March 19, 2018 Corey Smith

20 Housing Terms You Need To Know

The housing world can be confused, so we wanted to provide definitions to 20 terms about housing that you need to know:

Accessory Dwelling Unit: Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are more commonly known as “in-laws” or “granny-flats.” They are smaller units that are cheaper to build than most new housing and can be added within a building’s existing envelope or on its property. They are a logical solution for housing in an extremely expensive housing market. They add to the City’s housing stock without impacting neighborhood character and are a naturally affordable type of housing with a low carbon footprint. Until recently, ADUs were illegal to build in San Francisco and over the decades, many thousands of ADUs were built illegally, many of which are not up to building code. In 2014, the Board of Supervisors passed legislation that allows owners to legalize them, although few appear willing.  In 2016, legislation was passed that allows construction new ADUs. Also in 2016, the California legislature passed legislation that streamlines building ADUs over the entire state.

SFHAC has always supported ADUs, it was one of our founding principles.  Many cities around the US encourage them. Why shouldn’t we?

Approval Process: The Approval Process is a public and legal process by which proposals for residential development obtain the legal permits necessary in San Francisco to build. This requires project sponsors to navigate numerous permit applications, meetings with City agencies, community meetings and public hearings in front of one or more City Commissions and occasionally, the SF Board of Supervisors.

San Francisco is widely acknowledged as having an exceptionally long and arduous approval process that not only takes too long, but adds political risk to projects. Both of these factors add considerably to the cost of building housing and, ultimately, its price. The SFHAC was founded, in part, to advocate for structural reforms to our approval process as a way to get more housing built and built faster.

Area Median Income (AMI): Area Median Income (AMI) is a statistical measure of how much income individuals or families earn in a geographic area. The median is the point at which 50 percent of the population earns less income and 50 percent earns more. The AMI is an important scale to determine how much folks can afford to pay for housing or how much economic subsidy they would need if they cannot afford it. AMI is used to define who is low-income, middle-income, moderate-income, etc. In broad terms, low-income is defined by individuals or families that earn less than 60 percent of AMI. Defining middle-income based on AMI is a contentious topic with not much agreement since it determines who get economic subsidies for housing. While SF does a better job than most cities at building low-income (low AMI) housing, we do a terrible job at producing middle-income housing.

SFHAC supports a wide AMI range for subsidized affordable housing.

Area Plan: An area plan is a large-scale planning effort that rezones a designated area, usually underutilized land, for specific, more intensive, uses. Completing an area plan requires extensive public process, including environmental review and community outreach and public hearings. In San Francisco, adopting a plan typically takes eight to 10 years to complete. However, they can be worth the investment since they help create more certainty for the production of housing located in such areas. The most notable recent examples include the Market-Octavia and Eastern Neighborhoods Area Plans.

Since its founding, the SFHAC has been involved in the planning and adoption of numerous area plans. We understand that they involve complex trade-offs, but, where possible, SFHAC advocates for zoning rules that maximize housing. Currently, the City is in the process of approving the Central SoMa Area Plan, which SFHAC supports.

Below-Market-Rate (BMR) Housing: Also called Inclusionary Housing after the legislation that initiated it, BMR housing is a type of subsidized housing that is affordable to very-low- to moderate-income households that is managed by the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development. In San Francisco, market-rate developers are required to build or fund BMR housing for all projects of 10 units or more. The amount of subsidy depends on whether the BMR homes are built on-site of the principal project or at a separate location. Developers also have an option pay a BMR fee instead of building the housing. All affordable housing built under this program are deed-restricted to be permanently affordable. The Mayor’s Office of Housing, not the owner, sets the sale or rental price for the home.

The SFHAC strongly supports BMR housing and helped author and pass the original legislation that delivered it in 2002.

Conditional Use: Conditional Use is a proposed type of land use that is not generally permitted in a particular Zoning District. Projects needing a Conditional Use Permit require a Planning Commission hearing in order to determine if the proposed use is “necessary or desirable to the neighborhood”, whether it may potentially have a negative impact on the surrounding neighborhood, and whether the use complies with the San Francisco General Plan.

The SFHAC generally opposes Conditional Use permits for housing. They usually add time and uncertainty to an already lengthy approval process. It also puts the burden of proof on project sponsors to justify new housing at public hearings as “necessary or desirable to the neighborhood”. This makes no sense in a city as chronically short of housing as ours.

Density Bonus: The California Density Bonus Law is a state law passed in the 1970s encouraging the development of affordable housing, including up to a 35% increase in project densities, depending on the amount of affordable housing provided. This law applies to projects 5 units or more. San Francisco had not been in compliance with the density bonus law for over 20 years. Recently, Supervisor Katy Tang led an effort to pass a local density bonus program called Home-SF.

The SFHAC strongly supports density bonuses in as a common-sense tool to increase the housing supply on under-utilized land and make more of the homes affordable.

Displacement: Displacement is a term that, in SFHAC’s world, refers to the destructive process whereby residents (overwhelmingly renters) are forced out of the City simply because they can no longer afford its escalating housing prices. Displacement reduces the City’s diversity and skews its population to higher incomes. Its burden is largely borne by both low-income, but increasingly, middle-income residents.

