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In-laws You Can Live With 

How a new law on in-law apartments can help solve S.F.'s housing shortage

Wednesday, Jul 9 2003
I have a fantasy about my neighbors.

Mind you: I don't have any real reason to believe they're anything more or less than ordinary people. But I like to imagine the family that recently bought the apartment building next to mine as urban Robin Hoods, blue-collar caciques of the sort who'd lend a hand to the little guy.

My new neighbors display just enough eccentricity to fuel my fantasy. They're stout, early-to-late middle-aged men, very neatly dressed, who spend a lot of time hanging around on the sidewalk speaking Russian. To my unfamiliar ear this sounds gruff, wry, haughty, and it evokes the sort of good-natured toughness I can imagine being put to use in defense of everymen. They have a big, black, polished Mercedes. The other day I noticed someone sitting in the front seat, flipping through a wad of bills: very cool. Most roguish of all -- and most beneficial to common folk like me -- they not long ago Sheetrocked and divided the building's garage, fiddled with the wiring and plumbing, and converted it into a so-called in-law apartment.

In other words, in San Francisco's collective imagination they're considered bad to the bone. And in mine, they're heroes.

Few S.F. activities are held to be more nefarious than re-plumbing and carpeting your garage to allow an additional person or two to live there. Homeowners' groups, politicians, and other local kibitzers say this activity inappropriately taxes city infrastructure. It crowds already scarce parking spaces. It adds a bad element to otherwise genteel neighborhoods.

"People don't want other people renting out rooms in their house," says Supervisor Tony Hall, who represents the largely suburban-style neighborhoods between the ocean and Twin Peaks. "You have people living in houses who don't own the property. They're renters. They're tenants. It's going to change the nature of the neighborhood."

In-law builders and their riffraff renters have recently become a hot issue in San Francisco as supervisors and planners consider city legislation that would make it possible to obtain permits to build so-called granny-flat units.

The bill, sponsored by North Beach Supervisor Aaron Peskin, has spurred Supervisor Jake McGoldrick to hold a series of Richmond District meetings aimed at encouraging homeowners to fight the measure. It has drawn scores of people from San Francisco's less dense, more suburban neighborhoods -- mostly on the city's west side -- all the way downtown to attend Board of Supervisors meetings, where they warn of impending granny-flat-inspired suburban decay. And Hall has gone on record denouncing the in-law legislation with a curious argument, pegged loosely to notions the framers of the Constitution put forward on life, liberty, and property.

"There are property rights issues at stake, and that's what this country was founded upon," Hall said. "I don't want a neighborhood's character changed unless it is approved upon by a majority of that neighborhood's citizens."

I'd like to set aside for a moment the silly idea that it somehow preserves property rights to prohibit a person from using her own sweat, money, and property to build an apartment unit in her basement, the rent for which possibly allows her to continue living in her house following a divorce. I'll ignore the fool's theory that championing property rights means making it illegal for homeowners to put their parents in an apartment built in the garage, rather than send them to a rest home. And I'll brush aside the preposterous notion that, if you can't stand the idea of me letting someone unrelated to me live within the four walls of my own house, then forcing me to not rent somehow protects property rights.

Instead, I'll focus on the reasons why people such as my Russian neighbors are actually helping the city when they convert their garages into in-law units.

There are reasonable criticisms of in-law units, but they apply to the secret, illegal in-law units that have flourished here for decades. It's widely (and, I believe, correctly) assumed that the city contains thousands of in-law apartments, illegally constructed under an informal "Don't ask, don't tell" policy that the city's Department of Building Inspection has long followed. Because these units are, by definition, secret, no city inspector has checked the wiring, plumbing, or structural changes necessary to accommodate an additional home. Illegally and badly constructed in-laws can theoretically be firetraps, or provide housing that's substandard.

But Peskin's legislation would not legalize the thousands of units already built without permits. It would only allow for permits to add a new unit to a home, as long as the owner complied with building codes requiring sound wiring and other construction, sufficient bathrooms, and an additional parking space. The parking-space requirement would be waived for buildings within 1,200 feet of a transit corridor, or for in-laws built to be specifically accessible by the handicapped or elderly.

In effect, the new legislation could create thousands of new, lower-income housing units without a dime spent on expensive government subsidies. With today's city and state budget crises and a continuing housing shortage, that would be a near-miracle.

Legal in-law units could add to San Francisco's low-income housing stock, which is still in short supply, without changing their neighborhoods' appearances. Because they'd provide extra income streams that could be used to help make mortgage payments, in-law units would make it possible for ordinary folks to afford homes in San Francisco, a dream otherwise out of reach to all but the wealthiest.

