Turning "Yes, Over There" Into "Yes, Here"

 Rise SF is a newly launched pro-housing and transportation organization.

Rise SF is a newly launched pro-housing and transportation organization.

By Joel P. Engardio

Taiwan has seen an incredible advancement of democracy, free speech and human rights since martial law ended in 1987. Now a woman is president and the country is poised to become the first in Asia to allow same-sex marriage.

Yet change of that magnitude doesn’t happen without complications and contradictions. While a majority in Taiwan supports marriage equality, polls also reveal that most would not accept their own child being gay.

The phenomenon of accepting something new as long as it doesn’t hit too close to home came to mind when Rise SF – a recently launched pro-housing and transportation group -- shared poll results with me that said a majority in San Francisco supports building more housing. After decades of rejecting growth, nearly two-thirds of San Franciscans now say adding more housing supply to meet demand and push prices lower should be a priority, even if it means changing the look of neighborhoods.

I had to wonder which neighborhoods -- their own, or someone else’s?

This question confronts District 7, a historically conservative area of single-family homes on the westside where any discussion of increased density was long considered a non-starter. Then last year, a majority in District 7 voted against a proposed moratorium of new housing construction in the Mission. They said building for the future was OK – at least on the other side of town.

When a nonprofit developer recently proposed 150 units of low-income senior housing adjacent to the Forest Hill neighborhood in District 7, the opposition was swift and strong.

I believe some type of housing should be built on the site – it’s a vacant church parking lot on Laguna Honda Boulevard and only a couple minutes’ walk to a Muni station served by three train lines.

I also understand the concerns neighbors are expressing: Are 150 units too much? Are five stories too high? If a percentage of formerly homeless people are to be included, how will challenges like mental illness and drug addiction be managed so the unruly behavior prevalent in downtown BART stations won’t occur on Forest Hill sidewalks? These are serious questions that deserve community input and real answers.

That’s why I was surprised to see Rise SF champion the District 7 project in its first press release. Why poke a hornet’s nest when there are more winnable battles to choose? Wouldn’t affordable housing for teachers be an easier sell?

Then I realized Rise SF wasn’t poking District 7 -- it was reaching out. Rise SF announced that a board member who lives on the westside would take fellow residents on a tour of comparable low-income senior housing to show that the developments are not as scary as they may sound. Perhaps District 7 could feel good about helping a vulnerable population.

“San Francisco likes to project paranoia and fear on a movie screen when it comes to change. Rise SF is offering an alternative movie,” said Wade Rose, a vice president at Dignity Health and Rise SF executive board member. “We want to help people get out of the mindset that everything is going to hell because of change. We embrace change because we believe that’s where the solutions are – and we need to solve housing for a diverse range of residents.”

Rise SF is a coalition of labor unions, businesses and community organizations focused on housing and transportation solutions for a city that has not adequately planned for its inevitable growth. The 22-member volunteer board includes representatives from health care, labor and tech.

What they have in common is that nurses, construction workers and even tech workers can’t afford to live in San Francisco. Their answer is more housing at all price points along with better transportation infrastructure to accommodate the increase in population.

“We encourage San Franciscans to look beyond their own backyard and support policies that are beneficial to the city as a whole,” Rose said. “This will require a lot of face-to-face conversations, neighborhood by neighborhood. It’s worth the effort because we believe the best days of San Francisco are ahead of us.”

Also published in San Francisco Examiner December 11, 2016