In-laws You Can Live With

How a new law on in-law apartments can help solve S.F.'s housing shortage

I have a fantasy about my neighbors.

Mind you: I don't have any real reason to believe they're anything more or less than ordinary people. But I like to imagine the family that recently bought the apartment building next to mine as urban Robin Hoods, blue-collar caciques of the sort who'd lend a hand to the little guy.

My new neighbors display just enough eccentricity to fuel my fantasy. They're stout, early-to-late middle-aged men, very neatly dressed, who spend a lot of time hanging around on the sidewalk speaking Russian. To my unfamiliar ear this sounds gruff, wry, haughty, and it evokes the sort of good-natured toughness I can imagine being put to use in defense of everymen. They have a big, black, polished Mercedes. The other day I noticed someone sitting in the front seat, flipping through a wad of bills: very cool. Most roguish of all -- and most beneficial to common folk like me -- they not long ago Sheetrocked and divided the building's garage, fiddled with the wiring and plumbing, and converted it into a so-called in-law apartment.

In other words, in San Francisco's collective imagination they're considered bad to the bone. And in mine, they're heroes.

Few S.F. activities are held to be more nefarious than re-plumbing and carpeting your garage to allow an additional person or two to live there. Homeowners' groups, politicians, and other local kibitzers say this activity inappropriately taxes city infrastructure. It crowds already scarce parking spaces. It adds a bad element to otherwise genteel neighborhoods.

"People don't want other people renting out rooms in their house," says Supervisor Tony Hall, who represents the largely suburban-style neighborhoods between the ocean and Twin Peaks. "You have people living in houses who don't own the property. They're renters. They're tenants. It's going to change the nature of the neighborhood."

In-law builders and their riffraff renters have recently become a hot issue in San Francisco as supervisors and planners consider city legislation that would make it possible to obtain permits to build so-called granny-flat units.

The bill, sponsored by North Beach Supervisor Aaron Peskin, has spurred Supervisor Jake McGoldrick to hold a series of Richmond District meetings aimed at encouraging homeowners to fight the measure. It has drawn scores of people from San Francisco's less dense, more suburban neighborhoods -- mostly on the city's west side -- all the way downtown to attend Board of Supervisors meetings, where they warn of impending granny-flat-inspired suburban decay. And Hall has gone on record denouncing the in-law legislation with a curious argument, pegged loosely to notions the framers of the Constitution put forward on life, liberty, and property.

"There are property rights issues at stake, and that's what this country was founded upon," Hall said. "I don't want a neighborhood's character changed unless it is approved upon by a majority of that neighborhood's citizens."

I'd like to set aside for a moment the silly idea that it somehow preserves property rights to prohibit a person from using her own sweat, money, and property to build an apartment unit in her basement, the rent for which possibly allows her to continue living in her house following a divorce. I'll ignore the fool's theory that championing property rights means making it illegal for homeowners to put their parents in an apartment built in the garage, rather than send them to a rest home. And I'll brush aside the preposterous notion that, if you can't stand the idea of me letting someone unrelated to me live within the four walls of my own house, then forcing me to not rent somehow protects property rights.

Instead, I'll focus on the reasons why people such as my Russian neighbors are actually helping the city when they convert their garages into in-law units.

There are reasonable criticisms of in-law units, but they apply to the secret, illegal in-law units that have flourished here for decades. It's widely (and, I believe, correctly) assumed that the city contains thousands of in-law apartments, illegally constructed under an informal "Don't ask, don't tell" policy that the city's Department of Building Inspection has long followed. Because these units are, by definition, secret, no city inspector has checked the wiring, plumbing, or structural changes necessary to accommodate an additional home. Illegally and badly constructed in-laws can theoretically be firetraps, or provide housing that's substandard.

But Peskin's legislation would not legalize the thousands of units already built without permits. It would only allow for permits to add a new unit to a home, as long as the owner complied with building codes requiring sound wiring and other construction, sufficient bathrooms, and an additional parking space. The parking-space requirement would be waived for buildings within 1,200 feet of a transit corridor, or for in-laws built to be specifically accessible by the handicapped or elderly.

In effect, the new legislation could create thousands of new, lower-income housing units without a dime spent on expensive government subsidies. With today's city and state budget crises and a continuing housing shortage, that would be a near-miracle.

Legal in-law units could add to San Francisco's low-income housing stock, which is still in short supply, without changing their neighborhoods' appearances. Because they'd provide extra income streams that could be used to help make mortgage payments, in-law units would make it possible for ordinary folks to afford homes in San Francisco, a dream otherwise out of reach to all but the wealthiest.

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