Livable City’s Action Plan for Housing

Housing affordability is a crisis in San Francisco. Livable City’s Action Plan for Housing includes strategies for making San Francisco a more livable, sustainable, and affordable city.

Livable City has made progress on these housing strategies over the past decade, and has a number of legislative and policy initiatives currently underway. Five ordinances based on Livable City’s work have been approved by the Board of Supervisors since December. We will continue to work on these and other initiatives in the coming year, and as part of our 10-year advocacy plan.

Remove Unnecessary Barriers to Housing

Housing in the Hayes Valley neighborhood, San Francisco.

Housing in the Hayes Valley neighborhood, San Francisco.

Several of the City’s planning requirements create unnecessary barriers to building and improving housing in San Francisco. Removing outdated restrictions and requirements will help foster the creation and preservation of housing that is more sustainable, affordable, and in keeping with San Francisco’s compact, urbane, and walkable character.

  • Remove arbitrary density limits. In the 1960s, San Francisco established density limits across the city. These density controls limit the maximum number of dwelling units on a given lot to a specific number of units (most of the city is limited to one, two, or three dwelling units per lot) or by lot square footage. These density limits are often lower than existing neighborhood densities, and limit opportunities to add units within the existing, or allowed, building envelope. In Downtown districts, conditional use authorization is required for dense housing, adding unnecessary costs and delays.In zoning districts created since 2008, arbitrary density limits have been eliminated, and density is instead regulated by allowable building height and bulk, open space requirements, dwelling unit exposure requirements, and design standards. If we extended this approach to the other residential and mixed-use areas of the city, we could create thousands of new units in existing buildings, and in new buildings  compatible with established neighborhood character.
  • Remove minimum parking requirements. Minimum parking requirements were also imposed citywide in the 1960s. Since 1997, minimum parking requirements have been relaxed neighborhood by neighborhood, and Livable City has led many of those successful efforts (see our History of Parking Reform for details). Removing minimum parking requirements allows the addition of housing without the expense, and the damage to streetscapes, walkability, and neighborhood character, of adding garages and driveways. It permits residents and builders to build only the parking needed, without the city imposing an arbitrary minimum requirement. It permits existing garages to be converted to housing or neighborhood-serving storefront businesses. Approximately 20% of the city now has no minimum parking requirements; however, many of the city’s most transit-rich neighborhoods and corridors still have minimums, including all or part of the Geary, Van Ness, Mission, Haight, Church, Embarcadero, Fillmore, Divisadero, Third, and Polk corridors. Removing minimum parking requirements in these corridors could help create thousands of housing units, and lower the cost and environmental impact of those new units.
  • Legalize in-law units. In-law units house thousands of San Franciscans, and are an important housing resource in an increasingly expensive city. Planning Code requirements, chiefly residential density limits and minimum parking requirements, have made in-law units illegal in most neighborhoods. Despite these restrictions, thousands of in-law units have been built since the 1960s, and these units, and the thousands of our neighbors who dwell in them, are in legal limbo. Livable City has long advocated legalizing existing and new in-law units as a sustainable and affordable way to add housing by making use of space in existing buildings. Over the past year, Livable City has secured four important legislative wins. We worked with Supervisor Avalos on two ordinances that preserve many dwelling units by clarifying their legal status, and allow existing units which exceed density limits (estimated at over 51,000 units citywide) to be enlarged and improved within the existing building envelope. We worked with Supervisor Chiu to legalize existing units, and on Supervisor Wiener’s legislation to permit new in-law units in the Castro neighborhood.
  • Raise height limits.  Modest increases in San Francisco’s permitted building heights can improve urban design, and allow more housing to be built on available sites at a reasonable cost. The least expensive, and least resource-consuming, construction types are buildings of up to 5 or 6 stories. Most of San Francisco is zoned for buildings of four stories or less. Where height limits are 40′ or 50′ in mixed-use districts, raising the height limit by 5′ permits taller ground floor retail spaces, or ground-floor apartments to be lifted a few steps up the sidewalk for greater light and privacy. West Portal Avenue, with three streetcar lines, is zoned for only two-story buildings, half the permitted height of the surrounding residential neighborhoods. Raising the height limit by one or two stories on major commercial and transit corridors, like Geary Boulevard, will permit more housing above ground-floor retail, where it can take advantage of large building sites, frequent transit, and neighborhood-serving shops and services.

