“It has that community feel,” the 28-year-old, who now works for a startup, told The Chronicle. “There will be weekend barbecues. … It definitely has a feeling that in this neighborhood a lot of people know each other.”
It’s clear that Bernal Heights is a desirable neighborhood, for all these reasons and more. The Chronicle’s housing guide describes the neighborhood as a “food lover’s hub” with a “small-town feel.” Redfin named it the “hottest neighborhood in America” in 2014.
So why isn’t it growing?
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its second batch of data from the 2020 decennial census, which included detailed population counts of cities down to the block level. The data shows that over the last decade, all of San Francisco’s neighborhoods in the top half in income — those neighborhoods with median incomes over $125,000 — saw at least a 5% growth of inhabitants. Except Bernal Heights. The neighborhood was one of just six S.F. neighborhoods that recorded fewer people in 2020, though it essentially stayed flat, dropping by just 12 people. (This is among the 39 neighborhoods defined by the San Francisco Planning Commission.)
There’s at least one obvious reason why Bernal Heights — which is bounded by Interstate 280, Highway 101, Cesar Chavez Street and San Jose Avenue, according to the Planning Commission — has not ballooned in size, and it will be familiar to anyone with a grasp of San Francisco’s public policy: Since 2010, the neighborhood has constructed almost no new housing.
But Bernal Heights’ situation is extreme even for San Francisco. In 2019, the planning district associated with the neighborhood created fewer net housing units than any of the city’s 14 other planning districts except for South Central and Ingleside, according to a report by the San Francisco Planning Commission. And from 2011 through 2019, the district built zero new buildings with more than four housing units, according to that report.
An illustrative recent example: A project to create four new duplexes in the neighborhood was finally approved in late 2019 — 41 years after the developer, Patrick Quinlan, had originally purchased the property.
The demographics of the neighborhood stayed relatively constant over the decade. In 2020, about 45% of residents identified as non-Hispanic white, 26% as Hispanic, 18% as Asian, and about 3.5% as non-Hispanic Black. The Hispanic and Black populations of the neighborhood declined slightly from 2010 to 2020, while the share of Asian residents and those who identify as two or more races increased. The white population stayed about the same.
Danielle Lazier, a real estate agent who has sold over 160 homes in Bernal Heights and who lived in the neighborhood for 11 years, said Bernal Heights consists of densely packed single-family homes on small lots. This layout creates a cozy, “communal village” feel, she told The Chronicle.
“The press that Bernal Heights got during shelter-in-place, little businesses popping up, community members helping each other, I think really (shows) that,” she said.
However, the neighborhood’s layout has also made it difficult to build new housing, particularly multifamily buildings — creating a shortage that’s sent home prices soaring. Home values in Bernal Heights have grown by almost 240% since 2000, according to data from Zillow, making it one of the neighborhoods with the fastest appreciating real estate values in an already expensive city.
Part of the reason it’s so hard to build new homes in Bernal Heights is that the neighborhood has its own building code. The code, which aims “to encourage development in context and scale with the established character” of the neighborhood, prohibits buildings over 30 feet tall in most circumstances — making the construction of large apartments close to impossible.
“It is fairly restrictive,” Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the San Francisco Planning Commission, told The Chronicle about Bernal’s building code. He added that the code includes restrictions on building depth and mass as well as height, and until recently required each new home to have a parking garage.
These codes have essentially locked in Bernal Heights’ status quo of tightly packed, small single-family homes with some duplexes sprinkled in. This layout makes the neighborhood feel much denser than it is; multiple sources described Bernal as “dense” or “tight,” when in fact it’s not among the city’s most dense neighborhoods.
Todd Lappin, a longtime resident of the neighborhood who used to run the neighborhood blog Bernalwood and now manages a neighborhood Facebook page, agreed that the neighborhood’s housing layout may help explain its lack of growth. But he said that’s probably not the only factor at play.
“My hypothesis about the slight population decline in Bernal is that it’s about lower density within the existing housing that we have,” he said.
Essentially, Lappin believes that over the last decade or so, older, larger families have been moving out more often. Younger adults, who tend to live alone or in smaller families — a couple with their first baby, say — have been disproportionately moving in.
The data doesn’t necessarily support this theory. While youths under 18 make up an increasingly small percentage of San Francisco, Bernal Heights actually gained youths as a share of its population since 2010. People under 18 now make up almost 17% of the neighborhood’s population, up from about 16.6% in 2010.
Susie Neilson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @susieneilson