Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Bringing Down the Housing: How Builders Game the System 

Wednesday, Dec 19 2012

Design by Andrew J. Nilsen

Nestled into the rugged hillside high atop Twin Peaks, 125 Crown Terrace boasts a breathtaking panorama of the city below. It is the embodiment of the real estate cliché: a million-dollar view. A million-dollar view in San Francisco, however, doesn't necessarily mean so much. And the view on Crown Terrace is tempered somewhat by the sight of the home itself.

A historical review of the 1941 structure undertaken when its owner applied to demolish it reveals the original inhabitants were Ruben and Elizabeth Burrow; rather callously the report concludes that neither they "nor any of the subsequent owners/occupants of the property were found to be important in our local, regional, or national past." The house was built by Ruben Burrow himself, a printer by trade. "He is not a master in the field of architecture," the report concludes. This is, no doubt, accurate.

And yet, current owner Mel Murphy's demolition permit was roundly rejected. Aesthetics aside, 125 Crown Terrace was a deemed a structurally sound, affordable home occupied by rent-controlled tenants in a city where such things are exalted. Preserving such structures is — at least on paper — one of the Planning Department's foremost goals. So, when Murphy applied to raze the home, "all the red flags went up," according to one Planning Department observer. Longstanding city policies have rendered the demolition of a sound, rent-controlled structure nigh-impossible — at least when approached in a straightforward manner.

Murphy's plan to demolish the 854-square foot home and replace it with a 4,019 square-foot residence for his family was deemed wholly incompatible with the city's housing policies. So, the prominent local developer and past president of the Building Inspection Commission submitted a new proposal. Rather than demolish the home, he would simply remodel it — to 5,139 square feet.

And this the city approved. An eviction notice affixed to the front door of 125 Crown Terrace flutters in the breeze. Visible through the front window, a bare mattress rests on the living room floor, and DVDs are strewn about the premises. It's a view that feels a million years from a million dollars.

San Francisco is a city of paradoxes. It prides itself on its inclusivity, but is the exemplar of the exploding gap between America's rich and poor. Preservation of affordable housing is enshrined as a top priority in the city's General Plan, yet housing in San Francisco is historically unaffordable. Demolishing a modest, rent-controlled home and erecting one five times larger is unthinkable — but remodeling it into a structure six times larger is okay.

In San Francisco, residential demolitions have been deemed antithetical to this city's ethos, and largely phased out. The city demolished 84 housing units last year — more than in recent years, but only a tenth of what was going down in the 1970s. The city's definition of a "demolition," however, is remarkably malleable and ever-evolving. San Francisco is flush with onetime starter homes that, via a "major alteration," have been augmented to double, triple, or more their original sizes — and subsequently sold for double, triple, or more their original prices. These so-called affordable homes, ostensibly within the reach of the city's fleeting middle class, are gone for good as assuredly as if they'd been dynamited. The city maintains its pious policies regarding the retention of its affordable housing stock even while allowing broad leeway to those scooping it up and building it into luxury dwellings. And everyone is left to ponder why middle-class residents and families are fleeing San Francisco, the city with the nation's highest home prices and lowest percentage of children.

Four years ago, the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance amending the planning code in an ostensible attempt to close loopholes regarding residential demolitions. But closing loopholes in San Francisco is often akin to jumping on a puddle — instead of one big one, you create multiple little ones. Per the planning code, a building undergoing a renovation must retain a percentage of its "exterior elements" to avoid the declaration of a demolition. Planning Department officials confirm to SF Weekly, however, that these elements — the very portions of a residence retained specifically to avoid triggering a demolition — can themselves be taken down and replaced. This can be undertaken even if only to bolster otherwise sturdy walls in order to support the much larger structure to be built atop them. The possibility exists to essentially dismantle an entire structure, erect a new, far bigger one, and deem the action an "alteration."

"This is tortured beyond a Kafka novel," fumes former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, a strong backer of the '08 ordinance. His onetime colleague, former Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, avoids literary allusions: "It's bullshit, bullshit, total horseshit. A total deception."

Despite its professed zeal for preventing demolitions, San Francisco appears to have demolished the definition of what a demolition is.

Puttering around on a tour of things that aren't there anymore is a pastime in many cities. San Francisco natives can take you to the former sites of places like Seals Stadium or Playland at the Beach. They can also take you to the sites of formerly affordable houses. You don't find so many moderately priced homes anymore in San Francisco. Not coincidentally, you don't find so many natives, either.

San Franciscans hoping to purchase a so-called starter home in the city not only have to contend with free-spending competitors but investors bidding on the land — not the home. At 449 Chenery in Glen Park, the 935-square foot house was purchased in 2008 for a gaudy $905,000. But that was money well spent — the structure was more than tripled in size via a remodel to 3,300 square feet and sold in 2010 for $1.6 million.

In nearby Noe Valley, Stephen Fowler and Renee Stephens — who earned a degree of Internet infamy following an agonizing appearance on Wife Swap in which they conformed to every negative stereotype of San Franciscans — petitioned their neighbors to allow a massive addition to 479 Douglass. Signers were urged "to support families who want to stay in San Francisco." (The couple, meanwhile, served octogenarian Bob Hanamura, a city native and upstairs tenant in the home since 1978, with an eviction notice.)

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"