A Little Taller, A Lot Smarter

by Mark Hogan, Principal, OpenScope Studio and Kristy Wang, Community Planning Director, SPUR

Have you ever found yourself walking down a San Francisco street — Geary Boulevard, say — and wondered why aren’t these buildings taller? If we’re in a housing shortage, why don’t we have six-, ten- and twelve-story residential buildings throughout our city? We marvel at the vibrant streetlife in so many other cities (enabled by density) and yet we settle for squat one- and two-story buildings lining major transportation corridors throughout our own hometown.

The existing zoning in much of San Francisco restricts new construction both by height and density. Zoning in neighborhood commercial areas often limits new construction to 40 feet in height, for example, but also limits the new building to a maximum of three new housing units. This makes many sites unattractive for development, even given today’s high rents and sales prices.

Non-compliant existing apartment building at 9th and Judah

Many older buildings that were built before the current zoning went into effect do not comply, yet these structures are neighborhood landmarks that provide housing for thousands of San Franciscans. Even in generally low-rise areas like the Sunset, larger buildings exist and they enhance their neighborhoods. Those buildings could not be built today.

San Francisco is trying to change this with the Affordable Housing Bonus Program. The city has a proposal on the table to allow an increase in height (one-to-two stories for market rate buildings, three for all-affordable buildings) and an increase in allowable density in exchange for building affordable housing.

Why so small, you might ask? Because this program applies to a broad area of the city, specifically areas like that are near lower-density residential neighborhoods. Also, building taller than an additional two stories would push the new buildings into a more expensive construction type that wouldn’t be economically feasible on most sites.

Currently, new buildings with fewer than 10 units are exempt from city requirements to build or fund affordable housing. The Affordable Housing Bonus Program would be voluntary, but participants would have to build 30 percent affordable units on-site if they took the density bonus. Using our previous example of a small site in a commercial district presently limited to three units, this same site could now host a 9 unit building with 3 affordable apartments. This is a big improvement. Larger sites, many of which are currently used for surface parking, could fit a lot more homes.

San Francisco is not full. We have plenty of room to build in our existing neighborhoods at higher densities that are currently allowed. Facilitating incremental changes like the housing bonus are a great way to increase the capacity across the city to build our housing supply in a responsible way.

So what can you do to support this proposed legislation? You can sign an online letter to the Board of Supervisors and the president of the Planning Commission right now. You can show your support for good growth by showing up at the October 26 open house at City Hall or by attending hearings at the Planning Commission in November and December. Spread the word. You can balance out the people who are opposed to change. You can be a positive voice for thoughtful and reasonable housing growth.

To learn more about the Affordable Housing Bonus Program, check out the Planning Department’s short informational video.

Send a letter to city leaders >>

Learn more about the AHBP from the SF Planning Department >>