In an effort to increase housing near mass transit hubs, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman is drafting legislation to make it easier to build fourplexes within a half mile of a major MUNI or BART station. Besides new construction of fourplexes, homeowners could legally convert their existing home, at least in theory, into fourplexes. The push for fourplexes doesn’t stop there, however. Mandelman will ask the city attorney to draft legislation making it legal to build fourplexes on any corner lot in San Francisco, even in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes.
Single-family (R1) zoning is a neighborhood model that allows only one housing unit per parcel, usually resulting in low-traffic, children-friendly streets and quiet, secure cul-de-sacs. While St. Francis Wood or Sea Cliff immediately come to mind as quintessential single-family neighborhoods, they’re found throughout San Francisco, where 38% of residential land is zoned R1.
Fourplex Housing and the “Missing Middle”
A fourplex is a multifamily building designed to accommodate four separate families in four complete living spaces, including four separate entrances. These medium-sized buildings have become increasingly popular with housing advocates, who see them as a way to help house “the missing middle”—households that earn too much to qualify for subsidized housing but not enough to afford market-rate rental housing. Fourplexes are currently being promoted throughout California, especially in urban centers like Sacramento, Oakland, and Berkeley, as a more “democratic, sustainable, and affordable alternative to the single-family home.”
Single-Family Neighborhoods Not Keen on Idea
The fact is, fourplexes, and other rental buildings, have long coexisted peacefully with single-family homes in many parts of the city; the Mission and Noe Valley are just two examples. The controversy and
opposition stems from the idea of introducing rental buildings into neighborhoods that are single-family by design and zoning. Most residents of such neighborhoods enjoy the status quo and resist change. A trend that started in Sacramento—fourplexes in single-family-only neighborhoods – has already come to
the East Bay. Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan wants a study allowing them throughout the city. Berkeley is considering ending single-family zoning entirely by December 2022.
Is the Fourplex Idea Feasible?
What about the construction costs and practicality of fourplexes? “San Francisco has a combination of factors that makes building fourplexes a tricky proposition, among them the fact that it has the third smallest lot sizes in the U.S. – averaging 2,700 square feet – which doesn’t allow much room to shoehorn four units,” writes SF Chronicle reporter J.K. Dineen. Dineen spoke with Daniel Solomon, one of the
few architects designing fourplexes. “These are nifty little projects, but they won’t make a big dent in the housing need,” Solomon said. “That zoning is a tool to create housing production is a widely-held and completely fallacious idea. Just because something is permitted doesn’t mean it happens.
It’s very hard to find a vacant lot or teardown at a price that would work.” The fourplexes Solomon designed and built were profitable, but just barely. And they took as much time to design and execute as 100-unit complexes. “You would need to find a developer willing to take a risk on a minuscule profit and an architect who enjoys brain damage,” he said. “They are complicated little projects—the absolute opposite of economy of scale.”
A Solution in Search of a Problem
What is the problem that this legislation seeks to fix? Rental vacancy rates have more than doubled over the past year, reaching a September 2020 high of 11.7%. So, one wonders how Mandelman’s plan fits into the scheme of things in a post-COVID San Francisco. And then there’s this question: for whom would these near-public-transit fourplexes be built—for workers no longer commuting to their jobs?
With regard to the social justice goals supposedly achieved by placing fourplexes in the midst of
single-family neighborhoods, wouldn’t a far better solution be to invest in lower-income communities by ensuring that they have the same access to grocery stores, good schools, and public services as wealthier neighborhoods?
As Southern California homeowner Chris Jones told the Los Angeles Times, “By trying to cram
too many people into existing single-family neighborhoods, we let the politicians off the hook for improving other neighborhoods.”
Reprinted with permission of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute (SPOSFI) News. For more information on becoming a member of SPOSFI or to send a tax-deductible donation, please visit their website at www.smallprop.org or call (415) 647-2419.