Axing Permission

Everyone who needs an affordable apartment loses when NIMBYs get to appeal housing permits to the Board of Supervisors

To understand the awful housing mess San Francisco has gotten itself into, it's useful to get to know Nick Pasquariello, a freelance technical writer who's lived in the Mission District for 20 years. Though Pasquariello does not come across as a volatile person, it's clear he is a man of passions; foremost among these seem to be privacy, light, and air.

"Going back three-quarters of a century, there was consideration for light, for air, for space, for privacy," he says. "Now, there isn't."

Pasquariello, like hundreds of thousands of his fellow San Francisco residents, is a Not In My Back Yarder, a true NIMBY. In keeping with S.F. NIMBY custom, Pasquariello in one breath claims to recognize the need for more housing in San Francisco -- "We're not against housing; the city needs housing," he says -- and in the next breath reveals that he's gone to desperate lengths to preserve a large empty lot next to his home, located near the intersection of Guerrero and 19th streets in the Mission. For the better part of a year Pasquariello has bitterly opposed city approval of a 44-unit apartment building planned for the lot next to his studio apartment. He's attended Planning Commission meetings and gathered 500 signatures, earning him the chance to plead his case before the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, May 29.

"In an ideal world, they wouldn't put housing here," Pasquariello says. "Ideally this would be back yards. Your residence would be separated by 50, 100 feet, which allows for privacy, light, and air. ... I would say it's not a buildable lot."

Of all the civic imperatives facing San Francisco, stanching the designs of people like Nick Pasquariello is by far our most urgent. Thanks to Pasquariello, his 19th Street Neighborhood Association, and the 400 other anti-housing neighborhood associations that befoul our fair city, San Francisco suffers the nation's worst housing shortage. Although we're on the cusp of a regional recession, ordinary one-bedroom apartments cost the absurd sum of $1,700 per month. Apartments cost too much because there aren't enough of them.

At first glance this housing shortage is inexplicable: There is no shortage of mortgage money in San Francisco. There is no shortage of construction financing. There is no shortage of developers wanting to build housing. There is no lack of land.

But there's one surfeit that negates all of these available resources: the Nick Pasquariellos of the world. Every square block of San Francisco is wired tight with anti-development neighborhood improvement associations that are full of functional equivalents to Nick Pasquariello. Thanks to provisions in San Francisco's planning code that allow neighbors to gain a hearing to protest every stick of construction on the blocks near their homes, it can take years, and millions of dollars, for a developer to gain approval for a typical apartment building.

And that was before the Board of Supervisors met last week.

Last Monday, May 21, the Board of Supervisors passed the Nick Pasquariello Empowerment Act, giving NIMBY neighbors a powerful new tool in opposing dense, urban-style housing of the type San Francisco desperately needs. The measure, carried by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, passed.

The NPEA allows NIMBY neighbors to appeal any conditional-use permit -- the type of permit generally required in San Francisco for some commercial buildings and apartment buildings of 10 units or more -- to the Board of Supervisors, as long as five of the 11 supervisors go along. Previously, property owners were allowed to appeal conditional-use permits to the Board of Supervisors, but renters were not. The proper answer to the previous absurd, housing-stalling situation, of course, would have been legislation that denied property owners the opportunity to appeal permits to the Board of Supervisors. The city, after all, has a Planning Commission that should, in all but the most extraordinary and important of development cases, have the final say.

But the Board of Supervisors went full speed in reverse, giving any yahoo who gains the ear of five supervisors the power to throw any apartment proposal into the maelstrom of board politics. For San Francisco politicos, kudos from a NIMBY group is the political equivalent of a Scooby Snack (1), so it's hard to imagine a significant housing project that won't go before the board for appeal.

Peskin told me last week that the measure would have only a minor effect on housing.

"The majority of residential buildings don't require a conditional-use permit," he said. While this statement may be literally true, it's misleading. That's because most residential units built dorequire a conditional-use permit, given the fact that these permits are generally required for residential buildings of more than 10 units. By making it easier for NIMBYs to contest individual permits, some builders will decide to build smaller, lower-density buildings where they might have built multiunit apartment buildings, to avoid the uncertainty of a politically charged permit appeal process. This will kill housing construction just when we need it most.

Oz Erickson, whose Emerald Fund development company specializes in multifamily apartment buildings in San Francisco, believes the measure allowing conditional-use appeals is sure to tank housing projects. "It's almost guaranteed -- any major project is going to be opposed by a neighborhood group," Erickson says. "It would make us extremely nervous about starting the regulatory approvals for a new major project."

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