Competing proposals would create more housing in areas reserved for single-family homes

Supervisor Mandelman’s fourplex ordinance could be just the beginning

The years-long debate about increasing density in San Francisco’s quiet residential neighborhoods could finally be coming to a head.

Two competing proposals both acknowledge the need to allow more housing in areas currently reserved for single-family homes, but differ as to whether new development should be subject to affordability requirements. Whatever the Board of Supervisors decides will likely be just a prelude to much more significant changes to San Francisco’s zoning code over the next year, as The City moves to comply with state housing laws.

At Thursday’s meeting, the Planning Commission will decide whether to advance an ordinance proposed by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman that would legalize up to four homes on all residential lots throughout The City. The ordinance would largely leave in place existing height, bulk and setback requirements, meaning that new fourplexes could only be as large as structures currently allowed on a given lot.

“The same size box might very well get built in a neighborhood in my district, it would just house one very wealthy family in a very large home,” Mandelman said. “Why not have four less wealthy households in the same size box?”

Planning Department staff are recommending The City go even further than Mandelman’s proposal, legalizing up to six homes on all corner lots in addition to four units on every mid-block lot. Mandelman said he supports this change, as long as those units could be accommodated within the existing allowed buildable envelope.

The objective, Planning Department staff wrote in an informational packet, is to legalize forms of housing that already exist in San Francisco, but became illegal to build when The City was “downzoned” in the 1970s. There are more than 12,000 existing residential buildings containing 125,000 homes that would be illegal to build today under current zoning rules, accounting for more than 30 percent of all homes in The City.

Single-family zoning has contributed to segregation, according to Planning’s analysis. It has also led to uneven population growth, with just nine neighborhoods on the east side of San Francisco accounting for 85 percent of new housing construction in The City since 2005.

The fourplex proposal comes as a state law, SB 9, will functionally end single-family zoning across California in January by allowing up to two units on all lots, among other provisions. Mandelmann’s ordinance would be San Francisco’s way of complying with SB 9, giving The City more power to shape specific projects and take advantage of displacement protections in state law.

Mandelman is hoping the Planning Commission moves his proposal forward at its Thursday meeting so the Board of Supervisors can take it up as soon as possible. Come January, yet another state law, SB 10, from state Senator Scott Wiener, would allow these zoning changes to take effect without a lengthy environmental review process.

But getting the board to sign on could be a challenge. Board President Shamann Walton worried a previous version of Mandelman’s ordinance could accelerate gentrification. And on Monday, Supervisor Gordon Mar introduced a competing proposal that would allow single-family homes to be converted into fourplexes if the new units are affordable to households earning below the median income, and are at least two bedrooms.

“We are taking a creative approach to build housing that’s affordable in single-family home neighborhoods,” Mar said in a press release. The proposal would include a companion law to provide technical and financial assistance to homeowners wishing to build new affordable units.

Mandelman said he only heard about Mar’s proposal through media reports, and that he has yet to read the legislation. But he immediately expressed concern that requiring below market rate housing “is probably a non-starter for most projects,” and would result in little new housing actually getting built.

“I’m certainly open to looking at things like rent control or other things that would help make my colleagues feel better about this legislation,” Mandelman added. A different proposed ordinance from Mandelman that would legalize fourplexes only on corner lots could offer another potential compromise.

No matter the fate of Mandelman’s ordinance, much more significant changes to The City’s zoning are likely coming in the near future. By January 2023, San Francisco must complete its housing element, a state-mandated planning process that requires The City to plan for 82,000 new homes between 2023 and 2031. This could open the door for even more units on a single lot.

“There’s a whole bunch of places where we’re going to have to look at making the box bigger,” Mandelman said of the housing element. “Look at height limits, look at areas that can absorb significant additional density far greater than a fourplex.”

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