McCarthy Center Board Member Judson True has worked in public service for much of his professional life in his adopted home of San Francisco, as well as in the State Capitol in Sacramento. He recently sat down with Justin Pearson ’20, graduate student in the MA Urban & Public Affairs program, to discuss his newly-created position within the Mayor’s Office as the Director of Housing Delivery and to reflect on the rewards of pursuing a career in public service. NOTE: This interview has been abbreviated for the space constraints of this blog.
You are in a new position that Mayor Breed created to respond to the affordable housing crisis in San Francisco. What does it entail, and what are the goals that have been set for this new position?
Everyone in San Francisco knows that the housing affordability crisis is threatening all the things that make San Francisco a great place to live. It is making it hard for people to move here and making it hard for those who are here to stay. I’m very proud to work for Mayor Breed because she’s made the housing affordability crisis and homelessness her top priority and top issue to take on as Mayor. My goal as the Mayor’s first Director for Housing Delivery is to get more housing in general to be built more quickly, with a focus on affordable housing.
In my first five months, that has meant focusing on the permitting process for projects that have already been approved. Right now, San Francisco has a housing pipeline of over 72,000 units that have been applied for or are approved. In fact, about 56,000 of those units have already been approved and so I have been focusing on all the interdepartmental permitting issues that can slow those projects down. That does not mean that we do not also need to work on more housing approved more quickly, but my focus is on those already approved.
The largest number of housing units that have been approved but remain unbuilt are in large scale projects that have been approved with a development agreement between the City and a private project sponsor. These are the projects that are transforming underused or formerly industrial land or densifying part of the city, like Pier 70, Mission Rock and Treasure Island. These also include the HOPE SF projects in Potrero, Sunnyvale and Hunters View. These projects are essential to remaking some of the most challenging public housing developments in SF. That’s why Mayor Breed made her annual budget announcement in Sunnydale and focused on equity and accountability.
Soon after taking office Mayor Breed set a goal of getting at least 5,000 units built with at least a third being affordable and so my bottom line goal is to get that done.There are a lot of ways to go about that but that’s the clear goal.
From your vantage point, what is the most immediate issue facing the City and County of San Francisco in producing affordable housing?
I think the biggest challenge right now is the cost of construction and the complicated permitting that is required to get housing built. A recent study showed that San Francisco has the highest construction costs in the world and so it’s not a surprise that that makes housing harder to build and to move forward even if approved. We have to find creative ways to take it on, we are doing workforce training and more but it’s a daily challenge.
Each day I’m working with all the departments involved with permitting to make sure that the processes are clear, that we are able to move projects through in a reasonable amount of time, and that decisions are made quickly and then memorialized. A lot of the large departments involved in permanent housing are not always seen as a part of the housing process, certainly by the public. This involves the utilities for the neighborhood, how the streets are laid out, as well as fire access. These all require technical review and at times departments do not communicate as well as they should and so my goal is to make those processes work faster.
There’s an incredible amount of work to do and I’m really excited to be working with so many people across City government and the private sector, but there’s no doubt there’s a lot to do.
Your life has centered on state and local government and public service. What advice do you give to students of the McCarthy Center who are interested in the field?
There’s a quote from former Secretary of State Warren Christopher who was a lawyer in California before becoming a public servant. He said something like jump in the water and swim as fast as you can. That means get involved — in your neighborhood, through internships, and just take advantage of the unique opportunity of being in San Francisco, at USF and the McCarthy Center and open the doors that can be opened.
Seek mentors, find people who can tell you about their path who you can learn from and reach out for advice on internships and jobs. Anyone who has been in public service for a while has mentors who helped her or him along the way – I certainly do.
It’s also important to read more than just a news article. Find an area you are interested in and dig down into it. And try to do something you enjoy. You spend a vast amount of your waking life at work and it is incredibly important to like what you are doing if you have that opportunity and privilege.
As a member of the McCarthy Center’s Board of Advisors, what are some of your key interests or hopes for the McCarthy Center and its programs?
I’ve been honored to be a member of the Board of Advisors for a few years now and each year I get a stronger sense of the wonderful work of the McCarthy Center and its students. In my previous role as chief of staff for Assemblymember David Chiu, we hosted a McCarthy Fellow for the summer and that was a great experience.
For me, it’s about seeing how I can best connect my professional role and my relationships in a way that helps the Center and especially the students. I hope to get to know more students and to be as much of a help as possible while also being a part of the wider discussions with the Board about the direction of the Center. I’m incredibly impressed by all the students I’ve met, by the staff and by the leadership of the Center and I’m just really thrilled to be involved.
Learn more about the McCarthy Center and meet the full Board of Advisors here.