In-laws Hit the Neighborhoodssecondary unit

On April 18, 2014, Mayor Lee signed into law Supervisor Chiu’s legislation legalizing “existing” secondary units in every neighborhood in San Francisco, regardless of whether those neighborhoods were zoned for multiple dwelling use, or as single-family residential neighborhoods. Thus, with one stroke of his pen, the mayor allowed almost 100 years of zoning laws and residential development policies to be overturned, with no environmental impact report.

To make matters even worse, the legislation is drafted so as to allow existing units to be legalized, whether or not there are actually tenants in those units. Thus, the argument made by the proponents of the legislation that all it does is to bring current tenants “out of the shadows” is simply not accurate. Rather, it allows developers and speculators to buy up homes in single-family neighborhoods, remodel existing units, bring them up to code, and then rent them out to new tenants, thereby increasing neighborhood density, parking problems, traffic, and congestion. The legislation will allow speculators to target the small amount of family-sized housing remaining in the City for subdivision into smaller multi-unit housing, reaping huge profits, and driving more families out of the City.

Why would anyone put an offer on a home with an already-occupied legal secondary unit … only to learn that such family use …could only be permitted after an expensive eviction proceeding?”

Our District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee worked hard to craft a compromise by which neighborhoods that are zoned RH-1-D (single-family residential-detached) would be exempt from the legislation. His amendment would have protected most of the neighborhoods West of Twin Peaks. However, it failed on a 5-5 tie vote, with Supervisors Yee, Tang, Breed, Farrell, and Wiener voting for it, and Supervisors Avalos, Campos, Chiu, Cohen and Kim voting against it. (Supervisor Mar was absent.) After the amendment failed to pass, the Board of Supervisors approved the legislation by a vote of nine to two. Only Supervisors Yee and Tang voted against the measure. They deserve our thanks for trying to preserve the single-family residential character of our western neighborhoods.

Why does this all matter? Balboa Terrace was developed during the 1920’s as a single-family neighborhood and has remained one ever since. Along with Monterey Heights, St. Francis Wood, Westwood Highlands, and many other residential neighborhoods West of Twin Peaks, it was designed so that people could raise their children in the City, but at the same time enjoy their own homes, with lawns and gardens. Single-family neighborhoods are an important part of the total housing mix of San Francisco and are part of the “density diversity” of San Francisco. They help to preserve the City’s unique urban character, and also prevent the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco; without them nothing would be left in town except cookie-cutter neighborhoods with high-density housing units.

Contrary to the proponents’ arguments, this legislation is not about “granny” or the “in-laws” having a place to live. In fact, the legalization of secondary units is not necessary in order to allow an extended family to live together under the same roof. Secondary living units that do not have their own kitchens or separate entrances are already allowed under current zoning laws. Elderly relatives and adult children can and often do live with their families. Balboa Terrace already welcomes extended families of parents, children and grandparents living together.

Moreover, this legislation will not increase the number of affordable housing units in San Francisco. Rather, it will have many unintended consequences, e.g., increased congestion, the permanent removal of family-sized housing from our housing stock, and the very real possibility that developers and speculators will use the law to create new secondary units and then claim they already existed at the time the law was passed. When homeowners realize that legalizing their currently illegal units removes their control over the footprint of their homes, thereby devaluing their property on the open market, the number of units that actually enter the program will fall well short of expectations. Why would anyone put an offer on a home with an already-occupied legal secondary unit, intending to use that unit as a bedroom for an elderly parent or an adult child, only to learn that such family use would not be permitted, or could only be permitted after an expensive eviction proceeding?

This legislation constitutes a complete rezoning of the entire City, drastically altering the RH-1 and RH-1-D residential zones, and therefore merits a thorough discussion and a full environmental impact report. If the City wants to change almost 100 years of zoning law, it should say so, and do so honestly, after a full and fair debate, and after consultation with the various neighborhood groups that will be affected, not just with a few advocacy groups.

The proponents of this legislation did not approach the West of Twin Peaks Central Council, an umbrella group of 20 neighborhood organizations founded in 1936, during the drafting of this legislation, nor did they attempt to limit the legalization of secondary units to neighborhoods that are already zoned for multiple use so that neighborhood character on the West Side of the City would not be jeopardized. In contrast, Supervisor Wiener’s own legislation to allow legalization of secondary units in part of District 8 is a narrowly-tailored measure that applies only to one neighborhood, not the entire City.

Now it is up to the West of Twin Peaks Central Council and its member organizations, working with homeowners’ associations and with neighborhood groups across the City, to do everything we can to mitigate the damage that this legislation will do, perhaps by filing a lawsuit, or by putting an initiative on the ballot to overturn it at the polls, or by working for its amendment or outright repeal when the composition of the current Board of Supervisors changes. Meanwhile, we should insist that the City vigorously monitor the applications for permits to make sure that only units which actually existed on the date provided for in the legislation are allowed to be legalized. We should also educate homeowners who might be tempted to legalize their secondary units, and remind them of the unintended consequences of such legalization: losing control of their property, deteriorating the quality of their neighborhoods, and shackling subsequent owners with secondary rental units, whether they want them or not.

Roger Ritter is President of the Balboa Terrace Homes Association and VP of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council.

May 2014

Here Come Da In-Laws

Supervisor David Chiu introduced secondary-unit legislation that will permanently change San Francisco’s zoning code to allow in-law units to become legalized throughout the City.

