Under New Legislation, SF’s Illegal In-Law Apartments Might Get Less Illegal

A San Francisco supervisor introduced legislation Tuesday that seeks to legalize what he said is a “shadow economy” of in-law units on residential properties in the city.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors president David Chiu introduced the proposal, which addresses in-law units that are typically added onto existing homes by converting attics, basements, garages or rear yard structures into a new living space.

At least 30,000 such units exist citywide and serve as an important stock of affordable housing in San Francisco, but many are technically illegal under current city building and planning codes, Chiu said.

He said his proposal would bypass those codes and allow one in-law unit to be authorized on a lot after a landlord submits a formal application, pays a nominal fee and obtains permits for any construction needed on the unit to ensure its safety.

Chiu said the legislation is supported by both landlord and tenant groups.

Henry Karnilowicz, a board member of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco, said many landlords or owners are “concerned about possibly being turned in” for in-law units that are currently illegal, which would lead to a loss in income or a possible lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Chiu said many in-law tenants don’t even have a written agreement with a landlord. He said his legislation would protect rent control rights for in-law tenants and require relocation assistance for them during any construction on the unit.

Omar Colimbas, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice/Asian Law Caucus, said many tenants of in-law units are also undocumented immigrants who might not report unsafe conditions in their unit.

“Many are hesitant to come forward because they fear that they might get deported,” Colimbas said.

Chiu said the city “has turned a blind eye” to the in-law units, but must work to ensure their survival as housing prices and eviction rates in the city continue to increase.

A recent study by Asian Americans Advancing Justice/Asian Law Caucus of in-law units found that many include families with children, seniors and low-income residents and pay about $1,250 per month for a two-bedroom space, compared to the median rent in the city of nearly $3,500.

The city’s Department of Building Inspection issues about 100 notices of violation to in-law units each year, department officials said.

Chiu introduced the legislation at Tuesday afternoon’s board meeting. It will be heard in a committee meeting before going in front of the full board.

Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

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  • JimmyFoo

    This is wrong on so many levels. Chiu, like Campos, are pandering fools.

    • Pontifikate

      On what levels is this wrong? Just wondering.

    • sjg

      Wrong how?

      • disqus_e4qPyvtwW2

        it’s one thing if the units are illegal just because of zoning (i.e. zoned for one residence but building has two) but if it’s illegal because there’s not enough fire exits, ventilation, proper wiring, etc then it’s just dangerous to put a stamp of approval for occupancy

        • abocha

          Like the one we rent, I would guess that most illegal inlaw units aren’t to code. I hope Chiu and Campos aren’t planning to turn a blind eye on these violations and allow people to knowingly live in dangerous environments.

        • Literate

          Reading comprehension is an amazing thing.
          “He said his proposal would bypass those codes and allow one in-law unit to be authorized on a lot after a landlord submits a formal application, pays a nominal fee and obtains permits for any construction needed on the unit to ensure its safety.”

          • disqus_e4qPyvtwW2

            “…many are technically illegal under current city building and planning codes, Chiu said.

            He said his proposal would bypass those codes…”

            Thanks for the snarky comment. You can either take things at face value or apply logic and critical thinking to figure out that the whole story may not be reported here.

            It does not specifically say which codes would be bypassed and there are MANY. An illegal kitchen is one thing (where by the zoning having two kitchens at all and no connection to upper floors would be illegal) but not having fire doors to the garage or a secondary exit in case of fire are another.

            I highly doubt that all codes would be bypassed. There are some in-laws that I’ve seen that would be a huge liability to legalize. If the county says something is safe when it clearly isn’t and then someone dies…not sure it’s smart move.

  • baklazhan

    Perhaps it’s precisely because they’re illegal that they are cheaper.

  • Gary Belk

    One can argue that by legalizing these units, evictions will increase and we will loose more of San Francisco’s affordable housing.

    If the city is going to offer amnesty to the owners of these illegal units than it must be have plans to increase and enforce more fines and penalties for not legalizing them.
    Otherwise, why would an owner go to the expense of legalization? You cannot have a carrot without a stick,.

    Most illegal in-law units are in dark basements with low ceilings, and strange floor plans. We are not talking about adding space that has significant value. In most cases by changing the status of the building it actually reduces the value of the
    building.

    If an in-law unit in a single-family house becomes legal than it is no longer a single-family home it is a 2-unit building. As a 2-unit building it is subject to all of the controls of the SF Rental Ordinance. This will significantly decrease the value of the property.

    If an in-law in a 2-unit building is legalized the building becomes a 3-unit building. Now it is not eligible to bypass the condo lottery. Since there will be no lottery for 10 years, this will significantly reduce the value.

    If you have an illegal in-law in a 4-unit building and you legalize the in-law the building becomes a 5-unit building. 5-unit buildings are no longer considered residential homes therefore purchase loans will be commercial loans. Offered by fewer lenders and at much higher interest rates requiring larger down payments.

    The only situation in which the value of the building could be improved by legalization is in a 3-unit building.

    If I owned an illegal unit in anything other than a 3 unit building. I would come clean, pull the permits to remove the unit and evict the tenant.

    I think this is legislation like so much that comes from our Supervisors. It is not thought out and is a simple one dimensional approach that panders to special interest groups.

    • baklazhan

      So who is being pandered to, then?

    • amd

      “If I owned an illegal unit in anything other than a 3 unit building. I would come clean, pull the permits to remove the unit and evict the tenant.”
      I agree the easiest way to evict trouble tenants is to remove the unit.
      — If the stove is illegal, you can get a permit to remove the kitchen. However, will the city planning department fine you for $9500 for having an illegal kitchen? Will the owners have to pay $5200 for relocation to each tenant? How much will you have to pay to hire a lawyer for eviction? Will the tenant suit you for renting them an illegal unit?

  • Richard

    Chui is dishonest. His goal: make owners of single family homes, which now are not under rent control, become rent control properties. How? Those homes will be two unit bldgs., so under rent control. Some homeowners will be tricked by this sales pitch’ others will simply not rent out units they now do rent, to avoid the city making their single family home two units. Talk about sleazy politicians.

    • MZ

      While these units may become subject to rent control after legalization

      • Richard

        No, it won’t be easy. the city now is working on passing a law to make it harder to make two units, one, on the grounds that this reduces rental units. So, the homeowners would be screwed, and learn after it was too late what even happened to them. SF’s version of ethics is to lie to homeowners and anyone who is not a tenant. omission = lying.