City postpones vote to allow apartments with only 150 square feet of living space


San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener Tuesday pushed back a vote on his proposal to reduce the minimum living room size in an efficiency apartment to 150 feet. The Board of Supervisors will take up the measure on July 24. Creative Commons photo by Flickr user bgreensf.

The idea of allowing smaller apartments in San Francisco — as little as 150 square feet of living space for an “efficiency” — is still under consideration after the Board of Supervisors Tuesday pushed back a decision on whether to amend the city’s building code.

Supervisor Wiener and developers are pushing the approval of what they call “affordable by design” apartments, intended for newly constructed high-rises. Activists are calling these tiny apartments “shoeboxes.” (Read previous story: Developers seek to legalize tiny apartments in San Francisco, citing soaring rents.)

The building code change would reduce the living space in efficiencies from 220 square feet to 150, excluding the kitchen, bathroom and closet.

Supporters of the legislation say it could encourage more residential development in a city where the vacancy rate is close to zero and rental prices have risen by 15 percent in the last year.

On Tuesday, Wiener moved to postpone the vote to July 24. He said the Planning Department needed to make a “technical adjustment” to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.

Skeptics worry that the move would raise the value of undeveloped land across the city, meaning builders of affordable housing could be priced out of the real estate market. Housing rights advocates said they were blindsided by the quick introduction of the ordinance, and that the vote came too quickly and without proper consideration of their constituents.

On Monday, the Huffington Post ran a link to a previous story on the tiny apartment legislation on the Public Press. One commenter, MotherLodeBeth identified herself as a member of the “Small House Society.” She said small living spaces are becoming more popular, and that “shoebox places” are much more common in other locales than many people realize. Another commenter, Randall S. Stowe, pointed to the Cubix building at 766 Harrison St., which was forced to declare bankruptcy in July 2009, as a warning sign that the market for tiny apartments might not be as strong as developers suggest.

Wiener also introduced an amendment to clarify that residency will be limited to two people only for “smaller efficiency units,” not existing, larger ones unaffected by the change in law. That amendment addressed fears of some activists that families living in larger efficiency apartments might be evicted if their family home became retroactively illegal.

A previous amendment specified that the smaller apartments would only be allowed in new construction — an effort to assure that rent controlled apartments in existing buildings remain protected.

The idea for Wiener’s legislation came from a group called the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, consisting mostly of private developers.

Tim Colen, the group’s executive director, said the legislation would help the city  build its share of housing units allotted by the Association of Bay Area Governments. The association’s regional plan for “smart growth” calls for the city to build 31,193 housing units by 2014. (See the Public Press special report from the Summer 2012 print edition: Growing Smarter: Planning for a Bay Area of 9 Million.)

Still, some activists worry that not all construction is good construction. Although the ordinance caps the occupancy of these smaller units at two residents, the inability of the city to enforce such a cap has many worried that low-income families who previously squeezed into efficiency apartments of 250 to 300 square feet might now be forced to occupy units half that size.

The Housing Action Coalition points to other large West Coast cities, including San Jose, Seattle and Santa Barbara, which already allow for 150-square-foot apartments — mostly for students, formerly homeless people and low-income residents.

But Colen said the most likely market for San Francisco would be technology workers who have flooded the city in the last two years seeking high-paying jobs.

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