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

Rose Hansen

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 […]

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.”

A permanent supportive housing complex that is currently being built in collaboration with Tipping Point and Mercy House on Wednesday, March 10, 2021 in San Francisco, California. Tipping Point, the group that aims to end poverty, believes it has a better, less expensive way to build housing for homeless people: modular units.Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

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.

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