For decades, San Francisco’s rate of housing production has lagged behind demand, leading to skyrocketing prices and widespread displacement. One of the most effective and affordable strategies to increase the housing stock is to allow single-family homes to be converted into multiple smaller units. However, San Francisco’s zoning laws present a barrier to this strategy, allowing only single-family homes or duplexes in most of the city. This means that multifamily housing is built mostly in lower income neighborhoods such as SoMA and the Mission, while prices in low density residential zones continue to climb. These “exclusionary zoning” rules have stifled residential development and fueled the housing affordability crisis across the Bay Area.
District 8 supervisor Rafael Mandelman – a former Oakland City Attorney – wants to address this issue, noting that San Francisco’s zoning rules make it “easier to flip existing housing into monster homes than to build small apartment buildings for regular working people.” He has proposed two related ordinances to encourage new housing construction.
The first ordinance aims to disincentive “monster homes” by requiring Conditional Use Authorization (CUA) for new single-family homes, or renovations that would significantly expand the size of an existing home without increasing the number of units on the lot. If a project requires CUA, the Planning Commission has almost unfettered discretion to approve or deny it, and the onus is on the developer to prove the project is “necessary and desirable.” This adds significant time and expense to the approval process, so the ordinance may encourage developers to build more units to avoid the need for CUA.
Mandelman’s companion ordinance would chip away at exclusionary zoning by allowing up to four units to be built within a half-mile of major transit stops and on corner lots, in any residential neighborhood. A “major transit stop” means a station with a fare gates, so the ordinance would allow fourplexes to be built near BART and Caltrain stations, and a handful of MUNI stops. This will make it easier for homeowners or developers to add units to existing homes. Mandelman has acknowledged that this ordinance would not “cover the entire city” – the western neighborhoods would largely be excluded. And given that even small residential projects are subject to discretionary review and approval, streamlining of the permitting process may also be needed to ensure this ordinance yields the intended results.
Perhaps Mandelman considered this incremental change to be all that is politically tenable, given the sustained and strident community opposition San Francisco routinely sees to apartment buildings, hospital expansions, and even, recently, a Ferris wheel. Meanwhile, as San Francisco debates tinkering around the edges of zoning laws, other California cities have opted for a much more dramatic approach to tackle the housing crisis. Both Sacramento and Berkeley recently voted unanimously to end all single-family zoning, with San Jose and South San Francisco considering similar measures. It remains to be seen whether San Francisco will follow suit, or remain a bastion of exclusionary zoning.
About the Author:
Sarah Hoffman is an environmental associate at Venable’s San Francisco office. She has counseled clients attempting to build residential projects in the Bay Area, and has litigated wrongful denials of such projects by government agencies.