S.F. finds a way to build homeless housing cheaper and faster. A powerful opponent is fighting it

San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 20, 2021

By Heather Knight

Near a sports bar, bail bond offices and taco trucks sprouts one solution to the puzzle that is San Francisco’s devastating homelessness crisis.

This fall, 145 people who have struggled with chronic homelessness will move into a new permanent supportive housing development rising across the street from the hulking Hall of Justice in the South of Market neighborhood. These are folks who’ve been living on the city’s streets for more than a year and suffer from some mix of mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction and developmental disabilities.

The best part of the new housing? The project at 833 Bryant St. is being built faster and cheaper than the typical affordable housing development in San Francisco, the ones that notoriously drag on for six years or more and cost an average of $700,000 per unit. This project will take just three years and clock in at $383,000 per unit.

So, of course, there’s already a fight to ensure this kind of success never happens again — with several city supervisors saying they’re unlikely to support another project like it.

At issue is how the project was built so quickly: with modular units made in a Vallejo factory. Each unit was trucked across the Bay Bridge, strung from a crane and locked in place like a giant Lego creation. San Francisco unions don’t like the method because it leaves them out, but considering the city’s extreme homelessness crisis, City Hall can’t afford to toss the idea.

“The homeless crisis in San Francisco is so pressing, it demands a change from business as usual,” said Nathaniel Decker, a scholar at UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, who has a new report out praising 833 Bryant for saving time and money.

“Homelessness has been increasing, and COVID has only made that worse,” Decker said. “That, to me, is justification for changing the way things are done.”

The project also benefited from a unique pairing between Tipping Point, the philanthropic organization that aims to reduce poverty, and the San Francisco Housing Accelerator Fund, which raises private and public money to create affordable housing. Having the money up front sped development, as did Senate Bill 35, the 2017 state law that provides streamlined permitting for some affordable housing projects.

A recent tour of 833 Bryant showed the promise of this kind of project, which didn’t feel slapdash at all. The apartments include a bathroom, kitchenette, closets and space for a bed and other furniture, and windows angle toward the skyline rather than the imposing and ugly Hall of Justice. The first floor will include community space, social services and retail.

“It’s not just homeless housing — it’s housing!” said Daniel Lurie, chair of the board for Tipping Point. “We want it to be beautiful.”

The thoughtfully designed project helps in the city’s epic battle to house residents of all income levels, particularly the very poor. So what’s to argue about?

This is San Francisco. There’s always something to argue about. In this case, most of San Francisco’s construction trades unions object vociferously because they’re cut out of the deal.

The manufacturer of the modular units, Factory OS in Vallejo, has contracted with the Carpenters Union of Northern California. Its workers perform all the tasks that would usually be split in San Francisco among plumbers, electricians, carpet layers and others.

Factory OS employs many people just released from prison who don’t have as much training as San Francisco’s union members. It has partnered with San Francisco’s revered Delancey Street, the nonprofit that provides vocational training to formerly incarcerated people who need second chances. That seems like a true San Francisco value.

But Larry Mazzola Jr., president of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, said journeymen in his plumbers and pipe-fitters union make $76 per hour plus benefits. He asserted that workers at Factory OS make just $20 per hour, but the factory’s CEO, Rick Holliday, said the figure is actually $40 to $45.

Mazzola said he’s sending a letter this week to the mayor and Board of Supervisors outlining “mistakes and over-costs” at the 833 Bryant site, which is being developed by Mercy Housing, though he didn’t have many specifics yet.

“The quality is crap, to put it basically,” he said. “They don’t have plumbers doing the plumbing. They don’t have electricians doing electrical. They get them from San Quentin, and they’re not trained at all. We’re going to fight vigorously with the city not to do any more of these.”

Doug Shoemaker, president of Mercy Housing, said he didn’t know what Mazzola was talking about. The quality of the project, he said, is high. Holliday, too, said there was no basis to Mazzola’s claims.

“We’re doing it differently than it’s been done in the past, and that creates some friction,” Holliday said. “We haven’t pleased them, and we never will.”

Meanwhile, Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said she’s a fan of modular housing and would like it to expand in San Francisco. The lower cost and shorter timeline, she said, make such projects “an important investment to solve the humanitarian crisis that unhoused folks are facing.”

So can more modular housing units pass muster at City Hall despite union objections? That remains to be seen.

To their credit, the unions backed three other modular projects that should all be completed next year: 256 units at 1064 Mission St., 141 units in Mission Bay and 105 units on Treasure Island. But they refuse to support more.

Mayor London Breed is open to more modular projects, her spokesperson said, considering them “another tool” in housing low-income people. But city supervisors are mostly reluctant to oppose the powerful unions.

Board President Shamann Walton said, “I believe in good, high-wage union jobs for people, and I want everything built to be safe. I’m not sure we get that with modular.”

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí said he wouldn’t support another modular project unless it includes jobs for San Francisco unions. Supervisor Myrna Melgar agreed and said the city should reconsider building a modular factory here that employs the city’s union workers, an idea scrapped for being too expensive.

Supervisor Dean Preston said he’d need to see the specifics of another project before weighing in. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said “it’s complicated” and that he is open to more modular housing, but that the city “needs to be sensitive to the hard-won gains of some of the last middle-class jobs.” Supervisor Hillary Ronen expressed similar sentiments.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani said she’s fully supportive of more modular projects. “We need to take every opportunity to get people indoors as quickly as possible,” she said, “and modular construction is an important tool in that effort.”

Supervisor Matt Haney said he supports more projects, but would like to see them built in other parts of the city and not just in his district. Supervisors Connie Chan, Aaron Peskin and Gordon Mar didn’t return requests for comment.

Housing homeless people quicker and cheaper and providing good jobs for people just out of prison seems like an equation that adds up for San Francisco.

“That’s the story of this project,” Lurie said. “This is doable. We have solutions.”

If only San Francisco would use them.

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