Planning Commissioners ready to take on single-family zoning

Debate over Senate Bill 50 might pave the way for increased density

On Guard column header Joe

San Franciscans, we may be getting a denser city whether Senate Bill 50 passes or not.

While state Sen. Scott Wiener’s bill to zone for greater density near transit lines has met with opposition from local officials — including many city supervisors — some members of the Planning Commission appear ready to embrace some of its principles and challenge a shibboleth of city planning policy: single-family zoning.

It was one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments at Thursday’s regular commission meeting.

Commissioner Rich Hillis started by saying San Francisco is doing “OK” in housing production.

But, he added, “given our housing crisis, which is severe, we’ve gotta do ten times better than OK.”

That comment launched a discussion about building more in city neighborhoods where we historically haven’t, like the West Side or the Ingleside. And San Francisco, it has potentially big consequences for housing in our city. That comes with a big caveat, of course …

If SB 50 passes, The City will be upzoned anyhow.

Nearly 96 percent of San Francisco is near a transit line, and the bill dictates neighborhoods near transit to allow taller construction. But if it fails like its sister-bill SB 827 did last year, then the pressure will be on for The City itself to allow developers to build higher and build more.

Thursday, the commissioners discussed the latest Housing Inventory Report, detailing how much housing San Francisco has, how much it’s built, and how much it’s torn down.

The numbers weren’t so hot.

The City gained a net of roughly 2,579 housing units in 2018, which is a 42 percent decrease from 2017, and authorized about 10 percent less new construction (about 6,097 units in 2018). Only about 24 percent of the housing units built in 2018 were affordable although, in a bit good news, that was mostly for families.

And, as per usual, South of Market (1,220 units built) and downtown (701 units built) shouldered the burden of San Francisco housing production.

Guess how many housing units were built in the Inner and Outer Sunset neighborhoods, combined?

Close your eyes. Go ahead. Guess.

Just 19.

It’s a similar tale throughout The City. Ingleside gained 21 housing units. Bernal Heights gained five.

“There’s a big inequity in where housing is built in San Francisco,” Hillis said. “I think we have to do more.”

Hillis suggested “we really need to look at that RH-1 zoning,” which allows only single-family homes to be built in certain neighborhoods, and explore re-zoning those neighborhoods to allow three or four units of density.

Nearly all of the commissioners present, five out of six, voiced some form of agreement.

Commissioners Dennis Richards, Milicent Johnson, Joel Koppel and Commission President Myrna Melgar all voiced support for exploring such an idea through planning commission staff.

Melgar couched her reasons in terms of equal access to good schools and robust open space. Right now, the West Side enjoys most of those perks, she said, freezing out kids in the more urban East Side.

“We cannot talk about being an equal opportunity city when we have zoned such inequality,” she said.

Melgar told me that the commission will take action if and when they know the outcome of numerous state bills that may affect The City’s density, including SB 50.

Of course, in response to the commission’s discussion, the Usual Suspects made their usual battle-cries.

Todd David, the executive director of the Housing Action Coalition, echoed that sentiment, noting that single-family zoning is “rooted in racism and bigotry. “Make no mistake, single-family housing zoning being legal in San Francisco is historically equivalent to still having “Separate But Equal” in our schools,” he said.

George Wooding, president of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, said The City’s residents are tired of “being force-fed SB 827 and SB 50,” and the outer neighborhoods will fight any zoning changes.

“We’re already zoned and varianced ourselves to death,” he said.

And as for Wiener? He reminded me that if SB 50 passes, this will all be moot anyhow.

But the discussion struck a hopeful note for the state senator.

“There’s a growing realization” that prohibiting any kind of housing except single-family homes “makes housing much more expensive, effectively bans affordable housing, and pushes people into crushing commutes,” he said.

The planning commission discussion “is a good sign,” Wiener said.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at

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