Increasing housing without building more in SF is a sensible approach 

The housing needs of San Francisco are legendary, and with the economic boom happening in The City, the pressures on housing stock have increased at a rate that no building or policy could possibly keep pace with.

There are many solutions in the works, including Mayor Ed Lee’s plan to streamline the process for builders to construct housing, especially that which contains units for low- and moderate-income residents. But two ideas that should get the backing of public officials are proposals by Supervisor Scott Wiener and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu to help build new in-law units and legalize units that already exist.

The housing issues in San Francisco include not building enough housing for the past several decades and also the loss of rental stock that is affordable for those on the lower end of the economic scale. Converting rental housing into tenancies-in-common or condominiums removes rental stock — even though it does add units for sale that could be more attainable pricewise for people looking to buy.

But less expensive rental stock will always be needed in The City as a way to provide needed housing for low- and moderate-income residents. Scattered throughout San Francisco are rental units that have long flown just under the radar, even though pretty much everyone knows they exist. These secondary units in houses — often referred to as in-laws or granny flats — have long provided rentals for residents in a range of income levels.

Wiener’s proposal, which received an approving nod from the Planning Commission last week, would help build new in-law units in a limited part of the Castro, which he represents. Chiu’s proposal, which is set to be heard this week at the Planning Commission, encompasses legalizing existing units across The City.

There are small details that will be worked out in the coming weeks and months as these proposals move forward, including such technicalities as how the units are brought up to code and who bears responsibility in covering costs associated with upgrades.

But the larger goal of these proposals should be kept in mind as lawmakers hash out the details. Legalization of the units would bring them under the purview of The City, which could then manage them as part of the housing stock, including working to try to keep them available as rental units.

Up until now, these units that were built without the proper permits had to stay out of official circulation. If one was brought to light, the owners either had to pay permit fees or demolish the unit. The latter option is especially unpalatable in the current housing market. Every step needs to be taken to ensure the existing housing stays available — especially these smaller units that are often less expensive.

San Francisco officials are aware that The City needs more housing, though there is much discussion about which types of units should be built, in terms of income level, and where. The in-law legislation, though seemingly a small step, is an important one to help increase the legal housing stock without even constructing any other building in The City.

Clarification: This editorial was updated on March 11, 2014. A previous version of this editorial did not make clear that Supervisor Scott Wiener's legislation would allow new in-law units in a part of the Castro. Supervisor David Chiu's legislation would legalize existing in-law units in The City.

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