Bringing Down the Housing: How Builders Game the System

Design by Andrew J. Nilsen

Nestled into the rugged hillside high atop Twin Peaks, 125 Crown Terrace boasts a breathtaking panorama of the city below. It is the embodiment of the real estate cliché: a million-dollar view. A million-dollar view in San Francisco, however, doesn't necessarily mean so much. And the view on Crown Terrace is tempered somewhat by the sight of the home itself.

A historical review of the 1941 structure undertaken when its owner applied to demolish it reveals the original inhabitants were Ruben and Elizabeth Burrow; rather callously the report concludes that neither they "nor any of the subsequent owners/occupants of the property were found to be important in our local, regional, or national past." The house was built by Ruben Burrow himself, a printer by trade. "He is not a master in the field of architecture," the report concludes. This is, no doubt, accurate.

Drake Gardner’s design to replace this building at 125 Crown Terrace has been approved. The next step: “Build it — and not get in trouble with the inspector for taking out more than you designated you were going to.”
Photo on left by Andrew J. Nilsen
Drake Gardner’s design to replace this building at 125 Crown Terrace has been approved. The next step: “Build it — and not get in trouble with the inspector for taking out more than you designated you were going to.”
Former Supervisor Aaron Peskin says the Planning Department’s take on metamorphosing buildings “is tortured beyond a Kafka novel.”
Paul Trapani
Former Supervisor Aaron Peskin says the Planning Department’s take on metamorphosing buildings “is tortured beyond a Kafka novel.”

And yet, current owner Mel Murphy's demolition permit was roundly rejected. Aesthetics aside, 125 Crown Terrace was a deemed a structurally sound, affordable home occupied by rent-controlled tenants in a city where such things are exalted. Preserving such structures is — at least on paper — one of the Planning Department's foremost goals. So, when Murphy applied to raze the home, "all the red flags went up," according to one Planning Department observer. Longstanding city policies have rendered the demolition of a sound, rent-controlled structure nigh-impossible — at least when approached in a straightforward manner.

Murphy's plan to demolish the 854-square foot home and replace it with a 4,019 square-foot residence for his family was deemed wholly incompatible with the city's housing policies. So, the prominent local developer and past president of the Building Inspection Commission submitted a new proposal. Rather than demolish the home, he would simply remodel it — to 5,139 square feet.

And this the city approved. An eviction notice affixed to the front door of 125 Crown Terrace flutters in the breeze. Visible through the front window, a bare mattress rests on the living room floor, and DVDs are strewn about the premises. It's a view that feels a million years from a million dollars.

San Francisco is a city of paradoxes. It prides itself on its inclusivity, but is the exemplar of the exploding gap between America's rich and poor. Preservation of affordable housing is enshrined as a top priority in the city's General Plan, yet housing in San Francisco is historically unaffordable. Demolishing a modest, rent-controlled home and erecting one five times larger is unthinkable — but remodeling it into a structure six times larger is okay.

In San Francisco, residential demolitions have been deemed antithetical to this city's ethos, and largely phased out. The city demolished 84 housing units last year — more than in recent years, but only a tenth of what was going down in the 1970s. The city's definition of a "demolition," however, is remarkably malleable and ever-evolving. San Francisco is flush with onetime starter homes that, via a "major alteration," have been augmented to double, triple, or more their original sizes — and subsequently sold for double, triple, or more their original prices. These so-called affordable homes, ostensibly within the reach of the city's fleeting middle class, are gone for good as assuredly as if they'd been dynamited. The city maintains its pious policies regarding the retention of its affordable housing stock even while allowing broad leeway to those scooping it up and building it into luxury dwellings. And everyone is left to ponder why middle-class residents and families are fleeing San Francisco, the city with the nation's highest home prices and lowest percentage of children.

Four years ago, the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance amending the planning code in an ostensible attempt to close loopholes regarding residential demolitions. But closing loopholes in San Francisco is often akin to jumping on a puddle — instead of one big one, you create multiple little ones. Per the planning code, a building undergoing a renovation must retain a percentage of its "exterior elements" to avoid the declaration of a demolition. Planning Department officials confirm to SF Weekly, however, that these elements — the very portions of a residence retained specifically to avoid triggering a demolition — can themselves be taken down and replaced. This can be undertaken even if only to bolster otherwise sturdy walls in order to support the much larger structure to be built atop them. The possibility exists to essentially dismantle an entire structure, erect a new, far bigger one, and deem the action an "alteration."

