San Franciscans hoping to purchase a so-called starter home in the city not only have to contend with free-spending competitors but investors bidding on the land — not the home. At 449 Chenery in Glen Park, the 935-square foot house was purchased in 2008 for a gaudy $905,000. But that was money well spent — the structure was more than tripled in size via a remodel to 3,300 square feet and sold in 2010 for $1.6 million.

In nearby Noe Valley, Stephen Fowler and Renee Stephens — who earned a degree of Internet infamy following an agonizing appearance on Wife Swap in which they conformed to every negative stereotype of San Franciscans — petitioned their neighbors to allow a massive addition to 479 Douglass. Signers were urged "to support families who want to stay in San Francisco." (The couple, meanwhile, served octogenarian Bob Hanamura, a city native and upstairs tenant in the home since 1978, with an eviction notice.)

In desirable neighborhoods — and few are more desirable than Noe Valley — the petition repeated a familiar refrain. Real or hypothetical families are trotted out to justify gargantuan home expansions. Potentially lucrative in-law units are pitched as a necessity, as the extended family intends on visiting — often! Once the projects are complete, the in-laws may or may not visit, and families may or may not take up residence in the homes supposedly built to keep them in this city. But smaller, more affordable housing is assuredly gone.

Former longtime Residential Builders Association chieftan Joe O’Donoghue says he coined the term “de facto demolition.” With the way the city’s now reading its own rules, he predicts many more of them.
Jean-Philippe Dobrin
Former longtime Residential Builders Association chieftan Joe O’Donoghue says he coined the term “de facto demolition.” With the way the city’s now reading its own rules, he predicts many more of them.

"Tons of people do this," says builder and contractor John Pollard. "You can dig six or nine feet in the basement and add 2,000 square feet. In the attic, you can put some dormers in and add 1,800 feet. A couple rooms in the attic, a little deck, a garage — hey, it's worth it."

Indeed: Fowler and Stephens purchased 479 Douglass for $850,000 in late 2009 and more than doubled its size to some 3,200 square feet, according to the realtor who facilitated its sale in April of this year for $3 million. Fowler is currently applying to demolish a 1,896-square-foot house and erect a 4,105-square-foot home and a 490-square-foot second unit in Mill Valley; in that nearby city, speculators needn't cloak the destruction of smaller homes and erection of larger ones under the rubric of a remodel. The transformation of San Francisco's most modest homes into high-end housing stock remains a thriving business — the city's demolition interdictum be damned.

The interplay between the city and those seeking to knock down and build up its housing stock has long resembled the relationship between a sports league and its doping athletes. The latter always seem to be one step ahead of the former.

Tearing down Victorian cottages was a cottage industry of its own for decades in San Francisco. By the 1980s, however, Westside neighborhood groups objected to the razing of single-family homes in favor of large, ungainly — and highly profitable — "Richmond Specials." Former longtime Residential Builders Association President Joe O'Donoghue smiles at the memory. When the city took steps to curtail demolitions, he and his colleagues began undertaking "de facto demolitions." O'Donoghue proudly notes that this is a term of his coinage.

"We were doing de facto demolitions all the time. We were building a new building because it was easier to just do it that way, you see? You knock the entire building down to just three studs — and that's how you'd get around the demolition ordinance," he recalls with a laugh. "The demolition ordinance was being circumvented. Legally!"

After the city's rules regarding demolitions tightened, builders' responses became more creative. When a heavier percentage of a structure was required to be retained, "You'd keep all the old studs. You'd move the new studs right up along the old ones," continues O'Donoghue. The load-bearing elements the city insisted on preserving were rendered merely cosmetic. O'Donoghue chuckles. "You see? You're keeping crap! But, again, we found a way around it. If you won't allow us to demolish it, then we're basically able to build a new building to take the place of the old."

This is still happening, even as San Francisco churns out more complex rules regarding demolitions. The morass of regulations add time and cost to construction jobs. Reckless or ignorant builders will be tripped up by the reams of arcane stipulations and may face the wrath of the city. But the well-read, well-connected, and well-heeled are able to pull off "major alterations" that triple, quadruple, even sextuple the size of a home.

"I always said there was nothing wrong with making the rules complex — because if you're the only ones who understand them, you do away with the competition," says O'Donoghue with a grin. With the city's current reading of its rules, "You'll have more of these de-facto demolitions happening, no question. And I'm in support of that."

A public hearing on Twin Peaks' 125 Crown Terrace project was held before the Planning Commission in late October. It was the final agenda item during a six-hour meeting and, itself, occupied more than two hours of the commission's time. In many ways, it was an exhibition typical of what you'd expect in a tony, residential San Francisco enclave: Neighbors harped on views and noise and doggie runs and the felling of much-beloved trees. There was little mention of the cognitive dissonance of a project rejected as a demolition growing larger as an alteration.

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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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