Mayors Ed Lee and London Breed both put forward executive directives aimed at streamlining the approval process for accessory dwelling units in an effort to ease the housing crisis and encourage greater density in residential neighborhoods.                                 Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner

Mayors Ed Lee and London Breed both put forward executive directives aimed at streamlining the approval process for accessory dwelling units in an effort to ease the housing crisis and encourage greater density in residential neighborhoods. Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner

ADUs for me and you

Whether you agree with Bernie Sanders that Apple “helped create the housing crisis,” or with Forbes columnist Roger Valdez that San Francisco “doesn’t have a housing crisis, it has a governance crisis,” there’s no getting around the fact that the Bay Area’s housing…issues are rightly at the forefront of everyone’s consciousness. For myriad reasons, there simply isn’t enough housing for our growing population.

Now, help is on the way. But how much help?

Without boring you (or me) too much with the fine print, Senate Bill 13, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 9, seeks to streamline and ease the financial burden of the process of approving and building accessory dwelling units (ADUs), those rental spaces known alternately as “in-laws,” “granny flats,” “guesthouses,” and, locally, as “illegal units.” The thinking here is that one-off units can release a little steam on the housing teapot while we figure out what to do about the large-scale development that could make an actual dent in the shortage.

Here in San Francisco, local politicians have already taken steps to address what has frankly been a historically complicated relationship with ADUs. Once The City and proximate region’s dirty little secret (“Lock the basement door! The inspector’s coming!”), ADUs are now seen as an important tool for easing housing congestion, so much so that mayors Ed Lee and London Breed issued executive directives in successive years aimed at making it easier to build them.

The most recent directive, issued July 30, 2018, sought to expedite a backlog of some 900 permit applications first by simplifying the permit process. It has, in the year since, been quite successful. More than 400 of the backlogged applications have been processed. Recently proposed legislation, which would eliminate permitting fees for ADUs and 100 percent affordable housing projects, should further incentivize prospective ADU builders.

But is it enough — enough incentive and enough new units — to actually mean something?

Let’s start with the easy question: efficacy. In a city with a housing shortage that leads mayors to pledge to build 30,000 new units in six years, as Lee did in 2014, are a few hundred backyard ADUs going to make a real impact? Certainly there’s no downside to adding some new units (save for issues of residential zoning), but in a comprehensive housing solution package, streamlining the ADU permitting process should be a footnote, not a centerpiece.

As for incentives, the thinking here is that waiving permitting and/or impact fees (which are no joke and can range into six figures) and making the process easier will encourage would-be mini-developers to leap into action, thus adding rental units and savingThe City.

But is that enough? What about long-term financial incentives? So far, according to the mayor’s office, “more than 90 percent of the 377 ADUs permitted to date will be rent-controlled.” Any unit built within an already rent-controlled building will be rent controlled. What does this mean for single-family rental homes, which are not not subjected to rent control, that become multi-unit buildings — which are? Rent control is an effective tool for ensuring affordable housing, but the prospect of a future as a below-market rate landlord isn’t the greatest motivating tool.

In fact, it might lead our would-be builder to start considering turning that new unit into an AirBnB. Or an actual mother-in-law unit, occupied by an actual mother-in-law, or a just-graduated adult offspring who hasn’t a prayer of moving back to her hometown otherwise.

One more thing: Hopefully we’ve already figured out how to replace the revenue lost by waiving all of those fees, or at least pinpointed something wasteful we can cut to make up for the loss.

There are always questions, and yes, a percentage of those new ADUs will never hit the rental market, but that doesn’t mean steps taken to encourage new ADUs aren’t good for San Francisco (and California). Are they significant steps, though? Or are they the Toyota Prius of the housing crisis, 10 percent “I’m doing something to help” and 90 percent “look at me doing something to help?” The real help, I’m afraid, requires some very heavy lifting — and perhaps a long look in the mirror.

The Market Musings real estate column appears every other Wednesday. Larry Rosen is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, podcaster and recovering former Realtor. He is a guest columnist and his viewpoint is not necessarily that of the Examiner.

Bay Area NewsPlanningPoliticssan francisco news

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Giants second baseman Donovan Solano scores on a double in the seventh inning against the Dodgers at Oracle Park on July 29. (Chris Victorio/Special to The Examiner)
Will the Giants make the playoffs? Kris Bryant may be the answer

By Chris Haft Special to The Examiner You’d be hard-pressed to find… Continue reading

Tiffany Carter, owner of Boug Cali West Coast Creole Shack in San Francisco’s La Cocina Marketplace, was dismayed by gentrification she found when she returned to her hometown to start a business. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
SF Black Wallstreet: Helping residents build wealth, reclaim spaces they’ve had to leave

Tiffany Carter moved back to her hometown of San Francisco five years… Continue reading

A prescribed fire at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks was conducted in June 2016 to reduce hazardous fuel loading, increase watershed health, and restore the natural fire cycle in the Redwood Canyon area ecosystem. (Photo courtesy Rebecca Paterson/National Park Service)
Experts, UC scientists discuss wildfires in the state’s riskiest regions

Wildfires are nothing new in California’s history, but the magnitude and frequencies… Continue reading

Fourth-grade students at Lucerne Valley Elementary School don masks and Western wear for a “Walk Through California” history day during in-person instruction. (Courtesy of Krystal Nelson)
Confusion over mask mandate for California schools sparks tension between districts and parents

By Diana Lambert EdSource Shifting rules around mask mandates at schools are… Continue reading

In his extensive filming of The City during the pandemic, Eric Goodfield said he has been “observing how the environment affects the behavior of people.” (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
Filmmaker Eric Goodfield fixes lens on SF’s COVID days

140 days of shooting in The City made for ‘greatest adventure’

Most Read