In San Francisco’s ritziest neighborhoods, from Corona Heights to Noe Valley to Potrero Hill, there’s an epidemic going around: monster homes. Someone will buy a tiny, rundown, single-family home for a mere $1.5 million, then replace or add on to make it a gigantic single-family home or duplex that sells for $4.5 million.
Neighbors who also own multimillion dollar homes, but refuse to admit that they’re rich, are furious. “We need to stop this loss of affordable housing,” they somehow manage to say with a straight face, as though a tiny home on expensive land selling for $1.5 million is remotely affordable.
The planning bureaucracy is responding tepidly with a new proposal, “Residential Expansion Threshold,” that pays lip service to housing production needs, but mostly offers NIMBYs concessions. It seeks to maximize allowable density, for example, by incentivizing building a duplex instead of a single-family home in Noe Valley. It’s a reasonable goal, but inadequate given existing zoning. Duplexes are illegal to build in much of The City, so the RET does little for us.
At the same time, the program aims to reduce building mass to “respect neighborhood character,” a thinly disguised segregationist dog whistle. Respecting neighborhood character means keeping residential neighborhoods the same: single-family homes that are low-density and unaffordable.
The Planning Department should instead legalize apartments. We’re in a housing shortage, and wealthy, low-density neighborhoods are not pulling their weight to solve it. While people may think a six-story duplex with two units is tacky, there’s nothing wrong with a six-story apartment building with five smaller units — what would get built if legalized.
As Richard Rothstein’s book “The Color of Law” recounts, a range of local, state and federal government policies created residential segregation in the United States and denied minorities the ability to build wealth through homeownership. Today’s low-density zoning in the same neighborhoods complaining about “monster homes” was one such policy.
Keeping apartment buildings out of desirable neighborhoods shuts out the working class, poor and people of color. That’s no accident. Rothstein demonstrates that low-density zoning rules were openly designed to exclude.
Today, as we revisit zoning rules to create more, badly needed housing, these rich neighborhoods are nearly always given a pass, even when they are extremely well-served by transit. In 2008, The City upzoned the Mission, a traditionally working-class Latino neighborhood, to make better use of its two BART stations and bus lines. While building near transit makes sense, why wasn’t Glen Park also upzoned? It’s only one BART station away. Why wasn’t Noe Valley upzoned? Right next to the Mission, it, too, has a rail line and frequent bus service.
It is hard to deny that classist and racist biases have exempted these rich neighborhoods from helping to meet our housing needs. The lack of new housing in residential neighborhoods worsens our housing crisis and channels development disproportionately into neighborhoods like the Mission — a phenomenon some anti-gentrification activists have begun to call “bluelining.”
Against this backdrop, privileged white homeowners complain about “monster homes.” They are correct that zoning should change. But the change should be to legalize apartments, not keep single-family homes small.
The exact details of the Planning Department’s “Residential Expansion Threshold” proposal are highly technical and not all that interesting, though you can read a detailed critique on YIMBY Action’s website.
More interesting is what a Planning Department representative candidly admitted in a meeting on their proposal: “We’re not trying to solve the housing crisis with this.” Affordable housing advocates should ask: Why not?
When we have some of the most unaffordable rents in the nation, why should planners spend any time at all changing housing rules if it won’t help fix the problem?
A single-family home or duplex that’s too big is not the real issue. The problem is all the six-story condo buildings with 20 percent below-market-rate units that should be getting built in these neighborhoods, but aren’t, because it’s not legal.
San Francisco must take bold steps to course-correct and end rich neighborhoods’ lack of contribution to solving our housing crisis. Instead, the Planning Department is moving us in the wrong direction. To increase affordability, The City should upzone its residential neighborhoods.
Scott Feeney is a three-year resident of San Francisco who works in tech and volunteers with YIMBY Action to help the city he loves grow without displacement.