Castro in-law units: One way to address our housing crisis

November 7th, 2013
The Bay Area Reporter

It's no secret that we are experiencing a housing affordability crisis in San Francisco and particularly in the Castro. With one-bedroom apartments going for $3,000 on average and even cramped roommate situations escalating in price, we are at serious risk of pricing non-wealthy people out of our neighborhood and even our city. Too many longtime, older residents are being pushed out by eviction or other means, and new residents - an influx of new, younger residents being one of the hallmarks of our neighborhood - struggle mightily to find anything they can afford. If we continue to lose older, often LGBT, residents - the folks who built the modern Castro - and continue to turn away young people looking to make their lives here, what kind of neighborhood will we be?

We've dug ourselves into this terrible situation over a period of decades by embracing an unrealistic housing policy. As our population has grown - not surprising, given how amazing a place San Francisco is - we haven't come close to keeping up with housing production to meet the needs of that increased population. We make it so expensive to build housing that it's hard to construct anything other than high-end housing. Restrictive zoning has perpetuated the myth that everyone can afford to live in a single-family home or spacious flat. New ideas to take into account the reality of housing costs - for example, the legislation I authored last year to allow for smaller studios - generate reflexive opposition from various political factions.

We need to think differently when it comes to housing, acknowledging the reality of modern San Francisco. If we keep going down our current path, housing will become even more out of reach for most people. It's important to keep pursuing current strategies like investing in affordable housing, protecting rent control by pushing for reform of the Ellis Act and stopping the conversion of rent-controlled units to student dorms, and helping homeowners at risk of foreclosure. Yet, as important as these strategies are, they aren't enough. We need to look at our reality and adjust our housing policy to meet that reality.

Last week, I introduced legislation to allow for the addition of new in-law units in existing buildings in the Castro. (Supervisor David Chiu is working on citywide legislation to legalize existing in-law units.) A transit-rich neighborhood with a large population of older and younger single people with massive housing needs, the Castro is a perfect neighborhood to try this approach.

In-law units, created out of existing unused space in buildings - i.e., not expanding the bulk or height of the building - are perhaps the most affordable kind of non-subsidized housing. They are inherently not luxurious, they are usually quite accessible for seniors and others with mobility challenges, and they are well-integrated into our existing neighborhood fabric. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in-law units "help increase a community's housing supply ... [and] are an affordable housing option for many low- and moderate-income residents," while AARP describes them as "offer[ing] a cost-effective means of increasing the supply of affordable rental housing in a community."

The legislation is straightforward. It allows buildings, whether single-family homes or multi-unit buildings, to go slightly above current zoning restrictions to add in-law units. Buildings of 10 or fewer units can add one in-law unit above zoning limits, and buildings of more than 10 units can add two. The units will have to be within existing habitable space - i.e., a garage, a large storage space, a large basement area - within the existing envelope of the building. Height or bulk increases will not be allowed by this legislation. The units will have to come from unused space, without chopping up existing units. The units can be as small as 220 square feet (the minimum currently allowed for apartments) and as large as 750 square feet. Each unit will have to be complete, with kitchen and bathroom. The Department of Building Inspection will be required to apply the building code flexibly, to the extent allowed by state law, to accommodate the new units. This flexible approach will require that the units comply with basic health and safety requirements while recognizing that many in-law units cannot meet all aspects of current code.

Our housing crisis is a complex one, and no one policy proposal will solve it. To dig out of this hole, we need various approaches, applied consistently not just for a short time but over a period of years. In-law units are by no means a global solution, but they are one piece of the puzzle, one that will allow people to stay in the neighborhood when they otherwise would have no realistic option to do so. It's time to take a serious stab at addressing our community's housing needs by implementing realistic solutions.

Scott Wiener represents District 8, including the Castro, on the Board of Supervisors.

Links: Bay Area Reporter Editorial


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