Although Chiu may be operating under the best of intentions, his legislation needs several amendments and adjustments before anyone will take it seriously. Most single-family homeowners of RH-1 or RH-2 homes will either hate this legislation or will not abide by it.

the division of single-family units into multiple, smaller units … further reduces the amount of housing that is suitable for families in San Francisco (which is already one of the least family-friendly cities in the Bay Area”

A secondary unit, as defined in Chiu’s legislation, is an additional, self-contained dwelling unit in an existing residential building. Secondary units are commonly referred to as “in-law” units because they allow extended family members and tenants to live together in separate, but attached, units.

Chiu’s legislation wants to provide a mechanism to grant legal status to illegally-constructed dwelling units zoned for residential use. These secondary units will continue to be rented, but cannot be sold. Chiu’s trying to frame his legislation as an immigrant, lower class issue. In reality, Chu secondary unit legislation will adversely impact zoning throughout the city and have a severe impact on San Francisco families.Legalization graph

Secondary units are supposed to be the magical answer to San Francisco’s affordable housing problems as they are small — usually around 750 square feet — have cheaper rent, nicer units, and stay within the confines of a home’s structure.

According to the West of Twin Peaks Central Council’s (WTPCC) policy statement on secondary units, “the division of single-family units into multiple, smaller units actually represents an anti-family policy since the vast majority of secondary units are quite small and often remove considerable living space from the primary unit. This further reduces the amount of housing that is suitable for families in San Francisco (which is already one of the least family-friendly cities in the Bay Area with less than 1/3 of San Francisco housing occupied by families vs. 2/3 in neighboring cities).”

Further (WTPCC) policy states, “the Division of RH-1 units into multiple, separate units often requires waiving the 25% open-space requirement. This will result in the Manhattanization of San Francisco. It will significantly reduce the amount of green open space available for trees and other plants and increase the “hard-scaping” of San Francisco.”

A Dog With No Teeth

Chiu’s legislation will change the character of RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods by increasing traffic, population density and reducing neighborhood parking. Traffic problems will explode as house garages are turned into living units. Both the home owner and the tenant will be forced to park their cars on the street.

Secondary-unit legislation proposed in 2003 by former Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin was much better written than Chiu’s proposal, as it allowed for units under 750 square feet to be built in existing buildings if they met one of three requirements: 1) they lie within a quarter-mile of a major transportation corridor; 2) were designed and constructed specifically for the elderly or persons with physical disabilities; or 3) were located within a qualified historical building with owners who agreed to adhere to preservation guidelines.

According to Chiu’s legislative Aide, Amy Chan, homes built before 1979 would still be subject to rent control, but the new secondary units would pay current market rates.

Once a unit is legalized, the building cannot revert to being a single-family home.

Home owners with secondary units must continue to be landlords and cannot sell the secondary unit. Single family homes generally have a premium value when they are sold.

Chiu’s secondary unit plan will also damage neighborhood Home Owners Associations (HOA’s) throughout the City. Many of these associations are based on covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&R’s). The CC&R’s specifically state that the homes in their geographic area are to remain single-family dwellings. Once secondary units are allowed, the HOA will no longer be able to protect their neighborhood character.

Given the choice of converting a secondary unit or simply building an illegal unit, homeowners will build illegal units. Chiu’s proposed legislation includes tacking on permit costs, inspection costs, architectural fees, and property tax costs. All of these stipulations will greatly increase rental costs, and may actually increase tenant’s rent.

Chiu’s current secondary unit proposal has no penalties for people who have illegal units and no mechanism for finding illegal units. His current proposal is like a dog with no teeth.

Chiu can’t even prove his proposal will make units more affordable. The laws of unintended consequences will dictate higher costs for tenants and landlords, and possibly more tenant evictions. While Chui is claiming that he is creating “affordable” housing, the same market-forces that are driving up San Francisco’s rents will push lower income people out of their secondary units.

Chiu’s secondary-unit proposal will certainly get his name in the newspapers and lure the uninformed into believing he’s doing a great job, but even he admits that he can’t accurately predict how many secondary units there currently are in San Francisco. Chiu claims there are 20,000 to 25,000 secondary units, but the San Francisco Chronicle is estimating that there are between 30,000 and 40,000 in-law units.

San Francisco has worked hard not to stop the construction of illegal secondary units. No real information is available on the number of illegal secondary units that have been added to the City’s housing stock since 1990. However, a total of 80 units have been legalized between 2000 and 2008, and another 204 illegal units were removed in the same period (Table I-29).

Rosemary Bosque, the Department of Building Inspection’s, (DBI) Chief Housing Inspector stated that the DBI issued the following Notices of Violations (NOV’s): 2010: 127; 2011: 96; 2012: 90; and 2013: 83.

As can be seen from the chart in the 2009 Housing Element report, almost no new secondary units have been legalized, averaging just a paltry 10 per year. Without a diligent search for illegal secondary units, Chiu’s proposal looks more like a public relations campaign to be elected to the state legislature than a serious attempt to legalize secondary units.

It may seem counterintuitive that the City — which is so focused on creating more small, affordable units — should enact so many impediments to legalization of existing units. David Chiu’s attempt to legalize secondary units will not work as currently proposed and is not the answer.

City Hall should just leave private residences alone.

George Wooding

December 2013