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While cops pass notes and look away, Alex Nieto’s mom talks of the death of her son

    In what has been the most overwhelming day in the Alex Nieto trial, the court heard testimony from a range of experts, mostly witnesses called by the city –but it was the testimony of Elvira Nieto that marked the end of the day and provided the emotional evidence of the impact of the shooting.

    Elvira Nieto took the stand today, and was treated with utmost disrespect by the four cops who shot her son
    Elvira Nieto took the stand today, and was treated with utmost disrespect by the four cops who shot her son

    And during her tearful testimony, the officers who killed her son were busy passing notes and ignoring her.

    The day began with the testimony of Officer Roger Morse, who was the last to arrive at the scene but the first to go near Nieto’s body after the shooting. Deputy City Attorney Margaret Baumgartner played back an audio recording from the police radio of Office Morse. “Shots fired, shots fired” the recording said. Baumgartner then played the other half of the recording, pausing briefly to ask if the officer heard anything.

    Even though she repeated the question three times, Morse said he was unable to recognize or remember anything of significance from the recording. Baumgartner was trying to demonstrate that police at the scene were yelling commands, a key element of the city’s claim that Nieto ignored warnings to show his hands. She asked Morse if he remembered shouting commands at Nieto as he approached him, but Morse said: “I don’t remember, not at that time. I began shooting”.

    He continued: “Nieto was in a prone position, with an arm extended and the gun was in his hand. It looked just like our gun. When his arm was extended, the way I thought he was moving, it made me believe that he had a gun.” Morse said he saw a muzzle flash so he continued to shoot at Nieto, despite the fact that the young man was down on the ground, until he was told to stop shooting. He would later learn that no shots were ever fired from Mr. Nieto and the only gunfire came from his colleagues on the scene.

    On cross examination, Morse said he had never seen a Taser, except for in the movies. The jurors, who are allowed to ask questions, posed one: “Can you tell the jurors what you said to Mr. Nieto when you arrived at the scene?

    “When I arrived,” Morse said, “I didn’t say anything.  I don’t remember. May be I said, don’t move, there might have been some swear words. I don’t remember what I said at that time” he said. Asked if he yelled any commands at Nieto while shooting him, he said: “No I didn’t shout any commands when I was shooting.” he said. That testimony turned out to be of great significance later on in the day.

    Next up on the stand was Bryan Chiles, technical compliance manager for Taser International. In an earlier deposition, Chiles had discussed time stamps from the microprocessors on the M26C Taser that Nieto was carrying (he had that weapon because he was about to report to his job as a security guard at a nightclub). The time on the chip did not match the timeline of the incident as narrated by the cops.

    In brief, a microprocessor keeps an activity log that can determine the number of times the Taser is used along with timestamps. That could show whether or not Nieto actually pulled the trigger on his Taser during the incident.

    However, today, Chiles introduced a different analysis to the court. He told the court that in his previous analysis he hadn’t calculated what is known as a clock drift, the phenomenon that all computer systems tend to deviate over time from the accurate or “true” time.

    Chiles said he had calculated that drift, and presented a timeline that matched the testimony of the police officers. He suggested that Nieto’s Taser had been used three times from 7:18 to 7:19 pm. However, on cross examination, several aspects of his testimony proved faulty,

    “At that time while discussing the calculation you said your calculations are based on speculation and logic?” Nieto Family Attorney Adante Pointer asked. “Yes” Chiles responded.  Fighting back hard, Pointer went on to ask details of the analysis conducted by Chiles. Chiles acknowledged that his analysis took less than a month to complete, involved only ten samples, was never published and has never been peer reviewed.

    Pointer then showed Chiles and the jury a photo of Nieto’s Taser as it was photographed at the crime scene. According to the crime scene photo, confirmed by Chiles, Nieto’s Taser was off, or in safe mode — and no laser light could be seen.

    In another shot where the Taser could be seen pointing directly at the camera, Chiles testified that there was no laser light visible. “About the image of the trigger. Can you show the jury where you can see whether the Taser was on or off?” Pointer asked?

    “It is bright yellow safety, you would be able to tell if it was on and off. The round piece of plastic extends out, when the safety is up it keeps it up, it will keep it on position. It won’t slide back on.” Chiles responded.

    It’s hard to figure out how Nieto would have turned the Taser off while being shot at more 50 times.

    The court room also heard that since the fatal shooting, Taser International received a contract of $2.3 million to supply the SFPD.

    Craig Fries, CEO of Precision Simulations, company that conducts forensic analysis, visualization, and crime scene recreation was up next. According to Fries, the testimony provided by Antonio Theodore, that Nieto’s hands were in his pocket at the time of the shooting did not match the injuries sustained by him.

    During his testimony Fries revealed that he had seen pictures of Nieto’s jacket. However, Dr. Amy Hart, the chief medical examiner, testified last week that no photographs of the jacket were ever taken. On cross-examination, Fries could not provide satisfactory responses to how a bone fragment was found in Nieto’s jacket. He did, however admit that he was paid, $325 an hour for his analysis and had spent 200 hours on the case, bringing his total invoice for the San Francisco Police Department to $65,000.

    Retired Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Roger Lama Clark testified on behalf of the Nieto Family. Clark has testified over 800 times in trials and depositions in more than 1,400 cases around the country.

    “I was in two major riots. In 1992, during the Rodney King riots, was put in command of a platoon to protect the federal buildings.” Clark said, “Throughout my career, I came across armed individuals hundreds of times and brought them into custody without firing a shot.”

    Despite Clark’s extensive experience in testifying in several courts, including courts in San Francisco, Baumgartner moved to remove him from the witness list claiming he wasn’t an expert.

    “That is your argument?” asked US Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins “Yes,” Baumgartner said, “Overruled then” announced Judge Cousins, as the court house erupted in laughter.

    Clark made several points. “The first point directly deals with the tactical response connected to this unnecessary shooting.” He explained that police officers need to remain calm and discuss strategy during these types of incidents – but the officers involved in the Nieto shooting, who were sitting at the defense table in the courtroom, were clearly dismissive, nodding their heads in disagreement as Clark explained “command, control and communicate.”

    “When they saw him (Nieto), rather than keep their distance they reduced the distance, they charged up directly at him rather than observing him. So when they saw him what did they see? He was walking, he was not running, they didn’t need to pursue him and should have dealt with him from the safety of their cars,” Clark said.

    He added: “You’ve to assess, what is the totality of the circumstance, possible person armed with a gun? There were no shots fired, no bungling, no flight, no injuries, no one was threatened, the suspect was not running and the individual calling 911 is online. There are a whole lot of other possible reasons for a person to have a gun. So when the officers got to the scene they should have approached him from a distance and issued verbal commands like “Stay there don’t move, listen to us” If he continues to keep going the officer is supposed to say “Stop moving or I will shoot.”

    He noted that a command to “show me your hands” is going to lead to a suspect moving his hands around. “If you give an order that expects movement you gotta expect it. Those are things that are taught over and over again,” he said.

