Residential Housing Reform

San Francisco’s ongoing housing crisis compels us to reimagine the type of homes we need to build and preserve to support the housing needs of all San Franciscans. To meet this moment, we must chart a path where building small scale multi-family housing is not only possible and encouraged and existing units are preserved especially to support affordability throughout the city.

Livable City together with the Public Policy Advisory Committee of the American Institute of Architects’ San Francisco chapter (AIASF-PPAC) compiled a set of recommendations to streamline the approval and building of small scale housing that will add units where they are most needed without drastically changing the character of neighborhoods. We need to make it easier for San Franciscans to access increased housing options that reflect the city’s rich diversity of people and their needs.

Diversifying housing options within walking distance of commercial districts and frequent transit helps create 10-minute neighborhoods, where residents can meet more of the needs of daily life within a short walk or bike ride from home. We are confident that these set of initiatives will help all neighborhoods become more walkable, bikeable and livable for all residents. 

Here’s what will help in the transformation of our city:

  • Build Missing Middle Housing

San Francisco has a great multitude of examples we can look to – accessory units, backyard cottages, cottage courts, and two-and three-flat row houses, and small apartment buildings. Streamlining the process to build small scale multi unit housing helps fill the gap between luxury high rises and single family homes and increase affordability.

  • Permit Inclusionary Zoning
    Over half the city doesn’t allow for more than 2 units on the same lot. Permitting only single-family houses means that San Francisco is segregated by income into haves and have nots. Removing these exclusionary policies and practices can preserve and foster the qualities we love about our neighborhoods while making them more welcoming and inclusive to diverse households.
  • Unknown Costs Creates Delays, Complications
    San Francisco’s current planning rules and practices create unnecessary ambiguity and uncertainty for owners, residents, builders, and neighbors. Building a three-unit building can be as much of an administrative hassle as building a 50-unit building. Adding unnecessary risk, cost, and uncertainty to the planning approval process benefits nobody. Clear rules, aligned with our current values and policies, can benefit everybody.

Livable City has worked over the past decade to strengthen San Francisco’s controls on the demolition of rent-stabilized housing, require replacement in-kind for units lost, and strengthen the right of return for displaced tenants. Moving into the next decade, we will continue our efforts to support the housing needs of all San Franciscans through our partnerships with city agencies and our community partnerships.

See below for our full list of recommendations with AIASF-PPAC.


The San Francisco Planning Department plays a vital role in navigating change in the built environment and balancing the needs of all members of our vibrant San Francisco community. Livable City and the San Francisco AIA-PPAC partnered to provide suggestions to align the Planning Department’s standards, procedures, and practices with the goals outlined below. 


  1. Improve the architectural and urban design quality of new and renovated housing. 
  2. Standardize regulations and procedures across zoning districts. Reduce the cost of new and renovated housing by significantly streamlining the process, cost, and time it takes to obtain entitlements. 
  3. Ensure that all city reviews and procedures are ‘value added’ – improving building design, performance, and amenity, while eliminating exclusionary zoning. 
  4. Create greater certainty for both neighbors and architects about what is permitted and what is expected from new development and renovated housing. 
  5. Diversify housing options in all neighborhoods. Allow and incentivize the creation of new housing and the renovation of existing housing to accommodate changing family needs, and different family sizes and compositions. 
  6. Facilitate the preservation and reuse of existing buildings and their embodied carbon, while allowing and incentivizing modification to increase resiliency: seismic and fire safety, energy conservation, durability, and occupant health. Allow for major alteration and/or demolition where it furthers the City’s housing and livability goals. 
  7. Facilitate the creation of more permanently-affordable and rent-stabilized housing. 
  8. Improve neighborhood walkability, bike-ability, and the character and quality of public rights-of-way. 


