Lisa Owens Viani is on a mission to save wildlife.

White-tailed kite with prey Photo: Dave Harper

A few years ago, Owens Viani experienced a life-changing moment — two young hawks that she had been observing in a nest near her home were found dead, drowned in a swimming pool. Their deaths were the result of eating prey that had been lovingly fed to them by their parents. The prey had been poisoned by rodenticides, poisons used to rid homes and businesses of pests but with disastrous impacts on wildlife and sometimes even pets and children.

Owens Viani vowed to halt this senseless destruction of such magnificent birds. She started locally, asking stores not to carry the worst kinds of rodent poison. However, going from store to store was just not making that much of a difference. So with assistance from Allen Fish, the Director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, Owens Viani took the leap and started an organization, "Raptors Are the Solution" or R.A.T.S. Raptors, such as red-tail and Cooper's hawks, are nature's own pest-control officers.

The fight has been long and difficult. Poison manufacturers and many businesses have a vested interest in being able to use rodenticides extensively.

How rodenticides work

Rodenticides are mostly anticoagulants; they block the Vitamin K cycle which is needed for certain blood-clotting proteins. When an animal ingests a lethal dose of the poison, it can slowly - or quickly, depending on the poison - bleed to death internally. This is an excruciatingly painful way to die.

Before it dies, the poisoned animal becomes desperately thirsty and may go out in the open to search for water. In a weakened condition, the animal becomes easy prey to larger animals that are in turn poisoned. When a mouse dies of rodenticide poisoning, that is a primary poisoning. If your cat eats mice with poison in their systems and dies, your cat has died of secondary poisoning. If a coyote eats a lot of mice and is then eaten by a mountain lion, who has also eaten other poisoned critters, then the death of the mountain lion is tertiary poisoning. And yes, it happens - a lot. A wildlife report in 2014 stated that in the Santa Monica Mountains, "11 of 12 mountain lions tested positive for exposure and two died from poisoning, 93 of 105 bobcats tested positive for exposure and 70 died from related secondary disease, and 20 of 24 coyotes tested positive for exposure and 12 died from poisoning." (National Park Service, National Wildlife Federation Blog)

Even if the poisons do not kill the animal, they can make it seriously ill. For example, a new study shows a strong link between anti-coagulants and immune system impacts such as mange in bobcats.

How NOT to poison nature

The simple fact is that when we use rodenticides, we are poisoning the food web. We are killing the very creatures who could help to control the rodents we are trying to eliminate. Owens Viani suggests different approaches that are not only better for the ecosystem but also more effective long-term in controlling rodent pests.

The approach I like the best is putting up a Barn Owl box. One Barn Owl can eat up to 1,000 rodents a year. During breeding season, a family can consume over 3,000 rodents. You can imagine the fast build-up of poisons if only a fraction of those rodents have been chomping on rodenticide-laden food pellets. As a result, Owens Viani cautions that you talk to your neighbors first, so that they don't use rat poison and inadvertently poison the owls you have so carefully attracted to your Barn Owl box. In fact, if you live near Golden Gate Park, you might still ask your neighbors not to use rat poison, as there are often other owls nesting in the park.

Other anti-rodent suggestions include removing plants such as ivy that rodents can hide in, not leaving pet food outdoors, using snap traps where other animals cannot be caught in them, tying garbage bags securely, and keeping dumpsters closed at all times (duh). You might wonder if this really works. According to the Marin County IPM (Integrated Pest Management) guide to controlling rodents, "Eliminate food and rats will relocate."

If you use a pest control company, ask them not to use poisons — if they say their baits are not poisonous, one wildlife expert suggests that you ask them to lick the bait in front of you. That should answer that question!

With help from like-minded wildlife conservationists and over 40 wildlife organizations, R.A.T.S. now has an extensive website ( and chapters in other parts of California.

It has been a long struggle but not without rewards. Owens Viani was just inducted into the World Owl Hall of Fame.

At the end of our interview, Owens Viani stated, "I am not giving up this fight."

What you can do

Don't use rat poison! Follow the Marin IPM guide (Marin County Pest Specific IPM Plan for Rats). Write to your state assembly person and ask them to support AB 2242 (Bloom) to get poisons out of nature's system! Sierra Club has a site dedicated to wildlife protection - sign up! Sierra Club California CNRCC wildlife Committee

Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

April 2018

San Francisco Estuary - love it or lose it

Photo: Eddie Bartley

San Francisco Bay is the largest estuary on the western coasts of both North and South America. For those of us new to this terminology, an estuary is a partially enclosed coastal body of brackish water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea. In other words, a great deal of the land/water interface in San Francisco Bay is Estuary.

