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‘Rotten to the core’: San Francisco could get sued over housing gridlock, says legislator

San Francisco’s inability to agree on housing policy is nothing new. But with a state mandate looming, the city’s parochial squabbles over new housing development may do more than just frustrate pro-housing activists. They could also land the city in legal trouble. 

That’s according to State Sen. Scott Wiener, who called the Board of Supervisors’ recent actions on housing policy “frustrating.” In June, the board passed a fourplex bill so laden with caveats that Mayor London Breed vetoed it on grounds that it could actually hurt, not help housing development. Last week, the board voted to send a charter amendment to the ballot that Wiener described as a “Trojan horse”—designed to confuse voters and sabotage another, more viable plan to build housing.  

“San Francisco's entire housing system is rotten to the core,” Wiener said in an interview. “It needs to be dramatically changed to prioritize the creation of new housing, which is what state law requires.”

State Senator Scott Wiener discusses San Francisco’s housing policies in comparison to California state law on July 29, 2022 | The Standard

Wiener, who has authored influential state housing bills like Senate Bill 9, which effectively ended single-family zoning statewide, told The Standard that San Francisco had skirted state housing laws for years by “ignoring” the state’s density bonus law, among other rules, and by blocking projects like 469 Stevenson on spurious grounds. 

“My view is that the state should sue San Francisco to enforce the housing model,” Wiener said. 

Indeed, state housing regulators have been showing more teeth in the run-up to the Housing Element, a draft housing plan that San Francisco and other counties must produce every eight years. San Francisco needs to submit a compliant plan to build about 82,000 new units—a sharp increase over the current pace of housing production—by the beginning of next year.

Senator Wiener discusses the possibility of California suing San Francisco over alleged disregard for housing requirements on July 29, 2022 | The Standard

In November, the state Department of Housing and Community Development wrote a letter slamming the Board of Supervisors’s decision to delay more than 800 new units of housing, including those at the Stevenson site. The same agency publicly applauded Mayor London Breed’s veto of the board’s fourplex bill last week, a move Wiener called “extraordinary.” 

Tougher talk from that state authority, combined with a beefed-up enforcement arm, could set the stage for lawsuits either by the state or by individual developers whose projects are unduly delayed. 

“The attorneys general can sue the city on specific projects or on the entire system, and that has happened before,” explained Wiener. “The other thing that can happen is a developer can sue the city for illegally rejecting a project and the state can intervene [and] support the lawsuit.”

Senator Wiener compares San Francisco's housing efforts to Los Angeles, and discusses how the state laws can be legally enforced on July 29, 2022 | The Standard

In the meantime, there’s still no consensus at the Board of Supervisors on how to build a meaningful amount of new housing in the city. 

With one fourplex bill dead, the board may consider an alternative proposal, authored by Supervisor Ahsha Safai, that was previously tabled. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who authored the vetoed fourplex bill, may also reintroduce another version later this year. 

Two other ballot measures related to housing production are slated for the November 8 ballot. One, backed by Mayor London Breed and pro-housing advocates, seeks to streamline housing projects that meet a certain threshold of affordability. The other, introduced by Supervisor Connie Chan, describes similar goals but tacks on additional requirements; pro-housing group Housing Action Coalition has threatened to sue to block the measure

Annie Gaus can be reached at