Fighting to preserve affordable housing in San Francisco 

As San Francisco struggles through our affordability crisis, we must act on every opportunity to help San Franciscans stay in their homes. Last year, I fought to restrict conversion of rental housing into condos and to prioritize access to new affordable housing for victims of Ellis Act evictions. This year, I'm working with other San Francisco leaders to push Ellis Act reform in Sacramento.

But we can't stop with these efforts, which is why I'm advocating something that has been proposed unsuccessfully in years past: we need to provide a path to legalization for the estimated 40,000 unpermitted in-law units that currently exist in The City. Making this change may not be easy, but the time to take on this challenge is now.

If you've ever looked for an apartment to rent, you've likely come across an unpermitted -- and technically illegal -- in-law unit. These apartments, also called secondary units, are typically smaller, garage-level dwellings that were likely added on within an existing home after World War II when a large influx of workers increased the demand for housing.

A recent door-to-door survey conducted in the Excelsior neighborhood by the Asian Law Caucus shows that in-law apartments are more affordable, and that the people who live in them include seniors, low-income families and immigrants who would otherwise not be able to afford to live in our city.

Why legalize in-law units that have been illegal for decades?

The answer is that without legal status, everyone involved faces the risks and repercussions of potential enforcement. As the Excelsior survey showed, tenants often don't have leases or other protections to protect them from evictions. Landlords caught with an illegal unit may end up in legal limbo with their tenants and The City. The units may not be physically safe to live in if they don't meet building safety standards, putting residents in jeopardy in the event of fire or earthquake.

Here are two real-life examples.

A tenant and his family lived in an illegal unit. When he asked his landlord to provide housing services typically required of a landlord, his landlord used the illegal status as a reason to evict him. Not knowing their rights, the tenant and his family were forced to move out of the apartment.

A homeowner bought a single family home with an illegal unit. She is housing a family friend in the unit and not charging rent. The homeowner received a city notice of violation to remove the unit. To comply, she must evict her friend, a senior who can't afford market-rate rent on a fixed income.

Because there have been countless stories like these over decades, there is a enormous need to protect this important stock of affordable housing in our city and make sure that our residents are safe.

I introduced legislation last month to allow homeowners with technically illegal in-law units to voluntarily enter a program to legalize one of those units. The unit must have been built prior to this year, so we do not encourage homeowners to add more units without going through the required planning and building process. The legalization program includes a pre-screening phase to allow a homeowner to gather information about the legalization process without fear of automatic enforcement.

I want to be clear: we are not changing zoning rules in our city. In the past, supervisors failed to pass in-law legalization legislation because opponents decried the downfall of neighborhoods as a result of increased density and altered zoning.

The truth is these in-laws apartments already exist, people already live in them, and the so-called density opponents fear already exists.

San Francisco's housing crisis is a tremendous challenge. We need to protect our tenants and build more housing, especially affordable rental units. We also need to preserve the affordable housing we already have -- and that includes the legalization of in-law units.

David Chiu is president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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