Commentary – Mike Murphy

In the mid-1970s my wife and I were evicted from our flat after the birth of our first child, but the timing proved fortunate.  We bought at 1907 house near the park while prices were still low.

The move put us at the epicenter of what was then viewed as a kind of housing crisis: old homes were being razed and replaced by graceless apartments popularly call “Richmond specials.” We joined other homeowners in opposing the trend and we won. San Francisco adopted tough rules regulating demolition that required Planning Commission approval of replacement buildings and compliance with Residential Design Guidelines.  These rules and guidelines are still in effect.

Today we face a very different – and far more consequential – housing crisis, generated by a shortage of housing for an expanding job market.  Can stricter demolition controls again be the answer?  A 59-page ordinance co-sponsored by five supervisors proposes a dramatic expansion of demolition restrictions to stem the current of change. Here are some highlights of the proposed ordinance:

  • It eliminates a provision requiring the Planning Commission to consider whether the replacement building provides more units.
  • It extends demolition controls to residential units that have been unoccupied for as long as five years.
  • It drastically limits the structures potentially eligible for demolition by demanding a finding that a residence targeted for demolition must be out of character in its block in terms of scale and architectural details.
  • It requires replacement structures to conform to average dimensions of other homes within 300 feet, thereby blocking an incremental process of growth.
  • It imposes crushing penalties for violations of its provisions that would bring financial ruin to small contractors who make an ill-informed misstep.
  • It imposes restrictions on construction of accessory dwelling units attached to single-family homes in violation of state law.
  • It tightens the criteria for determining when construction projects will constitute demolition requiring a hearing before an already over-burdened Planning Commission.
  • Reaching beyond the matter of demolition, it also requires a Planning Commission hearing on any residential expansion of more than 300 square feet.
  • A proposed section 317(g)(6)(B)(viii), page 45, requires the Planning Commission to find that a replacement structure “would not include a garage.” That’s right, it can’t have a garage.

I hesitate to ask anyone to read the proposed ordinance.  It took me, an appellate lawyer, a full day to read the 59 pages line by line, to check the cross-references, and to compare the language to that in the existing ordinance.  We should be able to leave this heavy lifting to our supervisors and their staffs.  But if you do read the ordinance, you will find that, if adopted, it would perpetuate and aggravate the housing crisis.

Michael Murphy

Categories: Commentary

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