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Citywide fourplex ordinance clears planning commission

A pair of ordinances to increase housing density in residential areas of San Francisco cleared a major hurdle on Thursday, though the proposals are certain to face scrutiny at the Board of Supervisors next year. 

Approved unanimously by the Planning Commission, the proposed ordinances would tear down some of the more onerous and costly aspects of San Francisco’s building process to encourage denser construction on existing lots. The ordinances still need to pass muster at the Board of Supervisors’ land use committee and at the full board.

Introduced by District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, the ordinances would allow up to four units on any residential lot citywide and up to six units on any corner residential lot—potentially paving the way for greater housing density in parts of the city dominated by single-family homes. 

Although Mandelman began working on the ordinances in the spring, they were spurred along by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signing of Senate Bill 10, which allows local governments to bypass normal environmental review and rezone vast swaths of their jurisdictions on an opt-in basis. Also passed at the state level this fall was Senate Bill 9, which allows lots to be split in half. Both bills go into effect in January 2022. 

The proposed city ordinances would preserve city rear yards, height and open space requirements, and wouldn’t provide any exceptions to local environmental and design review, said Mandelman aide Jacob Bintliff. Bintliff also noted that the local Accessory Dwelling Unit program, which allows additional units to be built so long as they comply with local building requirements, would remain. With SB 9 and SB 10 set to go into effect Jan. 1 and statewide zoning changes already underway, legislative planner Audrey Merlone said the planning department sought to craft a local spin on density that aligns with San Francisco’s character. 

“This increase in density is no longer a choice,” Merlone said. “It is here.”

Although the ordinances passed unanimously, the commissioners asked that their concerns about the ordinances—which included tenant protections and affordability measures like rent control—be forwarded to the Board of Supervisors for consideration. Several also said they want to monitor the program to measure its effectiveness. 

‘I think it would be important to have a set of measures…to see if any tinkering is necessary,” Commissioner Sue Diamond said. 

The decision comes as San Francisco faces a steep uphill battle toward meeting its state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation, which will likely require the city to build around 82,000 additional housing units by 2031. The planning department is hammering out a plan to meet that goal in the coming months, and the city will implement that plan in 2023.  

Single-family zoning is widespread across the south and west parts of the city, while the north and east areas allow for more dense housing. That’s led 85% of new housing built since 2005 to be concentrated in South of Market, the Financial District and Potrero Hill areas, according to the city’s housing needs assessment, while just 3% has been added to residential zoned areas. 

Critics of the ordinances who spoke at Thursday’s meeting said that without more support for low-income owners, lot splits and increased density allowances will only be financially feasible for high-income owners, which they claimed will advance gentrification. But supporters of the ordinances outnumbered opponents in the more than two hours of public comment on Thursday. 

An initial version of Mandelman’s proposal only applied to corner lots, but citing “equity” concerns, he later broadened the scope to include all single-family-zoned parcels. Then, the city’s planning department staff subsequently proposed expanding the capacity of corner lots to six. 

The proposed ordinances also require second units to be half the size of the largest unit on the lot, a move proposed by planning department staff to provide a wider range of housing options in the city. Also bundled into the ordinances are recommendations to explore a fee for building new single-family houses over 4,000 square feet and increasing funding for supportive housing programs. The proposed ordinances would not be able to be combined with density bonuses, which are incentives designed to encourage developers to build more units per parcel. 

The ordinances are expected to be heard at the Board of Supervisors early next year. 
“The board as a whole is going to have to grapple next year and the year following with even bigger proposals probably coming out of [the Planning Department] to address the housing shortfall,” Mandelman said in a July interview. “Compared to what the moves that we’re going to need to make to meet our obligation…[the fourplex proposal] is relatively modest.”