Ordinance allows construction of new in-law units in buildings undergoing either mandatory or voluntary soft-story seismic retrofits, which will incentivize creation of new housing as well as seismic upgrades

San Francisco, CA – Yesterday the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Supervisor Scott Wiener’s legislation to allow the construction of new in-law units in buildings that are undergoing either mandatory or voluntary soft-story seismic retrofits.  Adding new in-law units to a building while it is being retrofitted will be efficient and cost-effective for property owners by combining two projects into one, will add new and more affordable housing stock, will provide a financial benefit for owners who are being mandated to perform often expensive retrofits, and will incentivize owners to perform voluntary retrofits.

This legislation follows on the passage of Supervisor Wiener’s legislation to allow for the construction of new in-law units in the Castro District, which was unanimously passed by the Board of Supervisors in April 2014.

“Increasing our housing stock requires a wide range of solutions, and adding in-law units is a sustainable way to build new housing in our neighborhoods,” said Supervisor Wiener. “These units are a great way to expand our building supply without affecting the existing character of our neighborhoods."

The law was passed on first reading at the Board yesterday. It will have a second reading at next week’s Board meeting, after which it will go to the Mayor to be signed. The ordinance becomes law 30 days after the Mayor signs it.

The mandatory and voluntary retrofit programs are both city programs that focus on shoring up the seismic safety of soft-story, wood-frame buildings.  Last year, the Board of Supervisors passed legislation requiring that soft-story buildings at least 3 stories tall and containing at least 5 housing units be retrofitted. Soft-story buildings have weak ground floor conditions, like garage door space or open window retail space.

In-law units, according to various studies, are the most affordable type of non-subsidized housing.  They tend to be added into garages, basements, or large storage areas.  Many apartment buildings in San Francisco have ground floors with no housing units; these areas could easily be converted into housing but cannot be converted under zoning restrictions. Supervisor Wiener’s legislation will relax zoning to allow for these units to be added, except it will not apply in areas zoned for single family homes.

As was the case with Supervisor Wiener’s legislation allowing for new in-law units in the Castro, these new units will be rent-controlled if the building at issue is subject to rent control.  The units would have to be constructed within the existing building envelope, meaning that a building could not be increased in height or bulk to add the unit.

The Mandatory Seismic Retrofit program, unanimously passed by the Board of Supervisors in 2013, requires the retrofitting of soft-story, wood frame buildings built prior to 1978 with 3 or more stories and 5 or more units. On September 15, the screening forms for all soft-story buildings are due, and retrofitting of the buildings will begin soon thereafter. Supervisor Wiener’s current legislation will add an incentive for property owners to make these improvements sooner and also to do more substantive retrofitting.

The Voluntary Retrofit Program applies to wood frame, soft-story buildings built before 1973 with fewer than 5 residential units. One of the goals of Supervisor Wiener’s legislation is to add an incentive to increase participation in the voluntary retrofit program.

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