Attempts to game the real estate rules in San Francisco which govern the demolition and expansion of residential properties, by removing all but the façade or a few walls of an existing home and calling it a “remodel,” resulted in new legislation being adopted in 2007 that attempted to define what percentage of a building could be removed prior to it being deemed “Tantamount to Demolition” and requiring Planning Commission review in order to proceed.

But the new rules continue to be gamed while making it harder for property owners to legally improve and/or expand their properties.

As such, San Francisco’s Planning Department is proposing to eliminate the Tantamount to Demolition rule and adopt a Residential Expansion Threshold which would allow existing properties to be more easily demolished by establishing a formal review threshold based simply on the size of a proposed project rather than what’s already standing on its site.

And rather than a blanket rule which would require Planning Commission review of any project that would result in a unit that is larger than 3,000 square feet in size, as originally envisioned, Planning’s current thinking is to set the threshold for when a project would require Planning Commission approval versus an administrative review based on the objective size of the project in relation to its lot size and zoning (i.e., a Floor Area Ratio (FAR)) as outlined in the table below.

Keep mind that the existing rules limiting unit mergers and the proposed demolition of units under rent control would remain in place, as would those related to required design reviews and historic preservation, while the current exemptions for the demolition of demonstrably unaffordable and unsound structures, which have led to some rather unsavory behavior, would be eliminated.

The proposed Residential Expansion Threshold will be presented to San Francisco’s Planning Commission on Thursday with the hope of getting it adopted in the first quarter of 2018.

And if adopted, the new approach could streamline the approval process for conforming projects, reduce opportunities for industry gamesmanship and appeals, and create incentives for property owners to add more units/density where possible.

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by observant neighbor

    Where is “min. unit size” explained? Is the implication of the “min. unit size” requirement that if the 3 units in an RH3 building are not exactly the same size, Planning Commission review is required? Will this thwart projects that would, for example, carve out from the back of a garage living space for the first floor flat?

    • Posted by SocketSite

      As drafted, the three units in a three-unit building would need to be of equal size for the plans to be approved administratively. But Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) would not count towards threshold calculations and there is an exception to allow for the minor expansion (up to 10 percent in size) of units within buildings which already exceed the limits as proposed.

  2. Posted by DCR

    I feel like the RH-3 minimum unit size might be a misprint or if not needs some more thought. It would be very difficult to make three units exactly a 3rd of the FAR for each. Also most owners would be more interested in increasing density if there was a larger main unit for them, and two smaller (but reasonable). This is inline with the purpose of increasing the FAR for maximizing the allowed dwellings lots zoned for multiple dwellings.

  3. Posted by observant neighbor

    Does anyone have a link to draft regulations, rather than just the powerpoint slides from community presentations. Maybe the “minimum unit size” is only triggered if one is reducing the size of a unit? Say you’ve got a 3-unit building with flats of roughly equal size, and an unoccupied attic above. You want to expand the upper flat into the attic. Does that immediately make the building noncompliant, triggering Planning Commission review, because now the smallest unit is no longer 1/3 of the (new) total square footage?

  4. Posted by jose

    there is also a new definition of what is included in ‘unit size’ which includes non conditioned spaces like garages and storage areas as part of the FAR calc, unless that has changed in the final draft

  5. Posted by sparky-b

    These regulations are interesting in that they are viewed so differently in various neighborhoods. In your Noe/GlenPark/Mission/CV etc. these are seen as keeping builders in check with size of houses while on the west side it is seen as a developer backed way to make monster houses and add density.

    • Posted by Amewsed

      Isn’t that the macro-trend desired by the City? To encourage previously underdeveloped properties to reach their higher potential and to limit already out-sized properties from becoming even bigger (so called “monster homes”) all the while generating more revenue for the City in the form of permits.

      I would like to hear more discussion on this topic once it becomes law.

      • Posted by sparky-b

        What is underdeveloped? Is a smaller west side house underdeveloped if it’s 1 story over garage? The neighborhood groups out there are saying this is Monster House legislation, promoting 1.4 FAR where most houses are closer to .75.

        • Posted by jose

          This will really spotlight the small house on a large lot as being underdeveloped or as having the most potential for having a code complying large replacement bldg

  6. Posted by observant neighbor

    jose or Socketsite, can you link to the draft guidelines?

    [Editor’s Note: Links to both the latest summary presentation and compendium of Planning Department documents are provided above.]

    • Posted by observant neighbor

      Thanks, but on the Planning Department page you linked to, there’s no link to the actual, current proposal. Rather, under the heading “Resources,” there are just links to a bunch of different slide presentations summarizing the proposal.

  7. Posted by Ohlone Californio

    This also potentially makes existing larger homes even more valuable as similar volumes will no longer be reproducible.

    • Posted by SocketSite

      Lager homes will still be permitted to be built, as we’ll highlight this afternoon tomorrow, but the plans will require Planning Commission review.

      • Posted by Noodle

        Maybe we will see more legal in-law units accompanying large homes.

      • Posted by JR

        I think the biggest change is the effort to block the practice of effectively converting two-unit buildings into SFHs. I say “effective” because what happens is that two existing flats of similar size are renovated to become one large, multi-floor unit of ~80% of the FAR plus a second unit often designed for guest or live-in help.

        • Posted by sparky-b

          I think that is one of the 2 biggest changes. The other being keeping a 2500 ft. lot to a 3000 ft. house (give or take). Yes you can go to planning commission go for larger but the starting point for them will be 1.4FAR is now the law of land

  8. Posted by Neighborhood Activist

    And, it’s dead, at least for now. From the Planning Department this afternoon:

    “The Planning Department regrets to announce that it has suspended efforts to advance the proposed Residential Expansion Threshold (RET) Project to allow for additional review.

    The Residential Expansion Threshold Project’s primary objective is to eliminate the ineffective Tantamount to Demolition controls and place more emphasis on the size and density of buildings by incentivizing a higher number of residential units while discouraging exceedingly large single-family homes. However, the Department believes it is necessary to shift its approach, and instead work in collaboration with the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) to improve the City’s considerably complex definition of “demolition. ”

    The Department believes in a comprehensive and sensible approach to guiding development in the City’s residential districts. We will update the Planning Commission and other key stakeholders in the coming months as further details are determined.”

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