Embrace Sustainable Transportation to Create Opportunities for Housing

Embracing sustainable transportation – walking, cycling, public transit, and car-sharing – can free land for needed housing, and allow greater density without sacrificing livability or sustainability.

  • Realize the Freeway Dividend. The removal of freeways over the past two decades has created a Freeway Dividend for San Francisco – acres of land in heart of the City for new housing and open space. Removing the Embarcadero Freeway restored waterfront open spaces, allows creation of a whole new neighborhood at Transbay with offices, parks, and hundreds of new apartments (35% of which will be permanently affordable), and freed sites for two affordable apartment developments on Broadway. Removing the northern end of the Central Freeway created a landscaped boulevard, a new urban park, and sites for dozens of new housing units; 40% of which will be permanently affordable. Removing the northern stub of I-280 and of the remainder of the Central Freeway are further opportunities to reclaim urban land and knit neighborhoods back together.
  • Reclaim parking lots and gas stations for housing. Parking lots and gas stations can provide sites for needed housing and green space in the city, without displacing residents or businesses. In San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, dozens of new housing units are being built on former parking lots, gas stations, and car washes, and the parking lot at 17th and Folsom streets will become a new neighborhood park. Embracing walking, cycling, and transit, managing on-street parking better,  car-sharing, space-efficient parking, removing the Planning Code’s remaining restrictions on converting gas stations, relaxing parking requirements in transit-rich areas, and limiting surface parking lots can reduce the automobile’s oversized footprint in the city, freeing land for housing and green spaces.

City Repair

Done right, new development can repair the city, and enhance the character, beauty, diversity, and livability of neighborhoods. Both development boosters and development detractors characterize the erosion of character and livability as inevitable consequences of dense development. Livable City has led the effort to improve the Planning Code’s urban design standards to create more livable, walkable, and attractive neighborhoods as the city grows and changes.

  • Active Street Frontage. Lining street frontage with retail storefronts or individual residential entrances helps create human scale,  transparency, and visual interest, and enhances safety by providing ‘eyes on the street’, as does limiting the width of garage entrances, and requiring above ground parking to be wrapped in active uses. In 2010, Livable City helped revamp the City’s Planning Code to require active street-fronting uses for new and expanded buildings in most neighborhoods, and is working to improve, refine, and expand these controls.
  • Neighborhood-serving shops and services. Neighborhood-serving shops and services provide convenience and reduce automobile trips by placing more of the necessities of life within walking distance, and create opportunities for small businesses to grow and thrive. Livable City has helped revise the Planning Code to allow new corner stores in denser residential districts, and allow former storefronts to be reactivated. Other ongoing include revising controls on signs, awnings, and storefronts to improve enhance walkability, streetscapes, and neighborhood character, removing unnecessary restrictions on small businesses, and clarifying ‘good neighbor’ language limiting the impact of noise, vibration, odors on immediate neighbors.
  • Encourage adaptation and reuse of older buildings. Preserving, adapting, and reusing historic buildings helps create and sustain neighborhood character. The greenest building is the one you don’t build – reusing existing buildings reuses the energy and materials embodied in the building, and conserves the energy and materials needed to replace them. However, certain Planning Code requirements often make it difficult to adapt existing buildings to new uses. Livable City developed a package of Planning Code revisions, endorsed by San Francisco Architectural Heritage, to provide greater flexibility in the reuse and adaptation of existing buildings, while maintaining safety,  habitability, and preservation standards.

Strengthen Affordability

San Francisco has long struggled to meet its affordable housing obligations. According to ABAG, two-thirds of the housing produced in San Francisco should be below market rate in order to meet existing and projected housing demand. Reduced Federal funding for affordable housing, State laws limiting on rent control and redevelopment funding, and a San Francisco Charter cap on required inclusionary affordable units (affordable housing units required in market rate projects) now limit some of the historic tools for preserving and expanding affordability, but there is still much we can do.

