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San Francisco may finish single-family zoning. Why housing advocates aren’t comfortable

San Francisco plans to get rid of single-family zoning and instead allow fourplexes in every neighborhood and six-unit homes on all corner lots, a change long sought by housing development advocates.

But champions of greater housing density are worried that San Francisco’s legislation might result in very few new homes being built. They fear that restrictive provisions limiting who can take advantage of the new permissions and how fast property owners can get their projects approved will stymie new construction.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors narrowly approved the legislation, which is intended to alleviate the city’s notorious housing crunch. The vote marks the culmination of more than a year’s work by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman to pass legislation that would promote fourplexes in San Francisco. In early 2021, Mandelman announced a more modest plan that failed to advance. He returned last summer with a new proposal that the board passed in a 6-4 vote Tuesday, with Supervisors Ahsha Safaí, Catherine Stefani, Shamann Walton and Matt Dorsey dissenting. Supervisor Connie Chan was absent.

Some supervisors opposed the legislation because it circumvents the fast-tracked permit approval process required by a new state law — SB9 — that was passed to promote the construction of more multi-unit housing.

With the ordinance, Mandelman and co-sponsor Supervisor Myrna Melgar are trying to encourage more density while preserving local control over new development. Mandelman has acknowledged that his legislation leaves more work to be done to address the housing crisis.

“I share the frustration of those who feel that a measure that was already modest and incremental to begin with ended up even more so after working its way through the legislative process, but I believe today’s vote is nonetheless a move in the right direction for San Francisco,” Mandelman said in a statement after the vote. “Still, the reality is that this board needs to do better and be bolder if we are to have any hope of achieving the significant increase in housing production required by state law and demanded by the moment.”

Richard Hillis, the city’s planning director, said the impact of the fourplex ordinance will likely be “fairly small” as measured by new housing units. But he called the act of ending single-family zoning “a pretty big step” — at least in terms of recognizing that building multi-family rather than single-family homes is good policy.

But he added that he’s “nervous that the changes they’re making are either not going far enough, or they’re putting requirements in place that will result in too few units being produced.”

Currently, about 40% of San Francisco’s land area is zoned for only single-family homes. The ordinance rezones all those areas to allow duplexes by default. Property owners can then receive a density exception from the city that allows them to build up to four units, six on corner lots.

Any one building more than two units would have those extra units subject to rent control — a program that some developers say can make the economics of building more homes harder to pencil out.

And only those who have owned their properties for at least five years — or inherited it from a family member who did — can qualify for the density exception at all.

The latter provision, implemented in committee at the urging of Supervisor Dean Preston, could hamstring the ordinance’s ability to translate into much new development, some observers say.

Preston pushed the restriction in order to prevent rampant real estate speculation. But critics say the ownership restriction could simply push more developers toward building more expensive duplexes and single-family homes rather than more affordable fourplexes.

“That doesn’t make sense to us in terms of what we think the public policy objective should be, which is … to encourage more small units and more rent-controlled units,” said Tom Radulovich, the executive director of Livable City .

Todd David, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition, said he thought the original version of the bill wouldn’t have much of an impact, but the amendments made that even more true.

“They took the original policy they knew would create little housing and they added some additional bells and whistles to ensure that it will create very little to no housing,” David said.

Additionally, the ordinance allows San Francisco to get around a key provision of SB9.

The 2021 state law lets homeowners who want to add extra units get approval through a streamlined process that bypasses city officials’ ability to use their discretion to reject housing developments. But the law applies only to areas zoned for single-family homes, so San Francisco’s rezoning of the whole city would make SB9 no longer apply to the permit approval process.

The San Francisco legislation’s end-run around SB9 was cited by Safaí and Dorsey when they explained to their colleagues why they were voting against the local measure.

“I believe it’s too small of a step,” said Safaí, who had proposed his own fourplex ordinance that was not incorporated into Mandelman’s.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat and co-author of SB9, said in a statement after the board vote that, while Mandelman’s original ordinance was a “good-faith proposal,” the amended version, “sadly, doesn’t cut it.”

“The ordinance avoids SB9 without offering an alternative robust path to more housing,” Wiener said.

Even without San Francisco’s restrictions, however, SB9 likely would have had limited impact in the city, according to housing experts and a Chronicle analysis.

Mandelman has previously said he was open to discussing ways of fast-tracking permit approvals but that any such changes would have to be made by supervisors later.

“This is not the final statement on density in low-density neighborhoods,” he said Tuesday.

Hillis said that streamlining approval for fourplexes and sixplexes once the city is rezoned would likely require a ballot measure to amend the City Charter. San Franciscans are already voting on at least one amendment — possibly two — in November aimed at accelerating housing production for some projects.

Wiener said he did not believe that San Francisco could rely on its newest fourplex law to comply with its state-mandated plan to meet housing production goals. The city must plan to build 82,000 units between 2023 and 2031.

“This is further evidence that the voters are going to have to take matters into their own hands to ensure San Franciscans have enough housing to meet our city’s needs,” he said in his statement.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who supported the ordinance, said Tuesday that he was “actually kind of shocked that there is opposition to this.” He and Preston both said they believed the real reason for the resistance was that many of those in favor of more housing development also oppose rent control.

“Let’s be clear: They hate rent control and that is why they are opposing a bill that increases density in San Francisco,” Peskin said.

JD Morris is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jd.morris@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @thejdmorris

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