Four Homes, Four Years — How SF stops homes from being built
Note: This article provides the conclusion to the story of 1846 Grove Street. For more background on how we got here, read the prior post about this project here.
In 2016, Architect Troy Kashanipour, and two partners (a San Francisco based home-builder and a San Francisco small business owner) purchased a vacant lot (1846 Grove St.) at the intersection of Grove and Masonic, close to the exact center of San Francisco. The lot had been vacant for decades, despite the location and easy access to the rest of the city (a 25 minute bus ride to downtown). While San Francisco continued to suffer from a major housing shortage driving some of the most expensive rents in the country, the lot remained vacant.
In the four years since purchasing the vacant lot, the architect has designed a small, four-home project that has been working its way through the various approval mechanisms in the city. After receiving sign off from the San Francisco Fire Department and Department of Building Inspection and holding multiple community input meetings, the Planning Commission finally approved the project in 2019 by a unanimous vote.
This three year process was not the end of the story. After the project was approved, a small group of anti-housing advocates filed an appeal to stop the homes from being built. Dean Preston, the supervisor for District 5, where the lot is located, agreed to hear the appeal, which went before the full Board of Supervisors on September 29th. The anti-housing advocates paid a private inspector to contest the Fire Marshall’s and the DBI’s unambiguous determination that the homes and site meet code requirements and are therefore safe.
At the Appeal hearing, there was a public comment that was overwhelmingly in support of the project (12 opponents called in vs. 39 supporters), but even despite that, Dean Preston baselessly accused the SFFD’s report as being “hyper-technical” (despite the fact that evaluating fire code is an entirely technical exercise), and voted to arbitrarily only allow two homes, instead of four, on the lot (even though the zoned capacity for the lot is actually six homes). Neither the Department of Building Inspection, nor the Fire Marshall were asked by Supervisor Preston to appear at the Appeal Hearing despite this being a matter in their area of expertise and direct legal jurisdiction.
The ruling means that instead of four modestly sized homes on the site, the project must be entirely redesigned for two homes that will inherently be larger and therefore less affordable. This result seemingly goes against Preston’s stated goals as an affordable housing advocate.
The rest of the supervisors went along with Preston, deferring to him under the concept of “supervisorial prerogative”, where each supervisor agrees to defer to the district representative on local issues. While an Appeal hearing requires a ⅔ vote to overturn the Planning Commission decision, the concept of supervisorial prerogative makes all decisions unanimous and renders this high standard irrelevant because supervisors implicitly agree with each other to make their own lives easier rather than exercising their own judgement based on the evidence of what is best for their constituents and the city.
While we do not know what is next for this vacant lot, we do know that this lot will continue to remain vacant as our housing shortage continues. Furthermore, the effects of this decision will be felt far beyond these four homes — any other small home builder in the city who saw this fiasco will certainly be reconsidering whether it’s worth the time (four years!) and effort to try and build homes. Especially when even if they do everything right a Supervisor can arbitrarily send the entire project back to the drawing board on an arbitrary overruling of the Fire Department and Building Department that had reviewed the projects and found them to be safe.
There has to be a better way to build homes than forcing a city-wide debate for every little scrap of housing, generating a chronic housing shortage, astronomical prices, and a displacement crisis beyond comprehension. Our Supervisors should do better.