Mayor London Breed’s Cars to Casas ordinance aims to make it easier for developers to convert gas stations, parking lots and other car-related structures into high density housing. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

‘Cars to Casas’: Housing solution, or more of the same?

Where once lived automobiles, someday soon shall live people. That’s the elegant logic behind Mayor London Breed’s proposed Cars to Casas ordinance, which would make it easier for developers to convert gas stations, parking lots and other car infrastructure into high-density housing.

The goal, according to Planning Department staff member Aaron Starr, is to simultaneously ease “The City’s housing shortage while addressing the adverse impacts that automobiles have on climate change, pedestrian safety and livability.”

But as the legislation wends its way through the Board of Supervisors, it’s dredging up a familiar debate. When San Francisco makes it easier to build housing, should it ask for more affordable units from developers in return? Or is more mostly market-rate housing a good unto itself?

These divergent perspectives were aired at a Monday meeting of the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee. Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Dean Preston, as well as members of the public, argued that developers should provide additional affordable housing in exchange for the benefits of building more units, and thus more profitable projects. Breed’s staff, and a roughly equal cohort of public commenters, argued these benefits to developers are necessary to make projects economically feasible and stimulate a meaningful amount of housing construction.

As currently written, Cars to Casas would make two changes to The City’s planning code. The first, less controversial change would eliminate a provision from 1991 that requires a conditional use authorization for the redevelopment of gas stations, an additional layer of review that adds significant time and uncertainty to the process.

The second, more controversial change pertains to a broader swath of “auto-oriented uses” — including gas stations, parking garages, autobody shops and buildings with ancillary parking lots — where housing development already is permitted by zoning. On these lots, developers would be allowed to build unlimited density within existing height and bulk limitations. In other words, on a lot previously zoned for three units and three stories, developers would be able to pack as many units as possible into that same three-story envelope.

A preliminary map prepared by the Planning Department shows that affected parcels would be concentrated along major boulevards like the lower part of Mission Street, Geary Boulevard and Lombard Street. Schools, religious institutions and motels with parking lots would also be eligible for the ordinance, resulting in concentrations of affected properties in Fisherman’s Wharf and on Brotherhood Way.

A preliminary map of lots affected by the Cars to Casas ordinance. (SF Planning Department)

The concept echoes HOME-SF, San Francisco’s density bonus program, which allows for unlimited density and modest height increases in exchange for developers providing more affordable housing than is typically required. So far, the program hasn’t yielded much new housing due to its high affordable housing ratios and other restrictions, The Examiner reported last month.

Unlike HOME-SF, however, Cars to Casas wouldn’t require additional affordable housing beyond The City’s baseline inclusionary zoning requirements, which currently stand at 21.5% for large rental projects. That was the main font of debate at Monday’s meeting.

“If we’re going to create greater incentives to develop these sites, let’s ensure that the community is getting something in return that is more than just market-rate condos that are out of reach for most San Franciscans,” Peskin said.

Preston concurred, saying, “I’m disappointed that there isn’t some heightened affordability as part of this proposal.”

In response, Breed’s policy director, Andres Power, pointed out that these lots already are zoned for housing, but haven’t been redeveloped “because the economics don’t merit that.”

“It is really about feasibility. Projects are not happening now even though they’re allowed to happen. (Higher) density is really the only trigger that gets them to move,” Power said.

Supervisor Myrna Melgar, the committee chair, spoke favorably about the legislation, adding she wants to make sure it works for all districts. Meglar’s district, which includes Brotherhood Way and Stonestown, has many parking lots that are prime candidates for redevelopment. In these areas, Cars to Casas could help “not just address the climate crisis and our housing, but also the racially exclusionary patterns around residential housing development that have happened in our city,” she said.

Ultimately, the committee voted to table the legislation while Peskin and Breed hash out amendments.

“I’d like to see this evolve in the same way that we’ve evolved other pieces of legislation like HOME-SF, or the way that ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) law has evolved with rent control and prohibitions on short-term rentals,” Peskin said. An additional area of concern for Peskin is the loss of blue collar jobs from the conversion of autobody shops to housing.

“We’re open to working with Supervisor Peskin to learn more about his proposed amendments, but in order for this legislation to work we need to make sure that any new fees and requirements on new developments don’t make it so expensive that we prevent new homes from being created,” Breed’s spokesperson Andy Lynch wrote in an email to The Examiner.

While Peskin said he hopes to move quickly on this legislation, it probably won’t be heard at next week’s meeting, with the committee slated to vote on competing proposals for legalizing fourplexes across The City. That meeting will likely see a similar debate, as supervisors weigh a proposal that would legalize at least four market-rate units on every residential lot, and others that would require a certain percent of those new units to be affordable.

All of this debate could be moot within the next year as San Francisco completes its Housing Element. By May 2023, state law requires San Francisco to rezone its land to accommodate more than 80,000 new homes, largely concentrated in areas targeted by Cars to Casas and the fourplex proposals.