At the State of the San Francisco Estuary Conference at the Scottish Rite Center in October, the San Francisco Estuary Partnership presented one-time-only Legacy Awards to two people who have spent years on protecting the Bay — Arthur Feinstein and Barbara Salzman. I sat down with Feinstein over tea and bagels before a recent Sierra Club meeting. (He is on the Executive Committee for the SF Group and the SF Bay Chapter as well as the State Conservation Committee.) Feinstein has been involved in Bay conservation work for over 40 years. During our conversation, it became clear that his knowledge of both the Bay and its wildlife is, to say the least, extensive.

Every time a duck is disturbed and has to fly away, that duck is using up precious energy that it needs for the return trip up north. For those of us who have seen park ducks, their actions are a little different — many return to the same area and become accustomed to disturbances. But the birds in the open Bay do not.”

The health of our Estuary is vital to the survival of water-dependent wildlife. Many shorebirds go to the Arctic to breed in summer, but in winter they return south. As shorebirds migrate, often distances of 1,500 or 3,000 miles and some even 12,000 miles, many stop to feed and replenish their energies at various sites along the west coast. SF Bay attracts the largest number of the west coast group over the migrating season - sometimes as many as a million birds over the course of a year.

The birds are attracted by the abundant and varied food supply available in the estuary. As fresh water flows from streams into the Bay, it meets the salt water that has entered due to tidal action. Brackish water results where the two meet and mix. Each type of water - fresh, brackish and salt - creates a unique habitat that provides both food and shelter for the birds.

Over 40 years ago, Feinstein found himself involved in the lives of the Bay's water birds. It was the mid-1980's and Feinstein was volunteering with the Golden Gate Audubon Society. He learned of the serious need to expand the SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the adjacent Uplands. His intense interest in the Bay resulted in a job with the Citizens' Committee to Complete the Refuge. Over the course of seven years, he met scientists and staff from California Fish and Game. As he learned more about the threats to habitat, he became passionate about protecting the Bay and its wildlife. He then spent years working with various groups and public agencies in an effort first to stop the additional loss of wetlands, and then to mold new development to protect the existing habitat and expand the wetland areas.

Feinstein still finds that there is much to do to protect the wildlife in our Bay. For example, large development projects are currently proposed for San Francisco's India Basin area. The current India Basin Environmental Impact Report (EIR) recognizes that more recreational users, such as kayakers and kayak launches, could "affect foraging, roosting, and nesting shorebirds..." and that " such an increased human presence in tidal marsh and open water habitat at India Basin could affect shorebird behavior, thereby reducing breeding success. ." However, the EIR then goes on to say that since the existing habitat conditions are already so poor, and since the new development may restore some tidal marshland and add new tidal marshland (less than one acre), this will "offset any potential impacts on nesting birds from recreational users." (EIR, part II, page 280.)

One problem with the report is that it ignores the impact on ducks. Ducks are particularly sensitive to any disturbance of their surroundings. Every time a duck is disturbed and has to fly away, that duck is using up precious energy that it needs for the return trip up north. For those of us who have seen park ducks, their actions are a little different — many return to the same area and become accustomed to disturbances. But the birds in the open Bay do not. Feinstein described 'dead zones' around ferry landings and regular boat routes across the bay, which ducks avoid out of self-preservation.

Another problem is the short-term view in the EIR. We need to plan not only for replacement habitat for what is destroyed, but also for greatly increased habitat to offset past damage to wildlife populations, as well as the upcoming sea level rise. Sea level rise estimates keep, well, rising — to where the possibility of a 10 foot sea level rise in the San Francisco Bay is now being discussed.

What will be the impact on existing wildlife populations, how can we protect them and provide adequate habitat, and how is that balanced against the needs to protect the communities surrounding the Bay? These are complex issues that Feinstein has been working on for years, and will continue to do so.

If you would like to help, you can:

Write to the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission ( Ask them to please consider ducks and shorebirds in the India Basin Plan and support winter closure for kayaking and other recreational activities that make it harder for the wildlife to thrive. Contact Arthur Feinstein if you would like to learn more: (415) 680 - 0643.

