Much of the “affordability agenda” is pretty predictable, the kind of thing all mayors talk about: Better Muni, a hike in the minimum wage, improvements in the public schools (this year, the city will give $66 million to SFUSD), public safety (more cops on the street), that sort of thing. He did, finally, say some positive words about City College, something that’s been visibly missing from his public statements in the past. (As the City College magazine, Etc., notes, “Mayor Ed Lee said he almost cried when the San Francisco 49ers decided to move to Santa Clara, but he has been mostly silent on the prospect of losing City College.”)
But, in perhaps a backhand slap at City Attorney Dennis Herrera, he insisted that the fault didn’t lie with the accreditors: “City College was on a course of unsustainable financial and governmental decisions.” And he didn’t mention anything about the need to restore local control. The message that came from his remarks: Let’s keep the college open, but keep it under the thumb of the special trustee.
Le is going to support a $400 million seismic safety bond in June and a $500 million transportation bond in November – along with an increase in the local vehicle license fee. At the same time, he wants to end metered parking on Sunday. Among car owners, Sunday meters are unpopular; so are taxes on cars. It’s probably a political calculation that the tradeoff will make the new fee (which is one of the more progressive taxes the city could impose) more politically possible.
And then, about 50 minutes into the speech, he got to housing.
It’s an interesting plan he’s proposing – all of which, of course, was leaked to the Chron before the speech. And it starts with the idea that the market itself will provide affordable middle-class housing. Lee pointed to the construction all around the Hunters Point site, and noted that “according to the market, these will be affordable to middle-class families.” The idea: Since the site is so far from downtown, the condos will go for maybe $600,000, which means a mortgage of maybe $3,200 a month (at 5 percent), plus property taxes, which is more affordable than a lot of apartments these days, and within reach of a family with two working adults earning the salaries of skilled professionals (or with skilled union jobs). Of course, that’s not going to be the price for a three-bedroom unit.
But even so, it raises an important question: If developers at Hunters Point can sell condos for that price and still make a profit, why can’t developers do the same thing in the Mission? Answer: They can – but they don’t, because they’re out to exploit the market for all they can get. Which means that if Hunters Point becomes a popular area to live, those “middle class” condos will soon be selling for more than the middle class can afford.
That’s the problem with relying on the “market” to set affordable rates for housing. But the mayor insisted (in spite of consistent evidence) that “the laws of supply and demand still work, even in San Francisco.”
Of course, Lee isn’t relying entirely on the market. The Hunters Point project will include 25 percent permanently affordable housing. He wants to give city loans to nonprofits to buy rental housing and take it off the market (and excellent, expensive idea). And he talked – again, more than he ever has in the past, about the problem of “speculators out to make a fast buck in a hot market.” That’s a reflection of how organized, and angry, the local tenant movement has become, and how much of a force it will be in politics this year.
The first item on the mayor’s housing agenda is to protect residents from eviction and displacement. That’s appropriate, if long overdue. His main solution, though, is to try to get Sacramento to overturn or modify the Ellis Act – a tough challenge over which San Francisco has only limited control. And he said nothing – nothing – about local legislative efforts that could slow the evictions and blunt the impact of the state law.
He finished with a story I’ve been hearing a lot lately – about how waves of immigrants over the years, from the Irish and the Chinese in the Gold Rush era through the beats, the hippies, the LGBT influx, the people fleeing violence and poverty in Central America … all have come to San Francisco, and, he said, there has always been tension. “When we demonized people, it has been an ugly chapter in our history,” he noted.
It’s also true that when the Irish and the Chinese, the beats and the hippies, the LGBT people of Harvey Milk’s generation, the Mission immigrants from Mexico and Central America came here, they were facing discrimination and hatred based on their ethnicity, political and social nonconformity, or sexual orientation — which is not the case with the mostly white, young, tech workers. And when the past waves of immigrants arrived, they didn’t have the economic status to force others out of the city.
So it’s not entirely a fair argument to equate the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world with previous San Francisco immigrants.
I’m not for demonizing anyone. But I do understand that the current way of dealing with housing in the city can’t continue. That’s a policy issue: The mayor pushed for more high-paying jobs for incoming workers than the city could handle without first making sure that existing vulnerable residents and communities were protected. I think he’s gotten the message that his constituents are angry and afraid.
But it’s not clear that he’s willing to do all that it takes to address the problems. It will make for an interesting 2014.