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How Our Team Helped Streamline ADU Permitting

An accomplishment we are very proud of. . .

As design professionals we can’t do our best work if the system is broken and the rules and interpretations are constantly changing. When we started designing accessory dwelling unit (ADU) projects in 2015, the process was painful to say the least. Converting a garage into a new, rent-controlled, apartment took 2 years to grind its way through the city approvals process and the reviews were wildly inconsistent, especially with the Fire Department. Wasn't this program supposed to help us create housing?

I wasn't satisfied with the status quo. I've never been the type of architect to quietly accept unnecessary obstacles, so I started to rattle cages everywhere I could. I reached out to the local AIA Chapter. No help there. I talked to an expediter I know and learned about the Code Advisory Committee and went to one of their meetings. They were sympathetic, but didn't have the power to make real change. I contacted plancheck supervisors and heads of departments with no luck. But then, I got invited to a meeting at the Mayor's office. . .

How Mayor Breed's leadership helped revolutionize the way ADU projects are reviewed and processed

I will forever be grateful to the incredible team at Mayor Breed's office for helping to streamline the city reviews for ADU projects and legalizations. Her team proactively reached out to ask how the program could be improved because they saw how crucial is was to meet our local housing needs. With over 125,000 single family homes in this city, eligible to create an ADU unit, there is a huge potential for ADU's to help solve our housing crisis. The stakes are high.

I worked closely with their team, providing common sense feedback about fire code interpretations, city required upgrades, and safety standards. They pressured DBI to produce a clear set of guidelines and implement a new procedure to clear the backlog of these projects. Out of those efforts, two crucial documents were published including EG-05 and FS-05. These Information Sheets clearly outlined when sprinklers were needed, what happened with stair shafts, and how to handle buildings with only 1 exit (among other things).

We had the honor of reviewing draft versions of these documents behind the scenes and providing clear feedback to her team about potential pitfalls or challenges. The final guidelines may not have everything we hoped for, but they did level the playing field for every ADU project in the city. Now there is consistency to the reviews across the board. This is one of my proudest accomplishments because it isn't just about MY projects, it's about all the ADU projects in the City and the new processes are creating a model for all other project types in the city as well.

Clearing the Backlog of Permit Reviews

Mayor Breed debuted these new guidelines in a bold way. She held a press conference right in the middle of the building department during normal plancheck hours. We were thrilled to be invited to hear her issue her executive order, requiring that the entire backlog of 900 permits be approved within 6 months and she rolled out the newly minted requirements for review. To meet those goals, the city implemented a "round-table" review process where we would meet with the entire plancheck team, get our questions answered, and receive approval after just 2 meetings. This review system is now being considered for reviews of other project types as well.

Mayor Breed announces her executive order to streamline ADU permit reviews at the SF Building Department

6 months later, I found myself in another press conference outside a recently finished unit. The honest truth is, I thought I was just invited to watch, but as I stood in the audience, her aide clarified that I was scheduled to speak. . . next. Gulp. Thankfully, I'm not shy in front of a crowd and I pulled it off. If you want to see that press conference, check it out HERE!

Mayor Breed holds a press conference 6 months after her executive order requiring ADU permit reviews to be streamlined

Architect Serina Calhoun speaks at Mayor Breed's press conference about ADU permit streamlining

There is More Work to Be Done 

We are going to continue working to streamline the permitting process in San Francisco. There is much more work to be done, but I can truthfully say that Mayor Breed's team has been integral to streamlining and improving the permit review process for her entire tenure as Mayor. Her team is extremely well educated on how the process works, they are curious about where we get stuck, and why projects stall for weeks or months at a time. Thanks to her, a new Deputy Director, Neville Pereira was hired to reform the department. It hasn't been perfect, but I can attest to the fact that changes are being made, permit reviews are happening more quickly, and there is an overarching effort to simplify the process at large.

My participation in improving the process for everyone will continue. Stay tuned for more updates!


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