Katherine Howard is an open space advocate who is also on the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

December 2017

Smart housing policy must include public input and taking care of the environment

For the last year, legislators have been debating new housing legislation —both state and local —to meet the pressing needs of California's growing population. One of our local newspapers regularly features articles (and even political cartoons!) beating the drum in favor of building as much housing as possible in San Francisco.

Yes, it is important to face the state's affordable housing crisis head-on — having a decent home for everyone is critical. But as we work to meet that need, it is also important to ensure that the environment is not harmed and that the community has a say in projects that will impact them.

The costs associated with dealing with the pollution will fall on taxpayers and local governments, instead of on the responsible parties.”

Creating vibrant urban communities requires a strong commitment to protecting the quality of urban life. Some of the features shared by healthy urban communities include convenient public open spaces, parks, playgrounds, and natural "unimproved" spaces. Creating these communities must also involve a commitment to preserving existing affordable housing, preventing displacement of low and moderate income residents, protecting cultural heritage, providing efficient public transit, and sheltering existing communities from unreasonable economic and physical disruption.

But when there is a lot of pressure for one set of needs — in this case housing — there is the temptation to ignore other needs. There is a tendency to say that 'just for this project' it is acceptable for the developer to ignore the need to carefully consider the impact on the environment and the local community.

One such short-sighted idea currently being discussed is to allow projects to be approved "by-right" and, in the process, to bypass environmental review now mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The California Environmental Quality Act was passed in 1970 as part of a national wave of environmental protection legislation. CEQA requires project sponsors to disclose the environmental impacts of their proposed projects to the public, to accept public comments, and then to mitigate those impacts. Moreover, CEQA empowers members of the public to legally challenge the adequacy of the environmental reviews.

The Sierra Club strongly supports the power of the people to participate in the development of regulations, plans, and evaluation criteria at every level of decision-making for their communities. Public input under the environmental review process can actually make projects better!

San Franciscans have a right to know what is going on in their city and to have a say in local planning decisions. Legislation that lets housing projects bypass the CEQA process is not fair to our community, to our environment, nor to the very people for whom it claims to be providing housing. Bypassing environmental review can lead to greater congestion and associated increases in air and water pollution, loss of habitat, and loss of yet more species. Our new community members will be the ones paying the price of the resulting poor environmental decisions.

Thoughtful city and regional planning with environmental protections is the best way to provide housing for people now and for a planet we can all call home for future generations. In San Francisco, CEQA and environmental review must be a vital part of that planning.

What you can do:

Currently SB35 (Wiener) is before the California legislature. This legislation allows local governments to ignore CEQA and bypass environmental review for certain types of housing projects. This can potentially lead to increases in air and water pollution, increases in habitat loss, and prevent the public from having access to information about negative impacts to their health. The costs associated with dealing with the pollution will fall on taxpayers and local governments, instead of on the responsible parties.

Please write to your state senator and assemblypersons and ask them to amend this legislation to require environmental reviews under CEQA.

Katherine Howard is a parks advocate and member of the Executive Committee, SF Group, Sierra Club. Susan Vaughan is a public transportation advocate and member of the Executive Committee, SF Group, Sierra Club.

September 2017


San Francisco residents defeated Mayor Lee's and Supervisor Tang's attempt to rezone all but the Residential Housing-1 and -2 areas under the Affordable Housing Bonus Program (AHBP), a densification idea. AHBP's goal: Increase the permissible density of housing units at the expense of neighborhood character by allowing developers to receive accommodation around existing Planning Code regulations using a "one size fits all" approach. Vigilant neighbors and small business owners held in abeyance the AHBP. Although a 100% AHBP did pass, the rest of the AHBP including its design guidelines haven't been approved yet.

Neighbors are requesting the UDG, with any other design guidelines which may be under consideration or are being replaced including but not limited to the UDG, the Urban Design Element of the General Plan, any RDGs, or any AHBP design guidelines, be considered concurrently so that the City neighborhoods understand very clearly how each set of guidelines interact…”

With recent state legislation, the City is now focused on liberalizing zoning guidelines that modify the permissible building volume and density. One such attempt to seek to liberalize and leave subject to broader interpretations is the proposed "Urban Design Guidelines" (UDG) which permits waivers to allow the equivalent of spot-zoning by waiver. The UDG also is a clone of the previously introduced AHBP Design Guidelines (AHBPDG). Clarification is needed to determine if the UDG will pre-empt the Urban Design Element of the General Plan.

