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City postpones vote to allow apartments with only 150 square feet of living space

SF Public Press
 — Jul 10 2012 - 6:15pm

The idea of allowing smaller apartments in San Francisco — as little as 150 square feet of living space for an “efficiency” — is still under consideration after the Board of Supervisors Tuesday pushed back a decision on whether to amend the city’s building code.

Supervisor Wiener and developers are pushing the approval of what they call “affordable by design” apartments, intended for newly constructed high-rises. Activists are calling these tiny apartments “shoeboxes.” (Read previous story: Developers seek to legalize tiny apartments in San Francisco, citing soaring rents.)

The building code change would reduce the living space in efficiencies from 220 square feet to 150, excluding the kitchen, bathroom and closet.

Supporters of the legislation say it could encourage more residential development in a city where the vacancy rate is close to zero and rental prices have risen by 15 percent in the last year.

On Tuesday, Wiener moved to postpone the vote to July 24. He said the Planning Department needed to make a “technical adjustment” to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.

Skeptics worry that the move would raise the value of undeveloped land across the city, meaning builders of affordable housing could be priced out of the real estate market. Housing rights advocates said they were blindsided by the quick introduction of the ordinance, and that the vote came too quickly and without proper consideration of their constituents.

On Monday, the Huffington Post ran a link to a previous story on the tiny apartment legislation on the Public Press. One commenter, MotherLodeBeth identified herself as a member of the “Small House Society.” She said small living spaces are becoming more popular, and that “shoebox places” are much more common in other locales than many people realize. Another commenter, Randall S. Stowe, pointed to the Cubix building at 766 Harrison St., which was forced to declare bankruptcy in July 2009, as a warning sign that the market for tiny apartments might not be as strong as developers suggest.

Wiener also introduced an amendment to clarify that residency will be limited to two people only for “smaller efficiency units,” not existing, larger ones unaffected by the change in law. That amendment addressed fears of some activists that families living in larger efficiency apartments might be evicted if their family home became retroactively illegal.

A previous amendment specified that the smaller apartments would only be allowed in new construction — an effort to assure that rent controlled apartments in existing buildings remain protected.

The idea for Wiener’s legislation came from a group called the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, consisting mostly of private developers.

Tim Colen, the group’s executive director, said the legislation would help the city  build its share of housing units allotted by the Association of Bay Area Governments. The association’s regional plan for “smart growth” calls for the city to build 31,193 housing units by 2014. (See the Public Press special report from the Summer 2012 print edition: Growing Smarter: Planning for a Bay Area of 9 Million.)

Still, some activists worry that not all construction is good construction. Although the ordinance caps the occupancy of these smaller units at two residents, the inability of the city to enforce such a cap has many worried that low-income families who previously squeezed into efficiency apartments of 250 to 300 square feet might now be forced to occupy units half that size.

The Housing Action Coalition points to other large West Coast cities, including San Jose, Seattle and Santa Barbara, which already allow for 150-square-foot apartments — mostly for students, formerly homeless people and low-income residents.

But Colen said the most likely market for San Francisco would be technology workers who have flooded the city in the last two years seeking high-paying jobs.


I love if when that HACk guy talks about how this change in public policy is for the benefit of students, the poor, and so on. If these are for-sale units, more than likely they will be bought for corporate/temporary rentals or AirBnB rentals or weekday homes for working professionals who have their 2,000 square foot homes in Orinda and so on. The market rate pricing won't cater to students - give me a break.

What else is being ignored by the lobbyists for the developers? Well, let's start with the lack of open space in the most likely area of the City that the developers want to build these - South of Market. If you only have 150' of living space, you're going to need to get some air ... unfortunately, most of the public realm in SoMa is asphalt roadways. There are three parks and one recreation center in SoMa operated by Rec. and Parks - and they've told Rincon Hill neighbors they don't want any more parks responsibilities, so we'll have to figure out our own solutions to the dearth of open spaces in SoMa now that Redevelopment is gone.

Let's go back to public realm used as roadways - on 6th Street, folks have to hang out on the sidewalks with a lack of parks nearby. Have you seen a map of pedestrian injuries and deaths on 6th Street and nearby? Not a pretty picture with all of those cars streaming off of 280 onto 6th and little to SFPD enforcement of speed limits. If the HACk wants small units, he'd better ask that they be built where public realm open spaces are plentiful like around Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, and Lake Merced - not in SoMa 'cause we don't have the open space to give these folks the breathing room to stay sane and safe.

What about health care costs? When you only have 150' feet of living space and just a little more for a kitchen, you're probably not going to be fixing healthy meals that take time for preparation. I speak from the experiences of living in a 432 square foot studio myself. Without proper counter space and a decent sized sink, washing and preparing fruits and vegetables can be a bit of a challenge - so the easier choice is to just go to McDonald's or Jack in the Box and buy a $5 dinner. There's also the need for a grocery store for those folks willing to fix their own meals ... we have some grocery stores, but then there's no bus service the runs across SoMa from Division to The Embarcadero .... guess you'll need to get into your car and add to the traffic congestion.

Are we too congested already for the infrastructure available for transportation? I guess it depends on the time of day when you need to travel downtown or if there is a Giants game. BART and the Muni Metro in downtown San Francisco are pretty packed during the evening commutes ... with more residential and office space coming online, they'll be even more packed unless we can all figure out how to stagger the exit time of workers from the FiDi and SoMa each weekday.

Let's go back to city services .... the City is not expanding city services because there is a pension and retiree health care bill that creates a deficit despite the valiant growth in property tax and other tax revenues each year. At some point, this ponzi scheme that impacts the quality of life of SoMa residents the most is going to create a backlash ... I don't know how that plays out, but packing more people into SoMa would add gasoline for whatever backlash occurs.

To sum up ... 150 square feet might be okay where open space is plentiful, but I think its incomprehensible and cruel to allow it in SoMa for reasons cited above.

I'd thought that smaller would be more affordable and cheaper but that turns out to not be the case. In the SoMa, smaller 300 ft/2 apartments go for near $1000/ft2 which is 1/3 more expensive psf than comparable normal sized units.

Some phenomenon are intuitive and some are counter intuitive. Intelligence can predict which is which. When that fails, it is plain stupid to ignore evidence that you're wrong. This one is counter intuitive and will not only produce more expensive psf units, but will create the tenements of the future.

Great article! San Francisco is such a great city that any "showbox" living space proposal should be greeted by the supervisors with open arms. Students and lower income workers should not have to make the trek accross the bay bridge for the evening only to get up early and return.

That description of the ordinance MUCH more clear.

On topic, perhaps it would be better to not only legalize these units but also make them combinable with knock-out walls and such. The housing market is dynamic, as the massive rise in rents shows. Giving building and apartment owners the flexibility of expanding apartment sizes allows them to capture different segments of the market as it evolves.

I do find it odd that housing advocates are worrying about being priced out of undeveloped land. It's undeveloped! Don't bank land on the hopes that an affordable housing developer will come in. Price affordable housing into new housing through inclusionary zoning and let the market do its thing.