High workload and low pay leave Planning Commission roles out of reach for many

San Francisco Examiner | By Sasha Perigo

Planning commissioners might just have one of San Francisco’s hardest jobs.

The appointed Planning Commission oversees San Francisco’s Planning Department and has the final say on what gets built in San Francisco and where. In the midst of a severe housing crisis, commissioners face a lot of angry people and have a lot of work.

You might be surprised to learn then, that for all intents and purposes, planning commissioners are practically unpaid.

According to Planning Commission President Myrna Melgar, the commissioners’ workload can sometimes exceed 40–50 hours.

The Planning Commission has weekly meetings on Thursdays at 1 PM. Each week commissioners prepare for meetings by reviewing their agenda packet, attending community meetings, and talking to community stakeholders. For reference, this past Thursday’s agenda packet contained over 1,400 pages of supporting documents.

The small stipend planning commissioners do receive for their work was set at $200 per meeting in 2018, which adds up to about $10,000 per year.

“Not everyone has the privilege of having a job that pays the rent and allows them the flexibility [to serve on the Planning Commission],” Melgar said.

Melgar is one of several commissioners who does have a full time day job. She’s the executive director of the Mission-based Jamestown Community Center, where her colleagues can attest that she puts in an enormous amount of work. Other past and present planning commissioners have been retired or operated private businesses with flexible hours.

When people who work for a living are weeded out as potential candidates for Planning Commission, the commission suffers from representation issues and worse outcomes.

The Planning Commission is disproportionately white and male compared to San Francisco’s population and is composed of a majority homeowners. (Melgar is only the second Latina to ever serve on the commission since its inaugural body was appointed in 1917!)

The nominee Mayor London Breed named this week fits this same mold. Rumor has it that political insiders on “both sides” of San Francisco’s housing conversations are excited about working with Sue Diamond, who is known as a hardworking and qualified land use lawyer. But she too is white, highly educated, and wealthy.

When some voices are excluded from the planning process, we see different results.

“The perspective of the commission would be dramatically different, and the outcomes would follow if the true diversity of our city was represented,” said Jon Jacobo, director of engagement and public policy at SOMA-based affordable housing developer the TODCO Group. “We’d approve better projects with higher levels of community benefits.”

Planning commissioners pride themselves on their responsiveness to community feedback when considering building applications. But is the commission listening to the right people?

A 2018 paper out of Boston University found evidence for what tenant advocates have observed for years—the people who have the time to speak at 1 PM Planning Commission meetings are disproportionately older, white homeowners opposed to development (colloquially known as “NIMBYs”).

While it’s obvious to the two-thirds of San Franciscans who rent that these speakers do not represent their community, this may not be the case for white owners.

Recently a mixed-income project at 430 Main St. fell victim to NIMBY input. The Planning Commission appeased wealthy condo owning neighbors concerned about shadows by delaying approval of the project over two months.

Each project delay increases costs for developers which are passed onto future renters and lengthens thousands of San Franciscans’ wait on the affordable housing waitlist.

“It’s a fair question,” said Todd David, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition. “Would there be a bigger sense of urgency if more Planning Commissioners faced housing insecurity?”

Planning Commissioners aren’t just overworked and underpaid in San Francisco. Jason Rhine of the League of California Cities confirmed that San Francisco commissioners’ workload wasn’t higher than statewide averages. “I don’t think it’s unique,” he said.

San Francisco actually offers planning commissioners a higher monthly stipend than Los Angeles or San Diego.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors should serve as a model to other California cities by including a line item in the city’s next budget to pay planning commissioners for their full-time work.

When asked if she’d support this proposal, Melgar agreed enthusiastically. “Better compensation would allow more people to participate … and I want more voices to be heard.”

Sasha Perigo is a data scientist and fair housing advocate writing about the San Francisco housing crisis. You can follow her on Twitter at @sashaperigo. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

Myrna Melgar for Supervisor

For A Better Westside