Just 23 in-law units built after two years as SF seeks to iron out approval process

Legislation passed in 2016 to allow citywide construction of accessory dwelling units, but only 23 have been constructed in the past two years. (Mike Koozmin/2015 S.F. Examiner)

Two years after San Francisco passed a law intended to encourage property owners to add accessory dwelling units to help ease the housing crisis, snags in the approval process are calling into question the program’s effectiveness.

The most recent data shows there have been 109 permits issued for construction of new accessory dwelling units — sometimes called garden apartments, granny units or in-laws — and only 23 units have been built as a result of The City passing legislation in 2016 to allow their construction citywide.

Accessory dwelling units, which are added within a building’s existing envelope, are hailed as a cost-effective way to create affordable housing and are covered by rent-control laws when added to existing rent-controlled buildings.

Applicants, however, are expressing frustration over the approval process and say they are running into obstacles when it comes to passing requirements like the fire code, according to a hearing at the Building Inspection Commission last week.

“Anecdotally, I get a lot of emails from architects who are very frustrated,” Marcelle Boudreaux, who manages the Planning Department’s accessory dwelling unit program, told the commission. “Some of the frustration does come from — they don’t know how to advise their clients. Currently, right now, there is some lack of guidance coming from what’s happening at the other agencies.”

Boudreaux said the frustration stems from “not knowing what the answer is going to be on the number on ADUs that can placed, where the ADUs could be placed in the building, what will need to happen as far as corridors or the PG&E gas meter rooms. So there’s a lot of unknowns.”

There are various building codes that apply when adding accessory dwelling units, such as a required number of egresses and having rescue windows. One unit is allowed in a single-family home, but an unlimited numbers are allowed in multi-unit residences.

“The onus to meet code and the requirement falls on the design professional, falls on the architect of record, engineer of record, etcetera,” San Francisco Fire Department Fire Marshal Dan de Cossio told the commission.

When projects can’t meet the letter of the code, de Cossio said they can propose other solutions.

“‘Can you give us an enhancement that offsets the deficiency that you cannot comply with?’ That’s what we ask. That’s where it becomes a little subjective,” he said. “We’ve taken a little criticism on some of our proposals.”

Ultimately, the department has to determine “are these occupants of this building, are they going to be as safe as if you met the letter of the code?” de Cossio said.

The issues that have come up mostly have to do with rescue windows and egress requirements. For example, if a person can’t get from the most remote area of an accessory dwelling unit to the public right of way within 75 feet, a second exit is needed. De Cossio also referenced emails in which unidentified applicants were complaining about the Fire Department’s decisions and trying to circumvent the Fire Department.

“I think the process is not being followed properly,” he said. “I’ve seen a couple of emails fly around where the applicant kind of goes around that process and goes right to the Building Department. … We want additional housing. We are all for it. But we want safe housing.”

Ultimately, the commission and city departments decided to create a checklist from each department, alerting applicants to the requirements and figuring out a way to encourage more pre-application meetings among the three city departments.

The hope is to set expectations with applicants at the start and acknowledge some buildings accessory dwelling units just won’t work, according to Building Inspection Commission President Angus McCarthy.

“In anticipation of all these permits coming at you, I think, eventually, we will be able to identify pretty much the kind of projects that are not going to work and we could save ourselves a lot of emails later on going around trying to put a square into a round hole,” McCarthy said.

Patrick Buscovich, a San Francisco structural engineer, said accessory dwelling units are “critically important to the housing needs of The City.”

“We are building lots of super-rich housing. We need to be building affordable units,” Buscovich said. “If you can build a unit for about $100,000, that’s unbelievable to be able to add housing stock to an existing building where no one in the neighborhood is complaining because it is already an apartment building.”

Buscovich advised The City to require a pre-application meeting with the three city departments, instead of spending months working on plans only to get denied in the end, for example, when it is determined that they do not pass muster with the fire code.

“That’s where the anger comes out,” he said.

Boudreaux said she was supportive of having a pre-application meeting.

The Planning Department said in an email to the San Francisco Examiner that The City has screened 666 potential applicants who were interested in possibly adding an accessory dwelling unit, and 596 have followed through with submitting an application, of which 22 have either been withdrawn or revised.

As of Feb. 16, there are 419 applications for adding accessory dwelling units in various stages of review by The City, with 14 of them under review by the Fire Department.

Boudreaux said that, of the applicants, about 30 are for single-family homes and three of those have been approved by the Planning Department.

“I believe that number is quite low,” she said. “I believe there are more single-family homeowners who would be interested in adding ADUs.”

The City also passed a law in 2014 to voluntarily allow property owners to legalize their in-law units, once they pass inspection for fire safety and other building code requirements. At the time, city officials estimated tens of thousands of illegal units were in existence. To date, The City has received 658 permit applications to legalize already built in-law units, and 163 have completed the legalization process.

Until Jan. 1, 2020, the plan review fees are waived for legalization permits of existing accessory dwelling units.