News & Politics

Despite Housing Shortage, San Francisco Won't Let Man Build Apartments on His Land

San Francisco is in the midst of a housing shortage, and it has been for quite some time. There aren’t enough homes for either the long-time residents of the city or those flocking there for work in the tech industry. As with anything else, when demand is high and supply is low, price increases. Homes in San Francisco are ridiculously expensive compared to most of the country.

That’s what makes Robert Tillman’s ordeal so bizarre.

Tillman owns a single-story laundromat in San Francisco. For four years he’s been trying to redevelop the property as a 75-unit apartment building, which the city desperately needs.

You’d think the permit process would be expedited considering the city’s dire situation, but as Reason reports, it isn’t: “[T]he city’s labyrinthine process of reviews, regulations, and appeals has dragged on for four years. The project has cost the self-described ‘accidental developer’ nearly $1 million so far, and he hasn’t even broken ground yet.”

“It’s taken me longer to get to this point than it took for the United States to win World War II,” Reason reports Tillman as saying, “and my site is the easiest site in the city to build.”

Reportedly there are no landmarks on the site, there are two other laundromats on the block, no current area residents would be displaced, and there’s a mass transit station well within walking distance.

So why the holdup? First, some neighbors wanted to force the economically ignorant and failed idea of price controls:

The real opposition came from some of the neighbors. A community meeting in January 2016 served as something of a flashpoint.

At the meeting, one woman fretted that the tall building would violate the privacy of a nearby public school. Another argued that the project needed to be 100 percent affordable housing. Two representatives from local Latino Cultural District Calle 24 said that even a 100 percent affordable housing project was out of the question, given the proposed height of the development.

In other words, Tillman’s property rights are being subjected to the whim of people with no financial interest in the property.

However, that was only part of Tillman’s problems. He then ran headlong into San Francisco’s bureaucracy, all of which apparently did what it could to get in the way of the project. He was forced to have several “impact studies” commissioned. Then he had a commissioner complain the project was too “bulky.” Then someone complained that his environmental review wasn’t a sufficient environmental review.

Then someone actually argued that the property might be a “historic resource.” Because, as Reason reports:

[T]he building once housed a local employment agency, back in the 1970s. Also, it once featured a mural depicting the life of Latina women. (The mural no longer exists.)

“You have 150 machines, you have wiring and plumbing. If there was a historical office there, it doesn’t exist anymore,” Tillman says.

Indeed, the lots Tillman owns were deemed ineligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and on any state or local equivalents, according to the 2011 South Mission Historic Resource Survey conducted by the Planning Department.

Nevertheless, on February 13 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to require a historic evaluation to be done at Tillman’s expense.

The late science fiction author Jerry Pournelle coined what he called the Iron Law of Bureaucracy. It states: “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.”

Tillman has run into people who are trying to justify their paycheck rather than do anything meaningful for the community.

This is Tillman’s property. He’s trying to turn a profit and provide something the city needs. But because San Francisco is overrun with believers in centralized power, he’s out a million bucks, and the average one room apartment in the city, per Reason, now rents for $3400 a month.