To understand how difficult and expensive it is to build housing in San Francisco, observe the case of Robert Tillman. Tillman owns a single-story laundromat in the city's Mission District. Since 2014, he has been attempting to develop his property into a 75-unit apartment building.
The city is in the midst of a housing affordability crisis, with an average one-bedroom apartment going for $3,400 a month. So you might think Tillman's project would sail through the permitting process. Instead, the city's labyrinthine process of reviews, regulations, and appeals has dragged on for four years. The project has cost the self-described "accidental developer" nearly $1 million so far, and he hasn't even broken ground yet.
"It's taken me longer to get to this point than it took for the United States to win World War II," says Tillman, "and my site is the easiest site in the city to build."
In a sane world, it would be easy. No housing is located at the site, so there's no fear that redevelopment will displace any tenants. There are three other coin-operated laundromats within 100 yards of Tillman's property, so there is no real concern about lost neighborhood services. Half of the property is a parking lot, so the city won't be losing an aesthetically pleasing landmark. On top of all that, Tillman's lot is a three-minute walk from the 24th Mission Street BART light rail station, a major plus for a city obsessed with "transit-oriented" development.
In March 2014, when Tillman first submitted his plans to the San Francisco Planning Department, the initial reaction was positive. Officials were "very much in favor of developing site," Tillman says.
The real opposition came from some of the neighbors. A community meeting in January 2016 served as something of a flashpoint.
At the meeting, one woman fretted that the tall building would violate the privacy of a nearby public school. Another argued that the project needed to be 100 percent affordable housing. Two representatives from local Latino Cultural District Calle 24 said that even a 100 percent affordable housing project was out of the question, given the proposed height of the development.
When Tillman said he saw his project as necessary so people like his daughter could afford to come back and live in the city, one particularly motivated activist said she wished his daughter was killed in a terrorist attack.
Nevertheless, Tillman persisted, working with the Planning Department to change the design of his development where necessary and spending tens of thousands more on various impact studies. That includes $6,500 on a wind study, $5,000 on a shadow study, and $189,000 in city fees by the end of 2017.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco Planning Commission—which oversees the Planning Department and is responsible for approving new developments—continued to push for changes.
Parroting many of the Mission activists' concerns, Commissioner Rich Hillis complained that the design was "bulky, and a bit out of character" with the neighborhood, while Commissioner Kathrin Moore said that erecting an 84-foot tall building would be like "plopping a foreign object into this area and not thinking about the consequences." Commissioner Dennis Richards said, "I think a project absolutely belongs here. The question is what kind of project."
Thanks to California's state density bonus law, which restricts localities' ability to reject housing developments that reserve a certain percentage of their units for below-market tenants, the Commission was largely prevented from imposing new conditions. After another three-month delay, the Commission voted on November 30, 2017, to approve the project.
So that meant Tillman could move forward with construction, right? Of course not. It just set off another round of delays.
California's Environmental Quality Act allows anyone to file an environmental appeal within 30 days of a project's approval, requiring local agencies essentially to reevaluate the environmental and community impact evaluations they've already performed. On January 2, attorney Scott Weaver filed just such an appeal on behalf of the Calle 24 District Council, claiming that the city had conducted an insufficient review of the project's environmental impacts, including the impact of increased shadow on a nearby school and of the potential displacement of businesses and residents. (Remember: The property in question houses zero current residents, and the only business there is Tillman's.)
On February 5, the Planning Department rejected this appeal, stating that Weaver and his clients had "not demonstrated nor provided substantial evidence" to back up their claims of insufficient environmental review.
No, that didn't mean Tillman could finally go ahead with the project. The Planning Department also said that new information had been presented suggesting that Tillman's property might be a "historic resource." You see, the building once housed a local employment agency, back in the 1970s. Also, it once featured a mural depicting the life of Latina women. (The mural no longer exists.)
"You have 150 machines, you have wiring and plumbing. If there was a historical office there, it doesn't exist anymore," Tillman says.
Indeed, the lots Tillman owns were deemed ineligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and on any state or local equivalents, according to the 2011 South Mission Historic Resource Survey conducted by the Planning Department.
Nevertheless, on February 13 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to require a historic evaluation to be done at Tillman's expense. They will revisit the issue, they say, in another four months. To date, Tillman has spent $947,000 in development costs.
Tillman, who already owns the land he wants to develop and whose laundromat business still pulls some $10,000 a month, says he can afford to wait. Other developers watching land and construction costs increase with each delay might have given up long ago.
But the biggest cost may be one that isn't falling on Tillman's shoulders. "What's the cost to the people who would have occupied those units?" Tillman asks. "Those people don't have housing for six months. Put a number on that."
*CORRECTION: This article originally stated that there are three coin-operated laundromats within half a mile of Tillman's property. There are three within 100 yards of the property.