Affordable Housing in Single Family Neighborhoods?

A homeowner wants to build mixed-income housing in his street-facing backyard. Turns out it’s not so easy.

Another day, another housing battle in San Francisco.

Unsurprisingly, the can got kicked down the road, providing little solace for supporters or opponents of a small development in Corona Heights. But while nothing happened at the Nov. 19 Planning Commission meeting, much was revealed about San Francisco’s municipal bloodsport of housing policy. 

The subject of the latest bout? A proposal from the owner and resident of a two-unit building on 17th Street to transform his street-facing backyard into a three-unit building, and construct an additional unit in the existing building, for a total of four new units. The homeowner-developer, Scott Pluta, has pledged to make the two smaller new units into affordable, below-market-rate-housing.

While opposition to a project like this is de rigueur in San Francisco — and the immediate neighbors have good reason not to be thrilled, as the new building would block views and sunlight — what’s remarkable is that the Planning Commission seemed shocked by the very idea of it. It’s almost as if they had never thought about the administrative changes that would enable the construction of affordable housing in the three quarters of the city zoned for one- or two-family residences. 

Pluta, and at least one planning commissioner, say this project could represent a new model for building affordable housing in the vast swaths of San Francisco that currently have none. But the hearing also made clear that the model won’t be possible at any significant scale without revisions to the city’s zoning code and planning processes. If those changes are implemented, they will in turn change the culture of how much control neighbors have over their surroundings. In the end, it’s hard to imagine how the city will be able to please everyone in these kinds of conflicts. 

Doing the Homework

Pluta, a former lawyer, and current Google content moderation policy lead, emphasizes that he’s not a professional real estate developer. He’s just a guy with an overgrown, street-facing yard — a five-minute walk from Castro Muni station — that he feels could be put to better use as housing. 

“I had to learn all this on my own,” Pluta says of the planning process. And while his legal background certainly helped, he spent a lot of time and energy doing homework. Through a public records request, Pluta pulled information on the past 20 years of lot-split variances, the kind he would need to obtain to get his project through. He found that most — about 90 percent — were successful. And of the 99 lot-split variances granted in the past two decades, none of these projects contributed any below market rate housing to the city.

Pluta also took a deep dive into the characteristics of his immediate neighborhood, Corona Heights. He discovered that the neighborhood has a median home value of $1.8 million, and is 84 percent white. “I was shocked to find out that of the 23,000 units of affordable housing in San Francisco there were zero in my neighborhood,” Pluta added. “And in fact, this was endemic across San Francisco.” 

The city’s below-market-rate, affordable housing units are highly concentrated near downtown, and in East Side neighborhoods like the Mission and the Fillmore. Across the city, the affordable housing that does get built serves a very diverse cohort: Ninety percent of recipients of affordable housing in San Francisco last year were people of color. 

But in the approximately three quarters of the city’s residential area zoned for single family homes or duplexes, it is pretty much impossible for non-profit developers to build affordable housing. “The idea of having teachers and firefighters and people on a fixed income living in this really nice part of town is really uplifting for me,” Pluta says. 

Maybe it took someone who didn’t know what they were doing to come up with an idea like this. Even Pluta admits he was a bit naive going in. “In retrospect, if I knew the process was going to be this painful, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

The site of the proposed development today (Photo: Scott Pluta)

Administrative Roadblocks

Pluta’s project, which he began in the summer of 2019, quickly ran into two problems: city regulations and neighborhood opposition. 

In addition to requiring a lot-split variance, the project would have to get conditional use authorization for several zoning code violations, including rear yard setback, lot size, and usable open space. The project also falls in the Corona Heights Large Residence Special Use District, a new layer of regulation added in 2017, which triggers an automatic Planning Commission review for all projects greater than 3,000 square feet in the neighborhood. While it was intended to combat the proliferation of McMansions, the Special Use District also affects multi-family buildings.

In other words, the project is simply not allowed by zoning on several fronts, which is why the Planning Department recommended against approval. (When a variance or conditional use authorization is requested for a project, the Planning Department analyzes the request and presents its findings to the Planning Commission, who then give the final say.)

“To our amazement, the developer did not address the Planning Department’s requirements. They just went straight to the Planning Commission,” says Bill Holtzman, a retired tech worker, and founder of a non-profit dedicated to teaching the works of historian Howard Zinn, who currently serves as the president of the Corbett Heights Neighbors. 

The neighborhood association’s concern was about the immediate neighbors as well as the precedent the project would set across the neighborhood, and the city. “All of a sudden, your world goes from unobstructed southern exposure to darkness, or let’s say heavy shade,” Holtzman says of the neighbor whose backyard abuts the project. “I used the term Berlin Wall [at the hearing], which some people took exception to. It’s somewhere between a four and a five story building, right on the back lot line.” 

