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San Francisco likely has tens of thousands of people living under the stairs

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A new survey conducted by the Asian Law Caucus finds a surprising number of illegal in-law units. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • A new survey conducted by the Asian Law Caucus finds a surprising number of illegal in-law units.

Tens of thousands of San Franciscans are living in under-the-radar apartments that are hidden from census takers, a new report indicates.

About 33 percent of single-family homes in the Excelsior district contain secondary rental spaces commonly known as “in-law” units, according to a survey conducted by the Asian Law Caucus.

Contrary to U.S. Census Bureau figures that indicate the neighborhood is primarily comprised of homeowners, the Excelsior is nearly 70 percent tenants – half of whom live in illegal in-law units, according to the “Our Hidden Communities” report released Tuesday.  

Previous estimates suggested only 23 percent of San Francisco homes contained in-law units, said caucus staff attorney Omar Calimbas.

“We were very surprised,” said Calimbas, adding that the report “confirms” what many city officials and residents have long thought.

The last citywide survey on in-laws was conducted in 1996, before the rental and real estate markets exploded following the two technology-fueled economic booms. Estimates pegged the number of in-laws at 28,000, or about 8 percent of The City’s housing stock.  

If the new survey’s findings are accurate – and if the situation in the Excelsior is similar in other parts of The City – there could be tens of thousands of previously unknown illegal in-law units in San Francisco, and tens of thousands of San Francisco residents not counted by the Census Bureau or otherwise living off the books, said Calimbas, who stressed that much more research is needed.

However, anecdotal and limited neighborhood research seems to corroborate the report’s findings.

The Excelsior’s population grew by 6,300 people from 2000 to the present, according to census data, yet the neighborhood did not add any significant number of new housing units.

The conclusion is that these new residents squeezed into converted basements, garages and backyard rooms that now serve as in-laws, said Supervisor John Avalos, whose district includes the area.

“We’re all crammed in, densely packed into neighborhoods that weren’t built for this number of people,” said Avalos, who noted that the in-laws are housing of “last resort” for poor and middle-class people squeezed out of other neighborhoods.

The residents of these units are almost entirely working class or “extremely” low-income monolingual Spanish, Cantonese or Mandarin speakers – and many of them are young children, according to the Asian Law Caucus report. The units often lack proper heating and kitchen facilities.

The City’s housing shortage means San Francisco has what amounts to a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” on in-laws, Calimbas said. Between 50 and 100 illegal in-laws are identified and removed from the housing stock every year, according to the report. But because they are an irreplaceable source of badly needed affordable housing, they’re a “critical” part of The City’s housing element, Calimbas said.

City officials only inspect buildings for illegal in-laws after receiving a complaint. Many times, building inspectors looking for reported illegal units come up empty because “nobody answers the door” when inspectors visit, according to William Strawn, a spokesman for the department. Multiple efforts have been made over the past 40 years to address the issue, but all have failed. Avalos, who when first campaigning for office in 2008 said “legalizing” in-laws was a key issue, said Tuesday he plans to pursue some kind of legislative fix, but only after consulting Planning Department and other city officials.

croberts@sfexaminer.com