Preserve existing rental housing

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San Francisco's housing affordability crisis has become the main threat to the livability of the city for hundreds of thousands of residents. One glimmer of hope came last month, as the Board of Supervisors reformed decades-old laws that permit, and often encourage, the loss of affordable rental units.

When San Francisco adopted its zoning laws in the 1960s, it assigned a zoning district to every parcel in the city. Each zoning district set a maximum number of dwelling units allowed per parcel. These density limits effectively forbade adding units to existing buildings across most of the city, and deemed approximately 51,000 dwelling units "nonconforming."

Nonconforming units are allowed to remain for the lifetime of the building, but could not be enlarged or improved. The controls on merging dwelling units actually encouraged the loss of units if the units were nonconforming or denser than the neighboring buildings. The planners' intent was that nonconforming units would be eliminated over time, as buildings are remodeled or rebuilt.

The 2009 General Plan Housing Element moved in a different direction, calling for preservation of dwelling units, especially affordable and rent-controlled housing, and favoring in-kind replacement of affordable units lost to conversion, demolition, and merger. Two ordinances, sponsored by Sup. John Avalos and based on proposals from Livable City, have now brought the Planning Code in line with the Housing Element policies.

One ordinance amended the controls on residential demolition, conversion, and merger to reflect the Housing Element goals. It strengthens requirements that lost units be replaced with similarly affordable units, and restricts mergers in buildings with a recent history of Ellis Act or owner-move-in evictions. It also clarifies the legal status of dwelling units where the permit records are ambiguous, making them legal unless there is conclusive evidence that the units are illegal. This will improve housing security for thousands of San Franciscans who dwell in older, rent-controlled buildings that are denser than the Planning Code currently allows.

A second ordinance permits the improvement and expansion of nonconforming units that exceed current density limits, so long as they remain within the existing building envelope. This allows owners to enlarge units by converting space in existing buildings to dwelling space. To protect tenants from speculative evictions, improvement and expansion are not permitted in buildings with a recent history of Ellis and owner move-in evictions.

In addition, Sup. David Chiu introduced legislation in November to permit legalization of thousands of existing rent-controlled units that were built without planning permission. This ordinance will protect these rent-controlled units from conversion and merger, and allow them to be brought up to building and housing code.

Bolder measures will be needed to make San Francisco an affordable city for all, but preserving more of our affordable housing moves us in the right direction.

Tom Radulovich is the executive director of Livable City.

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