With an unprecedented decision, South San Francisco is the first city in San Mateo County to explore ending single-family zoning.
The South San Francisco City Council narrowly agreed with a 3-2 vote to look into allowing construction of duplexes, triplexes and other moderately dense development in neighborhoods traditionally reserved solely for single-family homes.
The decision Wednesday, Feb. 24, puts South City on the path of other communities such as Berkeley and San Jose where officials may terminate exclusionary zoning policies in hopes of addressing affordability and equity concerns.
“If we are able to provide more affordable housing and also look at modern housing for the missing middle, I think we need to explore all options,” said Vice Mayor Mark Nagales, who supported the proposal with his colleagues James Coleman and Eddie Flores. Mayor Mark Addiego and Councilwoman Flor Nicolas voted against the proposal.
Under the decision, officials will consider amending residential zoning codes through the forthcoming general plan update. The proposal will be brought to an advisory committee formed to guide the update, and community outreach will be sought before any formal policy amendments are considered by councilmembers.
Consultants hired to facilitate the general plan update anticipated discussions around the issue will cost about $100,000 and delay the process by about four months.
Those familiar with the work done to date on the general plan noted that councilmembers had recently agreed to concentrate most of the city’s future growth east of Highway 101, along El Camino Real and in the Lindenville neighborhood, on the southern outskirts of downtown.
As part of the general plan discussion determining where new housing should be built, consensus was reached that the single-family neighborhoods covering about 85% of the city’s land dedicated to housing would be preserved.
In her criticism of the new proposal, Nicolas suggested that reversing course at this late stage would tantamount to misleading the public.
“We heard clearly from everybody on what they want,” said Nicolas.
To that end, resident Laura Fanella criticized the plan to lift the single-family home, or R1, zoning protection.
“Please stop this before it gets any further,” said Fanella, who alleged officials were moving the goalposts on community members who wish to preserve their quality of life in single-family neighborhoods.
Progressive housing advocates maintained a different perspective, claiming that allowing additional units to be built anywhere in South San Francisco will undo decades-old segregationist housing policy.
“I strongly support studying removing exclusionary housing in South San Francisco,” said resident Darryl Yip.
Those efforts align with decisions in cities such as Berkeley, Sacramento and Minneapolis, where officials agreed to amend zoning codes in single-family neighborhoods to allow denser development.
Beyond the equity issues, proponents claim allowing the construction of additional units will help communities constrained for housing accommodate demand, ultimately pushing down the cost of living which has been a burden for so many.
In San Mateo County, officials seeking to address affordability issues have seemed singularly focused on catalyzing more transit-oriented development near city centers. No other local city has discussed amending its single-family zoning code.
For his part, Coleman said he considered the exploration an opportunity to strengthen the rights of private property owners while downplaying concerns that officials were interested in dismantling the sanctity of single-family home neighborhoods.
“We would be giving our residents more freedom and more control over their property and in conjunction with that we would be providing more affordable housing for people,” he said.
Addiego maintained a more cynical perspective though, suggesting that lifting density limits could invite predatory developers to South San Francisco, where they will purchase undervalued rental properties, displace tenants from naturally affordable homes and rebuild a handful of new, expensive units.
“I’m frightened at the possibility of where the disruption will occur first,” he said. “There is no better way to guarantee gentrification than to upzone homes.”
Additionally, Addie go, who did not cloak his dismay with the decision, shared an expectation that the issue will unsettle many residents.
“There is no way I can support this. And I’ll caution my colleagues this will disrupt the community in a great way.”
And while those who favored the proposal acknowledged the forthcoming discussion may be uncomfortable to some, they felt an obligation to at least examine the issue more thoroughly before making a decision.
“If we get the data and it doesn’t work out, at least we can say we explored it,” said Nagales.