    The last half hour of the hearing was perhaps the most overwhelming. Alex Nieto’s mother, Elvira Nieto, took the stand, testifying with help of a translator. As a photo of Nieto with President Bill Clinton was projected on the screen, Mrs. Nieto spoke proudly of her son.

    “I remember when I first saw this photo, because he was very happy. He felt very happy and content with helping people. He had this photo in an album. Very frequently he would have a look at it,” she said, as tears rolled down her face.

    The court saw photographs of Nieto as a child, during his graduation, on family holidays, and at Christmas. The whole courtroom fell silent as we listened to Mrs. Nieto break down quietly as she spoke about her son.

    In a shocking display of insensitivity, the officers on trial for use of excessive force that killed Alex Nieto never once looked at the photos displayed on a courtroom screen; instead they spent most of their time scribbling and passing notes to each other as Mrs. Nieto broke down in court.

    Nieto frequented Bernal Hill, sometimes twice a day, she said. It was a place he walked with his father as a child and continued to visit it till the day he died. “Now that Alex is gone, Mrs. Nieto, how has that affected your life”? asked Pointer “Well, it has affected me a lot” she said pausing as she broke down, and continued “In the beginning I couldn’t heal. Even now my heart isn’t accepting it that he isn’t here with me any more.”

    “And how has it affected your husband?” Pointer asked “Objection” Baumgartner yelled, as if a father’s grief is hearsay. The objection was overruled.

    “In the same way it has affected him a lot,” she said. “He goes there every morning, he goes for a walk over there, and sometimes he even goes twice.”





    The story Ahsha Safai doesn’t tell in his campaign for supervisor

    It appears that Ahsha Safai is trying to replace the best Police Commission member in the city with one of his political allies

    Ahsha Safai is running for supervisor in District 11 as a labor activist who has the support of some of the city’s unions – and is building some support among what is generally considered the progressive community. John Burton has endorsed him. It’s possible that the Democratic County Central Committee, which progressives fought hard to control, could wind up giving him at least a secondary nod.

    He’s well known among city insiders as a former city employee and Housing Authority Commissioner, and ran against incumbent John Avalos four years ago.

    But there’s a lot about his record that hasn’t received much attention. Safai is a real-estate speculator who made a big chunk of cash buying a house that was in foreclosure and flipping it. He makes most of his money – more than $100,000 a year – from a consulting firm that works with landlords. Nearly half of the money he has raised so far, our analysis shows, comes from the real estate industry.

    And while he doesn’t list Mayor Ed Lee among his endorsements (nobody’s listing Lee these days since he’s so unpopular) Safai has long been a Lee supporter and donated to the mayor’s 2015 re-election.

    Here are some things we’ve found researching Safai’s history:

    In 2004, he was sued for fraud in a real-estate deal that wound up with Safai buying a house that was in foreclosure at what the suit alleges was an artificially low price and flipping it for a profit of close to half a million dollars.

    According to the lawsuit, Safai and his associates took advantage of a woman who was facing the loss of her property. Mary McDowell, who was working as a parking control officer in San Francisco, was living at 78 Latona Street in the Bayview when the bank that held her mortgage filed a notice of default.

    She owned four other properties that were also in foreclosure.

    Two real-estate sales people arrived at her home unsolicited in December, 2003, and told her they would buy her property and pay her enough to cover the notes on the other places she owned so she could avoid all the foreclosures.

    The lawsuit alleges that the real-estate broker didn’t properly list the home on the Multiple Listing Service but instead brought McDowell an offer for $375,000 – “far less than market value,” according to the complaint. McDowell was “frightened and intimidated” into accepting the offer, and the house was sold to Ahsha and Reza Safai.

    McDowell eventually dismissed the case, her lawyer told me, because “the defendants were dragging this out forever in court and she decided she had had enough.” Attorney C. Brent Patten said that no court ever determined whether Safai or the others had done anything wrong.

    Safai in legal filings denied all the allegations.

    But whatever the legality, Safai wound up buying a house that was in foreclosure at what turned out to be an excellent price. In 2005, according to the real-estate service Property Shark, the median sale price for housing in that neighborhood was $336 a square foot. Safai paid $177 a square foot for the 78 Latona St. property.

    City records show that he and Reza Safai spent $60,000 renovating the place, and sold it less than a year later for $800,000.

    So Safai was part of a group that bought a house in foreclosure from a woman who was in financial trouble and flipped it quickly for a short-term profit. That could be perfectly legal – lots of people have made lots of money buying properties in foreclosure and selling them for a quick profit.

    But house-flipper is not part of his public resume.


    Safai describes himself as the political director for SEIU Local 87, and had played his union connections into a number of endorsements. But forms he filed while he was on the Housing Authority Commission show that the vast majority of his income comes from his consulting firm, Kitchen Cabinet Public Affairs, that did work for one of Lee’s main consultants and at least one high-end landlord.

    Safai’s economic interest statements for 2012 and 2013 show that he earned less than $10,000 as political director for Local 87, but more than $100,000 as principal in Kitchen Cabinet Public Affairs.

    On his website, he describes that outfit as “working with nonprofits, community-based and political organizations throughout the Bay Area building community and revitalizing neighborhoods.”

    And indeed, some of his clients include Local 87, the Teamsters Union Local 350, and Mission Housing Development Corp. Also on the list: SST Investments, a landlord that operates high-end apartments, and Left Coast Communications, the consulting firm that ran the somewhat legally dubious “Run Ed Run” campaign.

    Clients also included Jacobs Engineering and KJ Woods Construction.


    — Safai is the real-estate industry’s guy. A 48hills analysis of campaign contributions filed so far shows that nearly half his money – 45 percent – came from real-estate development, construction, landlords and landlord lawyers, and big downtown companies.

    Among his supporters: Janan New, director of the Apartment Association; David Gruber, who holds the landlord seat on the Rent Board, Russell Flynn (one of the biggest landlords in the city), David Wasserman (an eviction lawyer), Oz Erickson (a big developer), Mary Jung (lobbyist for the Association of Realtors), and Jim Lazarus (who works for the Chamber of Commerce).

    The fact that a candidate takes money from special interests doesn’t always mean that candidate will do what they want. But it’s pretty clear from the preponderance of money that the people who have been making big money from evictions, displacement, and the destruction of neighborhoods think Safai is the one who will represent their interests at City Hall.


    — He is a supporter of Mayor Ed Lee. Not a single politician in June used the mayor’s endorsement; in fact, polls show that more than half of San Franciscans would vote against someone associated with the immensely unpopular mayor.

    Safai doesn’t list Lee’s endorsement on his website either. But he’s clearly a fan: In 2015, when 46 percent of the voters chose candidates with no name recognition, no electoral experience, and no real campaigns over the incumbent, Safai donated $250 to the Lee campaign.

    That suggests that he endorses the agenda that the mayor has promoted: A tech boom that has created the worst displacement crisis in modern history.

    Safai didn’t return messages left with his campaign. He will try to avoid a lot of these issues as he seeks progressive support. But it’s all there, on the record. And it’s worth thinking about.

    Research assistance for this story was provided by Don Ray and Sofia Aguilar.


