In-laws You Can Live With

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

And as for the claim that adding in-laws will unreasonably burden city services -- well, it's the same unsupported shibboleth that's always used to argue against urban density here, and it's just not true. By creating urban infill, in-law units use existing infrastructure and, because they reduce sprawl, they would help protect the environment.

Enabling in-law units in San Francisco is a simple, pro-environment, pro-low-income, pro-family move that would have few, if any, negative impacts. In important ways, supposed rogues such as my in-law-building neighbors are heroes, and the city needs to support a law recognizing this.


Despite all the "For Rent" signs you're seeing around town, there's still a housing problem in San Francisco. Although a recent exodus of jobs has tilted the housing supply-and-demand balance and reduced apartment prices to 1998 levels, $1,750 is still a lot for two working stiffs to pay for an ordinary two-bedroom apartment.

The idea that there's a link between housing shortages and high housing prices is considered politically incorrect in San Francisco, but the link is real. The number of Bay Area jobs has grown during recent decades, while available housing has not increased appreciably, creating a cascade of residence-seekers. Rich people have replaced middle-class people in houses and apartments once occupied by regular Joes and Janes. Middle-class people have displaced poor people who used to live in Potrero two-bedroom homes. Poor people have displaced very poor people in flophouses. And a lot of the very poor have slid onto the street.

As I occasionally do, I called the Biltmore Hotel on Sixth Street's skid row to ask about a room. Rented by the week, a room is $1,400 per month. If San Franciscans really wish to help stabilize people at risk of homelessness, we have to provide housing at all price levels, including -- perhaps especially -- $1,200 in-law apartments. Recognizing this, advocates for the poor such as California Legal Rural Assistance have gone on the record supporting a statewide law that would make it difficult for cities such as San Francisco to continue to deny permits to homeowners wishing to build in-law units.


Tony Hall, the tall, lanky, baritone lounge singer and rumored mayoral candidate, recently made a bit of a name for himself with an impassioned speech at the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee announcing he would oppose the popular Care Not Cash measure passed this spring. The measure would have halted some cash payments to the homeless, spending the money on services instead. But a judge said that the measure was illegal, that only the Board of Supervisors could make such funding decisions. Hall, considered the board's conservative, was widely expected to help the measure's sponsor, leading mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom, push the board to pass Care Not Cash. Instead he came out swinging in the other direction.

"Care Not Cash was a package of deception. It made people think it was going to solve all the homeless problems, and it wasn't even written in a way that was legal to implement," Hall said in an interview last week. "That campaign has promoted the yarn that this has worked in other cities. This has never worked in other cities. What worked was making cash less available, and making it especially difficult to obtain specifically for people on drugs or who abuse alcohol.

"There are certain people who are better off with services rather than cash, and we have to identify them. Some are better off with cash. Nobody's better off sleeping on the street. We certainly don't want to move one group onto the street and move others into the shelters."

Strong, noble words, coming from one of the few San Francisco politicians who, in other contexts, has recognized the link between a lack of S.F. housing construction and an S.F. housing shortage that exacerbates our homelessness problem. Hall has criticized groups who've opposed much-needed apartment buildings in the Mission District and South of Market.

So why in heaven's name oppose Peskin's in-law measure? I asked Hall.

He returned to the issue of suburban San Franciscans' "rights": "They've bought their houses, they've continued to live there because they want single-family houses. That's their decision. It's their investment," Hall said, before offering a feint, a politician's equivalent of I've got to do this thing, OK?

"That's pretty overwhelmingly the sentiment out there. I don't know what it rings like throughout the city. I just know my district is adamantly opposed to it, and so am I."


In my fantasy about my neighbors, Hall's bogus property rights argument fails. Peskin's bill passes. The new law turns the once roguish activity of in-law building into a virtue. My neighbors to the south Sheetrock, re-plumb, and carpet their garages, as do the owners of buildings up and down the street. The Sunset District fills with legal, up-to-code in-law units. Thousands more "For Rent" signs go up. Landlords all over the city find they've got to slash rents to fill flats. Families like mine, now crowded into a small one-bedroom apartment, are able to move into bigger places; worse-off folks, previously unable to afford even a Tenderloin fleabag, need no longer choose the street.

My now-former neighbors continue about their business -- chatting with friends and family on the sidewalk, driving their nice car, and maintaining their in-law unit -- without realizing that they are local San Francisco heroes.

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