Bob Tillman has spent nearly five years and $1.4 million on a legal battle to turn his coin-operated laundromat into an apartment building. His saga perfectly encapsulates the political dysfunction that's turning San Francisco—once a beacon for immigrants and home of the counterculture—into an exclusive playground for the ultra-wealthy.
The median cost of a single-family home in San Francisco is already five times the U.S. average, and the city now has the highest rent per square foot of any municipality in the nation. The explanation for the crisis is simple: As the city's population has surged, developers have found it nearly impossible to construct more housing. About 80 percent of San Francisco's existing buildings were already standing in 1980.
Tillman has owned his small laundromat in the Mission District for 20 years. In 2013, with the housing market hitting record highs, he decided to tear it down and build an eight-story, 75-unit apartment building. (Christian Britschgi first covered Tillman's project for Reason back in February.)
At first, it didn't seem like a controversial project: Nobody lives above the laundry, the building wouldn't displace anyone, it qualified for a density bonus and streamlined approval process under state law, and the site was already zoned for housing. While San Francisco passed a comprehensive zoning code in 1978 that restricted the construction of new housing to certain areas, mandated design elements, and limited the height of new structures in some parts of the city to just 40 feet, none of those regulations stood in the way of Tillman's plans.
"If you can't build here, you can't build anywhere," he told Reason.
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