San Francisco

NIMBYism in San Francisco Reaches New Heights With Shorter Buildings

Neighborhood residents demand a proposed affordable housing complex be five stories, not seven, to preserve "neighborhood character."


San Francisco homes

High-income tech workers, tenant advocates and city planners themselves agree that San Francisco needs more housing, in particular the affordable kind.

The city offered up just such a structure, a 65-foot-tall, 7-story, 90-unit development on a city-owned site currently occupied by a McDonalds in the city's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

The Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council thinks two fewer stories and as many as 25 fewer units would be just about right. The proposed development would be too high, and too large, creating "significant environmental impacts" and would "degrade the historic value" of the neighborhood, according to a letter on the Council's website address to the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development.

"HANC does support maximizing the amount of affordable housing constructed in our neighborhood," the letter said,"but only where this is appropriately balanced with preserving the neighborhood's character and environmental quality."

The council's rampant NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) has even the most stalwart progressives in the city rolling their eyes.

"What is 'neighborhood character'? And what does 10 additional feet do that destroys it," San Francisco planning commissioner Dennis Richards told the San Francisco Examiner. "They can't see how ridiculous it is."

Richards' criticism is welcome, but bizarre, given San Francisco's draconian permitting process—which Richards is intimately familiar with—allowing for ample opportunity for objections to on historic or neighborhood preservation grounds.

Dvelopers in the city must issue a neighborhood notification, giving locals up to 30 days to demand a discretionary review of any project should it, among other things, clash with the city's pre-determined Neighborhood Design Guidelines.

"A single building out of context with its surroundings can be disruptive to the neighborhood character," reads the official justification for these guidelines.

Richards has been happy to delay projects he finds out of step with neighborhood character. In February 2017 Richards was one of several commissioners to delay issuing permits to a proposed 12-unit residential/commercial development on San Francisco's Mission Street, saying the design was "a little aggressive." Fellow commissioner Myna Melgar said the development's large windows were a "a statement of class and privilege."

The project was finally approved in late September after the developer agreed to shrink the window size to be more in keeping with that "neighborhood character."

The preservation of neighborhood character is hardly the only conflicting goal in providing affordable housing in the city. Oppressive building codes get in the way, too.

Last year the city sued landlord Judy Wu for illegally subdividing single-family homes into multi-unit complexes to rent to low-income and homeless veterans. In July, the Planning Commission ordered Wu to remove the excess sinks and bedrooms she had installed for violating the city's building codes.

In a closed session this past November, the Planning Commission denied a request from one of Wu's tenants to preserve the units, putting many of her veteran tenants at risk of homelessness.

San Francisco residents and politicians have exploited a maze of building codes, zoning laws, and permitting requirements to halt, delay, or alter projects that would bring more homes to a city in the midst of a housing affordability crisis.

Over the past decade, San Francisco has added eight jobs for every new residential unit. Predictably, rents and home prices have shot up. An average one-bedroom apartment can cost $3,400 per month.

If the residents of Haight-Asbury, and all San Franciscans, want to make a serious dent in skyrocketing rental and home prices, they should begin by respecting the property rights of land owners. Even if the property owner is the city.

Check out Reason's coverage of some San Francisco residents working toward that goal.