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What became of San Francisco’s initiative to build housing on parking lots?

A fenced off gas station and car wash.
A Divisadero Touchless Car Wash sign hangs on a building next to an abandoned gas station on the corner of Oak and Divisadero streets on Nov. 29, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

The Standard's Ida Mojadad answers a reader's question: What happened to San Francisco Mayor London Breed's Cars to Casas program?

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In October 2021, Mayor London Breed introduced an initiative aimed at easing housing development restrictions on gas stations, parking lots and other car-oriented parcels.

Named Cars to Casas, it proposed allowing lots previously zoned for single-family housing to have up to four units, with no increase in height limits. It also eased hurdles to convert sites zoned for automotive uses.

The initiative spoke to a key frustration of many urbanists. Large and often underused parking lots, many of which are covered in asphalt, could become much-needed housing instead, something that would also help reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Cars to Casas would also keep the city in compliance with California law: Under state development goals, San Francisco must build 82,000 housing units by 2031. More than half, or nearly 47,000 units, must be affordable to buyers below a certain income threshold.

A good example of gas-stations-turned-housing projects—prior to Cars to Casas, anyway—might be 3701 Noriega St. in the Sunset District, which is now home to Gus’s Community Market plus 12 units of housing.

While many political initiatives fade away, Cars to Casas eventually made its way into city policy. In December 2022, the Board of Supervisors approved the legislation.

Still, it was hardly expected to open the floodgates to new housing developments.

A feasibility study conducted by consultants found that plans might not pencil out. Of 32 scenarios explored under Cars to Casas, construction and development costs would exceed any money made from rental or for-sale units, according to the city’s Planning Department. The initiative also failed to account for costs associated with demolition or environmental remediation.

“We should be passing legislation like this once a month, not once a year,” the Mayor’s Office told The Standard in an email. “Cars to Casas is helpful, but until costs come down and other improvements are made, projects are going to struggle to move forward, and housing will not be built at anywhere near what we need to happen.”

Last month, Breed took on another housing initiative, this time with Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin. The two introduced legislation to cut affordability requirements, including quotas for new projects, and reduce fees for developers who opt not to include affordable units in their projects. They estimate it can spur the completion of 8,000 units for already approved development projects.   

It’s unclear how many units are in development as a result of Cars to Casas and, therefore, aiding the city’s housing goals.