New use for San Francisco garages: upscale apartments

The following article was published in the The San Francisco Chronicle on April 19, 2019

For two full days every other week, bureaucrats from five city agencies gather in a conference room at the Department of Building Inspection to try to make it easier for San Franciscans to turn garages or basements into something different: housing.

“We’re all aware of the need,” said Marcelle Boudreaux, who represents the Planning Department at the meetings. “The goal is to make things easier and be more proactive.”

The multiagency effort began after Mayor London Breed in August called on officials to clear a backlog of roughly 900 accessory dwelling unit applications. Some had languished for months because no planner was assigned to get things started. Others foundered while departments offered conflicting interpretations of what city regulations did or didn’t allow.

Now that the backlog is cleared, with 479 new ADUs approved as a result, the process is straightforward. During the biweekly sessions, department staffers review each new application together and prepare a coordinated checklist response for the applicant.

After the applicant revises his or her plans, a time is scheduled for the applicant’s builder or designer to come in and go through the updates with each department representative separately. If all passes muster, the proposal can be approved then and there.

“It’s night and day since a year ago,” said Mark Hogan, an architect involved in dozens of San Francisco ADU projects. “The departments have really jumped on this.”

There’s a lot to jump on.

Unlike other cities, most applications in San Francisco involve requests to convert parking garages or other spaces in multiunit buildings, often when a landlord wants to carve a few extra apartments out of space that might be sitting mostly empty.

The construction costs for such conversions are likely to top $300,000 — but that’s more than balanced by the likelihood of high rents in return. A garage recently converted into a two-bedroom unit in Glen Park, for instance, is now being advertised with a monthly rent of $5,750.

But there’s also the challenge of city regulations that, for instance, require new ADUs in a multiunit structure to be accompanied by bicycle parking spaces. If a tenant with rent control has a parking space included in his or her lease, taking it away to build a new apartment is considered a partial eviction that can be challenged at the city’s Rent Board.

“Urban infill is the right way to go, providing more housing within existing space,” said Nina Hatvany, a real estate broker who has added 12 units to five buildings. “But everything here just takes a lot more time and is more expensive than you expect.”


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