Making it fit

Housing crisis triggers new calls to legalize and build more granny units


San Francisco's overheating housing market has polarized the city. While progressive activists push to protect rent-controlled apartments and encourage construction of new below-market-rate housing, moderates, Realtors, and developers say any new housing helps keep prices in check, calling on the city to build 5,000 units per year.

But there is a hidden side to the housing issue in San Francisco, one that offers both complex challenges and enormous potential as a source of housing for low-income city residents, and it's getting a fresh look with desperate eyes.

Secondary units — also known as granny flats or in-law housing — dot the city by the thousands, and are for the most part illegal. They're tucked behind garages, in basements, or in backyards, most of them single serving sized and largely ignored.

Such units are legal under California law, and the reasons they're quasi-legal in San Francisco are complex. It mostly boils down to the fact that often these units aren't up to Building or Planning codes, but there have also been decisions to deliberately limit density in some neighborhoods, sometimes driven by concerns about more competition for street parking spaces.

Tenants in such units can be reluctant to report housing code violations for fear of losing cheap apartments in this rapidly gentrifying city, even if that means living in substandard housing. And the owners of those units often can't afford to bring them up to code or pay the fines. It remains an underground industry with few watchdogs.

Caught between conflicting realities of housing shortages, poverty, and safety, the city has largely turned a blind eye to in-law units, adopting what housing advocates call a "don't ask, don't tell" policy around inspecting in-law units. Now that may change.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and Sup. Scott Wiener have plans in the works that could spur development of secondary units in the city. San Francisco has been there and done that though, and the bodies of failed past granny flat campaigns litter the political wasteland.

"In-law legalization has been for a lot of housing advocates the holy grail, but for a lot of politicians, it's been a third rail," said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, a nonprofit group that advocates for a more walkable, livable San Francisco.

Despite the many failed jump starts over the years, Radulovich sees hope in the prospects of legalizing more secondary units because "it's a good, cheap, and green way to add housing."



So what's different now? First off, unlike past efforts, the politicians involved are taking some small but significant steps.

Wiener's plan could directly spur the creation of new secondary units, but it's limited to only the Castro District. It basically lifts caps on the number of units that can be built in a single residence, waiving some density and other Planning Code requirements.

Wiener views his plan as a pilot program. "I decided to try a more limited geographic area to show that it can work," he told us, saying that the past failed campaigns tried to force the issue citywide.

The Castro is a prime candidate for more affordable housing. The neighborhood has many tenants who are single, Wiener said. And as gentrification slammed the Castro, the vulnerable were hurt as well. Jeremy Mykaels, a 17-year Castro tenant living with AIDS, recently fought back an Ellis Act eviction that would have cost him his home.

"I am not looking for pity," Mykaels wrote on his website, addressing his eviction. "I just want to shed a light on a growing problem in this city for many senior and disabled tenants like myself."