Further, Planning Staff ("Staff") introduced the "Article 7" reorganization which governs neighborhood commercial districts (NCD). In this, the Control Tables reference "Urban Design Guidelines" with a reference to the existing General Plan's Commerce and Industry Element (CIE) UDG. The UDG reference should be clarified to mean those existing in the CIE vs. the draft UDG document.

Next, Staff has indicated that in 2017, the "Residential Design Guidelines" (RDG), which further delineate the rules for residential development features such as front, side, rear yard setbacks and architectural style, will be revamped. Clarification is needed on its interaction with the other design guidelines.

Apparently, Staff is also proposing changes to the November 2008 draft "Ground Floor Residential Design Guidelines" (GFRDG). These are noted in the UDG document but it cannot be ascertained how this current draft might be changed, if at all. In the 2015 draft AHBPDG, there is a reference to the GFRDG. Clarification is needed on the ultimate disposition of either of these drafts.

Neighbors are requesting the UDG, with any other design guidelines which may be under consideration or are being replaced including but not limited to the UDG, the Urban Design Element of the General Plan, any RDGs, or any AHBP design guidelines, be considered concurrently so that the City neighborhoods understand very clearly how each set of guidelines interacts with the others and with neighborhood or other regional guidelines, too, to avoid "one size fits all" guidelines.

Subject may still be "live" in November. Comment today.

-10/13: "Article 7" neighborhood commercial districts (NCD) reorganization. It references "Urban Design Guidelines." One interpretation of this reference could be UDG application to residential buildings in NCDs. Clarification is needed to not apply to residential buildings.


Rose Hillson is a planning activist in San Francisco

October 2016

Don’t Turn West of Twin Peaks Into Fawlty Towers!

… let’s use the correct terminology to describe what is really going on here. People who rent rooms to tourists are not “home-sharers.” They are “home-renters.” … Renting rooms to tourists is a commercial activity.

The West of Twin Peaks Central Council, which represents twenty (20) neighborhood associations in western San Francisco, opposes Supervisor David Chiu’s proposed legislation to legalize short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods for the following reasons:

… let’s use the correct terminology to describe what is really going on here. People who rent rooms to tourists are not 'home-sharers.' They are 'home-renters.' … Renting rooms to tourists is a commercial activity.”


• The proposed legislation would amount to a complete rezoning of the entire City.

• Hotels and bed-and-breakfasts would be permitted in all residential neighborhoods, including those that are zoned as RH-1-D (Residential, House, Single-Family, Detached) and RH-1 (Residential, House, Single-Family), thereby jeopardizing residential character.

• Classifying short-term rentals as a “residential use” would make it more difficult for homeowners’ associations to enforce their CC&R’s against businesses in residential neighborhoods.

• This proposal, coming on the heels of the legislation legalizing secondary units throughout the City, would destroy single-family residential character West of Twin Peaks. The proposed legislation would allow tenants to rent their units on a short-term basis, so that instead of knowing who our neighbors are, whether they are homeowners or long-term renters, we would have no idea who was living next door to us, or for how long.The proposal would increase traffic and congestion, as well as pose health and safety issues caused by unregulated rooms. Not long ago we learned of a house that was renting out rooms on a short-term basis and was burning creosote-soaked wood from a redwood deck that had been torn down, as part of a backyard “happy hour” for its guests. We called DBI and the owner claimed to have ceased the operation. Under the proposed legislation, neither the neighborhood association nor the neighbors would have standing to complain about the rental.

• Here is what could happen: Absentee owner (A) rents the house to Tenant (B), and also builds a secondary unit, which s/he then rents to a third person (C), who then rents it short-term to a fourth person (D).If someone comes back at 2:00 a.m. and tries to get into the home, or downstairs apartment, how do the next-door neighbors know whether that person is a tourist or a burglar?

• Short-term rentals may be appropriate in neighborhoods that are already zoned for commercial uses, such as hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, where neither the neighbors nor the neighborhood associations object to such use. They are definitely NOT appropriate in our single-family residential neighborhoods.

