San Francisco could get rid of single-family zoning Tuesday and instead allow fourplexes in every neighborhood and six-unit homes on all corner lots, a change long sought by housing development advocates.
But champions of greater housing density are worried that San Francisco’s legislation might result in very few new homes being built. They fear that restrictive provisions limiting who can take advantage of the new permissions and how fast property owners can get their projects approved will stymie new construction.
The proposal up for a long-awaited vote at the Board of Supervisors is intended to alleviate the city’s notorious housing crunch, and the vote marks the culmination of more than a year’s work by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman to pass legislation that would promote fourplexes in San Francisco. In early 2021, Mandelman announced a more modest plan that failed to advance. He returned last summer with a new proposal that is now poised to become city law.
But San Francisco’s law would circumvent the fast-tracked permit approval process required by a new state law — SB9 — that was passed to promote the construction of more multi-unit housing.
With the ordinance, Mandelman and co-sponsor Supervisor Myrna Melgar are trying to encourage more density while preserving local control over new development. Mandelman has acknowledged that his legislation leaves more work to be done to address the housing crisis.
“We’re going to have to make much bigger moves than this to address our housing shortage, but this is a meaningful step,” he said when he introduced the ordinance last summer .
Richard Hillis, the city’s planning director, said the impact of the fourplex ordinance will likely be “fairly small” as measured by new housing units. But he called the act of ending single-family zoning “a pretty big step” — at least in terms of the idea behind the policy change.
“They recognize, given our affordability crisis, building multi-family units instead of single-family homes is a good policy idea,” Hillis said of supervisors. “I’m just nervous that the changes they’re making are either not going far enough, or they’re putting requirements in place that will result in too few units being produced.”
Currently, about 40% of San Francisco’s land area is zoned only for single-family homes. The ordinance rezones all those areas to allow duplexes by default. Property owners can then receive a density exception from the city that allows them to build up to four units, or six on corner lots.
Anyone building more than two units would have those extra units subject to rent control — a program that some developers say can make the economics of building more homes harder to pencil out.
And only those who have owned their properties for at least five years — or inherited it from a family member who did — can qualify for the density exception at all.
The latter provision, implemented in committee at the urging of Supervisor Dean Preston, could hamstring the ordinance’s ability to translate into much new development, some observers say.
Preston pushed the restriction in order to prevent rampant real estate speculation — he wanted to discourage developers and wealthy people from using the law as an excuse to buy up more homes and flip them for large profits. But critics say the ownership restriction could simply push more developers toward building more expensive duplexes and single-family homes rather than more affordable fourplexes.
“That doesn’t make sense to us in terms of what we think the public policy objective should be, which is … to encourage more small units and more rent controlled units,” said Tom Radulovich, the executive director of Livable City.
Todd David, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition, said he thought the original version of the bill wouldn’t have much of an impact, but the amendments — including the ownership restriction — made that even more true.
“They took the original policy they knew would create little housing and they added some additional bells and whistles to ensure that it will create very little to no housing,” David said.
Additionally, the ordinance would allow San Francisco to get around a key provision of SB9.
The 2021 law lets homeowners who want to add extra units get approval through a streamlined process that bypasses city officials’ ability to use their discretion to reject housing developments. But the law only applies to areas zoned for single-family homes, so San Francisco’s rezoning of the whole city would make SB9 no longer apply to the permit approval process.
Mandelman previously told The Chronicle that he thought “there’s certainly a worthwhile conversation to be had about streamlining our approval processes.” But he said that fast-tracking approvals for fourplexes and sixplexes was “probably more than we can do in one bite.”
Hillis said that streamlining approval for fourplexes and sixplexes once the city is rezoned would likely require a ballot measure to amend the City Charter. San Franciscans are already voting on at least one amendment — and possibly two — in November aimed at accelerating housing production for some projects.