  •  Increase incentives for affordable housing. State law requires that cities provide one or more significant incentives for affordable housing projects and mixed-income projects that increase the percentage of affordable units. San Francisco has few affordability incentives written into its Planning Code; instead, the Planning Department creates special controls on a site-by-site basis, delaying projects, increasing costs, and generating political fights. Reforms like removing arbitrary density limits and parking requirements also help improve affordability. In addition, Livable City has developed a matrix of specific affordability incentives for each of the  zoning districts of the City, and is working to implement them.
  • Prevent the loss of existing affordable housing. Dozens of affordable and rent-controlled units are lost each year to mergers (merging dwellings into larger units), conversion to non-residential uses, and demolition. Livable City worked with Supervisor Avalos on recently-approved legislation to strengthen the Planning Code’s restrictions on mergers, demolition, and conversion, and better ensure that affordable units lost are replaced in-kind.
  • Direct funding for affordable housing. 2012’s Proposition C created an affordable housing trust fund for San Francisco. So far, the City has been able to preserve former Redevelopment funds that were set aside for affordable housing, and obligations for affordable housing in three active Redevelopment project areas. San Francisco needs an effective plan for how to best spend these existing sources, and to find additional funding for affordable housing.
  • SB 2113. SB 2113 is an amendment to state redevelopment law passed in 2000. It permits San Francisco to incur debt in former redevelopment areas in order to finance new low- and moderate-income housing to replace affordable housing destroyed by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency before 1976. 6,709 units were lost in the first decades of redevelopment, and 900 units have been replaced or are in progress using SB 2113 funding. Redevelopment agencies were abolished in 2011, and the State has not yet opined whether San Francisco may continue to use SB2113 to fund housing.
  • Use underutilized public land in transit-rich areas for affordable housing. Some underutilized public land in San Francisco can be used for affordable housing. MTA-owned parking lots near the 24th Street Mission BART Station, near the Castro Muni station, and on California Street are located in transit-rich areas where affordable housing is needed. City College’s Phelan campus is planned to sprawl onto the former Balboa reservoirs as low-rise buildings and surface parking lots; a more compact, urban campus would allow for both academic buildings and student and faculty housing.

Denser and Greener

Conventional wisdom is that as a city grows denser, it loses green open space and becomes more polluted and congested. We aim to transform those conventional development patterns, so that San Francisco becomes a greener, healthier place as it meets its housing needs.

  • Reclaim road space for greening and livability. City streets occupy almost a quarter of San Francisco’s area. This enormous public open space resource can be reclaimed for greening and neighborhood livability while still accommodating our  sustainable mobility needs. The toolbox ranges from low-cost, temporary interventions, like Sunday Streets and parklets, to sidewalk widening and traffic calming. San Francisco has increased its street tree coverage, but lags far behind other cities. San Francisco has over 1500 blocks of unaccepted streets, many of which can be a transformed into green spaces or community gardens. Our street lighting infrastructure and standards are poor, and need to better light sidewalks and prevent light trespass into residential windows and the night sky.
  • Tie streetscape improvements to new development. As new buildings are built, expanded, or change use, adjacent streetscapes should be brought up to a higher standard. In recent years, the City has strengthened its street design standards through the Better Streets Plan, and Livable City has worked to expand the streetscape improvement requirements of the Planning Code. Developers are generally amenable, since construction work often means that adjacent streets and sidewalks need to be repaired or rebuilt anyway, and streetscape improvements are an amenity which directly enhances property values and allays neighbors. Despite recent progress, the City misses many opportunities to enhance streetscapes as properties are developed or improved, and further reform is needed to strengthen requirements and facilitate the improvements being made.
  • Green and restore front and rear yards. In many neighborhoods, front and rear yards provide usable open space, green the street, and provide a gracious transition between the public and private realms. The Planning Code prohibits parking in front building setbacks, and where front building setbacks are required by the Planning Code, the code also requires landscaping and rainwater permeability in front yards. These requirements are often ignored and seldom enforced. Livable City is working to improve compliance with residential front yard greening and permeability requirements. We are also working to allow voluntary removal of garages and surface parking that have encroached into front and rear setbacks so that residents can restore green open spaces.
  • Build a greenway network, and allow transferred development rights to preserve open spaces. Although we have a huge need for housing, San Francisco needn’t build on every available square inch of land. We need to preserve green open spaces for recreation, relaxation, habitat the region’s diverse plants and animals, and to preserve and restore the city’s streams, watersheds, shorelines, and groundwater basins. A network of connected green spaces can be woven together through our dense city by repurposing city streets and utility rights-of-way, and assembling land owned and managed by various city departments to create larger, continuous open spaces in our hilltops, stream courses, and waterfront. Livable City’s Greenway Network is 21st-century vision for such a network. Allowing the transfer of development rights from potential greenway sites to potential development sites in transit-rich parts of the city can help to both complete our greenway network and encourage development in the right locations.