The planning staff’s own draft report noted the threat to neighborhood character, as follows:

Neighborhood Character

The Department is also concerned about how short-term rentals are impacting neighborhood character and the quality of life for San Francisco residents. A neighborhood made up of permanent residents has a very different character than a neighborhood where everyone is a transient visitor. While tourists are important for this City’s economy and its cultural identity, it’s primarily the residents of San Francisco that make it a unique and interesting place to visit. Permanent residents have a vested interest in maintaining the unique quality of life in San Francisco. They build community by developing longstanding relationships; help ensure that trash doesn’t accumulate on the sidewalks, and are inherently motivated to be respectful of their neighbors. Many of the complaints that the Department receives about short-term rentals have to do with the hours of activity tourists keep compared to long-term residents with regular nine to five work schedules.

The proposed legislation strikes at the very heart of what it is to be a community. The single-family homes in the residential neighborhoods West of Twin Peaks are part of the fabric of their communities, and they are more than just isolated dwelling units. Families know their neighbors, their children play together, and they watch out for each other. If changes are to be made to protect long-time homeowners who are in financial difficulties, especially seniors, they should be made with the participation of all the members of the community, not by legislative fiat at City Hall, and definitely not for the benefit of real estate speculators and large corporations with no real stake in the community.

Our western residential neighborhoods are useful when elections roll around, or when City Hall wants a new bond measure passed. Then the politicians want to come and speak to us. But no one solicits our views before attempting a massive rezoning that affects us all. It was bad enough when the proposed legislation only applied to secondary units, but now apparently any single-family home can be turned into a guest house, or bed-and-breakfast, without any notice to the HOA, in secret, to protect the owner’s “right of privacy.” Worse, the proposed law defines such use as “residential,” so that HOA’s may not even be able to enforce their own CC&R’s against running a business.

What we have here is a blatant attempt to rezone the entire city, so that the concept of a single-family residential neighborhood will cease to exist. There are very powerful economic interests that either do not care about San Francisco’s single-family neighborhoods or who believe, in good faith, that they should not exist at all, and that San Francisco should become a high-density city like Paris or Manhattan. Those are both great cities to visit, but I would not want to live in either of them. People buy houses in our single-family residential neighborhoods precisely because they are low-density. We have zoning laws for that reason. If the City wishes to change those laws to accommodate more people, then there should be a full and fair debate about what kind of city we want to have, how many people it can hold, both transient and permanent, without further straining public services, and whether every part of the City should allow guest houses and bed-and-breakfasts.

Finally, let’s use the correct terminology to describe what is really going on here. People who rent rooms to tourists are not “home-sharers.” They are “home-renters.” Sharing means giving of what you have to another, not selling to another. Renting rooms to tourists is a commercial activity.

Stop this legislation dead in its tracks. Tell the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors NOT to approve it.

Roger Ritter is the President of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council

September 2014

In-laws Hit the Neighborhoodssecondary unit

On April 18, 2014, Mayor Lee signed into law Supervisor Chiu’s legislation legalizing “existing” secondary units in every neighborhood in San Francisco, regardless of whether those neighborhoods were zoned for multiple dwelling use, or as single-family residential neighborhoods. Thus, with one stroke of his pen, the mayor allowed almost 100 years of zoning laws and residential development policies to be overturned, with no environmental impact report.

To make matters even worse, the legislation is drafted so as to allow existing units to be legalized, whether or not there are actually tenants in those units. Thus, the argument made by the proponents of the legislation that all it does is to bring current tenants “out of the shadows” is simply not accurate. Rather, it allows developers and speculators to buy up homes in single-family neighborhoods, remodel existing units, bring them up to code, and then rent them out to new tenants, thereby increasing neighborhood density, parking problems, traffic, and congestion. The legislation will allow speculators to target the small amount of family-sized housing remaining in the City for subdivision into smaller multi-unit housing, reaping huge profits, and driving more families out of the City.

Why would anyone put an offer on a home with an already-occupied legal secondary unit … only to learn that such family use …could only be permitted after an expensive eviction proceeding?”

Our District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee worked hard to craft a compromise by which neighborhoods that are zoned RH-1-D (single-family residential-detached) would be exempt from the legislation. His amendment would have protected most of the neighborhoods West of Twin Peaks. However, it failed on a 5-5 tie vote, with Supervisors Yee, Tang, Breed, Farrell, and Wiener voting for it, and Supervisors Avalos, Campos, Chiu, Cohen and Kim voting against it. (Supervisor Mar was absent.) After the amendment failed to pass, the Board of Supervisors approved the legislation by a vote of nine to two. Only Supervisors Yee and Tang voted against the measure. They deserve our thanks for trying to preserve the single-family residential character of our western neighborhoods.

