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Letter to Call for Upzoning in San Francisco

Dear Fellow Housing activists of all stripes,

It is time to up-zone all single family and duplex lots to allow for more multifamily housing in every neighborhood of San Francisco.

For too long low-income and historically minority neighborhoods have been asked to shoulder a disproportionate amount of our city-wide housing needs. That injustice must end. It is time to build housing in every neighborhood.

The city is already largely zoned for a minimum of 4 stories. Up-zoning to allow 4 units would only acknowledge the truth: 4 housing units can be safely built to code in almost every lot in the city—but only if we legalize multifamily housing. Our current low-density zoning incentivizes homeowners to add square footage (i.e. “Monster Homes”) without adding additional housing units. It enshrines a culture of protectionism and freezes wealthier neighborhoods in amber. Meanwhile, the city is breaking under the weight of a chronic housing shortage. This must end.

The only way to solve the crisis is to create a continuous supply glut. About one-third of our metropolitan area is zoned single family homes only (RH1 and RH1-D). When you add in duplexes (RH2) and triplexes (RH3), we estimate 75% of the housing stock is artificially restricted to low density. These zoning policies are the legacy of suburban sprawl, racist redlining, and misplaced fears of the “inner city”.[1] The large demand for housing in these areas is reflected in the extremely high price of housing in these neighborhoods.

When we legalize potential units dispersed in every neighborhood, individual owners will make individual decisions to begin to build multi-family housing. As these communities start to grow, we can efficiently build more schools, improve transportation and create all the things new people will need. Up-zoning the outlying neighborhoods will allow a steady increase in density that will be easy to absorb by steadily growing our city services. Neighborhoods will see new families walking their streets, spending money at their local retail, and engaging in public life.

Exclusionary communities cannot continue to keep others out at the expense of everyone else. The crisis already brought on by chronically underbuilding housing is far too great. Exclusionary communities must be encouraged to grow and change.

Up-zoning all lots to a minimum of RH-4 multifamily housing would ignite a housing development boom. It would legalize hundreds of thousands of units that are not possible today. These potential mid-rise housing developments would be in very desirable neighborhoods and are very feasible economically. Adding mid-rise multifamily housing in these neighborhoods would encourage a mixing of socio-economic backgrounds, enriching and diversifying our communities. These small-scale projects would be distributed throughout the city, bringing new life into every community.

There are many smaller developers who would jump at the chance to build these very cost-efficient projects. This would also avoid a problematic constraint on new housing production: the limited number of builders that can take on larger more complex projects.

This can only happen if we unite in our demands for housing.

We need to go beyond the neighborhoods that already have multi-family zoning. We cannot allow wealthy neighborhoods to push off their responsibilities while demanding that historically minority neighborhoods continue to build.

I think many of you agree with this already. No matter what side of other issues we may have been on, I hope that we can join together to end our city’s discriminatory practice of single-family home zoning. Moving to a minimum of RH4 zoning is a good step forward.

Fellow housing activists, we need your help.

YIMBY Action would like to start a working group to flesh this out and start moving for real policy change. Can you join us in this effort? Individuals, city officials, and organizations are all welcome. Even if you have small qualms with the first-step policy proposed here, I hope you can join this working group if you agree with the general spirit of its intent.

Only with a unified voice can we overcome the protectionist and obstructionism that too often halts all housing production in our outlying neighborhoods. Together, we can do this.

Are you in? RSVP by emailing [email protected]

Laura Clark
Executive Director

[1] Articles of interest on this topic include:


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