Better Planning

Improving our planning processes to reduce wasted effort and improve project quality, using existing infrastructure investments wisely and effectively, and better integrating land use, transportation, and public infrastructure planning, will help us achieve our housing goals while preserving livability, mobility, and fiscal sustainability.

  • Infrastructure-efficient land use planning. Our land use planning ought to focus new housing development in areas with established transit service and other infrastructure like streets, commercial districts, and community facilities, and areas where such infrastructure can be expanded cost-effectively – the proposed rapid corridors in Muni’s Transit Effectiveness Project, and the City’s BART and Caltrain stations. Infrastructure is expensive, and existing infrastructure needs are chronically underfunded, so it makes sense to minimize the infrastructure costs of new development. Dense development should generally avoid environmental hazard zones, like earthquake liquefaction areas, areas most vulnerable to flooding, and landslide-prone steep slopes. Too often, planning in San Francisco often follows the course of least political resistance, avoiding suitable transit-rich areas, particularly on the city’s West Side, for purely political reasons, and instead pushing new development into the areas less well suited for housing. As the City updates its Countywide Transportation Plan and devises a transportation infrastructure funding strategy, we should explore land-use scenarios that use existing infrastructure more effectively and minimize the infrastructure demands of planned development.
  • Improve planning of large developments. Planning of large developments in San Francisco is arbitrary and inconsistent; project-by-project exceptions, rather than planning by consistent rules, is the norm. The recent referendum on the 8 Washington Project showed the limits of that approach, as San Francisco voters overwhelming rejected a project that had been granted numerous exceptions without clear public benefit. The Planning Code’s various provisions for reviewing and approving large projects should be consolidated and updated, to consistently secure public benefits from large new developments (affordable housing, repairing the street grid, quality open spaces, and strong urban design), and create greater certainty for both developers and neighbors.
  • Rationalize the Planning Code. San Francisco’s Planning Code, with over 2300 pages, over 100 zoning districts, and numerous loopholes, anachronisms, and inconsistencies, increases costs, delays, and uncertainty in the development process for both developers and neighbors. Livable City has led the effort to improve the code’s organization, and eliminate redundant and outdated provisions. However much remains to be done to transform the Code into a tool for creating livable and sustainable buildings and neighborhoods.
  • Strengthen green building requirements. Stronger green building requirements can reduce environmental and infrastructure demands of new projects.
  • Development impact fees to fund housing and infrastructure. San Francisco exacts development impact fees, which vary by neighborhood, to fund certain transit, housing, and infrastructure needs. The system should be made more consistent across use districts, and fund walking, cycling, and regional transit infrastructure in addition to Muni.  Fees should accurately reflect the impact a project’s transportation choices, including excess parking, has on the city’s streets, transit system, and other infrastructure –  parking structures and excess parking in projects, for example, currently pay no impact fees at all, despite the congestion, pollution, and infrastructure wear-and-tear they generate, and the increased danger and inconvenience they impose on pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, and neighbors.