Why does this all matter? Balboa Terrace was developed during the 1920’s as a single-family neighborhood and has remained one ever since. Along with Monterey Heights, St. Francis Wood, Westwood Highlands, and many other residential neighborhoods West of Twin Peaks, it was designed so that people could raise their children in the City, but at the same time enjoy their own homes, with lawns and gardens. Single-family neighborhoods are an important part of the total housing mix of San Francisco and are part of the “density diversity” of San Francisco. They help to preserve the City’s unique urban character, and also prevent the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco; without them nothing would be left in town except cookie-cutter neighborhoods with high-density housing units.

Contrary to the proponents’ arguments, this legislation is not about “granny” or the “in-laws” having a place to live. In fact, the legalization of secondary units is not necessary in order to allow an extended family to live together under the same roof. Secondary living units that do not have their own kitchens or separate entrances are already allowed under current zoning laws. Elderly relatives and adult children can and often do live with their families. Balboa Terrace already welcomes extended families of parents, children and grandparents living together.

Moreover, this legislation will not increase the number of affordable housing units in San Francisco. Rather, it will have many unintended consequences, e.g., increased congestion, the permanent removal of family-sized housing from our housing stock, and the very real possibility that developers and speculators will use the law to create new secondary units and then claim they already existed at the time the law was passed. When homeowners realize that legalizing their currently illegal units removes their control over the footprint of their homes, thereby devaluing their property on the open market, the number of units that actually enter the program will fall well short of expectations. Why would anyone put an offer on a home with an already-occupied legal secondary unit, intending to use that unit as a bedroom for an elderly parent or an adult child, only to learn that such family use would not be permitted, or could only be permitted after an expensive eviction proceeding?

This legislation constitutes a complete rezoning of the entire City, drastically altering the RH-1 and RH-1-D residential zones, and therefore merits a thorough discussion and a full environmental impact report. If the City wants to change almost 100 years of zoning law, it should say so, and do so honestly, after a full and fair debate, and after consultation with the various neighborhood groups that will be affected, not just with a few advocacy groups.

The proponents of this legislation did not approach the West of Twin Peaks Central Council, an umbrella group of 20 neighborhood organizations founded in 1936, during the drafting of this legislation, nor did they attempt to limit the legalization of secondary units to neighborhoods that are already zoned for multiple use so that neighborhood character on the West Side of the City would not be jeopardized. In contrast, Supervisor Wiener’s own legislation to allow legalization of secondary units in part of District 8 is a narrowly-tailored measure that applies only to one neighborhood, not the entire City.

Now it is up to the West of Twin Peaks Central Council and its member organizations, working with homeowners’ associations and with neighborhood groups across the City, to do everything we can to mitigate the damage that this legislation will do, perhaps by filing a lawsuit, or by putting an initiative on the ballot to overturn it at the polls, or by working for its amendment or outright repeal when the composition of the current Board of Supervisors changes. Meanwhile, we should insist that the City vigorously monitor the applications for permits to make sure that only units which actually existed on the date provided for in the legislation are allowed to be legalized. We should also educate homeowners who might be tempted to legalize their secondary units, and remind them of the unintended consequences of such legalization: losing control of their property, deteriorating the quality of their neighborhoods, and shackling subsequent owners with secondary rental units, whether they want them or not.

Roger Ritter is President of the Balboa Terrace Homes Association and VP of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council.

May 2014

Here Come Da In-Laws

Supervisor David Chiu introduced secondary-unit legislation that will permanently change San Francisco’s zoning code to allow in-law units to become legalized throughout the City.

Although Chiu may be operating under the best of intentions, his legislation needs several amendments and adjustments before anyone will take it seriously. Most single-family homeowners of RH-1 or RH-2 homes will either hate this legislation or will not abide by it.

the division of single-family units into multiple, smaller units … further reduces the amount of housing that is suitable for families in San Francisco (which is already one of the least family-friendly cities in the Bay Area”

A secondary unit, as defined in Chiu’s legislation, is an additional, self-contained dwelling unit in an existing residential building. Secondary units are commonly referred to as “in-law” units because they allow extended family members and tenants to live together in separate, but attached, units.

Chiu’s legislation wants to provide a mechanism to grant legal status to illegally-constructed dwelling units zoned for residential use. These secondary units will continue to be rented, but cannot be sold. Chiu’s trying to frame his legislation as an immigrant, lower class issue. In reality, Chu secondary unit legislation will adversely impact zoning throughout the city and have a severe impact on San Francisco families.Legalization graph

Secondary units are supposed to be the magical answer to San Francisco’s affordable housing problems as they are small — usually around 750 square feet — have cheaper rent, nicer units, and stay within the confines of a home’s structure.

