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Supervisors reach compromise to allow in-law units across SF

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Legislation that would allow the creation of tens of thousands of in-law units in San Francisco will be voted on by the board today. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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After weeks of political wrangling, San Francisco is poised today to approve legislation that would allow the creation of tens of thousands of in-law units within existing buildings.

These in-law units, formally known as accessory dwelling units, are one way for San Francisco to potentially create 30,000 more affordable housing units in privately owned buildings to help with the housing crisis. In-law units created in rent-controlled buildings predating 1979 would come under rent-control protections.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote today on in-law legislation after a compromise was reached between Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who first introduced the legislation in March, and Supervisor Mark Farrell, who introduced a competing proposal in May. In June, Farrell went a step further and submitted a November ballot measure.

“I am frankly delighted that the political environment, coupled with the housing crisis, has finally created an environment where this legislation’s time has come,” Peskin told the San Francisco Examiner on Monday.

The compromise, which ensures Farrell removes his ballot measure, was reached between Farrell and Peskin on Thursday, following a one-hour discussion. Smaller details were hammered out Monday during the board’s Land Use and Economic Development Committee, when the legislation was amended to reflect the supervisors’ compromise.

As with most land-use issues in San Francisco, opinions were strongly expressed

There was initial concern under Farrell’s proposal that in-law units could be permitted in areas outside of the actual structures of a building. But as part of the compromise, in-law units could only be created within existing structures in place for at least three years or in the open spaces under decks or lightwell infills if the structures existed prior to July 11.

Sonja Trauss, founder of the pro-development San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, thought the proposal was too restrictive and wanted The City to allow in-law units in the so-called buildable area of properties.

“People should be able to build to the buildable envelope,” Trauss said. “It is buildable. I don’t really see any downside at all besides the fact that some neighbors might have to let their eyes pass over a new thing that looks different and unfriendly to them.”

Farrell argued the compromise strikes the right balance.

“I have three little kids. We need a backyard as well,” Farrell said. “It is a balancing act, and we need to do something that everybody can live with. We have gotten pretty darn close to that.”

The proposal builds on past housing efforts, including Peskin’s own failed attempt in 2002. Most recently, in 2014, Supervisor Scott Wiener passed legislation legalizing in-laws in District 8, which includes the Castro and Noe Valley. Subsequently, Julie Christensen — Peskin’s predecessor — followed suit for District 3, which includes Chinatown and North Beach.

Peskin’s initial proposal in March borrowed a provision in Wiener’s legislation that capped accessory dwelling units at one for buildings with fewer than 10 units and two for buildings with 10 or more units. That cap was seized by Farrell as a reason for the countermeasure, which contained no in-law limit for buildings with more than four units.

The compromise states one in-law unit is permitted in buildings with fewer than five units and an unlimited number in buildings with more than five units, provided they are of a minimum square footage size — a studio would be about 300 square feet; a one-bedroom about 500 square feet.

Farrell agreed to eliminate a provision that would allow use of some commercial ground floor space to create in-laws units.

The proposed compromise includes a ban on short-term rentals in accessory dwelling units, bans such units altogether in parts of The City zoned for single-family homes and allows them in condominium buildings.

The question remains just how many property owners will actually take advantage. About 100 property owners have submitted in-law unit applications in District 3 and District 8, and none have actually constructed an in-law unit, according to Planning Department spokesperson Gina Simi, though she noted the department receives “roughly 30-35 inquiries a week.”

Peskin said The City will create an outreach program later this year to meet with the property owners who could qualify to provide technical assistance and reference to possible financial assistance through banks. He also said there was a need to streamline the application process, which he blamed for the current under-usage of the legalized accessory dwelling units in District 3 and District 8.

Kristy Wang, a planning director with public policy think tank SPUR, recently praised the accessory dwelling units in a blog post. “They’re cheaper to build out than a brand-new unit, and they’re a good way to provide lower rents without government subsidy,” she said.

The compromise means voters will have one less ballot measure to deal with.

Peskin previously criticized Farrell for introducing a conflicting piece of legislation and for taking the issue to the ballot, calling such actions “far from civil or collegial.”

“When people set aside the gamesmanship and the politics, we can do the job that we were elected to do,” Peskin said Monday. “We’ve ended up with a better piece of legislation for it.”

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