"This is tortured beyond a Kafka novel," fumes former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, a strong backer of the '08 ordinance. His onetime colleague, former Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, avoids literary allusions: "It's bullshit, bullshit, total horseshit. A total deception."

Despite its professed zeal for preventing demolitions, San Francisco appears to have demolished the definition of what a demolition is.

Puttering around on a tour of things that aren't there anymore is a pastime in many cities. San Francisco natives can take you to the former sites of places like Seals Stadium or Playland at the Beach. They can also take you to the sites of formerly affordable houses. You don't find so many moderately priced homes anymore in San Francisco. Not coincidentally, you don't find so many natives, either.

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The "de facto" demolitions in this fine city are, however, not confined strictly to economic and policy bastardizations of residential properties. Ironically, both the Planning Department and the Department of Building Inspection are housed in built anew "remodeled" buildings brought to the City by a Texas developer. What is good for the goose is good for .......the rest of us?!?!


This has been the long standing joke in The City for years.  Once developers discovered they could build on the down side of the street, four and five stories in the back became common.  Look at Valley Street.  The major construction was down hill.   

There is a project on the 400 block that is truly reaching for China.  And that Cabana on Noe?  Protecting a couple of studs.  It is a well known game.  Shameless McGee (r.i.p.) was the best in the business. 

The new development on Diamond.  What a joke, the original developer wanted three houses of substance.  The building department recommended four.  

The developers enter public parks and cut down trees to jack up the speculated price for the new development.  Sometime for the good, but sometimes for the bad.  I doubt if they get fined like a resident does.  

This is a big time game, and you better find out, "On what side is your supervisor?"


It's business as usual in the corrupt SF Building and Housing Inspection Department. The top people have finally learned they must be more careful in their corruption after two of the heads had to resign in a row. One had condemned a property and then bought it, nothing new. It was rampant many decades ago so a system was implemented to help stop it allegedly. Inspectors were supposed to be rotated in what area of the city they cover every two years. Doubt they are still doing it and the senior people over them are not rotated and obviously the head person isn't. 

There are building inspectors who are contractors who are doing $1 million dollar remodels with just a $50K permit with the full knowledge of their boss and the top people at DBI. 

 The journalists and city supervisors are afraid to write an article for fear they will be targeted by the DBI for inspections of their property. The FBI is supposed to investigate corruption in local government but won't bother, they want headlines for their work.


If you are a wealthy developer or client of a developer, your connections to city hall will get you whatever you want in SF.  As the article mentioned, the system is literally designed for these folks.

It does not matter if it's permits, traffic tickets, or city jobs.Sure, it's a less blatant form of corruption...hidden behind forms, city departments, bogus hearings, and such.  However the amount of money involved with this institutionalized corruption dwarfs the overt petty bribery we self-righteously identify in other parts of the world.

If you are a person such as myself, without any connections, you are simply out of luck.  Trying to add one bedroom to a two bedroom house for our second baby has proved fruitless.  So like many others we are likely going to move.  One more family chased out of a city that only really pays lip service to wanting them to stay.


OK, so this is a nice little story but the argument that creative renovations of buildings on underutilized properties in supply constrained and highly demanded neighborhoods is destroying affordable housing how? stopping an expansion isn't going to somehow make the housing all that more affordable.  (relatively) affordable family housing is in the neighborhoods the big money avoids like bayview, portola, and ingleside, and vis valley. new megaprojects at hunters point and treasure island and the new units out at park merced will take some pressure off and provide people with modern places to live. we'll also build more affordable housing through prop C funds and other inclusionary sources.  is it enough?  probably not.  but to pass off the disagreements of reasonably wealthy people (and with only a passing mention of the tenants who are collateral damage) as some sort of big thing about affordable housing is just silly.

Tami Twarog
Tami Twarog

Great article. Love that pic of Aaron Peskin "tortured beyond a Kafka novel" Indeed.


Sounds like you got some skin in this game...

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