According to the West of Twin Peaks Central Council’s (WTPCC) policy statement on secondary units, “the division of single-family units into multiple, smaller units actually represents an anti-family policy since the vast majority of secondary units are quite small and often remove considerable living space from the primary unit. This further reduces the amount of housing that is suitable for families in San Francisco (which is already one of the least family-friendly cities in the Bay Area with less than 1/3 of San Francisco housing occupied by families vs. 2/3 in neighboring cities).”

Further (WTPCC) policy states, “the Division of RH-1 units into multiple, separate units often requires waiving the 25% open-space requirement. This will result in the Manhattanization of San Francisco. It will significantly reduce the amount of green open space available for trees and other plants and increase the “hard-scaping” of San Francisco.”

A Dog With No Teeth

Chiu’s legislation will change the character of RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods by increasing traffic, population density and reducing neighborhood parking. Traffic problems will explode as house garages are turned into living units. Both the home owner and the tenant will be forced to park their cars on the street.

Secondary-unit legislation proposed in 2003 by former Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin was much better written than Chiu’s proposal, as it allowed for units under 750 square feet to be built in existing buildings if they met one of three requirements: 1) they lie within a quarter-mile of a major transportation corridor; 2) were designed and constructed specifically for the elderly or persons with physical disabilities; or 3) were located within a qualified historical building with owners who agreed to adhere to preservation guidelines.

According to Chiu’s legislative Aide, Amy Chan, homes built before 1979 would still be subject to rent control, but the new secondary units would pay current market rates.

Once a unit is legalized, the building cannot revert to being a single-family home.

Home owners with secondary units must continue to be landlords and cannot sell the secondary unit. Single family homes generally have a premium value when they are sold.

Chiu’s secondary unit plan will also damage neighborhood Home Owners Associations (HOA’s) throughout the City. Many of these associations are based on covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&R’s). The CC&R’s specifically state that the homes in their geographic area are to remain single-family dwellings. Once secondary units are allowed, the HOA will no longer be able to protect their neighborhood character.

Given the choice of converting a secondary unit or simply building an illegal unit, homeowners will build illegal units. Chiu’s proposed legislation includes tacking on permit costs, inspection costs, architectural fees, and property tax costs. All of these stipulations will greatly increase rental costs, and may actually increase tenant’s rent.

Chiu’s current secondary unit proposal has no penalties for people who have illegal units and no mechanism for finding illegal units. His current proposal is like a dog with no teeth.

Chiu can’t even prove his proposal will make units more affordable. The laws of unintended consequences will dictate higher costs for tenants and landlords, and possibly more tenant evictions. While Chui is claiming that he is creating “affordable” housing, the same market-forces that are driving up San Francisco’s rents will push lower income people out of their secondary units.

Chiu’s secondary-unit proposal will certainly get his name in the newspapers and lure the uninformed into believing he’s doing a great job, but even he admits that he can’t accurately predict how many secondary units there currently are in San Francisco. Chiu claims there are 20,000 to 25,000 secondary units, but the San Francisco Chronicle is estimating that there are between 30,000 and 40,000 in-law units.

San Francisco has worked hard not to stop the construction of illegal secondary units. No real information is available on the number of illegal secondary units that have been added to the City’s housing stock since 1990. However, a total of 80 units have been legalized between 2000 and 2008, and another 204 illegal units were removed in the same period (Table I-29).

Rosemary Bosque, the Department of Building Inspection’s, (DBI) Chief Housing Inspector stated that the DBI issued the following Notices of Violations (NOV’s): 2010: 127; 2011: 96; 2012: 90; and 2013: 83.

As can be seen from the chart in the 2009 Housing Element report, almost no new secondary units have been legalized, averaging just a paltry 10 per year. Without a diligent search for illegal secondary units, Chiu’s proposal looks more like a public relations campaign to be elected to the state legislature than a serious attempt to legalize secondary units.

It may seem counterintuitive that the City — which is so focused on creating more small, affordable units — should enact so many impediments to legalization of existing units. David Chiu’s attempt to legalize secondary units will not work as currently proposed and is not the answer.

City Hall should just leave private residences alone.

George Wooding

December 2013