SF’s Mayor Breed launches legislation to speed housing approvals

City targets conditional use approvals that add months or years of hearings for developers

From left: Supervisor Joel Engardio and Mayor London Breed (Getty, Joel Engardio)
From left: Supervisor Joel Engardio and Mayor London Breed (Getty, Joel Engardio)

San Francisco may take one more step to speed up its glacial housing approvals.

Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Joel Engardio have launched legislation that would cut out many hearings that tie up proposed developments for months or years, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The proposed legislation takes aim at the conditional use approval process that now requires developers, lawyers and lobbyists to appear again and again before the city’s Planning Commission.

The legislation would “eliminate unnecessary processes and hearings, eliminate certain requirements and geographic restrictions and expand housing incentive programs for new housing that fits within the city’s existing zoning laws,” Breed said in a statement.

The proposed reforms would amend city codes that require the Planning Commission to approve a conditional use authorization – which can add six to nine months to getting housing projects approved that comply with zoning laws.

The changes are focused on “high-resourced” neighborhoods on the north and west sides of San Francisco, including the Sunset District, as well as eastside areas such as Rincon Hill, SoMa, Civic Center and Mission Bay.

The proposed legislation comes two months after Breed announced her Housing for All Plan to spur home construction and meet a state-mandated goal of building 82,000 homes within eight years. 

Engardio, who represents the Sunset District, said senior constituents “want options to downsize without having to leave their neighborhood.” 

He said the legislation would make it easier to build apartments that meet the needs of residents, including units above a ground-floor grocery store, cafe or community service provider.

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The proposed bill would cut requirements that “limit the form or location of certain types of housing,” including senior and group housing. 

It would also amend 1950s-era regulations that control how much private open space an apartment complex must have, and how far it must be set back from the property line.

Most projects of more than five units now result in a hearing. In some neighborhoods, a conditional use is triggered on any development with a lot larger than 5,000 square feet.

In other areas of the city, it can be triggered by any project taller than 65 feet, or any development that seeks to take advantage of the state density bonus program to get extra units and height in exchange for more affordable units. 

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In addition to the code changes, Breed’s plan includes a measure to move multiphased megaprojects by allowing public financing of infrastructure for roads and utilities, plus a proposal to reform the site permit process.

The proposed reforms would “tear through many decades worth of bureaucratic and policy barriers that have gotten San Francisco off-track, and replace them with best practices in urban planning and government operations,” Annie Fryman, director of special projects at SPUR, a San Francisco-based think tank, told the Chronicle.

— Dana Bartholomew