    Mayor Lee faces questions on police violence — and has no real answers

    Mayor Lee talks with reporters after the board meeting

    Mayor Ed Lee was forced to answer a series of questions about his embattled police chief and department today, and he took the opportunity to obfuscate, duck, and refuse to deal with the most serious issues.

    Mayor Lee talks with reporters after the board meeting
    Mayor Lee talks with reporters after the board meeting

    The supes “question time,” which is usually a scripted farce, actually turned into a semblance of what it was always intended to be today. The supes, in response to the recent police protests and the scathing report from a blue-ribbon panel on police practices, suspended the silly rules that prevent real back-and-forth and allowed board members to ask questions that hadn’t been pre-screened by the Mayor’s Office.

    So Lee had to respond to concerns about the SFPD – and for the most part, he didn’t say anything remotely useful.

    That happened again when I asked him the direct question after the meeting: How can all the new policies you talk about work when the cops don’t pay attention to the existing policies?

    Lee first read from prepared remarks. “Across the country, there is a crisis of trust between communities and law enforcement,” he said. “Unfortunately that is happening here too.”

    He then complained that “last week’s property damage and violence went too far.” Umm… the violence was largely on the part of law-enforcement, and at least some of the property damage – particularly to the metal detector – wasn’t caused by protesters but by sheriff’s deputies dragging and pushing people toward the doors.

    He talked about all of the reviews of the department, about “rebuilding trust,” and how he is allocating another $17 million to the Police Department for violence-prevention and reform programs.

    At no point did he mention accountability, or say that anyone in the department leadership might have done anything wrong.

    Under the current board rules, all questions for the mayor have to be submitted in advance, so his staff can script a response. But if eight supes vote to suspend the rules, an actual conversation can happen.

    And with the support of Board President London Breed, that’s what the board agreed to do – mostly, with a few weird glitches.

    Sups. Mark Farrell and Scott Wiener spoke up to oppose any sort of real questioning of the mayor. Farrell said the board was heading down a “slippery slope” (to where? Honest questions for the mayor?) Wiener said all of the questions could have been submitted in advance (which, of course, would turn the meeting back into a pre-scripted play).

    But when Breed said she wanted to ask a question, she got eight votes (Farrell, Wiener, and Katy Tang dissenting). Breed asked what was on a lot of people’s minds: “The community is hurting,” she said. “Where does this end?”

    Lee simply re-read his opening statement, adding nothing. The end-game, he said, would be “the community coming together.” I’d say the evidence on the streets is that the community’s not coming anywhere close to together.

    Sup. Eric Mar talked about the Public Defender’s Racial Justice Committee and asked the mayor if he would support that group’s recommendation, which include moving the budget of the Office of Citizen Complaints out of the Police Commission and asking the US Justice Department to conduct a civil-rights investigation to see if anyone in the SFPD ought to be held legally accountable for racist actions.

    Lee: “I will review every one of those recommendations.”

    Sup. David Campos then tried to ask a question about the findings of the District Attorney’s blue-ribbon panel, which issued a scathing report on the SFPD yesterday. But in an odd, almost inexplicable move, Sup. Malia Cohen joined the other three mayoral allies in refusing to allow the question. Breed and Mar got to ask theirs; Cohen blocked Campos from his. In the end, Campos had to ask the board to rescind that vote and convince Cohen to go along with what turned out to be a very reasonable question:

    “The panel,” he said, “reached a finding of a lack of oversight and accountability.” In the recent officer-involved shootings, he said, “not a single officer has been terminated.” And the report shows “100 percent increase in the number of officer-involved shootings” in 2015.

    His question: Would the mayor agree to allocate $1.9 million to set up an independent office under the district attorney to review police shootings?

    Lee: The DA can do that already. Why don’t we wait until all the current investigations are completed.

    Campos asked about the message that gets sent when the mayor is happy to put up another $17 million for the police, but not a fraction of that for independent investigations of the police. The mayor had nothing to say.

    Lee left the Board chambers in a scrum of sheriff’s deputies, far more security than he typically has after Question Time. In fact, all of City Hall was on high alert – the main entrance was blocked off all day, although the only demonstration out front was a peaceful rally in favor of expanding the Sanctuary City law. There were no Frisco Five events, no protestors trying to get into the Board meeting … really, nothing to justify the shutdown.

    The sidewalks in front of Mission Station were still blocked off, too, although nobody was trying to protest there.

    A few reporters still managed to stop the mayor, who said he felt like “Steph Curry – I’m tired.” I got in my question:

    What good will all of these reforms and new policies do if we have a climate in the department where officers can violate the existing rules and nothing happens? Why have no officers faced any discipline in the recent shootings?

    Lee: “You have the DA doing at least three investigations.” He also mentioned the Justice Department review of the SFPD.

    But the DA is only looking at whether an officer did something so bad that it violates the law something he can take to a jury. Chief Greg Suhr can discipline or fire an officer for violating department policy – which pretty clearly happened in at least some of these shootings.

    And the Justice Department investigation will not, and was not designed to, hold anyone accountable. It’s basically a performance audit.

    So: When will anyone be held accountable for violating department policies? The mayor wouldn’t say.

    My friend and colleague Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez asked the mayor about the clear allegation in the blue-ribbon report that the Police Officers Association was running the department. Lee said that “we have some differences” with the POA, but vowed to “continue the dialogue.”

    “Some differences” seems a bit mild, considering that the POA has bitterly fought every reasonable reform that anyone has tried to do.

    Then Lee dashed back to his office, surrounded by a phalanx of cops that none of us could get through.

    There were, by the way, no demonstrators on hand when the mayor left the Board chambers. Nobody was there to meet him except reporters. There was no visible threat anywhere in the building.


    So back to the Board meeting, where we got some bizarre arguments about a plan to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.

    The case for this is pretty clear – getting young people to register and vote while they are still part of the San Francisco community, before they go off to college or jobs somewhere else (which tend to be a distraction), will encourage lifelong participation in democracy.

    Sup. Scott Wiener, who initially was dubious about the idea, has come around and pointed out that many of the biggest problems facing the world, the nation, and the city today are things that the older voters among us will leave to our kids: Global climate change, social security, inadequate infrastructure … it makes sense to allow the people who are going to have to deal will all of this to have some say in it.

    But it got strange when Sup. Malia Cohen started arguing that 16-year-olds are too young to be responsible enough to vote. After all, she said, the board just voted to ban the sale of tobacco products to people under 21. And maybe the criminal justice system will decide that if young people can vote, they need to be tried as adults.

    “That,” Sup. John Avalos told me, “is the first time I’ve ever heard a correlation between voting and incarceration.”

    Wiener had a good answer for the tobacco policy: Public health studies show that tobacco has a much greater negative impact on young people than on older people. Start smoking at 16 and you are far more likely to be addicted than if you start at 25. The physical harm is greater, too.

    None of this has anything to do with voting.

    Cohen also said “our lives are full of transitions,” mentioning marriage as something that could, like leaving home at 18, interfere with voting. That is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone say that getting married discourages people from registering to vote.

    Sup. Norman Yee noted that until 1971, the voting age in the US was 21. People said that allowing 18-year-olds to vote would be a horrible idea, he said – but history, as is so often the case, proved them wrong.

