Are In-Law Apartments An Affordable Housing Solution in San Francisco?

According to some recent legislation working its way through San Francisco’s City Planning Commission, in-law apartments may soon become legal in San Francisco. This has led many to ask, and wonder, why it has taken so long for this issue to come to light, especially as San Francisco is (in)famously hurting for affordable housing in light of the current tech boom occurring in the Bay Area.

So what are in-law apartments, why has it taken so long for them to be legalized, and why is it important that they may be legalized finally?

What Are In-Law Apartments?

In traditional single-family homes, in-law apartments are a section of the house that ordinarily has its own bathroom and kitchenette as well as a bedroom (or two) and a living room. It is attached to the main house, but may have its own entrance. The thinking in the past was that once one’s parents were no longer able to live on their own, instead of putting them in a nursing home the parent(s) would come to live with their children. In the case of a married couple, these elderly parent(s) would be their in-laws. Thus, the name “in-law apartment” was born.

From Wikipedia:

Secondary suite (or accessory suite) is an urban planning term for an additional separate dwelling unit on a property that would normally accommodate only one dwelling unit. A secondary suite is considered “secondary” or “accessory” to the primary residence on the parcel. It normally has its own entrance, kitchen, bathroom and living area.

Why now in San Francisco?

San Francisco, as many know, is going through a major tech boom. According to this article from May 2013, many undiscovered in-law units were built in San Francisco neighborhoods like the Excelsior District around the tech boom of the late 90’s to support the influx of new San Francisco residences. Many of these lack proper heat and and kitchen facilities, but they are often occupied by low-income families, many with children, who view them as a last resort to stay in San Francisco after having been priced out of their apartments but (presumably) still work in the city.

Apparently, “[c]ity officials only inspect buildings for illegal in-law [apartments] after receiving a complaint”, but they often turn up empty-handed when no one answers the door.

Now, Board of Supervisors president David Chiu has proposed legalizing these in-law apartments for many reasons, including:

  • Homeowners are concerned about fines and penalties if they are discovered with an illegal in-law apartment in their residence;
  • To ensure safety for both inhabitants and owners by enforcing building codes;

While many tenants apparently do not have signed leases, Chiu says his legislation “would protect rent control rights for in-law tenants and require relocation assistance for them during any construction on the unit.” I think we can all agree that this is a good thing.

Legalization and Safeguards

Legalizing in-law apartments in single family homes seems to be a step in the right direction for San Francisco. If they are allowed and can be regulated, in-law apartments would serve as an additional source of low-income housing in San Francisco, which is sorely needed. Hopefully the legalization of these apartments would also encourage more single-family owners to build safe and affordable apartments in their basements or on the top floors of their homes.

At the end of the day, both renters and landlords benefit because:

  • Landlords no longer have to worry about incurring penalties for an in-law apartment;
  • Renters will have a safe place to live with functioning heat and cooking spaces;
  • The city can regulate and tax these apartments;
  • Low-income families living in in-law apartments will be protected from eviction and unfair treatment.

Please note that this is my personal opinion on the matter and not necessarily the view of HotPads or Zillow Inc, my employer. Feel free to tweet at me at @dohertyjf so we can engage in discussion!