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  • J.K. Dineen - SF Chronicle

SF looks to limit construction as coronavirus restrictions are extended

While San Francisco was a leader in imposing the country’s earliest and strictest stay-at-home orders to combat the spread of the coronavirus, the city has been much more lenient than places like New York and Washington, D.C., when it comes to allowing construction to go forward.

That may soon change.

Public health officials are preparing an updated order that will likely be far more restrictive in terms of what types of construction are allowed and what are not, according to Supervisor Aaron Peskin and others involved in the talks. While the details are still in flux, the order will likely be similar to that of New York and Washington, D.C., which narrowed allowable projects to “roads, bridges, transit facilities, utilities, hospitals or health care facilities, affordable housing, and homeless shelters.”

Peskin said his office has received dozens of complaints of housing development continuing, often with workers blatantly disregarding social distancing protocols.

“This is the result of the behavior of a few scofflaws and ambitious landlords who are pissing off their neighbors and screwing it up for everyone else in the industry,” Peskin said. “We had these loopholes in our stay-at-home order and the real estate industry drove a semi (truck) through them.”

The debate over what construction would be allowed underscored a division between health officials, who are entirely focused on the pandemic, and political leaders who are also grappling with an unprecedented lack of housing.

Tenants in buildings owned by Veritas, one of the city’s biggest landlords, received notice that that owner had received permits to convert studio apartments to one bedroom units in more than a half-dozen buildings across the city. The group decided not to go forward with the projects after Peskin contacted them.

Veritas said that it halted work after the stay-in-place order was put in place two weeks ago and had been planning to restart on Monday.

“The Bay Area remains in a severe housing crisis and this is why it is critically important to ensure that all units are available to those who need them,” said Paul Rose, a spokesman for Veritas.

Over the past two weeks, City Hall has been inundated with complaints from families who are dutifully sheltering in place only to have their tranquility shattered by nonstop banging, drilling and jackhammering next door. Many of these renovation projects are not adding units to the city’s housing stock, they complain, but are renovations of single family homes, often done by investment groups planning to flip the property upon completion.

Other residents have photographed groups of construction workers eating lunch next to one another or working much closer than the 6 feet that social distancing rules permit.

The current order in place in six Bay Area counties allows most construction projects to continue. This includes hotels, health care facilities, public infrastructure and projects essential to the city functioning during the lockdown, like Meals on Wheels kitchen, a grocery store. Housing projects of all sorts may continue under the current rules, regardless of whether they are luxury condo towers or housing for formerly homeless people. This includes renovations “necessary for a safe, sanitary, and functional home.” It also includes any project that adds housing units to the city’s housing stock.

But San Francisco Mayor London Breed has pushed back against the idea that market-rate housing would be barred under the revised order, even as the new rules were being hashed out on Monday. Breed defended the need to keep housing production on track, and not just subsidized affordable housing.

“The fact that we don’t build is a problem, so it doesn’t matter what sort of housing gets built. The fact is, when this is all over, people are going to need places to live, so I’m not going to pick between one housing versus another,” she said at a news conference. “Housing is essential, period.”

Courtney Clarkson, who lives on Sacramento Street in Presidio Heights, said she has two construction projects on her block — one across the street and one behind her house. One of the projects, at 1819 Baker St., is a renovation and expansion that includes a third story addition, renovated kitchens and bathrooms, and a new deck. The developer bought the property for $2.25 million and is putting $500,000 into it, according to city records.

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