August 2017

How to Make San Francisco Friendly to Families

The most effective way to counter the pull of the suburbs may be to build on the strong urban amenities San Francisco already possesses.

By Kristy Wang
Urbanist Article August 30, 2017

Photo by Sergio Ruiz for SPUR

This past May, Mayor Ed Lee dedicated $44 million to housing meant to address a school district staffing shortage that is being aggravated by high housing costs.[1] Earlier this year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to add a definition of “family-friendly housing” to the general plan. The city’s recently adopted density bonus program was rebranded as a family-friendly program, with its sponsor, Supervisor Katy Tang, pointing to its multiple-bedroom-unit requirements and adding language encouraging family-friendly amenities. It’s a start — but much more needs to be done to make San Francisco friendly to families.

San Francisco has the lowest percentage of house- holds with children among the 12 largest American cities: just 18 percent compared to a nationwide average of 29.4.[2] San Francisco has fewer households with children than cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Seattle. Also, it is one of the least affordable metropolitan areas for families in the nation.

Families and children are an important part of a city’s population. Cities need to maintain a cross section of humanity to keep them diverse, equitable and interesting. What makes cities vital is a mix of people with different needs and interests engaging with each other and moving around the city. Families with children may not comprise the majority of households in a city, but they can be a particularly important voice for livable and safe communities.

Families make the decision to leave San Francisco for a wide variety of reasons — because they cannot afford the cost, they perceive there are better education opportunities elsewhere, they want the certainty of neighborhood schools, or they long for a yard or they dream of a single-family home. Yet many families do want to remain in San Francisco. Cities provide an eclectic learning experience for children. They expose young minds to cultures, values and communities that are different from their own. They provide an option for families who want to continue to commute and fulfill their daily tasks without getting in a car.

How can San Francisco remain open to families?

Many of the issues important to families are complex and difficult to address. Schools are arguably the primary reason why many families leave big cities. San Francisco is a top-performing large, urban school district, with modernized facilities. However, urban poverty and how it relates to education and test scores and school desirability is a difficult issue to navigate. The complicated school assignment system, intended to address long-term segregation in San Francisco’s schools, does not guarantee a spot in one’s neighborhood school and adds yet another layer of uncertainty for parents making decisions for their families. The high cost of childcare here only adds to the burden. Faced with these thorny issues, many people feel like it should be possible to make progress on the cost of housing for families instead.

As all families are different, there is no type of housing that would satisfy the needs of each and every family with children. And those needs change as children grow. Here, however, are a few basic characteristics of housing that families commonly seek:

  • A sufficient number of bedrooms or enough space
  • Affordable rent or price for a one- or two-income household
  • A location that makes it relatively easy to get to school and work
  • Amenities that families desire, including access to outdoor space

Recent new multifamily residential construction has skewed toward smaller units, largely because those units can be delivered at lower prices.[3] Recently, the city has begun to require new developments to provide more units with multiple bedrooms. San Francisco has fewer large units (as a percentage of total units) than comparable large cities across the country.[4] Until this year, some parts of the city required 40 percent of new units to have two or more bedrooms, but there was no citywide requirement. Legislation adopted by the Board of Supervisors in July now requires 25 percent of units in new development to have two or more bedrooms and 10 percent of units to have three or more bedrooms.[5]

Unfortunately, requiring more large bedroom units in new development may not be the solution to the problem, as there is no guaranteeing that these larger units will be occupied by families rather than adult roommates or even single adults. Because of their size, large units are less affordable and, ironically, may be less likely to be occupied by families for the simple reason that households with kids often have less money to spend on housing compared to households without kids.For instance, a four-person family household with two working adults and two children often cannot afford to compete with three working adult roommates for a three-bedroom apartment.

These dynamics become clearer when we look at the overall housing inventory rather than just focusing on new development. San Francisco has many multi-bedroom units, but only 30 percent of units with three or more bedrooms house families with children. Many of these units are instead occupied by one- and two-person households. Tax policy and rent control are two reasons why people may not downsize or rapidly adjust their living situation to t their current household circumstances. Proposition 13 incentivizes homeowners to remain in their homes by freezing property tax values at the time of purchase and limiting increases. Renters are protected by rent control while they remain in the same unit—but with vacancy decontrol, and particularly in times of increased pressure on the rental market, they may not be able to afford to move to a unit more appropriate to their changing circumstances.

What is needed are ways to develop ways to increase housing mobility as well as making the most of the housing stock that we already have.

Prop. 13 presents a challenge but for homeowners aged 55 years and older, state law does permit a one-time transfer of tax basis within the county and to/from certain other counties if the new property is less than the value of the first property. Amendments that provide more flexibility on location and the ability to use the tax basis transfer more than once might be small fixes with an impact.

Another potential solution may seem counter- intuitive: building more studios and one-bedroom units. These smaller units could attract single people out of roommate situations, freeing up existing units with more bedrooms for family households. In the same vein, convincing colleges and universities to develop more student housing in order to get students into dorms rather than multi-bedroom room-mate situation—again, freeing up some larger units for other families.

The San Francisco Planning Department’s report Housing for Families with Children also suggests some possible code changes that would make the existing housing stock more family-friendly, including simplifying minor expansions, providing options for downsizing and encouraging more accessory dwelling units.

The most effective way to counter the pull of suburban convenience and suburban schools may be to build on the strong urban amenities San Francisco already possesses. The city should build and invest in more walkable neighborhoods that are inviting and safe, continue to invest in quality parks and open space, continue to invest money, time and energy in the schools, create more quality childcare opportunities that are affordable, make streets safer and more comfortable for pedestrians and bicyclists, and make transit more convenient.

In the end, making a city more comfortable for families actually makes a city better for all.

1. San Francisco teacher salaries aren’t helping. They’re lower than most public school districts around California.

2. San Francisco Planning Department, Housing for Families with Children, January 17, 2017, http://

3. Millennials (ages 25 to 34) make up over 20 percent of San Francisco’s population.

4. San Francisco Planning Department analysis of 2014 5-year American Community Survey data.


About the Authors: 

Kristy Wang is SPUR's Community Planning Policy Director. 

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