    In the end, the supes voted 9-2 to place the matter on the November ballot, where only adults will be allowed to decide if younger people can vote.

    A measure to tighten the Sanctuary City provisions was continued for two weeks, as Avalos, the sponsor, wanted more time to negotiate with the sheriff, who wants more leeway to turn immigrants who are in the city jail over to the feds for deportation.

    The sick politics of the Farrell-Wiener anti-homeless measures

    Portland is taxing companies that overpay their CEOs -- and using the money for homeless services

    The key to understanding the two homeless and street crime ballot measures sponsored at the last minute by Sups. Mark Farrell and Scott Wiener is that neither of them has anything to do with homelessness or quality of life crimes.

    The Farrell measure would allow the police to clean out a homeless camp – taking away everyone’s tents and possessions – as long as the campers get 24 hours’ notice and are offered a shelter bed.

    Arresting homeless people and tearing down their tents makes no policy sense; it's a political game
    Arresting homeless people and tearing down their tents makes no policy sense; it’s a political game

    The Wiener measure would mandate that the Police Department create a new force of at least 60 officers to address car break-ins, vandalism, and homeless encampments – the “quality of life” crimes that tend to lead to the criminalization of the poor.

    Neither measure would do anything that the city can’t already do. It’s already against the law to camp on the sidewalk. It’s already against the law to break into cars or spray paint tags on buildings.

    It’s long been the policy of the city that the police first go after serious crimes – murder, rape, assault, arson, robbery, gun violence hate crimes – and that car break-ins, which are almost impossible to solve, aren’t at the top of the list.

    That, of course, is logical.

    The cops and the Department of Public Works already tear down homeless encampments. And there simply aren’t enough beds in the shelters to offer to the displaced people.

    From the Coalition on Homelessness:

    San Francisco has 23 anti-homeless laws on its books, more than any California city. This includes a camping ban that already prohibits the exact same behavior.

    Let’s look at the numbers:

    As of June 22nd, there are 869 people on the 311 shelter waiting list, for an average of five weeks. Currently, an officer can offer a bed for only one-night, taking a bed from someone who would have been waiting in line for hours. This means any shelter offered will put another person on the street. This practice prioritizes complaint driven placements over those who have been waiting or in medical need. Thus, this legislation merely perpetuates the sidewalk shuffle.

    So it makes no sense. Why is it on the ballot?

    Like the many anti-homeless laws passed before, this law is about political gain masquerading as legislative action by taking advantage of wide spread frustration with homelessness in the city.

    As for the Wiener law? It also makes little sense. From COH:

    This measure set asides police for property crime, and then bizarrely includes homeless encampments as part of that, making these two items the city’s top policing priority, as the only ballot mandated set aside within the police department. “This effectively locks in a citywide commitment to addressing homelessness through policing rather than through housing and services,” said Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness. “We know that criminalizing people for being poor isn’t working, and we know that housing people does work. In the wake of multiple police murders of homeless individuals, this ordinance is particularly cynical.”

    Wiener and Farrell are not fools. They are smart legislators who understand policy, budgets, priorities, and all of the things that would make anyone with any sense say these laws are ridiculous.

    Homeless camps are the target of a cynical political play
    Homeless camps are the target of a cynical political play

    But this is an election year, and the progressives and the conservatives are bitterly at odds; Wiener is behind in a state Senate race that he thought he’d be leading by 10 points.

    So Wiener and Farrell are looking for wedge issues, things that they can use against the progressives. It’s an old tradition among San Francisco candidates who want to cynically use problems like homelessness to advance their careers: Gavin Newsom was elected mayor to a significant extent by running a side campaign called “Care Not Cash,” designed to take money away from homeless people. (And now, in a few years, he may be governor of California.)

    Wiener is planning to start attacking Jane Kim as soon as he can, as fast as he can, with every issue that he can. And he’s already started on homelessness: His campaign sent a mailer out before the June election, in Chinese, suggesting that Kim wanted to allow homeless people to camp in front of homes in the Sunset.

    There aren’t a lot of homeless camps in the Sunset. Most of them are in Soma or the Mission. Most homeless people try to stay away from residential doorways; the camps tend to be in commercial and industrial areas, where the people who are living on the street (in many cases because they have been evicted or lost their housing) don’t get rousted by the cops.

    But never mind: Demonizing the homeless worked for Newsom. Making the cops arrest people for minor crimes while homicides remain unsolved may play well in some neighborhoods.

    But this whole thing right now reeks of desperation.

    Zarate prosecution witness blasted for role in earlier murder trial

    Former CSI investigator John Evans testifies in the Garcia Zarate case

    A key witness in the prosecution of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate gave testimony in a prior case that an expert alleges was not only inaccurate but possibly improper.

    John Evans, a former San Francisco Police Department crime scene investigator, testified that Garcia Zarate killed Kate Steinle. “A human being held the firearm, pointed it in the direction of Ms. Steinle, pulled the trigger and fired the weapon, killing Ms. Steinle. This is the only way it could have happened,” he said.

    Former CSI investigator John Evans testifies in the Garcia Zarate case

    A defense expert, Jim Norris, former director of the SF police lab, directly challenged that analysis.

    But this isn’t the first time Norris has taken issue with Evans’ testimony. The crime lab chief, now a private forensic consultant, blasted the officer’s role in the trial of Jamal Trulove, a one-time reality-show contestant who was convicted of murder in 2010. Evans was among the officers who inspected the crime scene and he testified at the trial.

    That conviction was overturned on other grounds, and Trulove was acquitted in a second trial, in 2015.

    Now Trulove is suing the city – and in documents filed as part of that case, Norris states that Evans’ findings in the Trulove case “are completely inconsistent with minimally acceptable practices for forensic reporting and testimony. If, as the Director of the Forensic Services Division, I learned of such behavior by an Inspector in Crime Scene Investigations, I would have initiated an investigation into the matter for possible misconduct.”

    Trulove was charged in the killing of Seu Kuka, who was shot outside his Visitacion Valley apartment in 2007.

    One of the key issues in the case was the placement of the shell casings that were ejected from the nine-millimeter gun as it fired. The pattern of the casings, Norris argued, were inconsistent with eyewitness accounts that pointed to Trulove.

    The position Norris put forth was consistent with the findings of the medical examiner, court testimony shows.

    However, Evans testified that the pattern of the casings would be easily influenced by wind, bounces, and other factors and would be almost completely random. They would be useful for establishing where a shooter might have been only “on the level of a broken clock being right twice a day.”

    Attempting to determine the position of a shooter from shell casings is “a fallacy,” he testified, according to a court transcript of his remarks.

    He based this mostly on his own experience firing weapons, although another police inspector, Ronan Shouldice, had done a report showing that almost all shell casing from that sort of gun are ejected to the right and backward.

    That’s what the existing peer-reviewed literature also says, Norris wrote in a report used as part of Trulove’s civil suit.

