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News + PoliticsIn-law units get approved -- with conditions that Sup....

In-law units get approved — with conditions that Sup. Christensen doesn’t like

D3 incumbent opposes limits on Airbnb rentals, condo conversions, and Ellis Act evictions — but committee goes for them anyway

Second units can be new rental housing -- if that's what they are really used for
Second units can be new rental housing — if that’s what they are really used for

By Tim Redmond

JULY 20, 2015 – Two bills that would legalize in-laws and second units on existing lots are moving forward – but the debate at the Land Use Committee today exposed some interesting political alliances and conflicts.

Nobody on the panel was opposed to the concept of allowing property owners to build inlaws or backyard cottages in Districts 3 and 8, where the bills by Sups. Scott Wiener and Julie Christensen would allow that construction.

Both Wiener and Christensen insisted that they wanted to promote the development of more rent-controlled housing in the city.

But when tenant advocates proposed some rules that would ensure the new units were actually used for rental housing – and not, for example, turned into condos or hotel rooms – they ran into some fierce resistance from both supervisors.

The narrative that Wiener and Christensen both put out echoed what the Chron reported yesterday – that the concerns tenant groups have expressed must be related to the District 3 supervisorial election.

Wiener is not running against anyone this fall, but the D3 race still framed his remarks: “This entire issue has been so vetted … what has changed? Now we have a D3 election.”

He noted that Aaron Peskin, who is challenging Christensen, proposed similar citywide legislation when he was in office, but wasn’t able to get a board majority to support him.

But the issues facing the city in 2015 are a bit different than when Peskin first proposed to legalize second-units. For one thing, there was no Airbnb back then, and thousands of housing units weren’t been removed from the rental market and turned into hotel rooms.

And the epidemic of Ellis Act evictions wasn’t driving tenant advocates to put whatever barriers possible in the path of the speculators.

Jennifer Feiber, the director of the Tenants Union, testified that her group had no problems with so-called accessory dwelling units (ADUs) – but if the board was going to legalize them, she suggested some rules.

The ADUs should remain as real rentals, she said, and the owners should not be allowed to convert them to condos or use them as short-term rentals. And any landlord who had evicted tenants under the Ellis Act should be barred from building the second units.

A letter to the committee from six prominent housing groups noted:

We note we do not have an objection to a well designed program to allow the development of accessory units that does not negatively impact existing tenants and vulnerable populations, we are concerned that this legislation does not meet that standard.   As drafted, the present legislation does nothing to protect existing residents against displacement and eviction spurred by the development of these new units and does not assure that the newly constructed housing will in reality even become rental units.

These glaring gaps in the proposals should be addressed and corrected before they are presented to the full Board.   At minimum, the legislation should provide that: (a) ADUs should not be permitted in any building within which there had been an Ellis Act, no fault eviction, or a buy out of tenants within the past 10 years and (b) as a condition of approval, buildings with ADUs should be required to be maintained as rental housing for a minimum of 10 years following the construction of the additional unit, (c)  the legislation should drop their current provisions that will reduce the obligation by developers to provide notice to neighbors and tenants.

Today, in both Districts and across the City there is a wave of Ellis and other evictions by owners and speculators.  We should not be rewarding or incentivizing the perpetrators of those evictions with the right to build new ADUs.  The present legislation does nothing to prevent that outcome.

The letter, from Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, Causa Justa :: Just Cause, Chinatown Community Development Center, Dolores Street Community Services, Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, and the Tenants Union, had nothing to do with the D3 race and everything to do with what those groups have talked about for years.

The problem: Neither Christensen nor Wiener was open to most of the amendments.

Christensen, who said she “saw politics creeping into this,” argued that limiting the ability of a landlord to turn a second unit into a hotel room, or into a condo, would “withdraw the incentive” for people to build those units.

Well, as Kim pointed out, it might – but do we want to give a special benefit to people who want to build hotel rooms in residential areas? Do we want, in the name of creating affordable, rent-controlled housing, to give people the right to build what could someday be condos?

The truth is, this legislation provides a huge boon to some property owners. Building a second unit in an existing building envelope is way, way cheaper than building an apartment from the ground up. Turning a garage into a housing unit might cost $50,000, maybe even twice that – but at current interest rates, a mortgage of $100,000 is about $780 a month. Even with property taxes and insurance, we’re talking maybe $1,000 a month –for a unit that in most areas will command twice that in rent.

It’s a good deal for landlords. It doesn’t take much to “incentivize” them to do it.

But if the city doesn’t limit what those units can be used for, it’s entirely possible that many will become full-time Airbnb rentals.

Now: Christensen said we don’t have to worry about that – because when it comes to short-term rentals, the new units will be under the same regulations as all other housing: “We don’t need controls because those controls are already there.” She, of course, made sure those regulations are so weak that they are almost meaningless.

Sup. Jane Kim proposed three amendments to do what the tenant and housing groups wanted. Wiener agreed to the ban on new units where an Ellis eviction has happened in the past 10 years. He opposed the other two.

But surprisingly, Sup. Malia Cohen, who almost always votes with Wiener, supported all three of Kim’s amendments. So the measure will come back to the committee next week with most of what the housing groups asked for.

The remarkable fact is that Christensen wasn’t in favor of any of those changes – and she claimed it was all about “politics.”

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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