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Secondary Units for Whom? Assessing interventions into informal housing in San Francisco and Oakland


As San Francisco and Oakland have endured critical affordable housing crises over the last decade, both cities have observed increases of proscribed, non-permitted living arrangements. The reconfiguration of informal housing landscapes has been evident in the reliance of not only low-income and immigrant residents, but tech workers, teachers, and college students, on cheaper housing units found in converted garages, basements, and warehouses. Informal housing, operating outside the bounds of municipal zoning and land use regulations, has been an integral component of the Bay Area housing market for the last century but has emerged as an urgent public policy priority in recent years. While most municipalities have tacitly ignored such arrangements, San Francisco and Oakland have reconfigured local planning agendas to more aggressively identify and regulate informal housing units.

This thesis examines how San Francisco and Oakland have attempted to intervene into informal housing markets and analyzes the efficacy of such policy approaches. I evaluate whether patterns of increased enforcement reflect the informal housing markets of these cities by conducting analyses of building permit records, code violation complaints, and rental market data. I further consider whether life-safety conditions of buildings have been improved and investigate the extent to which tenants have been impacted through interviews with tenant advocates and organizers. Finally, I draw upon extensive interviews with planners, code enforcement officers, policymakers, and tenant advocates to elucidate both the motivations and challenges of attempting to regulate informal housing.

These analyses illustrate the geographies of housing informality in San Francisco and Oakland and identify uneven secondary unit policies that prioritize formalized ADU typologies over the preservation of existing informal units. While rental market, code enforcement, and building permit data reveal the prevalence of informal units across both cities, ADU development has been concentrated among higher-income property owners and remain prohibitively expensive for the moderate and low-income communities that have long relied on garage, basement, and backyard conversions.

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