    “In his deposition in this civil case, Evans said that he had never read the Shouldice study before he testified about it at Jamal Trulove’s 2015 criminal trial, but claimed he had discussed it with Shouldice before testifying. Shouldice said at his deposition that he did not recall discussing the study with Evans, and that he believes he would remember such a discussion had it occurred,” Norris wrote.

    “In Inspector Shouldice’s deposition testimony, he testified that Inspector Evans’ characterization of the study as showing a large percentage of the casing ended up in front of the shooter, was not only inaccurate but constituted a gross misrepresentation. Inspector Shouldice expressed surprise at the content of Inspector Evans’ testimony. Inspector Shouldice also testified that it was inappropriate for Inspector Evans to testify in court about a study he had not read, and for an expert to misrepresent the strength of findings in a study.”

    In fact, Norris wrote:

    “The repeated findings and testimony of Evans that shell casing analysis is random on the order of a clock being right twice a day is completely inconsistent with the understanding of the forensic community and other forensic examiners at the SF Crime Lab.”

    Although the defense has finished its case, Prosecutor Diana Garcia is expected to call a rebuttal witness Monday, and since much of the defense case relied on firearms and forensic experts, Evans could be called back to the stand.

    Francisco Ugarte, one of Garcia Zarate’s lawyers, told 48hills: “Mr. Evans’s apparent fabrication while testifying in a 2015 homicide trial is troubling and raises questions about his integrity. At worst, he lied intentionally, and at best, he was incompetent to testify about ballistics evidence.”

    It would be up to Judge Samuel Feng whether to allow the defense to bring up the Trulove case and the criticisms of Inspector Evans and his competence.

    Why Prop. X is needed to save PDR

    This chart shows all of the PDR space that has been lost or is threated

    San Francisco’s artists, small blue-collar businesses, and community-serving nonprofits are being forced out of the city by soaring rents; outright evictions; and, in many cases, the elimination of their workspaces by high-end development.

    Prop. X, the final San Francisco measure on the November ballot, addresses the last of these threats. It would require developers of projects in parts of the Mission and SoMa to partly or fully replace space for neighborhood arts and small blue-collar businesses—in local plannerese, Production, Distribution and Repair or PDR—and for nonprofit community services such as child care and job training that the projects would demolish or convert to other uses.

    This light-industrial building was illegally converted to offices, one of numerous examples of the city allowing PDR space to be sucked up in the tech boom
    This light-industrial building was illegally converted to offices, one of numerous examples of the city allowing PDR space to be sucked up in the tech boom

    Prop. X’s opponents say ballot-box zoning is a bad idea. “This is exactly the wrong way to make complicated land use decisions,” SPUR Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf told the Chronicle. “The reason we have a Planning Department and Planning Commission is to be thoughtful and careful about our land use decisions, and it makes no sense to short-circuit that with simplistic ballot measures” that are “hastily conceived, with no analysis or data.”

    Here’s what’s simplistic: The Opponent’s Argument Against Proposition X that appears in the official Voter Information and Sample Ballot, co-signed by Metcalf, complains that the measure “includes no rules telling building owners how much they can charge in rent.” Doesn’t SPUR’s executive director know that commercial rent control is illegal?

    Trouble is, PDR uses can’t pay commercial (office or residential) market-rate rents.

    Prop. X begins to address that problem. If the required PDR replacement space is rented, leased, or sold at 50% below market rate and deed-restricted for 55 or more years, the replacement requirements may be reduced by 25%.

    Prop. X supporters concede that asking voters to make zoning changes is generally a bad idea—the operative word being “generally.” Speaking at X’s October 6 kickoff, Supervisor Jane Kim, the measure’s primary sponsor at the Board of Supervisors, averred, “I don’t believe in ballot-box zoning, except when the city doesn’t act. Then the city has to hear from the voters.”

    This chart shows all of the PDR space that has been lost or is threated in the parts of the city zones for Urban Mixed Use
    This chart shows all of the PDR space that has been lost or is threated

    By act, Kim meant taking steps to protect space for artists; blue-collar workers and businesses; and child-care, job-training, and other community serving non-profits, whose numbers have been decimated by the rash of big, high-end developments in the Mission and SoMa since the last boom began, and that stand to be further slashed by similar projects that are advancing through the Planning Department pipeline.

    The numbers are stark. The Eastern Neighborhoods Monitoring Reports, transmitted to the Planning Commission by the Planning Department in September, show that between 2011 and 2015, the Mission, Central Waterfront, East SoMa, Western SoMa and Showplace Square/Potrero Hill neighborhoods lost 970,000 square feet of PDR space.

    Still threatened in the pipeline are about 614,000 square feet of PDR in projects that are under review but have not received entitlements from the Planning Department. If those projects are approved, “the Eastern Neighborhoods will see another 1.39 million square feet of PDR space converted to other uses.”

    The research behind Prop. X

    Contrary to opponents’ claims that Prop. X was “hastily conceived, with no analysis or data,” when the Board of Supervisors voted 7-4 in August to place Prop. X on the ballot, Kim’s office had been working on such a measure with the neighborhood arts community for a year and a half.

    In September 2015 the Arts Commission published the findings of its six-week survey of artists’ space needs and displacement. As KQED reported, more than seventy percent of the nearly 700 respondents said that they had been or were being displaced from their workplace, home, or both. The other thirty percent were worried about being forced out. The major sources of displacement were building conversions, rent increases, and new owners, including new owners moving in.

    The Arts Commission’s findings were confirmed and supplemented by studies done by the non-profit housing organization TODCO, particularly an August, 2014 building-by-building survey of potential illegal office use in the Service/Arts/Light Industry (SALI) and Service/Light Industry (SLI) zoning districts in Central SoMa (update out next week) and a Summer 2015 survey of commercial and “community arts” practitioners in SoMa between 2nd and 11th streets.

    In the spring of 2015, TODCO CEO John Elberling, the signatory to the Rebuttal to the Opponent’s Argument against Prop. X, went to Kim and said they had to do something to stop the rampant displacement. Working with artists and their supporters, they formulated Prop. X, which also incorporates suggestions from SFMade Executive Director Kate Sofis.


    PDR displacement is not “on schedule”

    Everyone agrees that neighborhood arts, light industry, and community-serving non-profits are being displaced by commercial gentrification.

    Some people, however, question the seriousness of the displacement. In a public debate with Kim at the Swedish-American Hall on October 17, Housing Action Coalition Executive Director Tim Colen, another signatory to the Opponent’s Argument, pronounced PDR “worthy”—he compared it to motherhood and apple pie—but said that its displacement was “right on schedule.”

    Colen was referring to the forecasts in the 2008 Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, whose re-zoning opened much of the city’s industrial lands to housing and small offices. One of the plan’s express goals was to stabilize the city’s PDR. The old Manufacturing zones had allowed nearly any use, including housing (with a Conditional Use permit). That promiscuous approach to land use was eroding space dedicated to industry.

    According to the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan Environmental Impact Report, under the new zoning

    land designated for PD use…would be available almost exclusively to PDR uses, with housing not permitted, and only relatively small non-PDR uses (such as office or retail space accessory to PDR use) would be permitted[,]


    “provid[ing] clearer definition between land uses in PDR zones where such definition does not now exist. In addition, the proposed project would include UMU [Urban-Mixed Use] districts where new PDR pace would be required to be built as part of new residential projects.


