It’s great that San Francisco developers are given incentives to set aside housing for middle-income families who can’t afford the pricier units. It’s not so great that a large percentage of these units are sitting empty because of bureaucracy and the general state of the housing market.

There have been times when we’ve reported on large volumes of vacant housing in San Francisco. But when local publications report on this, we often get pushback from the online entity known as Housing Twitter saying that vacant housing is statistically overstated.

Yet Housing Twitter was agog Sunday over some housing unit vacancy numbers that no one’s arguing. The Chronicle published a report that much of the SF housing set aside for middle-income earners is just sitting vacant, because of a combination of red tape, lack of awareness of the program, and the fact that the price-points of these units can’t compete with prices in the still-somewhat-depressed rental market — meaning that they aren't exactly below market rate.


The Chronicle declares that “80% of the units sit empty” in a program designed to create below market-rate (BMR) units for middle income earners in the $100,000 salary range (and yes, that is what is currently considered “middle-income”). The methodology behind that 80% vacancy number is not entirely clear. The Chron notes that “Of 216 recently completed units” intended for those middle-income households, “182 are sitting vacant.” That right there would be an 84% vacancy rate among these units, though it’s also not clear how far back the “recently completed” criterion goes.

And the vacancy rate is different across individual properties participating in this program. The new Mission Rock apartment building called The Canyon, pictured at at the top of this post, has leased only 27% of its BMR units since opening last June, according to the Chronicle, while it has leased 70% of its market-rate units.


“As an affordable housing practitioner and advocate, it gives me no satisfaction to produce affordable units and have them sit empty,” director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development Dan Adams said at a recent City Hall commission meeting, per the Chron. “Coming out of the pandemic we are still in a very soft market so the high [average median income] units are quite close to market rate and difficult to lease up.”

Part of this is because rents across the city, broadly, are still low compared to pre-pandemic times, and developers are not keen to cut prices further to compete with that. One price quoted for a BMR unit at the Ventana Residences in the Excelsior, designated for 110% of area median income, is $2,600/month for a studio — and people are probably able to do better in other neighborhoods right now, with units that aren't boxy, sterile new construction.

But there’s also limited awareness of the hoops one can jump though to get these discounted housing units. And anyone who might get one of these units has to be willing to put up with months-long complicated paperwork processes, which weeds many people out. And some people who go through the process still get weeded out over bizarre demographic hair-splitting over who gets to qualify.

Some units are allocated for certain demographics (e.g., a “preference for people who were victims of a redevelopment era that wiped out thousands of homes in the Fillmore and Japantown”).  Those who don’t have the right boxes checked can be kicked out to later rounds of the lotteries for these units.

Though the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development insists they’re trying to reduce the paperwork behind these processes, and add more staff, to fill some of these vacancies.

And the Chronicle did find one silver lining in this report. One SoMa apartment building called The George, opened in 2022 and with a current 74% vacancy rate in its BMR units, has some of these units currently serving as temporary housing for people who lost their apartments in that 33 Tehama Street flooding mess from June 2022.

Related: Supervisors Override Breed’s Veto of Peskin’s Density Limit Legislation, In Big Win for Peskin [SFNews]

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