Mixed signals being sent when San Francisco owners want to build Accessory Dwelling Units

This author recalls a childhood game called, “they love me, they love me not” and we would pluck petals to arrive at the answer. That might be what San Francisco is doing now in its stance on Accessory Dwelling Units, also known as in-law units, granny flats, backyard cottages, whatever term you like.


The city has touted the benefits of these pint-sized structures and has encouraged landlords to convert common spaces into new housing. By the planning department’s own admission, a boom in ADUs has yielded dividends. Sorely needed living space is being carved out and progress is being made.


Yet now, there is legislation introduced that would add new layers of regulations and quite possibly, give rental property owners a hefty penalty for building ADUs that sever housing services.

Land is a precious asset that no one can make more of, and so when building an ADU, there may be casualties. It might be the disappearance of backyard common spaces, laundry facilities, and parking spaces or the removal of storage lockers and so forth.


Supervisor Rafael Mandelman stated that these services should not vanish.

“ADUs were conceived of as a useful tool for increasing density … That is all cool except that some landlords are doing it by cannibalizing space used by existing tenants. We are trying to make it clearer that adding new units is not a valid just cause for taking away housing services.”

~ Supervisor Rafael Mandelman quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle


Under the ordinance proposed by Supervisor Mandelman, the burden would shift from the tenant to the landlord by requiring the landlord to alert the Rent Board asserting that their ADU project will either not impact existing housing services or that there is a “just cause” to strip away amenities. Landlords would also have to notify tenants that an ADU application is being sought. The law would have considerable teeth - the wrongful severance of housing services would require the landlord to pay triple damages and the tenant’s attorney fees.


Bornstein Law certainly empathizes, but tenants already have the recourse to petition the Rent Board for a reduction in base rent when "the landlord has substantially decreased a housing service without reducing the tenant's base rent."


Recognizing that California's housing production is not keeping pace with demand, state lawmakers enacted several bills to make ADUs more accessible for renters across the state.


The most consequential pieces of legislation were AB-881 and AB-68. These laws made ADUs simpler to build by making restrictions that local governments place on ADUs obsolete and provided for a streamlined process for approvals. Essentially, state laws have told municipalities to get out of the way of ADU construction.


Download this resourceful handbook by the California Department of Housing and Community Development »


San Francisco should continue its progress and follow the intent of state lawmakers by not erecting more barriers to building structures that have proven to be successful in adding to our housing stock. The city should not have it both ways by singing hymns to the benefits of ADUs while at the same time discouraging their production.


Housing services can run the gamut and we’ll have to examine the lease to see exactly what services were promised. 

Regardless of whether the ill-conceived ordinance passes, it is always prudent to consult an attorney whenever owners contemplate an ADU project to fully understand the legal ramifications. This is especially important when services are reduced or a tenant is displaced during any renovations. For those owners with non-permitted units and believe it conforms to building codes, our firm can assist in bringing these ADUs out of the shadows and legalize them.


Contractors who are inexperienced or have little knowledge of the building requirements surrounding ADUs can lead to delays, expensive results, poor workmanship, and a unit that is not built to code. Fortunately, we have reliable and well-informed contractors on standby to take the guesswork out of the equation.


For informed advice, get in touch.