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Builder Joey Toboni was swimming in the bay a few years ago when he looked back at the Water Park and saw the scene.

Among the walkers and joggers, he noticed a class tour led by several teachers. A home health worker pushed an elderly woman in a wheelchair, while a team of National Park Service workers did the landscaping. He thought about the wide range of jobs needed to keep the city functioning and the wide gap between the pay of those jobs and the cost of living in the city.

“It dawned on me that none of these people have the opportunity to stay in San Francisco,” he said.

While this revelation was hardly groundbreaking in one of the world’s most expensive cities, for Toboni it was the seed of an idea he couldn’t get rid of. “At that moment, I realized that there was nothing stopping me from being cheeky and trying to solve this problem,” he said. “That evening I went home and started writing a business plan.”

Toboni, 37, settled on an idea perhaps as complex as it is simple: to build middle-class workforce housing without accepting government subsidies — tax breaks and affordable housing bonds — that fund much of the city’s affordable housing. Bypassing the red tape required for government subsidized housing, he figured he could be nimble and streamlined.

Toboni came up with a name—The Accessibility Project—and scoured the city for a platform to launch the concept. He recruited city-born Tim Scharnicki—they played basketball at St. Ignatius Preparatory College—who spent seven years in various senior positions at Immaculate Conception Academy, a low-income Catholic school in the Mission area.

On Thursday, the Planning Commission voted 6-1 in support of the affordability project’s debut proposal: a 100-unit lease project at 5250 Third St. in the Bayview area.

Tim Sarnicki (left) and Joey Toboni, who played basketball together in high school growing up in San Francisco, started a new affordable housing company that doesn't take public money.

Tim Sarnicki (left) and Joey Toboni, who played basketball together in high school growing up in San Francisco, started a new affordable housing company that doesn’t take public money.

Lea Suzuki/Chronicle

On paper, the project looks like a typical HOME-SF project, a density bonus program that gives developers an extra two floors of height in exchange for 30% being available to a range of low- and middle-income families. What makes the project unusual is that the developer is also aiming to provide an additional 40% of units to families earning between 80% and 140% of the regional median income, or $110,000 to $194,000 for a family of four. Thus, the entire project will consist of 70% units, limited in action.

The project met with some resistance from construction organizations who clashed with the Toboni Group, a housing developer founded by Joey Toboni’s father. Toboni, who builds single-family homes for his commercial business, said the Accessibility project is completely separate from other family businesses. He said he couldn’t commit to doing the 5250 Third St. project. union-wide project, but hopes that this will happen in the future.

In a city where low-cost housing can cost $750,000 to build, Toboni hopes to build one for less than $350,000 per unit. The savings come partly from the land, as the Accessibility Project was able to purchase the site for $3 million, or $30,000 per door, approximately 90% off what other land in San Francisco sold for.

In addition, the group will save time and money by funding development privately through philanthropy, which Toboni says will be much more effective than the time-consuming and competitive struggle for tax breaks and affordable housing bonds.

“The purpose of this organization is to provide housing for people right now,” Toboni said. “We believe that a private organization can be much more effective than a government.”

Notice of past public hearings can be seen on the fence of the Third Street lot that Tim Scharnicki and Joey Toboni hope to turn into affordable housing.

Notice of past public hearings can be seen on the fence of the Third Street lot that Tim Scharnicki and Joey Toboni hope to turn into affordable housing.

Lea Suzuki/Chronicle

According to Earl Shaddix, chief economic officer of On Third, the project will benefit Bayview businesses, which live in a below-market apartment at 4800 Third St. He said it was the heart of the Bayview commercial district.

While the area’s business district is doing better – the vacancy rate has dropped from 30% to 10% in the last few years – additional foot traffic is needed for small businesses to survive. New businesses recently opening include Feline Finesse Dance Co., Gratta Wines, and U3Fit Fitness, with several more expected to open in the coming months.

“There is a huge desire to increase the number of pedestrians and more light in the hallway at night,” Shaddix said. “We desperately need this, and the way we’re doing it is by increasing density. We know housing will mean more people in the hallway.”

Toboni said there are plans to build 2,000 workforce housing units over the next 10 years.

“Tim and I both understand that the goal is extremely ambitious,” he said. “But if you don’t set high goals for yourself, you have nothing to strive for.”

The Accessibility Project has raised most of the money and has a bank commitment to provide a loan for the construction, although the group must raise another $6 million before construction can begin. Hope to be under construction next spring.

Toboni said it’s too early to tell what the exact income from the additional 40 apartments available will be, but rents will be set to ensure essential workers such as teachers and police officers qualify. Any profit from the project will be reinvested in the next available development.

Visualization of the proposed affordable housing project at 5250 3rd Street to be built without public funds.

Visualization of the proposed affordable housing project at 5250 3rd Street to be built without public funds.

Leah Suzuki / The Accessibility Project

Former Supervisor Kathy Tang, who drafted San Francisco’s HOME-SF Density Bonus Act, is on the Board of Directors of the Accessibility Project.

As a veteran of urban development, Tang understands that building housing in San Francisco requires patience, money, and political cunning. Even though the Accessibility project has had a bumpy road, Tang says it’s worth a try.

“If we don’t try, it definitely won’t work,” she said. “The largest group of families leaving the city are middle-income families.”

Tang said she talked to many businesses in Bayview. “They keep asking, how can we get more people to visit small businesses on Third Street? There is currently not enough foot traffic to support local business.”

Toboni said he is still motivated by what he realized while swimming in the bay – that the families he grew up with in the Richmond area have no place in the current city.

“My best friend’s parents were a metallurgist and a teacher as a child,” he said. “The likelihood that people working in these professions today can afford Richmond is zero.”

J.K. Dinin is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] @sfjkdineen

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