    But by allowing housing as an explicitly permitted use in formerly industrial areas—increasing the supply of housing, particularly affordable housing, was the other major goal—the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan was also expected to eliminate between 2.1 and 4.9 million square feet of PDR space by 2025.

    The 2016 Monitoring Report does venture that “the pace of development since the adoption of the Area Plans has been consistent with the protections of put forward in the Eastern Neighborhoods Environmental Impact Report (EN EIR)” (Executive Summary, p. 2).

    But the Report immediately backpedals, noting that

    the Area Plans were enacted in 2008, right as the U.S. economy went into a sharp downturn caused in large part by a collapse of the national housing market. New housing and commercial construction largely dried up during the first years of the Plans and rebounded quite strongly since 2012. As a result much of the development activity that has taken place in the Plan Areas has been concentrated over the last few years rather than following a smooth line since 2009.

    (How’s that for understatement?)


    Nowhere in the Monitoring Report will you find a year-by-year schedule of new development or PDR decline. Nor will you find the slightest sense of urgency regarding the state of PDR in the Eastern Neighborhoods.

    In any case, the 2008 plan could not possibly have anticipated either the current, historic boom or another surprising phenomenon, the rise of urban manufacturing and the maker movement in San Francisco. Today there’s newfound demand for, and a serious dearth of, production space in the city.

    Which brings us back to the core issue, which Kim spelled out: the city’s failure to act in behalf of PDR.


    The Planning Department sabotages PDR: The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan

    In truth, under the auspices of the Planning Department and the Planning Commission, those agencies commended to us by SPUR’s Metcalf, the city has repeatedly acted. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, and those very recent, those actions have undermined the land use protections afforded to San Francisco’s artists and small, blue-collar businesses.

    48 hills has reported instances of this sabotage:

    To this inventory, we now add two more items. The first dates back to the formulation of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan itself: planning staff’s quiet removal of the plan’s requirement that new PDR space be created in non-PDR development in the Urban Mixed Use (UMU) zone. That requirement was repeatedly stipulated by the Plan’s EIR.

    The EIR even specified a ratio of new PDR to new non-PDR: in the draft Showplace Square/Potrero Hill Plan, “the UMU designation would require one square foot of PDR space for every four square feet of non-PDR development.” (Project Description, p. 13, fn 17) That draft also included an Arts District in which five square feet of “arts-PDR” use would be required for every square foot of new residential construction, except student housing.

    Brought down to earth, this requirement would have affected two massive, recently approved developments that destroy existing PDR—one at 2000-2070 Bryant, a.k.a. the “Beast on Bryant,” the other at 901 16th St./1200 17th St. Both are on land zoned UMU. Another big project in the UMU, still under review, the San Francisco Armory at 14th and Mission, would convert more than 100,000 sf of PDR to office uses.

    The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan EIR was published on June 30, 2007. It was certified by the Planning Commission on August 7, 2008. Some time in 2007, planning staff eliminated the requirement for new PDR in non-PDR development in UMU, but left it in the EIR.

    I’ve found only one reference to this removal. Staff presented the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan at a special nighttime meeting of the Planning Commission on September 6, 2007. Under “Purpose,” the PowerPoint slide dedicated to UMU stated: “Transition formerly industrial zones into mixed use/mixed income districts, while preserving PDR uses.” Under “Other”: “PDR space no longer required as part of residential projects.” The staffer who narrated this slide, Ken Rich, somehow neglected to read the text about the elimination of the new PDR requirement.

    Much more important, the document certifying the EN EIR says nothing about the removal. The only mention of UMU that I’ve located there is this muddled statement:

    [I]n recognition of providing for a diversity of future employment types, the Preferred Project also proposes two special use districts and controls (e.g., ‘UMU,’ ‘Hybrid Office/PDR District,’ Small Enterprise Workspace controls, etc) where office growth would be permitted as well as about 357 acres of land zoned for a mixed [sic] of uses where growth of other types of business activity in the commercial, retail and personal/business service sectors could also be accommodated within the Eastern Neighborhoods, in close proximity to housing.” (p. 21)


    The removal of the requirement for new PDR in UMU seems like a significant change to the project, i.e., the EN Plan. Consider just Showplace Square/Potrero Hill, which lost 207,645 sf of PDR space between 2011 and 2015. The Monitoring Report for that area found that the conversion of PDR into other uses “occurred primarily within UMU zoning.”(p. 16)

    Under certain conditions, including a situation in which the public has not been given adequate opportunity to comment on a significant change in a project, the California Environmental Quality Act requires an EIR to be re-opened and re-circulated.

    It’s eight years too late to mount a legal challenge to the EN EIR. But it’s not too late to ask: who removed the new PDR requirement and under what authority? And why wasn’t that removal flagged in the document certifying the EN EIR?

    On October 17 I put those questions to SF city planner Steve Wertheim. He went to work on the EN Plan in May 2006. On March 23, 2016, he sent this email to colleagues in the Planning Department who’d queried him about the removal of the PDR in UMU requirement:

    I killed PDR in the UMU, thank you very much. 2007. There definitely wasn’t enough compatible PDR to smear across all of the UMU (and we’ll be finding out if there’s enough to smear across all of the Mission).

    Wertheim’s message implied that the PDR he “killed” already existed. But the requirement set forth in the EN EIR required the creation of new PDR in the UMU. I asked him to explain what, then, he meant or thought he was doing in 2007. (I also queried Rich, who however, turned out to be on  vacation until October 24.)

    In an emailed reply, Wertheim said that his March email was “an offhand comment to old colleagues as part of a longer conversation.” He didn’t explain his apparent reference to existing as opposed to new PDR. He also detailed Planning staff’s considerations for removing the PDR requirement, noting that “about ten people were working on the project, often working as a team, so that it’s not possible to identify the genesis of all of the ideas.” “Any of these ideas,” he added,

    were vetted by the Project Manager (Ken Rich) and ultimately, as part of an overall balanced package, the Planning Director (Dean Macris, and then John Rahaim [who arrived in January, 2008], and eventually the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.


    Whatever the planners’ rationales for excising the PDR requirement, that removal should have been highlighted to the public. To my knowledge, it was not.

    As for Wertheim’s comment: no doubt it was, as he said, offhand. But casual remarks, especially ones made in emails, are often more revealing than studied pronouncements, especially ones made in public (which is why, as a former litigator once told me, lawyers go after emails).

    At meetings of the Planning Commission, staffers always pay homage to the wonderfulness of PDR. That Wertheim felt comfortable expressing disdain for Production, Distribution, and Repair, testifies to his agency’s true attitude, particularly with respect to PDR’s more modest forms.


    Planning Department sabotages PDR: The Central SoMa Plan

    That contempt comes across in the second addition to the list of Planning’s offensives against neighborhood arts and small, blue-collar enterprise: the treatment of PDR in the revised Central SoMa Plan. (Not incidentally, that project is being overseen by Steve Wertheim.) The version that I critiqued in 48 hills in early 2014 was the first draft. In August 2016 the Planning Department released a second edition, entitled the Central SoMa Plan and Implementation Strategy.

