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Axing Permission 

Everyone who needs an affordable apartment loses when NIMBYs get to appeal housing permits to the Board of Supervisors

Wednesday, May 30 2001
To understand the awful housing mess San Francisco has gotten itself into, it's useful to get to know Nick Pasquariello, a freelance technical writer who's lived in the Mission District for 20 years. Though Pasquariello does not come across as a volatile person, it's clear he is a man of passions; foremost among these seem to be privacy, light, and air.

"Going back three-quarters of a century, there was consideration for light, for air, for space, for privacy," he says. "Now, there isn't."

Pasquariello, like hundreds of thousands of his fellow San Francisco residents, is a Not In My Back Yarder, a true NIMBY. In keeping with S.F. NIMBY custom, Pasquariello in one breath claims to recognize the need for more housing in San Francisco -- "We're not against housing; the city needs housing," he says -- and in the next breath reveals that he's gone to desperate lengths to preserve a large empty lot next to his home, located near the intersection of Guerrero and 19th streets in the Mission. For the better part of a year Pasquariello has bitterly opposed city approval of a 44-unit apartment building planned for the lot next to his studio apartment. He's attended Planning Commission meetings and gathered 500 signatures, earning him the chance to plead his case before the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, May 29.

"In an ideal world, they wouldn't put housing here," Pasquariello says. "Ideally this would be back yards. Your residence would be separated by 50, 100 feet, which allows for privacy, light, and air. ... I would say it's not a buildable lot."

Of all the civic imperatives facing San Francisco, stanching the designs of people like Nick Pasquariello is by far our most urgent. Thanks to Pasquariello, his 19th Street Neighborhood Association, and the 400 other anti-housing neighborhood associations that befoul our fair city, San Francisco suffers the nation's worst housing shortage. Although we're on the cusp of a regional recession, ordinary one-bedroom apartments cost the absurd sum of $1,700 per month. Apartments cost too much because there aren't enough of them.

At first glance this housing shortage is inexplicable: There is no shortage of mortgage money in San Francisco. There is no shortage of construction financing. There is no shortage of developers wanting to build housing. There is no lack of land.

But there's one surfeit that negates all of these available resources: the Nick Pasquariellos of the world. Every square block of San Francisco is wired tight with anti-development neighborhood improvement associations that are full of functional equivalents to Nick Pasquariello. Thanks to provisions in San Francisco's planning code that allow neighbors to gain a hearing to protest every stick of construction on the blocks near their homes, it can take years, and millions of dollars, for a developer to gain approval for a typical apartment building.

And that was before the Board of Supervisors met last week.

Last Monday, May 21, the Board of Supervisors passed the Nick Pasquariello Empowerment Act, giving NIMBY neighbors a powerful new tool in opposing dense, urban-style housing of the type San Francisco desperately needs. The measure, carried by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, passed.

The NPEA allows NIMBY neighbors to appeal any conditional-use permit -- the type of permit generally required in San Francisco for some commercial buildings and apartment buildings of 10 units or more -- to the Board of Supervisors, as long as five of the 11 supervisors go along. Previously, property owners were allowed to appeal conditional-use permits to the Board of Supervisors, but renters were not. The proper answer to the previous absurd, housing-stalling situation, of course, would have been legislation that denied property owners the opportunity to appeal permits to the Board of Supervisors. The city, after all, has a Planning Commission that should, in all but the most extraordinary and important of development cases, have the final say.

But the Board of Supervisors went full speed in reverse, giving any yahoo who gains the ear of five supervisors the power to throw any apartment proposal into the maelstrom of board politics. For San Francisco politicos, kudos from a NIMBY group is the political equivalent of a Scooby Snack (1), so it's hard to imagine a significant housing project that won't go before the board for appeal.

Peskin told me last week that the measure would have only a minor effect on housing.

"The majority of residential buildings don't require a conditional-use permit," he said. While this statement may be literally true, it's misleading. That's because most residential units built do require a conditional-use permit, given the fact that these permits are generally required for residential buildings of more than 10 units. By making it easier for NIMBYs to contest individual permits, some builders will decide to build smaller, lower-density buildings where they might have built multiunit apartment buildings, to avoid the uncertainty of a politically charged permit appeal process. This will kill housing construction just when we need it most.

