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Politics & Policy

San Francisco’s ‘gentle density’ housing bill stalled by last-minute changes

Aaron Peskin presides over a Board of Supervisors meeting.
San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard.

Legislation to bring “gentle density” to many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods by allowing single-family homes to convert to smaller-scale apartments got a stiff arm from city lawmakers. 

The bill, sponsored by Supervisor Myrna Melgar, was expected to clear the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee and be approved by the full board on Tuesday. 

Instead, it was hit with last-minute amendments that postponed the recommendation of the bill for another week. 

The delay and hostile public comments from neighborhood groups that followed illustrate how getting the city’s more affluent, suburban-flavored neighborhoods to accept more density is still an uphill battle, even after passage of legislation in Sacramento to boost construction. 

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The bill would create a citywide “family housing opportunity special use district” that would make it easier for property owners to replace single-family houses with apartment buildings with up to four units, and will now likely see final passage after the board’s August recess. 

“We are working on adding housing, but we are also doing some of the things we say we want to do in terms of density equity with the eastern neighborhoods, and allow folks to adapt their properties to the way they live today,” Melgar said in Monday’s committee discussion. 

District 7 Supervisor and Land Use and Transportation Committee Chair Myrna Melgar. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Originally introduced in January, the bill was recommended for passage by the city’s Planning Commission June 8, and first referred to the supervisors’ committee June 12. It had been scheduled Monday as a committee report for first passage by the full board Tuesday.

Board President Aaron Peskin and Supervisor Dean Preston said they introduced their new amendments to prevent abuse by real estate speculators and provide for greater affordability.

Among the amendments is a longer “look back” period to prevent the demolition of any rentals in which an eviction or tenant buyout took place. 

“I just don’t want in any way to encourage speculators to go for multifamily buildings, so that’s why the look back,” Peskin explained. 

Meanwhile, Preston cited opposition to the legislation from the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, a powerful neighborhood group. 

“I think we’ve learned that there’s part of D5 [referring to Preston’s home district], including the Haight and North Panhandle, where it could have some impacts,” Preston said at the meeting. “I think that’s part of what you’re seeing in their response.”

Eric Brooks, an activist with Our City San Francisco, conceded that “this conversation sounds better than the ones we’ve had in the past,” but also said that “part of the reason folks are so on about this is that we do not trust anything the Planning Department staff would do.”

Calvin Welch, a longtime neighborhood activist and board member of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, told the committee, “I walked into a sausage factory and saw legislation being done,” further adding that “affordability must be included in this legislation.” 

Meanwhile, Jake Price with the Housing Action Coalition said they were “prepared to be very supportive” of previous amendments but would now “reserve further comment until after the new amendments were reviewed.”

In the meantime, Melgar remains hopeful the legislation will eventually pass.

“I was surprised by the extent of proposed amendments and that they weren’t ready when we’ve already been working on this for months,” she told The Standard in a phone call. “But it could have been worse.”