    Among the changes in the new version were amendments purportedly designed to address community objections to the first edition’s of PDR.

    TODCO reviewed the new proposal and found that:

    • The Arts/PDR SALI Protection Zone of the community-sponsored 2013 West SoMa Plan is totally wiped out.
    • Nearly all of Central SoMa will be re-zoned as MUO (Mixed-Use/Office) where anything goes—offices, housing hotels—at high market rate prices.
    • There is no requirement at all for future housing development to replace the Arts/PDR spaces it destroys, so developers can target Arts/PDR locations everywhere.
    • The requirement for office space to replace the Arts/PDR spaces it destroys applies only to larger projects (>50K sf), so smaller “49er” office buildings can target Arts/PDR locations everywhere.
    • There is no requirement or incentive for the future replacement of Arts/PDR spaces to be actually affordable for anything except high-end PDR businesses
    • There are no relocation requirements, no cash assistance, no right-to-return for displaced Art/PDR businesses and groups.

    The conclusion:

    Overall, it is evident that the Planning Department simply does not care about protecting EXISTING Arts groups and PDR small businesses in SoMa (and the Mission, too)—they are expendable. New development always gets top priority. (Handout at TODCO public meeting, August 31, 2016)


    In light of the Planning Department’s record, expecting the planners to take a “thoughtful and careful” approach to PDR, as Metcalf advises, is ludicrous.

    Consider Prop. X an effort to remedy some of the Planning Department’s damage. Its passage just might usher in a new era of democratically accountable land use planning in San Francisco.

    Free City College passes 9-1 — will Mayor Ed Lee defy the board and the voters?

    Supporters of Free City College celebrate after a 9-1 vote

    The Board of Supes, by a 9-1 majority, directly challenged Mayor Ed Lee today and appropriated funding to make City College free for all residents.

    That means the mayor, who has said he won’t spend the money, is now defying both the voters and nearly every member of the board – along with most of the labor movement and thousands of education and community activists.

    Supporters of Free City College celebrate after a 9-1 vote
    Supporters of Free City College celebrate after a 9-1 vote

    “A deal is a deal, a promise is a promise,” said Sup. Aaron Peskin, who noted that the board made it very clear when Prop W was put on the ballot that the money that measure raised would go for free City College.

    Sup. Jane Kim, who sponsored the measure, made an inspired speech explaining that free City College – for all – is just a continuation of the commitment the nation made more than a century ago to provide free K-12 education.


    “If I put forward an ordinance to means test K-12 public education, I’d be run out of town,” she said.

    The mayor says he wants to take some of the money from Prop. W and use it for other city needs; his sales tax failed, and that leaves the budget in the hole.

    Kim noted that the income and wealth gap in San Francisco is the worst of any city in the nation. Prop. W adds a modest tax increase on the sale of property worth more than $5 million – and the soaring value of that property is not something any individual earned or created.

    “The reason that property is so valuable is that we made this city great,” she said. We all created that value.”

    The only board member – Mark Farrell – voted no, saying that there are other more important city priorities. “I don’t hear every day about free City College,” he said. “I do hear daily about getting people off the streets and making residents feel safe in their homes.”

    But Kim said that the voters didn’t approve Prop.W “to solve the financial problems of the city. We did it to make City College free.”

    Before the vote, about 100 supporters of City College strolled the halls, stopping in front of supervisors’ offices and the Mayor’s Office and singing carols urging support for making school tuition free.

    Several college board members, including John Rizzo and newly elected member Tom Temprano, were on hand, as were union leaders and the executive director of the Labor Council, Tim Paulson.


    Tim Killikelly, president of Local 2121

    Alissa Messer, representative at large, Local 2121

    Tim Paulson, director, SF Labor Council

    This was only the first chapter of what apparently will be a long fight: The mayor still has to change his mind and agree to spend the money. That will take continued organizing and lobbying.

    But seriously: Can Lee actually defy not only 61 percent of the voters but almost all of the supervisors?

    I was going to ask him today, but he didn’t show up at the board for Question Time.

    Kim noted that “we have to think about how we solve big problems” as cities these days. Yeah, it costs money – but more and more over the next four years, San Francisco is going to have to find new revenue sources and take bold steps to challenge the Trump Era. Free City College is one of those steps.

    Trump’s education secretary — and her brother, a mercenary who advocates assassinations

    Assassinating public education: Betsy DeVos

    Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who has been called “America’s most notorious mercenary” by author and journalist Jeremy Scahill, has emerged as an influential advisor to the incoming Donald Trump regime.

    Prince is also the brother of Betsy DeVos, who is in the process of being confirmed as secretary of education — and an advocate for the privatization of public schools.

    Assassinating public education: Betsy DeVos
    Assassinating public education: Betsy DeVos

    The connection between these two reactionary political players is no secret, but is one of those barely-known facts that has remained mostly hidden in plain sight. Despite significant press around the confirmation hearings for DeVos, the corporate media has not called the public’s attention to her relationship to Prince. Plaudits go to the The Intercept for publishing an article – on January 17 by Scahill about Prince’s connection to Trump, and highlighting his connection to DeVos.

    Prince’s biggest claim to infamy is as the founder of Blackwater, a private security firm that hired mercenaries to augment US military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, among many other places. Blackwater, now transformed into a company called Academi, had an intimate relationship with the CIA, and was regarded by many as one of the CIA’s go-to organizations when it wanted to contract out its dirty work. Blackwater got into hot water more than once, particularly in 2007 when some of its mercenaries gunned down 17 Iraqi civilians, including a 9-year old boy, in Baghdad.

    Scahill reports that trusted sources tell him Prince has been giving Trump advice on his staff picks for the Defense Department and the State Department. Nothing like having friends in high places if you want work.

    Prince is close to another Trump advisor, the racist Steve Bannon. Prince has often appeared on Bannon’s Breitbart Radio. Last July, Prince told Bannon that a Trump administration could and should create a new version of the Phoenix Program, the CIA assassination program during the Vietnam War that “neutralized” tens of thousands of alleged Viet Cong leaders. The new assassination program would presumably target “radical Islamic extremists,” and who knows who else.

    DeVos, while not a public advocate of murder like her brother, has worked for decades in an effort to undermine and assassinate public education. A billionaire heir to the Amway fortune, she is a prominent Republican donor and fund-raiser. Her political efforts have centered around campaigns to give parents taxpayer-funded “vouchers” so they can pull their children out of the public education system and send them to private schools, including religious schools. She has also campaigned to expand charter schools, which are publicly funded but run by private companies.

    She isn’t responsible for her brother, of course, but the two are closely linked in politics — and there’s no sign anywhere that she has said she doesn’t approve of his actions.

    DeVos hails from Michigan, where she is a political force to be reckoned with. She has been credited with creating a network of charter schools in Michigan that are virtually unregulated, despite the abysmal test scores of their students. Dick DeVos, Betsy’s husband, led and funded the successful campaign in 2012 that turned Michigan into a so-called “right to work” state, effectively outlawing the union shop. That includes, of course, public schools.

