Will San Francisco Legalize Fourplexes?

by on December 7, 2021

Board Divided Over Affordability

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will soon confront a new housing challenge: whether to legalize fourplexes in single-family zoned districts. There are three proposals.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman originally introduced a fourplex legalization measure in January 2021. It passed the Planning Commission in November. Mandelman’s proposal does not require any level of city-imposed affordability.

Supervisor Gordon Mar introduced his own measure in November that requires fourplexes to be affordable to households earning less than 100% of area median income — currently $106,550 for a couple or $133,200 for four people.

Supervisor Ahsha Safai’s proposal includes affordability restrictions at higher income levels. Safai  also addresses two major housing problems:  the Mayor’s Office of Housing’s broken BMR process and the slow approval process for market rate housing. The first keeps below market rentals and homes off the market for months; the second offers builders a chance to exchange  affordability for a ministerial approval process that could save two years. Discretionary review appeals would be waived.

The Politics of Fourplexes

Mandelman’s measure  has attracted only one co-sponsor, Matt Haney. Haney has vocally backed legalizing fourplexes in all neighborhoods but other supervisors have not joined this support.

Mandelman is tired of seeing monster homes built in his district instead of more affordable fourplexes in the same building envelope. I agree. See my story from November 2018, “Mansions or Fourplexes? Progressive Cities Must Decide.”

Mandelman sees his approach as the most pragmatic for both passage and actually getting fourplexes built. But neither Mar nor Safai see a fourplex measure passing the Board without an affordability component.

The biggest backers of Mandelman’s legislation—SF Yimbys—view affordability requirements as a fourplex killer. Yimbys tweeted last week that  Supervisor Safai’s proposal was akin to sabotage. I recall similar attacks against Mar’s plan.

Yet Safai has been the San Francisco supervisor most supportive of increasing housing production. He backed SB50, SB35, SB9, and SB10, all of which aligned him with Scott Weiner and Yimbys.

When the Board’s most pro-production supervisor is lambasted for trying to kill fourplexes, communication around this issue has broken down.

Comparing the Three Measures

San Francisco should legalize fourplexes. I would go further and enact the Portland approach of legalizing sixplexes with an affordability requirement.

But San Francisco’s Board majority is on a different page. It has opposed the state measures backed by Wiener, David Chiu and Ahsha Safai. I don’t see how a fourplex measure without any affordability requirements can pass. If Yimbys want to take this to the November ballot, fine; but this Board is not going to legalize all market-rate fourplexes.

Many claim nobody will build a fourplex if affordability restrictions are included. After all, if SB 9 allows duplexes and an ADU to be built on a site why wouldn’t builders just construct three market rate units instead of four with some units affordable?

Will Builders Build 4plexes?

Safai has talked to a number of builders who would be happy to trade off a fast, ministerial approval process (as with SB 35 projects) in exchange for providing affordable units. If Mar and Mandelman agreed with this perspective, the chief obstacle to a fourplex measure passing would be the level of required affordability.

Is Safai’s proposed 110% ami for rental and 140% ami for home ownership too high? Is Mar’s 100% ami target too low? Even at that level Mar’s households l earn over $100,000 annually.

We should keep an open mind on the affordability targets. And accept that a fourplex measure without any affordability component will not pass this Board.

Ideally, builders would get in a room with these supervisors (and others if interested) to figure out how to legalize fourplexes while ensuring they get built. Despite criticism of some of their housing votes I think we have a Board majority that wants to keep the middle-class in San Francisco (See “SF Must House Working, Middle-Class Families,” February 28, 2017)

If a Board majority can’t agree on fourplex legislation they might consider legalizing 8plexes. San Jose Neighborhoods for All ran the numbers and found that “legalizing 8plexes could deliver cities’ moderate income RHNA obligations with no public subsidy.” Its analysis found that smaller 8plex rentals could even house low income residents (San Jose housing costs are not that much cheaper than San Francisco).

Talking about what cities should do is fine. But San Francisco can’t legalize fourplexes, 6plexes or 8plexes if it can’t get Board majority support. The upcoming fourplex debate will be another test of San Francisco’s ability to do something positive for the middle-class.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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