In addition to Holtzman, who lives a few blocks away, several neighbors from adjoining buildings submitted public comment at the Nov. 19 hearing. (Overall, 11 of the public comments were in opposition to the project, and 16 were in favor.) Neighbors in the small yellow apartment house next door, who currently enjoy unobstructed downtown views and lots of light from their side-facing windows, were among the most vocal opponents. 

“If this project were to be constructed, we would lose all light and air on the entire eastern side of our house,” a commenter who identified himself as a nearly 20-year resident of the apartment next door said at the hearing. “We would also lose a very large amount of natural light in our backyard.”

Another commenter, who identified himself as a neighbor from two blocks away, said, “Imagine you buy a property in San Francisco, and you have no idea what’s gonna happen. You can’t count on any of the setback rules anymore for the building next to you. People bought those properties with the zoning rules in mind.” 

Project opponents found Pluta’s arguments about building affordable housing disingenuous. If he really wants to build affordable housing, they say, why doesn’t he build a small backyard cottage, as well as that additional unit he proposed in his existing building, and rent them out at below market rates? 

Pluta’s answer is that the only way to make this project work financially is to subsidize the affordable units with the market rate units. Pluta is not a philanthropist, and this property represents his “life savings,” he says, so he needs to put forth a project that banks would be willing to lend to. 

Letter vs. Spirit

The reason Pluta chose to push forward with this project even though it violates several zoning codes is because it supports many of San Francisco’s stated housing policy goals. When considering a conditional use approval, the Planning Commission is required to consider the goals of the city’s General Plan, like: 

“Ensure that new permanently affordable housing is located in all of the city’s neighborhoods, and encourage integrated neighborhoods, with a diversity of unit types provided at a range of income levels.” 

And: “Plan for the full range of housing needs in the City and County of San Francisco, especially affordable housing.”

At the hearing, Commissioner Rachael Tanner, who was the most supportive of the project, said that “it certainly is consistent with our General Plan and the goals that we have set out as a city and continue to talk about wanting. I hope that this could be a model for a new program that our city could develop.”

Following Tanner’s lead, the Planning Commission moved to keep the project alive, asking Pluta and city planners to go back to the drawing board over the next few months to come up with a project that violates fewer zoning codes. 

The question is, can this be done? Can you add mixed income housing at this site — or, for that matter, in any of San Francisco’s low-density neighborhoods — without violating zoning codes? That’s the “inherent challenge” zoning administrator Corey Teague pointed out at the hearing.

“To provide a certain amount of density, while also meeting a number of other requirements, whether it be design context, open space, a certain amount of rear yard, etc.,” is going to be “pretty challenging” Teague said. “You have this conflict between everything that’s trying to be achieved for this project.”

It only took an elaborate, meticulously researched website by Pluta, countless hours of organizing by Holtzman, and 16 pages of analysis by the Planning Department to demonstrate that the letter and spirit of San Francisco’s housing laws are in conflict. 

This project also proved that city officials hadn’t even really considered what it would take to make these kinds of small-scale, mixed-income projects possible. A city attorney, planning commissioners and staff appeared befuddled by the legal and administrative processes that would ensure the affordable units in Pluta’s development, or any similar such development, are legally bound to remain affordable. All this, despite the city’s stated goals: “Ensure that new permanently affordable housing is located in all of the city’s neighborhoods, and encourage integrated neighborhoods.”

State and city laws could change San Francisco’s housing picture in the near future. Planning director Rich Hillis said at the meeting that the department is considering putting forth a proposal that would increase the allowed density on corner lots, like Pluta’s, throughout the city. A new bill from San Francisco’s state Senator Scott Wiener,  SB 10, which he introduced last week would make it possible for the city to implement zoning changes like that one much more quickly than the current process allows. Another state senate bill, SB 9, would legalize duplexes throughout California, as well as lot splits like the one Pluta has proposed. 

None of this would be groundbreaking. San Francisco already has a program that allows developers to increase the density of their projects in exchange for including a higher percentage of affordable housing, although it expressly doesn’t apply to areas zoned for one- and two-family homes. Portland and Austin have programs specifically designed to add affordable housing in low-density, single family home neighborhoods. 

These kinds of changes are not going to make neighborhood advocates like Holtzman happy. “Backyards are a sacrosanct thing in the city, and light and air,” he says. Short of building underground, the new construction enabled by these impending laws will be taller and bulkier than many nearby buildings. They will cast shadows on backyards and previously sunny windows. For the next door neighbors, this will suck. There’s really no two ways about it. 

But for the new neighbors of more modest means, it will have been worth it.

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