June 1, 2017 Corey Smith

What’s Happened Since San Francisco Passed ADU Legislation?

ADU Legislation

In 2016, both the City of San Francisco and the State of California passed groundbreaking “Accessory Dwelling Unit” legislation. This means all Californians are, for the first time, allowed to add additional homes to their property or house. Commonly referred to as “granny flats”, these units often come in the form of backyard cottages or converted garages. Since the new laws were passed last year, we wanted to check in with two local experts, Mark Hogan from OpenScope Studio and Christine Johnson from SPUR, about the program today as well as what’s next.

OpenScope Studio developed the City’s “ADU Handbook” back in 2015, as parts of North Beach and the Castro legalized the construction of these smaller homes. Notably, some estimate that tens of thousands of ADUs have been built illegally in San Francisco since World War II. In addition to the construction of new ADUs, legalizing the already built units is a task the City is undertaking, but we didn’t dive into that conversation. OpenScope looked at all different types of residential buildings to figure out how these homes could be added both physically and economically. The team was also tasked with projecting the impact of future seismic upgrades, sprinkler requirements and long-term home values. All this work helped fuel the citywide ADU legislation that was passed last year. So, what’s happened since then?

Our initial takeaway is that legalization of ADUs did not lead to the increase of units in single family home (SFH) neighborhoods that the City anticipated. While the program has some early successes, the majority of ADU permits over the last year were additions to larger buildings. A few explanations as to the lack of production within SFH neighborhoods were

  1. The exemption of detached SFH from original ADU legislation (prior to state law);  
  2. Accessibility to additional units in attached homes;
  3. A desire to preserve existing parking spaces by owners;
  4. Rent control (though this wasn’t as big of a deal as some expected); and
  5. Confusion about the process of property tax reassessment tying into a concern about how properties with ADUs are viewed in the housing finance marketplace.

The lack (or ease) of density restrictions in multi family buildings also contributed to the increased number of permits in those buildings. In addition, large buildings are professionally managed and the owners are usually well capitalized, so it is easier for them to undertake a major construction project that adds value to their property or portfolio. All in all, 600 additional units are either under permit review or formally approved in San Francisco since last year. While some may not find that significant, it’s an important step towards our goal to create 5,000 new homes every year for the next 20 years in San Francisco.

While the laws passed at the local and state level are a start, SFHAC is specifically interested in pursuing additional legislation to improve the program. Supervisor Mark Farrell has introduced a handful of amendments that are steps in the right direction, but what else can be done? We asked Christine Johnson about other cities that are known for ADU production, specifically Vancouver, Portland and Seattle. Interestingly enough, the comparisons didn’t really make much sense since our friends in the Pacific Northwest deal with larger lot sizes within cities. The potential to add detached units is much higher based on how those cities were built out compared to SF, with its smaller lot sizes and lack of setbacks in most neighborhoods. The one place Johnson said was a universal killer for ADU production in other cities? Parking requirements. Too true….

Check out Mark Hogan’s presentation here:

Mark’s Presentation

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Corey Smith

Corey Smith is HAC's Executive Director and can be reached at corey@housingactioncoalition.org.

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