  1. Eliminate Zoning Administrator Bulletin #2: Rooms Down. The stated purpose of the Rooms Down bulletin is to prevent people from creating accessory units. City policy has evolved and now encourages accessory units, making the Rooms Down bulletin an anachronism. Permitting ground-floor rooms to street entrances, full baths, and other amenities will allow households to expand and adapt their living spaces to meet household needs, and support multi-generational households and aging-in-place. 
  2. Permit ‘junior ADUs’. Junior ADUs, internally connected to the main unit while providing separate entries to the street and/or efficiency kitchens, are prohibited by our Planning Code. Junior ADUs can serve multi-generational households, support aging-in-place, and accommodate emerging living patterns like co-housing. As with rooms down, the historic reasons for proscribing junior ADUs are no longer relevant (if they ever were). State law now permits Junior ADUs under certain circumstances, and SF should do the same. 
  3. Keep Planning Code Interpretations up-to date. We applaud the Planning Commission and department staff for the progress on Planning Code reorganization, periodic clean-up, and substantive change. The Interpretations have not kept up, and most are now badly out-of-date, referring to sections that have been moved, consolidated, or deleted, or interpreting standards (like minimum parking requirements) that have been deleted or amended. 
  4. Codify the Ground Floor Residential Design guidelines into standards. They are already referenced across the Code (Sects. 132, 135, 144,145.1, 206.3, 827, 829). 
  5. Standardize ground floor residential standards. Extend the Ground Floor Residential Design standards to C, RM, and all NC districts. 
  6. Amend front setback requirements for in higher-density districts. Apply Section 132 front setback requirements only to RH districts, and remove them from RM, RTO, and PUDs outside of RH districts, where the Ground Floor Residential Design standards would instead apply. 
  7. Corner Commercial Uses. Clarify that ground-floor corner commercial uses permitted by Section 231 in certain residential districts may extend to the front property line, or may use a front setback as an outdoor activity area or outdoor sales. 
  8. Strengthen Urban Design Standards for Planned-Unit Developments. Require that ground-floor design standards (Sections 144, 145.1, and 145.4, and 145.5), Ground-Floor Residential Design standards (except in RH districts, where Section 132 would apply) streetscape improvement requirements (Sect. 138.1), and restrictions on driveways (Section 155(r)) apply to Planned Unit Developments (Section 304). 
  9. Permit up to four units on residential lots with more than 50’ of street frontage. 
  10. Increase permitted podium heights in various bulk districts (Sect. 270) to facilitate tall ground floors: 
    a. From 40’ to 45’ in A, D, J, and N bulk districts; b. From 50’ to 55’ in B bulk districts;
  11. c. From 60’ to 65’ in K bulk districts. 
  1. Driveways. There are several different standards in the code for driveway widths, which vary from the Better Streets standards. They should be synced with the Better Streets standards across use districts.


  1. Remove Conditional Use requirements for buildings over certain heights and replace with a Public Design Review Hearing. Buildings over a certain height require a CU in R districts and the Lakeview Plaza SUD, even if greater heights are principally permitted, and even in ‘x’ height districts. We ought to raise the height for buildings that trigger conditional use approval from:

    • 50’ to 65’ in RC and RM Districts (Sect. 253) 
    • 50’ to 55’ in the Van Ness SUD (Sect. 253.2)
    • 40’ to 45’ in the Broadway NC District (Sect. 253.1)
    • 28’ to 45’ in the Lakeview Plaza SUD (Sect. 253.3)

