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San Francisco stops conversion of rentals to student housing

August 1, 2012 |  6:00 am

San Francisco lawmakers Tuesday voted to bar the conversion of rental housing to student-only units -- part of a larger strategy to push universities and colleges to develop new accommodations for the tens of thousands of recruits they lure yearly.

The legislation, authored by Supervisor Scott Wiener, is aimed at preserving San Francisco’s increasingly scarce and costly rental housing for permanent residents. Though a previous law offers a large incentive to developers of student housing by exempting them from steep affordable housing fees, Tuesday’s ordinance sweetens the pot by loosening size mix and open space requirements.

“It’s a terrific step forward for the city,” said Tim Colen, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, which represents developers and has been meeting with educational institutions for nearly five years to develop solutions to the student housing crunch.

“We should remember that there’s still a huge pressing shortfall of beds for students in San Francisco," he said. "Our de facto housing policy for students is craigslist.”

Colen said he hopes the legislation, which must still be approved on second reading and signed by the mayor, leads to “a lot” of new student housing. “It’s long overdue,” he said.

The ban on conversions was spurred in part by the Academy of Art University, a for-profit institution that has seen enrollment skyrocket. The private university has purchased a number of rent-controlled buildings over the years, converting them to student-only dorms largely without required city permits.

The school is now working with officials to legalize their buildings. Since such conversions would be outlawed under Tuesday’s ordinance, the future status of the academy’s dorm buildings remains an open question.

Institutions that had previously complied with city planning requirements and met other strict conditions were grandfathered in under the measure. For the nonprofit San Francisco Art Institute, that means two buildings used to house freshman students will not be jeopardized.

“We’re thrilled,” said Megann Sept, the institute's dean of students. “I think the supervisors have done a good job of balancing the needs of the city and making sure that student housing isn’t cannibalizing existing housing stock, while keeping in mind the educational institutions who rely so much on their housing programs to maintain the success of their missions.”

A technology boom has pushed average monthly rents for a San Francisco studio above $2,000, and the competitive market can overwhelm students arriving from outside the area with no housing guarantee. Meanwhile, students who group up to rent larger units or houses often pay more than families, driving up rental costs.

By crafting the ordinance, Wiener said he hoped to press institutions to take responsibility for their students -- without taking housing away from permanent residents. Conversions of commercial buildings are still permitted.

In tackling the issue, San Francisco is following on the heels of Boston, whose mayor a decade ago made the creation of student beds a priority. New accommodations have been created for 11,000 students there since.

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-- Lee Romney in San Francisco

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