And as for the claim that adding in-laws will unreasonably burden city services -- well, it's the same unsupported shibboleth that's always used to argue against urban density here, and it's just not true. By creating urban infill, in-law units use existing infrastructure and, because they reduce sprawl, they would help protect the environment.

Enabling in-law units in San Francisco is a simple, pro-environment, pro-low-income, pro-family move that would have few, if any, negative impacts. In important ways, supposed rogues such as my in-law-building neighbors are heroes, and the city needs to support a law recognizing this.

Despite all the "For Rent" signs you're seeing around town, there's still a housing problem in San Francisco. Although a recent exodus of jobs has tilted the housing supply-and-demand balance and reduced apartment prices to 1998 levels, $1,750 is still a lot for two working stiffs to pay for an ordinary two-bedroom apartment.

The idea that there's a link between housing shortages and high housing prices is considered politically incorrect in San Francisco, but the link is real. The number of Bay Area jobs has grown during recent decades, while available housing has not increased appreciably, creating a cascade of residence-seekers. Rich people have replaced middle-class people in houses and apartments once occupied by regular Joes and Janes. Middle-class people have displaced poor people who used to live in Potrero two-bedroom homes. Poor people have displaced very poor people in flophouses. And a lot of the very poor have slid onto the street.

As I occasionally do, I called the Biltmore Hotel on Sixth Street's skid row to ask about a room. Rented by the week, a room is $1,400 per month. If San Franciscans really wish to help stabilize people at risk of homelessness, we have to provide housing at all price levels, including -- perhaps especially -- $1,200 in-law apartments. Recognizing this, advocates for the poor such as California Legal Rural Assistance have gone on the record supporting a statewide law that would make it difficult for cities such as San Francisco to continue to deny permits to homeowners wishing to build in-law units.

Tony Hall, the tall, lanky, baritone lounge singer and rumored mayoral candidate, recently made a bit of a name for himself with an impassioned speech at the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee announcing he would oppose the popular Care Not Cash measure passed this spring. The measure would have halted some cash payments to the homeless, spending the money on services instead. But a judge said that the measure was illegal, that only the Board of Supervisors could make such funding decisions. Hall, considered the board's conservative, was widely expected to help the measure's sponsor, leading mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom, push the board to pass Care Not Cash. Instead he came out swinging in the other direction.

"Care Not Cash was a package of deception. It made people think it was going to solve all the homeless problems, and it wasn't even written in a way that was legal to implement," Hall said in an interview last week. "That campaign has promoted the yarn that this has worked in other cities. This has never worked in other cities. What worked was making cash less available, and making it especially difficult to obtain specifically for people on drugs or who abuse alcohol.

"There are certain people who are better off with services rather than cash, and we have to identify them. Some are better off with cash. Nobody's better off sleeping on the street. We certainly don't want to move one group onto the street and move others into the shelters."

Strong, noble words, coming from one of the few San Francisco politicians who, in other contexts, has recognized the link between a lack of S.F. housing construction and an S.F. housing shortage that exacerbates our homelessness problem. Hall has criticized groups who've opposed much-needed apartment buildings in the Mission District and South of Market.

So why in heaven's name oppose Peskin's in-law measure? I asked Hall.

He returned to the issue of suburban San Franciscans' "rights": "They've bought their houses, they've continued to live there because they want single-family houses. That's their decision. It's their investment," Hall said, before offering a feint, a politician's equivalent of I've got to do this thing, OK?

"That's pretty overwhelmingly the sentiment out there. I don't know what it rings like throughout the city. I just know my district is adamantly opposed to it, and so am I."

In my fantasy about my neighbors, Hall's bogus property rights argument fails. Peskin's bill passes. The new law turns the once roguish activity of in-law building into a virtue. My neighbors to the south Sheetrock, re-plumb, and carpet their garages, as do the owners of buildings up and down the street. The Sunset District fills with legal, up-to-code in-law units. Thousands more "For Rent" signs go up. Landlords all over the city find they've got to slash rents to fill flats. Families like mine, now crowded into a small one-bedroom apartment, are able to move into bigger places; worse-off folks, previously unable to afford even a Tenderloin fleabag, need no longer choose the street.

My now-former neighbors continue about their business -- chatting with friends and family on the sidewalk, driving their nice car, and maintaining their in-law unit -- without realizing that they are local San Francisco heroes.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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