Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s legislation to limit demolitions of residential property is back from the dead, with the Planning Commission holding an informational presentation on the revised legislation this Thursday. Although its stated intent is to prevent loss of affordable housing through “Monster Home” dwelling unit mergers or constructive evictions, concerns remain that the legislation - which will greatly expand the City’s Conditional Use Authorization process - continues to present an existential threat to building new housing.
A new version of the bill was introduced last month, after receiving “some input” from relevant City departments. Among the changes in the second draft are clearer caps on penalties, increases in the Floor Area Ratio thresholds, and a further expansion of neighborhood notification.
Questions remain about scope - both of the initial problem and Peskin’s offered solution.
Peskin’s office maintains that the legislation is aimed at stopping the stealth demolition of historic or rent-controlled housing from “serial permitting” - a strategy where large home renovations are repackaged into a series of bite-sized planning and building inspection permits. Many observers see “serial permitting” as an exception, not the rule, among the factors responsible for the current housing crisis.
“Given all the problems this city has with housing, ‘Monster Homes’ are not at the top of the list,” says Randy Shaw, Director of Tenderloin Housing Clinic. “You’re expanding neighborhood notification even further where luxury homeowners already have too much power. This legislation only affects neighborhoods that have already been gentrified - and it will help keep them that way.”
Others argue that the sheer scope of the legislation - which was 64 pages when first introduced, and is now 70 pages - would make infill introduction of denser housing near impossible over most of the City.
“It cannot be the case that the proposed new program, which will result in 10 times more required Planning Commission hearings than under existing regulations -- according to senior Planning Department officials -- will not slow down the approval of new housing units so desperately needed,” says Brett Gladstone, a prominent land use lawyer in the City.
“For example, a mere ten percent (10%) increase or decrease in the size of an existing rental unit will in most cases trigger such a hearing where none is required today. In fact, the Planning Department estimates that over 100 new planners would have to be hired were the legislation to take effect. Since that takes years of hiring and a much larger office location for the Department than the one already planned several blocks away, and since it is an expense that no city official is expected to support, this can only hold up the approvals of new housing throughout the city for many years to come.”
In researching the bill, Dana Beuschel, YIMBY activist and data scientist, identified over 200 units of housing, created through addition to existing units and approved by the Planning Commission over the last two years, which would be effectively banned by the new legislation. This includes over 100 units of student housing for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which will also provide 27 replacement rent-controlled units for existing tenants.
“The worst parts are where it takes away the Planning Commission's discretion for demolition permits and institutes strict requirements for eligibility for a Conditional Use permit,” says Bueschel.
She cited the bill’s requirements that existing sites could not be in a “current or potential historic district,” nor possess structural features similar to those of adjacent buildings.
“By my calculations, these two criteria cover 70% of residential land area in San Francisco… There are all sorts of strict and arbitrary criteria for the new building (if it is more than 2 units), such as all units must be the same size, all units must have ‘substantially the same front and rear exposure,’ and no unit can be greater than the minimum of the average unit size within 200 feet or 1200 square feet… I think (the legislation) would make it very difficult for the small projects that replace a single family home with a duplex to pencil.”
Peskin’s office responded to criticisms by reiterating that Accessory Dwelling Units are exempted and that their square footage won’t contribute to the Conditional Use triggers. They also argue that much of the scope is due to the necessity of harmonizing conflicting definitions of demolition that exist in current policy, which have caused the number of dwelling units lost to demolitions to be underreported.
Critics remain unimpressed. To housing advocates like Shaw, it’s hard not to characterize Peskin’s bill as an attempt to sandbag future pro-housing legislation along the lines of SB 50 and other attempts to upzone and build needed new housing.
“It’s a real step back - like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” says Shaw. “The biggest problem we have right now is that apartments are banned in most of San Francisco. The Supervisors just approved the Central SoMa plan, bringing in tens of thousands of more jobs to the City, but no housing that people taking those jobs will be able to afford. Instead, they want to give even more power to luxury homeowners. If you don’t want any middle class left in the City, just say so.”
When we first covered the bill, the Home Preservation and Expansion Reform Act had been introduced at the Board of Supervisors to deep skepticism from many housing advocates. The consensus was that the bill would use highly selective criteria to prohibit the construction of any residential home that could be deemed “out of character” from the surrounding neighborhood.
The month after its introduction, Laura Foote, Executive Director of YIMBY Action, described the legislation in a Chronicle op-ed as “BANANAs: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone,” predicting that if passed, “will gum up the process so everything creeps to a standstill. For folks who want to freeze the city in amber and exacerbate displacement of residents, this legislation is great.”
"This is still what it's always been: a poison pill against any upzonings we get passed,” said YIMBY Action’s Laura Foote, who we spoke with recently and still opposes the legislation. “Exclusionary neighborhoods will be able to use this to quash room additions, duplexes, any attempt to increase density of existing housing stock, to introduce multifamily units though low-impact infill. Make no mistake- this is what it's aimed at, not "Monster Homes." It's still BANANAs - except now it's Zombie Bananas."
The Planning Commission will hear an informational presentation on the bill this Thursday, with a vote on recommendation likely in late June or July.