The cause(s) of displacement are controversial and the subject of constant political battles. Many attribute displacement to new housing being built in neighborhoods that have not seen recent development. However, SFHAC and all mainstream urban economists believe that displacement occurs when rapid population increases occur in a city with a chronically inadequate supply of housing. Building more housing reduces these pressures. This was convincingly explained in a landmark report by the non-partisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Environmental Review: Environmental Review is a public process required under the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA is a statute that requires state and local agencies to identify the significant physical or environmental impacts of projects such as housing developments and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible. In SF, the Planning Department is responsible for conducting environmental review to assess a project’s impacts. Their initial study guides them on what level of analysis is required, which are, in increasing order of complexity and cost, a negative declaration, mitigated negative declaration, or a full environmental impact report, depending on the project’s impact.

Unfortunately, environmental review of housing development in SF is a very lengthy and expensive process that is of dubious value to protecting the environment. While the principle on which CEQA is founded is laudable, in the experience of SFHAC, it has become a useful tool for individuals and interest groups that, for a variety of reasons, simply want to prevent building housing and protect “neighborhood character.” It’s chief flaw is that the way it’s implemented today, it allows folks to claim that high density urban infill has an intrinsic negative environmental impact.

Housing Element: Enacted in 1969, Housing Elements are state-mandated reports that require local governments to adequately plan to meet the existing and projected housing needs of all economic segments of the community. The law acknowledges that, in order for the private market to adequately address housing needs and demand, local governments must adopt land use plans and regulatory systems that provide opportunities for, and do not unduly constrain, housing development. As a result, the State’s housing policy rests largely on the effective implementation and regular updating of local Housing Elements. Unfortunately, there is no punishment for not meeting the Housing Element goals.

The SFHAC broadly supports San Francisco’s Housing Element as a guideline or a broad expression of our housing and land use goals, not a concrete plan.

Impact Fees:  Impact fees are the payments required of new developments, both residential and office, to mitigate the impact and costs they impose on a city. In San Francisco, housing fees pay for infrastructure, transportation, childcare, subsidized housing, schools, etc. When setting new fees, the City is usually required to conduct an economic feasibility analysis to determine the proper balance between ensuring they can pay these improvements while not making the project economically infeasible.

Inclusionary Housing: A law passed in 2002 requires residential developments with 10 or more units to pay an Affordable Housing Fee in order to provide permanently affordable housing. Project sponsors may apply for an alternative to the fee in the form of providing the below market rate homes on-site or off-site to low- to moderate-income households based on Area Median Income. In certain areas of the city, project sponsors may also apply for the alternative of dedicating land for affordable housing.

SFHAC strongly supports inclusionary housing.

Market-Rate Housing: Market-Rate Housing refers to the homes available to purchase or rent at the price determined by the housing market. There are no direct subsidies or government assistance related to the sale or rental of these homes.

The SFHAC believes that accelerated production of market-rate housing in San Francisco and the region is necessary if we want an affordable future. Market-rate units also fund significant subsidies for Below-Market-Rate housing.

Micro-Unit: Micro-units are homes that are significantly smaller than the average dwelling. While there is no specific size that defines with such a unit, they generally range between 250 and 400 square feet. They’ve grown in popularity in several cities around the U.S. that are facing housing shortages and high prices. While the price-per-square-foot of these units tends to be higher than larger units, their average rent is still substantially less than most new market-rate housing. In 2011, San Francisco passed a law allowing up to 325 homes as small as 220 square feet to built.

SFHAC believes micro-units are a logical solution to San Francisco’s extremely expensive market and strongly supports them.

Rent Control: Rent Control is a law that limits the amount a landlord can raise a tenants rent at the end of a year or the pre-determined lease terms. While there are some exemptions, the rules apply in any housing built before June, 1979. The allowable increase is tied to inflation and was 1.6% this last year.

The SFHAC has never taken a position for or against rent control. It focuses instead on production of new housing.

Soft Site: A soft-site refers to a parcel of land defined as underutilized and appropriate for redevelopment. This most often refers to sites such as vacant lots, parking lots, gas stations and old, low-rise industrial or commercial spaces. The majority of new housing in San Francisco is built on land formerly occupied by such uses.

Supportive Housing: Supportive housing is specifically for homeless, or recently homeless individuals. The term can expand out to temporary Navigation Centers or Permanently Supportive Housing. This type of housing is in high demand and there are options available, including modular units.

The SFHAC strongly supports the production of Supportive Housing.

Transit-Oriented Development: Transit-oriented development (TOD) is the practice of locating housing and jobs near transit, so residents and employees are encouraged to use alternative modes of transportation rather than private cars. In San Francisco, most new development is increasingly concentrated around areas well-served by BART, Muni lines and bike lanes. Studies show that cities with access to public transit are less likely to use cars, which reduces their population’s carbon footprint and improves livability.

Advocating for transit-oriented development is core part of SFHAC’s Mission Statement.

Urban Design: Urban design is the multi-disciplinary subject of designing and shaping cities, towns and villages. In contrast to architecture, which focuses on the design of individual buildings, urban design deals with the larger scale of groups of buildings, streets and public spaces, whole neighborhoods and districts, and entire cities, with the goal of making urban areas functional, attractive, and sustainable.

Zoning: Zoning is the system of rules that communities use to determine how land is used within their boundaries. Land use policy establishes the basic type and intensity of uses permitted under a city’s General Plan for each land use category, such as maximum density for residential development and maximum intensity for commercial or industrial uses. Effective land use policy uses zoning to adapt to changing environmental, social and economic conditions.

The SFHAC supports zoning changes that allow us to respond to the challenges facing San Francisco, especially for housing. These include thoughtful increases in height and density to build housing in neighborhoods where the land’s former use made sense decades ago, but no longer does.

Corey Smith

Corey Smith is HAC's Executive Director and can be reached at

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