In San Francisco, Educational Facility Downsizing Could Add New Housing

In San Francisco, Educational Facility Downsizing Could Add New Housing

Pedestrians walk by Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco on December 17, 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Marc Joffe

Marc Joffe

5/13/2024

Updated: 5/13/2024

Commentary
Given recent enrollment declines, both San Francisco Unified School District and City College of San Francisco have excess space. While it is disappointing that local educational agencies have fewer students, there is an opportunity to make lemonade from this particular lemon: Spare buildings can be converted to apartments, relieving the city’s housing shortage and providing more affordable units.
After peaking at over 90,000 students in the 1960s, SFUSD enrollment declined to 53,000 before the pandemic as household sizes in the city shrank. Last year, enrollment fell below 49,000 students and is expected to drop to around 44,000 in the 2032-33 school year.
Superintendent Matt Wayne is responding with a Resource Alignment Initiative intended to downsize the district’s school portfolio. Previous discussion of school closures in San Francisco has attracted opposition from the teacher’s union, which expressed concerns about destabilizing school communities, especially in the city’s southeast neighborhoods.
This is unfortunate because teachers could be among the first beneficiaries of school closures. A 2022 law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom allows school districts to convert educational facilities to housing so long as school employees have the first priority to occupy the newly created units, the majority of which must be affordable.
From a public policy perspective, these restrictions on school-to-housing conversions are disappointing, because they limit the revenue SFUSD could realize from converting the facilities. Given the district’s shaky finances and limited prospects of increased state aid, it could use as much additional revenue as possible, even on a one-time basis. Nonetheless, adding workforce housing through school conversions potentially frees up spaces in other new projects for non-teachers wishing to move to or relocate within San Francisco.
Another San Francisco educational institution that has excess space is City College. After peaking in 2008 at 76,000, fall semester student count fell sharply in the wake of an accreditation crisis and then again during COVID. In 2023, student count recovered slightly to 27,000, with some participating online rather than in classrooms.
Meanwhile, the Community College District has placed multiple measures on San Francisco election ballots, obtaining authority to issue close to $1.3 billion in bonds to finance facility additions and improvements since 2001.
The college now has six campuses and centers scattered across the city. Undoubtedly, it can release one or more of these facilities for residential redevelopment while maintaining more than enough room for its smaller student body.
Even San Francisco State University, which had stable student population before the pandemic, saw a 20 percent enrollment decline during the pandemic. With young men becoming less interested in attending college nationally, it may be hard for SFSU to claw back the missing students. Many employers are dropping higher education requirements, potentially reducing the lifetime income benefit high school graduates can expect from attending college.
By virtue of another piece of recently enacted state legislation, CCSF and SFSU can build housing on their property without going through the laborious California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process. The CEQA exemption only lasts until 2030 and exclusively applies to student, faculty, and staff housing. New buildings also must adhere to certain environmental rules specified in the legislation.
In the case of CCSF, it may be simpler to sell or lease its property—as permitted under state law—to a private developer who would then have to go through the CEQA process but would have the opportunity to create market rate units.
While it is tempting to hope that students will return, lower birth rates and the high cost of living in San Francisco, militate against that. Instead, our educational and political leaders should free up underutilized educational property for the higher and better use of housing San Francisco residents.
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Marc Joffe

Marc Joffe

Author

Marc Joffe is a federalism and state policy analyst at Cato Institute. After a long career in the financial industry, including a senior director role at Moody’s Analytics, he transitioned to policy research, having most recently worked at Reason Foundation. Joffe’s research focuses on government finance and state policy issues.

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