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  • Heather Knight - SF Chronicle

One housing project has turned into an epic San Francisco battle. The real enemy is city red tape

The corner lot at 17th and Ord streets in San Francisco’s tony Corona Heights neighborhood doesn’t look like much. A nondescript, gray, three-unit building sits next to a yard with a chain-link fence covered in poorly maintained ivy.

But this property has become a huge flash point in San Francisco’s battle over housing — how much of it this city needs, where it should be located and who gets to decide what gets built. When the owner proposed adding four more homes to the site — including two that would be affordable — the usual battles over neighborhood character, sunlight and diversity began.

The saga has turned residents against each other with nasty emails, yelling matches and neighbors no longer speaking to each other. Call it the “Real Homeowners of San Francisco,” and you could produce a reality TV show.

But the true villain isn’t the neighbors trying to block more housing on the site. It’s the city’s outdated zoning regulations that turn small projects in a city with big housing problems into explosive battles.

Even Rich Hillis, the city’s planning director, agreed with the assessment that the culprit here is the city’s own rules, which vastly limit new housing in wide swaths of the city despite the need for more housing, a major homelessness crisis, a fleeing middle class and dwindling diversity.

“There was a lot to like about this proposal,” Hillis said of the original plan for 4300 17th St. “But our 1960s-era code doesn’t allow us to approve it.”

The drama began two years ago when Scott Pluta, an attorney who worked in the Obama administration and now works for Google, purchased the property. He lives on the third floor of the home with his wife, Rosalind Pluta, who also works at Google. A tenant lives in a rent-controlled unit on the second floor, and the ground floor is a garage, laundry room and work space.

Pluta studied his neighborhood and learned it was 84% white, had a median home value approaching $2 million and had no affordable housing units. He quickly hatched ambitious plans for the property.

He proposed adding an affordable unit to his building’s first floor and constructing three units in the garden, two market-rate and one affordable. Both affordable units would be permanently deeded to the Mayor’s Office of Housing, and qualifying renters would be chosen by the city’s lottery.

He wanted his property to serve as a lab of sorts where an experiment could be conducted to find answers to San Francisco’s housing crisis. He knew adding four units was just a tiny piece of the city’s huge housing puzzle — the state has ordered San Francisco to build 80,000 new units by 2031 — but he hoped others could replicate it.

He imagined six people or families living in proximity in small units — maybe a public school teacher, he said, and families of color. It could become a paradise — housing people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the lovely neighborhood a short walk from the Muni Castro Station. It could be a model for similar projects in a city that says it’s transit-first, needs more affordable housing and wants more diversity.

Scott and Rosalind Pluta’s property, which currently has two units, is located on the corner of 17th and Ord streets in the Corona Heights neighborhood.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

“I wanted to do something that’s consistent with my progressive values,” Pluta said. “The ability to say, ‘I built affordable housing in San Francisco.’ I know it’s cheesy, but it’s meaningful.”

To some of his neighbors, the garden already is a paradise, an open space that gives the surrounding homes more sunlight, air and a view. Pluta’s proposal, in their minds, is hellish. Building too big and destroying the character of the block. And several of them say Pluta pretends to be a social justice warrior when he’s really just in it for the cash. He said he won’t make money on the project.

At a testy hearing in November, the Planning Commission continued the project, saying Pluta’s plan isn’t possible under the city’s current rules. So he downsized it. It also lost one affordable unit.

At the request of Corbett Heights Neighbors, the hearing on the new proposal has been pushed back about six weeks and is likely to be scheduled for mid-October. The group said it needed more time to review the new proposal but also that it’s firmly opposed to it.

Bill Holtzman, president of the neighborhood association, just returned from the flat that he and his wife own in Paris, and said he’s still catching up on the new proposal. But he said it’s already clear the new version still swallows up too much of the garden under the city’s rules.

“Our association will always opt for trees, grass and shrubs because that’s what makes San Francisco San Francisco,” he said. “We consider backyards to be sacrosanct. Until the city or state changes those rules, we will live by those rules, and we will object to any transgression of the codes.”

Those codes are likely to change — one way or another. Hillis said Pluta would have a far better chance if he waits for the possible passage of Supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s proposal to allow fourplexes on corner lots.

That legislation should be heard by the Planning Commission next month. A separate proposal from Mandelman to allow fourplexes on any single-family home lots is not as far along.

Some other pro-housing measures are faring well in the state Legislature, and other ways of allowing fourplexes are being pursued as legislation by other supervisors and as a ballot measure by pro-housing groups.

A notice of public hearing is posted at Scott and Rosalind Pluta’s property at 17th and Ord streets. Two of the units would be affordable housing.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

Mandelman is mostly staying neutral on Pluta’s proposal even though it gets at the crux of what he’s been championing throughout the year. He said the project could wind at up the Board of Supervisors, and he can’t say much about it without appearing biased before that vote.

“This is the type of housing I would like to see more of in the district,” he said, adding that his office would be happy to serve as a mediator between the warring neighbors.

He may want to strap on armor first. Pluta and several of his neighbors seemed to clash on a personal as well as political level. Pluta deems them hypocritical NIMBYs. “It’s this land cartel that has constrained supply to maintain and increase their property values,” he said.

His next-door neighbor, Casey Rando, said Pluta described a far smaller proposal at first than the one he actually proffered up. When Rando saw the plans, he lost his cool.

“I yelled at him and told him he lied to us,” he said. “Since then, he will not communicate with me.”

Rando, a gay man who moved to the neighborhood for its proximity to the Castro, said he hates being harangued by Pluta about “all the racial woes of San Francisco” while Pluta has the money to hire a lobbyist and build a fancy website.

“We’re literally three blocks from the rainbow flag, and you’re not going to lecture gay men and women about diversity,” Rando said.

Pluta said he’ll keep trying at the Planning Commission, but he doesn’t know whether his shrinking project will ever pencil out. He never intended to make money, but now he doesn’t know whether he can break even. He might seek the permit, split the lot and hope the buyer develops the garden.

Laura Foote, executive director of the pro-housing group YIMBY Action, said that uncertainty is the problem. The city’s outdated rules lead to case-by-case decisions, neighborhood rifts and far too little actual housing.

“You could sit all day at the Planning Commission, and it’s all stories like this,” she said. “It’s all rich people yelling at each other, and it’s the system as designed.”

It might make for popcorn-worthy viewing, but it’s never going to help address our housing crisis.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Email: Twitter: @hknightsf

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