    Note: RH districts also require a CU for buildings over 40’, but buildings over 40’ are not permitted in RH districts, and RH districts don’t allow new storefronts, so no change here. 
  1. Remove Conditional Use requirements for buildings with more than 50’ of street frontage. New buildings taller than 40’ and with more than 50’ of street frontage in RM and RC – any corner lot, and many buildings occupying two standard lots – require Conditional Use Authorization. This CU requirement should be eliminated, and replaced with a requirement that buildings on large lots (10,000 square feet or more) undergo a mandatory design review process involving a public hearing. 
  2. Principally permit multi-unit buildings on larger lots in RH districts. RH districts (Section 209.1) require Conditional Use Authorization to build more than 1, 2, or 3 units any lot in an RH-1/RH-1(D), RH-1(S)/RH-2, or RH-3 district, respectively. That means Conditional Use Authorization is required for a three-unit project on a large lot (4500-5000 sf) in an RH-2 district. Smaller multi-unit developments which otherwise conform to lot-area density limits and other requirements (private open space, setbacks, etc.) of RH districts should be principally permitted and no longer require CU authorization. Projects of 10,000 square feet or greater could require a public hearing. 
  3. Eliminate CU for ‘substandard’ lots. San Francisco hilly terrain overlaid with a grid creates many substandard lots. Section 121 mandates minimum lot widths and lot sizes for all zoning districts. The minimum lot size is 4000 square feet in RH-1(D), and 2500 square feet in all other districts, with 1750 square feet permitted for corner lots in all other districts. Lots of 1500 square feet are permitted with CU. We should allow smaller lots as of right – small lots permit smaller houses, and ‘missing middle’ housing types like cottage courts, which are affordable, diversify otherwise homogeneous tracts, and suitable to smaller households. Creating and developing lots which meet the city’s minimum public frontage standards (16’ of frontage on a public right-of-way) should be principally permitted. 
  4. Principally permit converting service stations to housing. Service station sites are typically large and located at street corners. They are good candidate sites for housing, including housing above neighborhood-serving commercial uses. The Conditional use requirement for converting service stations to any other use adds unnecessary risk and cost to creating housing on these sites. 
  5. Principally permit Group Housing in all Residential Districts. Group housing of all kinds should be principally permitted in all RH and RM districts. 
  6. Principally Permit double-density senior housing. Under current law, qualified senior housing at double density is principally permitted in some areas, and conditionally permitted in others. Double-density senior housing should be principally permitted wherever housing is principally permitted. 
  7. Exempt affordable units in C-3 districts from FAR limits without CU. In C-3 Districts, FAR limits apply to all Residential Uses. This becomes a disincentive to build on-site inclusionary affordable, off-site inclusionary affordable, or stand-alone affordable projects in C-3 districts – project sponsors have both carry the cost of building the housing and of purchasing the FAR for the housing, which makes it less likely to pencil out. Below-market-rate units in C-3-G and C-3-S districts meeting certain idiosyncratic requirements (Section 124(f)) can be exempted from FAR limits with Conditional Use authorization, but the CU requirement is both an additional cost and a disincentive. The code should incentivize affordable units in C-3 districts: 
    • The FAR exemption should be extended to all C-3 districts; 
    • The CU requirement for the FAR exemption should be removed; and 
    • The idiosyncratic affordability requirements in C-3 districts should be replaced with the Citywide inclusionary/affordable requirements of Section 415 et seq. 
  1. Modify Residential Design Guidelines and the RDAT process to permit a larger building envelope for buildings which maximize the permitted number of units per lot. In the current system the Residential Design Guidelines and Residential Design Advisory Team’s (RDAT) interpretations make it rare for a building to reach the maximum building envelope permitted by the Planning Code. Neither the Residential Design Guidelines nor RDAT’s policies permit a larger building envelope to achieve greater density, or to provide higher-quality open space for residents of multi-unit buildings. For example, roof decks can create usable open space for residents and satisfy private open space requirements in multi-unit buildings. Roof decks are particularly useful for dwelling units on steeply-sloping lots, lots with north- facing yards, and units on the upper floors of buildings. However roof decks are currently discouraged and restrictions are placed on them without any formal regulations. Residential Design Guidelines and RDAT process should permit a larger building envelope for projects that include more units, as recently approved in Portland. 
  1. Modify Planning’s Review of Historic Resources (HRE) under CEQA. Preservation under CEQA has become an expensive, complex, and lengthy parallel process to Chapter 10 Historic Landmarks and Chapter 11 Historic Districts without the advantages of being a declared Landmark or contributor to a Landmark District. The criteria and process for being declared an HRE or potential Historic District occur behind closed doors, without any dialog between project sponsors and Preservation staff, without any appeals process, and without notification to property owners. The following changes are proposed to the HRE process: 
  • Complete the City-Wide Historic Resource Survey and make available to the public so the cost of the HRE is equitable. Currently only project sponsors with financial means can pursue the HRE. 
  • Develop and publish the criteria for determining whether a building is or is not an HRE, and if so, what changes are allowable in an illustrated detailed handout. 
  • Develop and publish the criteria for determining a potential historic district, and within that area whether a building is contributory to the district and if so, what changes are allowable in an illustrated detailed handout. 
  • Complete 2016 SF Interpretations of the Secretary of the Interior Standards. 
  • Return threshold for Historic Resource to 50 years (currently 45) 
  • Notify owners of designated buildings of their designation as an HRE or contributory building, and the implications of that 
  • Extend the benefits of Landmark Determination to HRs i.e. Mills Act tax relief, use of the California Historic Building Code, and administrative exceptions to certain Planning Code Requirements (see #9, below). 
  1. Permit Administrative modification of certain Planning Code standards for Historic Buildings. Encourage the preservation, restoration, and adaptive reuse of historic buildings to preserve the City’s history and character while meeting current needs. It is often challenging to comply with current Planning Code requirements in projects involving historic buildings, which can work against their preservation and reuse. To encourage rather than discourage preservation and reuse, Article 10 and 11 buildings, along with buildings on the National and State registers and buildings identified as resources under CEQA, should be permitted administrative modification of certain Planning Code standards – dwelling unit density, dwelling unit exposure (Planning Code Section 140), private open space per unit, and restrictions on complementary non-residential uses like community facilities, neighborhood institutions, and arts and culture uses – as part of the historic resource review and approval process. 
  1. Modify the Discretionary Review process for code-conforming multi-unit projects. Multi-unit residential projects which conform to principally-permitted use, height, bulk, and setback requirements and which have completed residential design review should only be subjected to Discretionary review under “exceptional and extraordinary circumstances”. 
  2. Create procedures that allow for and encourage direct dialog between project sponsors and Planning Preservation and RDAT during design. Currently the assigned Quadrant Planner is the conduit for feedback from the Preservation team and RDAT. Dialog and discussion with RDAT and Preservation is possible through small project Project Reviews, but the results of these meetings are frequently not followed when permits are later applied for. Allow for open exchange between RDAT, Preservation and the Project Sponsor during the plan review process. 
  3. Codify Planning policy changes and make them available to the public. Many of the interpretations that Planning enforces are created and changed internally without public knowledge, and are not part of the published Zoning Ordinance or Zoning Administrative Bulletins or Interpretations, the Residential Design Guidelines, or other publicly available documents. Despite the thousands of pages of highly detailed Codes and Bulletins and Brochures available, many regulations are enforced administratively. Project Sponsors who comply with published codes are often asked to make costly revisions based on policy changes that they were unaware of. This creates inequity where only those with means are able to afford the revisions required with the current planning permitting process.