"S.F. Property Owners May Have to Keep Illegal Units"

SF Chronicle, February 25, 2014

San Francisco property owners could be barred from tearing out illegal residential units under a new city policy designed to preserve housing in the city.

"We're changing the default on the issue," said John Rahaim, the city planning director. "Before, the default was to tear out illegal units. Now, we want to legalize them."

The change is part of an ambitious effort by Mayor Ed Lee to add 30,000 units of new or rehabilitated housing to the city over the next six years to ease a growing affordability crunch that has made San Francisco one of the most expensive places in the nation to live.

Rahaim, along with Tom Hui, the city's director of building inspection, led a working group that came up with a variety of suggestions to speed construction of new housing. While some of the proposals, such as giving permit priority to affordable housing projects and combining various reviews, have generated little controversy, others have raised concerns.

Property owners looking to get rid of a unit that doesn't meet city codes now will have to justify "why they are removing, rather than legalizing," the illegal dwelling unit. If a property has more than two units, the owner must go through the discretionary review process, which can include a full-blown hearing before the City Planning Commission.

If planners decide there is a "feasible path to legalize the unit," they will recommend that "the current housing affordability crisis creates an 'exceptional and extraordinary' circumstance such that the Commission should deny the (building) permit and preserve the unit," Rahaim and Hui said in a Feb. 3 memo to the mayor.

Up to code

This could force a new apartment house owner who wants to eliminate existing illegal units not only to keep them, but also to pay to bring them up to code.

"It's odd that the city would want to keep something that's illegal," said Ken Cleaveland, a vice president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of San Francisco. "The panic of a housing shortage in the city is causing people to think irrationally at times."

Details of the illegal unit plan are still to come. While property owners now have to convince planners that they should be allowed to eliminate a unit, it could be weeks before city officials decide exactly what is feasible when it comes to bringing that unit up to code, Rahaim said.

"In some cases, there's a fairly straightforward way toward legalization, maybe by adding some windows for access to light or securing building permits that were never obtained," he said.

Other fixes aren't as easy. There's no way to legalize a third unit in an area zoned for a maximum of two, and adding sprinklers or making structural changes to a building could be too expensive to be reasonable, Rahaim said.

The new, softer line on illegal units isn't the only pro-housing change likely to draw controversy. A call for developers to build the biggest residential buildings allowed also will bring complaints from community groups.

Neighborhood commercial corridors like Geary Boulevard and Valencia Street have plenty of older building that are far shorter than the current zoning allows. Upper Market Street is an example of an area where new apartment and condominium buildings often dwarf their shorter, older neighbors.

"It's important that we still meet the quality-of-life issues," by not changing existing requirements for open space, setbacks or rear yards, Rahaim said. "Still, the existing zoning was by design, and we thought we could see taller buildings without hurting the neighborhoods."

Too fast, too soon?

There are concerns even among affordable housing advocates that city officials may be moving too far, too fast in their efforts to jump-start new residential construction. Between 1960 and 2010, San Francisco added more housing units than residents, so it's not as though nothing has been done in the past, said Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, which joined Hui and Rahaim in the working group that came up with the proposals.

"We're worried that there's a willingness to do anything in any way to increase housing production," Cohen said. "While there are a lot of short-term recommendations that make sense and will do some pretty good things, others are a wish list of (planning) policy ideas that still need to be vetted."

San Francisco already is well on its way toward meeting Lee's 2020 goal of 30,000 new homes. The city now has 6,000 units under construction, 4,000 with the necessary permits to begin building and 7,400 others somewhere in the development pipeline, Rahaim said. But others question whether the changes will be enough. San Francisco planners already review far more permits each year than New York City, which has 10 times the population, and state and city requirements for environmental review, community participation and permit appeals slow the development process dramatically, said Cleaveland, whose organization represents the commercial real estate industry.

"This shows how much over-review and over-scrutiny our city requires," he said. City officials "talk and talk and talk a good game, but very little happens to speed up the process, since a lot of it is structural."

But regardless of what developers and commercial interests might want, they aren't going to be able to use the growing concern about housing affordability to undercut the city's resident-oriented development process, Cohen said.

"This is San Francisco, and we have respect and a commitment to public process," he said. "We aren't going to become a rubber stamp" for new construction.

John Wildermuth is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.