Oz Erickson, whose Emerald Fund development company specializes in multifamily apartment buildings in San Francisco, believes the measure allowing conditional-use appeals is sure to tank housing projects. "It's almost guaranteed -- any major project is going to be opposed by a neighborhood group," Erickson says. "It would make us extremely nervous about starting the regulatory approvals for a new major project."

Nine months ago, I dedicated a column to a 371-unit apartment complex along Alemany Boulevard that had been opposed by a group of NIMBYs, one of whom parked 25 cars around the neighborhood there. The NIMBYs lost their battle. If the legislation passed Monday had been in place, the NIMBY neighbors would have won by forfeit.

"The one project that we definitely would not have done with that provision in the law was the Ocean View project on Alemany Boulevard. We would never have started that project," Erickson says.

Under current policy, the Planning Commission uses its ability to grant, or withhold, conditional-use permits as a bargaining chip to persuade developers to offer 10 percent of their units at below-market rents to lower-income residents. By further politicizing the permit approval process, Peskin's legislation will have the effect not only of discouraging the construction of multifamily housing, but of eliminating some subsidized rental units.

Michael Stanton, the Mission District architect who designed the building slated to be built next to Nick Pasquariello's home, says the expanded availability of conditional-use appeals will reduce housing construction in this way:

"The more we create randomness in public approval, we can count on less units being developed, less affordable units being developed. This will result in fewer houses, less innovative design, and less affordable housing being built."

Which brings us to the curious paradox that is the current San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Many of the city's new crop of politicians ran and won last November by speaking out on behalf of the little guy. They felt, as a lot of citizens felt, that working-class people were being forced out of the city because there was no place they could afford to live.

Now that they're in office, the new supervisors, to a number, have spoken volumes about housing. But for all the talk, a fact remains: As of last week, the board had taken two actions affecting the city's housing supply, both for the worse. In February, the board outlawed live-work lofts, which last year represented half of the 3,000 housing units built in the city. Now, Peskin's conditional-use legislation threatens to imperil the kind of high-density, urban-style housing that every green-minded planning expert says we need.

A couple of months ago, my mother came to visit for a weekend. For entertainment, I took her on a drive of San Francisco's in-city suburbs: the Richmond, the Sunset, Lake Merced, the Outer Mission, the Excelsior. We drove past mile after mile of suburban-style homes mounted on expansive suburban yards; we drove on block-wide avenues through an urban landscape more befitting Phoenix than San Francisco. My mother was astonished; few people who don't live here realize that much of San Francisco is about as dense as an Atlanta suburb.

Thanks to a series of NIMBY-driven down-zoning strictures set into law over the decades, and a NIMBY-friendly clause in the planning code allowing neighbors to appeal permits for buildings going up near their homes, the amount of space for people to live in the city has remained nearly stagnant since the end of World War II. During the past 20 years, the city has built only 20,000 units of housing. If we were to attempt to climb out of our current housing shortage at this rate, it could take up to 70 years.

San Francisco's miles and miles of manicured lawns and empty lots are the outward manifestation of a form of civic meanness; for every apartment building that doesn't get built here thanks to NIMBY neighbors, dozens of people are forced to live elsewhere.

The city desperately needs hundreds more buildings like the one proposed for Nick Pasquariello's erstwhile back yard; an environmental and social activism group called the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition endorsed the project, saying it would help satisfy San Francisco's need for transit-friendly housing.

But in San Francisco, no matter how environmentally friendly a housing project may be, if you ask a NIMBY whether he would like a grass-filled lot or an apartment building next to his home, he'll prefer the lot every time. And if he's anything like Nick Pasquariello, he'll spend every spare moment trying to make that wish come true.

He'll become a savant of planning code arcana: "Their building is 40 feet tall, the next one is 25," Pasquariello says. "That's a violation of the code."

He'll become an ersatz civil engineer: "There was a stream that ran underground here. They haven't even paid attention to it."

He'll learn the wiles of a public relations flack, returning even the most insignificant reporters' calls. "When is your article coming out?" Pasquariello asks, before learning that SF Weekly hits the streets the day after his scheduled Tuesday hearing: "Short of a miracle -- whereby we get a continuance -- your article won't help us," he laments.

Perhaps that's true.

But thanks to the Nick Pasquariello Empowerment Act, the NIMBY spirit will live on.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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