San Francisco Chronicle, July 24, 2021
By Heather Knight
Early this year, the real f-word in San Francisco was fourplex. The notion of allowing single-family homes to be converted to four units — already being explored by Sacramento, Berkeley, South San Francisco and other cities — made some politicians and their NIMBY supporters blow their tops.
A tame proposal from Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, announced here in January, to allow fourplexes on corner lots and within a half mile of major transit stops garnered little support. Opponents of development falsely claimed it would ruin their charming neighborhoods, while supporters said it didn’t go far enough.
Mandelman could either scrap the idea or go bigger. Thankfully, he’s opted for the latter.
On Tuesday, he’ll introduce legislation allowing fourplexes on any single-family home lot in San Francisco regardless of whether it’s on a corner or near transit. And the most encouraging sign? Two fellow supervisors are working on their own pieces of fourplex legislation they plan to introduce this fall.
There’s no more time for whining about building more homes on your block. Climate change is slapping us in the face, and we need more people living near their jobs and near transit to reduce vehicle emissions. Plus, as inland California bakes — it reached 113 degrees in Sacramento this month! — we need to make room for more people near the temperate coast.
Add to that the city’s homelessness catastrophe and the obvious need to end exclusionary zoning so more low-income people and people of color can live in all neighborhoods, and it’s clear fourplexes need to be part of the solution to our housing crisis. Now comes the tricky part of figuring out how to make them affordable to build in a city where it can cost $800,000 or more to construct one unit of housing.
And it’s just not the Board of Supervisors thinking about fourplexes. A pro-housing group in San Francisco is preparing a fourplex-related ballot measure and an effort to allow them throughout the state is winding its way through the legislature.
Suddenly, fourplexes are cool. And the likelihood they’ll someday be allowed in San Francisco’s residential neighborhoods seems higher than it did just months ago.
“We’re going to have to make much bigger moves than this to address our housing shortage, but this is a meaningful step,” Mandelman said.
Meaningful, yes. But despite the outsize negative reaction they inspire in people who want San Francisco preserved like some kind of museum exhibit, fourplexes are just a tiny piece of the city’s giant housing puzzle.
Under state law, the city must craft a plan to build 80,000 additional units by 2023 and actually build them by 2031, said Rich Hillis, director of the San Francisco Planning Department. If the state rejects the city’s plans because they come up short, the city stands to lose local land use authority, face fines and miss out on a variety of state funding.
Hillis said San Francisco’s zoning has meant a lot of development over the past few decades on the east side and too little on the west side. The Sunset District, in particular, is block after block of single-family homes and could easily house more people if zoning allowed for greater density.
“We’ve gotten what we’ve zoned for,” Hillis said. “We need to make changes if we’re going to meet our housing goals, and fourplexes are part of that answer.”
Fortunately, more city leaders are cottoning on to this reality.
Supervisor Gordon Mar, who represents the Sunset suburbs, is working on legislation to incentivize homeowners to build up to three additional apartments on their lots. He wants the units to be rentals with at least two bedrooms and be affordable to those earning up to 100% of area median income or $133,000 for a family of four.
While the details are still being crafted, he’d try to woo homeowners into this kind of development by giving them a rebate on their property taxes, giving low or no-interest city loans for the projects and providing technical assistance with design, construction and financing.
He’s aiming for September to introduce his plan, as is Supervisor Ahsha Safaí.
The Excelsior district supervisor wants to allow up to three units on a single-family home lot if one is affordable and up to four units if two are affordable. Under his legislation, rentals would need to be affordable to families earning 80% to 110% of area median income and homes for sale would need to be affordable to those earning up to 140% — $186,500 for a family of four.
Safaí said he’s targeting “the missing middle” — teachers, nonprofit workers, nurses and others who make too much to qualify for a lot of low-income housing programs, but make too little to afford staying in San Francisco. He’d incentivize people to participate by streamlining the city’s notoriously byzantine, slow permitting process.
“Any program that’s going to increase the number of units citywide that doesn’t include some level of affordability is going to have a hard time getting through the Board of Supervisors,” said Safaí in a not-so-subtle dig at Mandelman’s proposal.
Mandelman, on the other hand, said Safaí’s might have a better chance of passing the board, but it would likely produce fewer units because it’s a lot harder to make affordable projects pencil out financially.
Laura Foote, executive director of Yimby Action, a pro-housing lobbying group, is helping spearhead a ballot measure likely to appear before San Francisco voters within a year that would allow fourplexes on any single-family home lot and create a city program to help homeowners pay for their development. She said this could especially help lower-income people and people of color build intergenerational wealth.
But the bigger aim is to end exclusionary single-family zoning that often kept people of color and working-class families out of those neighborhoods.
“All the cool kids are talking about it,” she joked.
Meanwhile, a bill in Sacramento would allow single-family homeowners to split their lots in two and build a duplex on each. A study from UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation found the bill could spur the creation of 714,000 homes around California including 8,500 in San Francisco.
David Garcia, policy director at the Terner Center, said he’s a big fan of Portland’s rules, which allow fourplexes on single-family home lots plus another two units if they’re affordable.
“That provides more flexibility and the greater likelihood that you’ll see more units built overall,” he said.
Sean Keighran, president of the San Francisco Residential Builders Association, which represents developers and contractors, said there’s merit to all these ideas. He said to make any of them work requires a far simpler and more predictable permitting process and economic viability through incentives.
“These types of conversations are going in the right direction,” he said. “Maybe one day we’ll get there.”
Hopefully, that day is coming sooner than we thought.