San Francisco Seeks Crackdown on Student Housing

by Randy Shaw on February 14, 2012

The San Francisco Planning Department has forwarded legislation to the Board of Supervisors that would impose tough new restrictions on the conversion of existing buildings to student housing. The measure also imposes special notice requirements for buildings to be converted to “group housing,” which is the Planning Code term for SRO’s. It’s a mystery why a Planning Department that ignores widely publicized illegal conversions of apartments to tourist rentals is so up in arms over the “problem” of student housing. It’s also odd that for purposes of public notice the legislation wants group housing treated like adult entertainment, liquor stores, large fast food restaurants and massage parlors. Do planners really view housing for the poor as akin to some sort of public nuisance? While the legislation includes positive incentives for building new student housing, its attacks on student and group housing in existing buildings are an overbroad solution in search of a problem.

At the request of the Planning Department, Supervisor Scott Wiener is sponsoring legislation that prohibits an educational institution from buying or leasing an apartment or SRO for use by its students. The measure also turns group housing residents into second-class citizens, presumably because of a recent conflict in the Mission where residents were mad about not getting more advance notice that a project housing poor people would open nearby.

That’s great. Let’s indulge people who are afraid to live near low-income people with the type of “protections” historically used to stop African-Americans, Latinos and other people of color from moving into white neighborhoods. Since neither federal nor state law prohibits discrimination based on low-income status, the measure is good to go.

And if you wonder why the Planning Department does not enforce zoning laws against people publicly advertising residential apartments as tourist rentals (see our Beyond Chron Special Report here and here), now you know. Planners are too busy figuring out ways to make it harder both for the poor and students – and there is much overlap there – to live in San Francisco.

The Student Housing “Problem”

Based on my conversations with those involved with this legislation, there is a belief that educational institutions should be building housing for their students rather than buying or leasing existing properties for their students use. Banning the latter is designed to force the former, though the architects of this legislation have not accounted for some critical facts.

First, nobody disputes that the construction of new student housing should be encouraged, and that the provisions in the legislation furthering this goal are positive. But building new student housing is dramatically more expensive than buying an existing underutilized or entirely vacant building. And the period of time from site acquisition through the actual renting of rooms could easily take five years, not the best strategy for institutions needing housing for next year’s students.

And our public educational institutions are hardly flush with cash. Although I’m told that the target of this legislation is private schools, it applies equally to all of the city’s educational institutions, public and private alike.

Second, there are some buildings that would be better off converting to student housing. This makes the legislation’s absolute ban on such conversions a mistake.

Its proponents apparently believe that educational institutions are buying or leasing SRO’s, and then displacing elderly pensioners and/or longterm tenants from their last refuge in San Francisco. Or that they are taking units off the SRO market that would otherwise serve seniors, disabled persons, and working-class San Franciscans.

If the above two scenarios were the only cases this legislation applied, it would make sense. But there is an entire other world of residential SRO’s that have blatantly relied on illegal tourist rentals for decades, or whose tourist rentals are discreet enough to avoid detection. Others have mixed residential and tourist uses and do not rent the residential units out to potential longterm residents.

These SRO’s have few longterm residents, and effectively keep valuable residential hotel units off the permanent housing market. And there are more of these type of SRO’s than those pushing for a complete ban on student housing conversions recognize.

If an educational institution buys or leases such housing, it will provide the permanent housing for low-income residents that housing advocates seek. Since this is dramatically better for the city, why pass a law to stop such acquisitions?

The Mythical Student “Gentry”

I’m told that a third reason for the new restrictions is to prevent students from “gentrifying” neighborhoods. That’s right. Despite headlines on rising tuition and students graduating with massive debt, proponents of this student housing ban believe that this population is flush with cash and will transform low-income neighborhoods like the Tenderloin with their spending power.

In my experience with buildings “converted” to student housing, the students have lower incomes than those who would otherwise be living in their place. If proponents of this legislation have counter examples let me know. For example, critics of the Academy of Art University (AAU) often point to its purchase of 1080 Bush, an apartment building I know well because our office represented tenants in a habitability lawsuit against a prior owner.

If AAU had not acquired 1080 Bush, the nearly vacant building would have rented to people of significantly higher incomes than AAU students. Check the rents on Bush Street – they are not cheap.

Students have always lived in the Tenderloin, Mission and other neighborhoods affected by this legislation. The fact that they are out and about in the evening improves public safety, and their patronage is directed at the local cafes and cheap restaurants they can afford.

That’s why there are Tenderloin SRO’s (e’g The Globetrotter, 225 Ellis) and those just outside the neighborhood that I wish an educational institution would acquire. This is far preferable to their housing short-term (1-2 month) residents with much higher incomes than students. Student housing in these buildings would also mean not having to file more lawsuits trying to stop these properties from illegally renting to tourists.

Imposing an absolute ban on such acquisitions ignores the need for flexibility, and only makes the city’s housing crisis worse. In contrast, a process that subjects student housing conversions to a conditional use application would protect the SRO’s that merit protection and allow those like the Globetrotter – which for two decades has rented to tourists in violation of city law and court injunctions under a succession of owners and lessees – to potentially become student housing.

Educational institutions are not interested in acquiring buildings where longterm tenants occupy most units. They only seek properties with substantial existing vacancies, and since these permanent vacancies are by owner choice, they are more numerous than advocates for this legislation realize.

A measure designed to expand the construction of new student housing should not also reduce such opportunities by banning all conversions of existing buildings to student housing regardless of circumstance. The legislation should be amended, and the provision that stigmatizes “group housing” deleted.

This legislation is set for a hearing in the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee on February 27.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic

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