The debate over SF’s quadruplex housing is getting more heated

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors hopes that three plus two will eventually total four.

On Monday, an already deep debate about legalizing fourplexes in the city’s single-family neighborhoods grew even wider, as three competing proposals rose two to five.

But the debate is in much the same shape as when supervisor Rafael Mandelman presented the first of the competing quadruplex proposals last summer. The differing views boil down to a question of economic feasibility for developers versus affordability for future residents. If affordability and other requirements are too onerous, according to one faction, little new housing will be built. Without affordability requirements and other restrictions, the other faction says, allowing increased amounts of density at a developer giveaway with little benefit to residents.

If this housing debate sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The same ideological clash has defined Mayor London Breed’s ‘cars to casas’ proposal and the ongoing Housing Element process, a state-mandated plan that requires the city to find space for 80,000 new housing over the next decade.

Whatever the fourplex proposal, don’t hold your breath for the instant transformation of Presidio Heights and Forest Hill: the city’s analysis found that under current conditions, redevelopment of single-family homes into fourplexes is economically unfeasible in any the city. But some proposals are more impractical than others.

Here is where the latest quadruplex proposals currently stand:

Mandelman’s proposal

Mandelman’s plan, which has been significantly modified since his original proposal, would allow up to four units on each residential lot in the city and up to six units on corner lots. New buildings would be subject to existing height and footprint regulations, meaning they could not be as tall as single-family homes are allowed to be today.

The changes added by supervisor Myrna Melgar, now a co-sponsor, require new units created by the ordinance to be subject to rent control and require that at least one of the new units have at least two bedrooms.

Mandelman’s order would allow San Francisco to comply with SB 9, the state law that functionally ended single-family zoning when it went into effect in January, on the city’s own terms. While SB 9 allows backyard homes and eliminates discretionary review, Mandelman’s order would prevent backyard homes (smaller backyard ADUs or grandma’s apartments would still be allowed) and preserve existing exams. This provision has frustrated YIMBY activists who criticize the city’s lengthy and onerous permit process.

The planning department approved this legislation, deeming it to be in line with the general plan of the city. However, analysis commissioned by the ministry found that fourplex development would in most cases be financially unfeasible – even without affordability requirements. Construction and other development costs are simply too high to make remodeling a home into a fourplex any more financially attractive than reselling the home as is.

Mar’s proposal

Like Mandelman’s quadruplex proposal, Mar’s legislation would allow up to four units on all residential lots within existing height and mass limits. All additional units should have at least two bedrooms.

Where Mar’s proposal differs significantly from Mandelman’s is that any additional units built on these lots must be sold or leased at rates affordable to households with incomes below the area’s median income, although that the income of new buyers and tenants is not limited. Affordability requirements would work much like rent control, where prices are capped but the income level of residents is not limited.

The Planning Department withheld its blessing for the order, due to the lack of income restrictions for new buyers and tenants. The department also sounded the order to be even less likely to generate new housing than Mandelman’s proposal, due to caps on developer profits. Mar’s ordinance would mandate significantly more affordable housing than is currently required for downtown condo towers.

Mar said he would like to pursue additional legislation to provide financial and technical assistance to homeowners looking to add units to their homes.

Safaí’s proposal

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí also proposed legalizing quadruplexes on every lot with affordability requirements. Triplexes and quadruplexes should dedicate at least one affordable unit to households earning 110% of the area median income (AMI) for rentals and 140% of the AMI for properties for sale. Unlike Mar’s proposal, the affordable units generated by Safaí’s order would only be available to those earning below the designated income threshold.

In a new amendment, Safaí wants to give developers the option of paying fees instead of requiring projects to include affordable housing on site.

The Planning Department also disapproved of Safaí’s proposal, due to the financial difficulty of including affordable housing in such small developments.

Mandelman’s proposal with Mar’s amendments

At Monday’s hearing, Mar presented a modified version of Mandelman’s order that would essentially merge the two lawmakers’ proposals. Among other provisions, the amended proposal would extend the same affordability requirement in Mar’s legislation to Mandelman’s.

Mandelman’s Proposal with Preston’s Amendments

Supervisor Dean Preston also proposed an amendment to Mandelman’s order, requiring any homeowner who benefits must have owned the home for at least five years. The intention, Preston said, was to prevent property speculators from using the order.

“While I appreciate thoughtful discussions with colleagues about this and other quadruplex proposals over the past year, time is running out,” Mandelman wrote in an email. “I’m concerned that additional affordability requirements and provisions to limit the program to current homeowners only would significantly limit the number of new units that can be built through this order.”

The Commission’s Planning and Transport Committee will take up the quadruplex issue on 9 May.

About Dwaine Pinson

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