    DeVos was called the “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee” for the office of Secretary of Education ever by Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers.

    The Erik Prince-Betsy DeVos connection adds another layer of concern to the prospect of DeVos running the Education Department. It is becoming more clear every day that the Trump regime is a collection of the most reactionary set of scallywags ever assembled in Washington DC, which has seen its fair share of reactionaries.

    Prince did his bit to get this latest bunch of scallywags into the White House, and to give the Education Department to his sister. On November 4, just days before the election, Prince used Breitbart News to spread a fake story about the Anthony Weiner sex texting scandal, claiming that the New York Police Department investigation “found State Department emails. They found a lot of other really damning criminal information, including money laundering, including the fact that Hillary went to this sex island with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Bill Clinton went there more than 20 times. Hillary Clinton went there at least six times.”

    Let’s hope that DeVos is not tempted to recruit her brother to run an assassination program against public high school principals. Oops, I meant a “character” assassination program.

    Copyright © 2017 by Marc Norton

    Marc Norton’s website is www.MarcNorton.us.

    Would a simple tax create 30,000 new housing units in SF?

    Let us stipulate for a moment that there are reasonable people who have rational disagreements about some local policy issues. We can also agree that housing policy can be complicated, and there is room for debate and compromise.

    But there is no credible policy argument I have ever heard in favor of leaving tens of thousands of housing units in the city vacant.

    There’s remotely non-lunatic perspective that says the city should allow as many as 30,000 usable apartments to sit empty in a housing crisis.

    This chart shows vacant units as a percentage of available housing in major cities
    This chart shows vacant units as a percentage of available housing in major cities

    And yet, we all know it’s happening. Huge numbers of the new condos built in the city are owned by people who don’t live there. It’s not just a San Francisco problem – there are, census data shows, 213,000 empty homes in Los Angeles.

    The United Nations has a special report on the problem, looking at how speculative capital has turned housing into such a commodity that vast areas are vacant, unused, with huge implications.

    And in Paris, where there are 107,000 vacant homes, the city is doing something about it. The city recently increased its tax on vacant homes to 60 percent of the fair market value of rent.

    The Canadian real-estate blog betterdwelling.com has a lovely chart that shows the percentage of the housing stock in every city that’s vacant. And at least in San Francisco (and in many of these other cities) they aren’t vacant and on the market – the official vacancy rate for apartments (that is, the number that are available for rent) is below 3 percent.

    Betterdwelling puts the number of vacant units in the city at about 15,000; the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project says it’s twice that.

    Let’s think about what Paris did for a second – because at a time when this city needs a lot of new revenue, and the state limits our ability to raise a lot of taxes, a levy on vacant units seems to be perfectly legal.

    We’ll start with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project numbers. Say there are 30,000 vacant units in the city, and we’ll average them out at one-bedroom. Median rent for that apartment is about $3,500 a month in the current market.

    So do the math: Sixty percent of $3,500 is $2,100. Apply that to 30,000 units and you’re talking $63 million a year. Not a bad income stream for the city – from a tax that only the truly crazy folks could oppose.

    But this is a tax like the soda tax: The goal, long term, would not be to bring in revenue but to encourage the owners to put those units on the rental market. I don’t think building luxury condos will bring down housing prices, but suddenly adding 30,000 existing rental units to the market? That’s housing for at least 50,000 people.

    There are, as always, imperfections. Some people have vacant units because they are renovating, or because the property is in probate, or there’s a lawsuit, or because a tenant left and they are looking for a new tenant. These are easy to fix: Give a reasonable time for renovations, exempt probate, and don’t start the tax until a unit has been vacant for, say, six months. (There is not a single rental in San Francisco that can’t be filled in six months.)

    I wonder if SFBARF and the build, baby, build folks would get behind this idea. Because it’s way, way cheaper than building.

    I’m always looking for progressive revenue measures, and a (serious) tax on vacant units seems like a winner. The Parisians are ahead of us.

    Then let’s move this a step further and add a (similar) tax on vacant commercial units. Small businesses all over the city are desperate for storefront space – while landlords hold storefronts vacant, hoping the rents will go up.

    I have no numbers on this, but the city ought to look into it.


    On another note: I don’t know why Randy Shaw decided to pick my neighborhood, Bernal Heights, to attack in his piece arguing for “fair share” policies on Navigation Centers, and I’m not sure why he picked on my friends David Campos, David Talbot and me. But for the record, I am fully in support of the fair-share idea, and I am fully in support of building a Navigation Center in Bernal, and I have made it abundantly clear over many years that I have no interest in promoting policies that increase my property value and have always supported policies that do the opposite. You can criticize me for a lot of things, but this isn’t one of them.

    Talbot told me he agrees: “Of course I support a Navigation Center and homeless services in Bernal Heights.”

    Campos told me the same; he did, and would, support a center in Bernal — as well as in every other district.

    I await Randy’s support for a 60 percent tax on vacant housing units.





    Mandelman sets up D8 showdown

    Rafael Mandelman, who led the City College Board through some very rough times, surprised nobody in local politics when he formally announced last week that he’s challenging Sup. Jeff Sheehy for the District 8 seat.


    His announcement sets up what could be (depending on how Sheehy votes in the next few months) a replay of the classic District 3 race in 2015, where Aaron Peskin challenged Mayor Ed Lee’s appointee, Julie Christensen, and won.

    Sheehy isn’t Christensen – he has a political history that includes a stint as the president of the Harvey Milk Club way back when, and 20 years ago, he was generally considered part of the progressive world.

    But now he’s linked to a very unpopular mayor whose tech-friendly policies have done immense, almost incalculable damage to the city. And Mandelman, also a former Milk Club president, will have the support of much of the progressive establishment.

    Let me make one thing clear from the start: Mandelman (like Peskin) is not a radical leftist; he is not, as David Latterman argues, “firmly entrenched on the hard left” of the city. He’s pretty much in the mainstream of progressive thought, and is a pragmatist; more Jane Kim than John Avalos (and I say that with great respect for both Kim and Avalos).

    Both candidates are going to raise lots of money. Mandelman would most likely be an independent sixth progressive vote, particularly on housing issues.

    Tom Temprano, who has worked with Mandelman on the Community College Board, told me “I am 100 percent with Rafael. He’s exactly what District 8 needs — he’s a bridge builder, he’s very thoughtful, and he knows ever inch of that district.”

    Sheehy hasn’t had to vote on that many difficult issues yet, but that’s about to change.

    We will see in the next few weeks where Sheehy lands as some critical votes come down that will test the six-five moderate majority. If Mandelman were on the board today, the Peskin-Kim affordable housing legislation would likely get his vote. He told me this weekend that he is strongly opposed to the Safai-Breed plan to oust Police Commission member Petra Dejesus: “I think Petra is an extraordinarily competent police commissioner and I am can’t see any reason to replace her.”

     The mayor wants the Safai-Breed approach on housing. He clearly wants to replace DeJesus. There will be more: Condo conversion issues, Airbnb, the city budget, a navigation center in D8 …         

    The election isn’t until next June, but the race has already started.