scott fitsimones

San Francisco's Most Absurd Zoning Policies

This article was challenging to write because there are so many absurd zoning policies in San Francisco that picking the top 4 was quite tough.

1. Single family housing units near subway stops

Imagine if you lived in a single story home in New York City with a private lawn, garage, and even a private...subway stop. That's what it's like to live in Glen Park, a San Francisco neighborhood one stop south of 24th and Mission on the underground BART subway system. This high speed, underground subway station is capable of carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers into the downtown core of SF, but instead, the SF Planning Commission has decided most housing parcels that surround it should be RH-1, or single unit residential housing.

A subway station surrounded by single family homes in Glen Park, San Francisco, CA

2. Banning office development

Last Thursday, the San Francisco Planning Commission voted unanimously to enact Supervisor Hillary Ronen's plan to rezone San Francisco's Mission District to prevent construction of new office buildings in the gentrifying neighborhood. Similarly, a citywide referendum to tie the amount of office construction to affordable housing minimums was also recently passed.

An unlikely coalition has formed to allow these restrictions to succeed. Affordable housing advocates, who see banning office construction as a way to ensure more housing gets built, and anti-development NIMBYs, who see banning office construction as a way to suppress demand for housing by also limiting office space. Competition between housing and office space is a myth, since most housing development is already de-facto banned in the Mission.

A real solution is to ease height restrictions along major transit corridors, as proposed by Senator Scott Wiener. Banning office development is clever way to disguise more limits on building in attempt to drive down demand for housing, instead of fixing the underlying problem that not enough housing is being built.

3. Affordable housing minimums as a mechanism to stall development

Most affordable housing in San Francisco is built by real estate developers who negotiate with the City and agree to reserve, for example, 30% of the units for low-income residents. Mission District Supervisor Hillary Ronen, however, has a clever tactic to make sure no housing projects get built. By only supporting projects with 100% affordable housing units, she can all but guarantee that no new housing is built in the Mission Neighborhood since there are no market incentives to build a pure affordable housing project.

4. Subsidization of unprofitable land uses

Just a half-mile north of the Mission District, the epicenter of gentrification in San Francisco, there are dozens of single story warehouses, gas stations, freeways, and parking lots. The only reason many of these places survive is a result of Proposition 13, which freezes property taxes in time, so land owners are not actually assessed the market value of their property. That's why you can run a car wash in the middle of downtown San Francisco or just hold parking lots without developing them for decades. Not to mention, San Francisco Planning Commission has zoned these properties for industrial use instead of allowing more housing to be built.

Outlined below are all the parking lots and garages a half-mile north of the contested Mission District. If housing was built here, rents would plummet in Mission as young tech workers flocked to the centrally located, sunny Soma neighborhood. Instead, it has been space allocated to cars and warehouses, making it undesirable.

Parking lots just a half-mile away from the housing battleground Mission District in San Francisco

That's all for now. Get in touch @scottfits on Twitter if you have more crazy zoning policies I should add.