- Heather Knight - SF Chronicle
S.F. rejected one man’s small housing project.
Now, the city might have to approve his much bigger development.
Scott Pluta is one of the most dogged people in San Francisco — and one way or another, the wannabe Castro developer is determined to see his quest to build a few units of housing on his own property come true.
In a normal city, asking to build housing on a rundown, unused plot of land wouldn’t be a big deal, but in San Francisco, everything related to housing is a big deal — often leading to dramatic neighborhood squabbles, contentious City Hall meetings, numerous lawsuits and no actual housing.
So far, Pluta’s experience trying to build housing in San Francisco has been dispiriting, with the city rejecting his proposal to put four homes on his side yard late last year. But that might be about to change. He has a new proposal for a much taller, bigger building than his first attempt — and, this time, the city might not have the power to quash it. “This is a vacant lot in a transit-rich corridor in a nice neighborhood,” Pluta told me the other day when I visited his home at 4300 17th St. “I just want to build housing here.” A rendering of the six-story building Scott Pluta would erect on 17th Street using his “builder's remedy” proposal.Courtesy Scott PlutaThe city has until Jan. 31 to get its housing element — its plan to build 82,069 new units by 2031 — certified by the state or lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds. While certification is looking more likely than it did a few weeks ago, it’s not guaranteed — and if the city fails, there’s another big ramification besides the lost money: “the builder’s remedy” would go into effect.
That would allow developers to propose housing projects of any size as long as 20% of their units are priced affordably or 100% of them are priced for people of moderate incomes. The city could not block the proposals because of zoning rules — there’d be no rules about heights, setbacks from the property line or casting shadows. Even the California Environmental Quality Act would cease to apply to projects that are six units or smaller.
So Pluta is ready. On Feb. 1, if the city doesn’t have sign-off from the state on its housing plan, he intends to propose a six-story, five-unit building in his side yard, one that would cover just about every inch of space available. One of the five apartments would be priced affordably, and the rest would be market-rate. The building would be much taller than neighboring ones, blocking the light and views of those residents, but Pluta doesn’t much care. “The new version will stick out like a sore thumb,” Pluta acknowledged with a hint of satisfaction. “And I won’t feel bad because I’ll have put a roof over six people’s heads.” Already, Pluta and many of his neighbors despise each other — and this surely won’t help. When I told Casey Rando, who lives in a building adjacent to Pluta’s side yard, about his neighbor’s new plans, Rando said, “We would sue. He’s not rational.” Rando is a senior environmental compliance planner for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and said he doesn’t understand where the water will come from to support all these new residents in a state battling drought. “The idea that all of our zoning regulations would be thrown out the window because of the incompetence of the planning department is really reprehensible to me,” Rando continued, adding that the city should seek an extension from the state to file its housing element. That, however, is not a possibility and the Jan. 31 deadline is firm. “We shouldn’t allow every nook and cranny and every green space in the entire city to be filled with high-density housing,” he said, adding that Pluta’s hypothetical apartments would probably only be affordable to high-paid tech workers anyway. But those kinds of arguments have helped create our current housing crisis. Studies have repeatedly shown that building more market-rate housing brings down the cost for everybody — and market-rate housing helps pay for affordable housing. Pluta in 2019 purchased a two-unit building in what’s technically the tony Corona Heights neighborhood, but is blocks from the Castro Muni Station. The attorney and policy lead at Google lives on the third floor with his wife, Rosalind Pluta, and rents a second-floor apartment to a tenant for $2,300 a month. He studied the demographics of his new neighborhood and learned it was 84% white, had a median home value of about $2 million and offered no affordable housing. To take a small step toward rectifying those dismal statistics, he proposed turning the ground floor of his building into an affordable unit and building three more in the garden, two market-rate and one affordable. But the city’s outdated, exclusive rules about what can be built where — Pluta calls it “snob zoning” — wouldn’t allow it. The project required several variances, and the Planning Commission rejected it. He filed a lawsuit against the city in the spring. Many people would consider one lost fight against City Hall to be plenty, but Pluta isn’t giving up. He did get permits to convert his ground floor into an accessory dwelling unit, but the frustrating, wildly expensive experience only made him angrier and more determined to keep going. He calls the ADU project his “pain cave.” He said converting the ground floor into a small apartment, without changing the size of the building at all, will cost him $600,000, partly due to the city’s rules and regulations. That’s enough to buy a mansion in many parts of the country.
“They make it prohibitively expensive to build and then cry foul when the rents are so high,” he said of San Francisco’s political leaders and the NIMBYs who vote for them. “They’re pro-homelessness. They’re pro-segregation. They’re anti-middle class. They’re anti-family. It’s bananas.” Rich Hillis, director of the city’s planning department, doesn’t think Pluta will have the opportunity to go the builder’s remedy route because he thinks the state will certify the city’s housing element in time. He’s anticipating receiving a letter from the state Wednesday indicating its preliminary views of the city’s current plan and the Planning Commission approving the plan Thursday. The board will take up the matter in January, and its new makeup will be slightly more pro-housing.
“We’re getting closer,” he told me. “We’re more confident that we’ll get a certified housing element adopted, and the builder’s remedy won’t go into effect.” He does think Pluta’s project can move forward in other ways, though. The Board of Supervisors in October passed Supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s legislation allowing fourplexes on residential lots and six units on corner lots. That means Pluta could add three units to his side yard for a total of six on his corner lot, though the question of how much open space he’d be required to keep could pose problems, Hillis said. Hillis said the city will get into the nitty gritty of specific zoning changes to specific neighborhoods after the state certifies its housing element, and those changes could also help Pluta down the road. Sam Moss, executive director of Mission Housing Development Corp., which builds affordable housing, said he has “zero faith” the Board of Supervisors will submit a compliant housing element in January — and that he and fellow affordable housing developers are ready.
“I can tell you that a number of San Francisco-based nonprofit affordable housing developers are investigating the possibility of potential builder’s remedy projects early next year,” he said. “I believe we’ll have at least a couple months of builder’s remedy season in San Francisco for sure.” Corey Smith, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition, is more optimistic the board will submit a compliant housing element in January, but said he’s not sure the state will have time to certify it by Jan. 31 because it’ll be getting so many cities’ proposals then. He said the real issue is that Pluta should already be allowed to build a six-story apartment building on his own side yard — with or without the builder’s remedy. “That should be what is allowed under San Francisco law,” Smith said. “Building housing for everybody is not going to solve all of our ills, but we’re never going to solve any of our ills without building housing.” Pluta adamantly agrees. And he’s sure that someday, somehow, his yard will hold more than a chain-link fence, a tree and overgrown ivy. “There will be housing here,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time.” Heather Knight is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @hknightsf