing for every other income bracket,” Gómez said. “A plan to simply produce more housing at all income levels will not address this imbalance.”

Doherty said that he’s concerned young families are choosing to live elsewhere rather than struggle with the City’s high cost of living.

Rejuvenating the City after the negative economic and vacancy-related impacts of the Covid pandemic is likely to require rewards and penalties for lowering downtown rents. It might also require conversions of office space to residential units. Tavaglione said that building more student housing is another way to help the City regain its vibrancy.

“San Francisco has become so expensive that students don’t want to come to school here,” she said. “(Students) created so much of the innovation, art, music, and subcultures that people from around the world would come to see and want to participate (in). If we are to build housing, we must also create affordable housing for young people.”

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