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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

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UncategorizedThe Agenda, April 13-20: The city's next $1.7 billion...

The Agenda, April 13-20: The city’s next $1.7 billion in bonds mostly won’t go to housing

Why we ought to talk about the bond priorities over the next 10 years

What if we dedicated all $1.7 billion of the city's future bond money to affordable housing? What if we talked about it?
What if we dedicated all $1.7 billion of the city’s future bond money to affordable housing? What if we talked about it?

By Tim Redmond

APRIL 13, 2015 – It’s not always a bad idea to borrow money. Most people have to borrow to buy a house or a car (and the United States likes the idea or borrowing to buy a house so much that it allows you to write the interest on a mortgage off your taxes). Business borrow to make investments.

The federal government borrows money to pay for military adventures, which is not so bright. But cities and states borrow money to do things like build infrastructure, repair things, upgrade parks, and invest in (sometimes) worthwhile civic projects.

The most basic way that works is by issuing general-obligation bonds – that is, the city sells notes that are backed by the full faith and credit of the city. Right now, the city’s credit is really good, and interest rates everywhere are low. Seems like a good time to invest in some of the things San Francisco desperately needs – like, for example, affordable housing.

But for years, the city’s had this policy of not selling any new bonds until some existing ones are paid off. That keeps the debt level from rising – which sounds like fine and sound fiscal policy. But it limits our ability to respond to changing needs, times – and interest rates. We could probably borrow a few billion dollars today and pay far less interest than we are paying on old bonds, and less than we might have to pay in the future.

But here’s the problem: Bonds are paid off by property taxes – and if you sell more bonds, you have to raise taxes. Oh, and you have to get two-thirds of the voters to agree to do it.

So city officials have been loath to do anything that might anger the small (but not insignificant) number of homeowners who don’t want to see any tax hikes – and the landlords who don’t want to pay more taxes unless they can pass those costs along to their tenants. Passing a bond that incurs even a small property-tax hike is difficult.

It shouldn’t be: Most San Franciscans agree that Prop. 13 is bad, that commercial property owners have made a killing at the expense of homeowners, that the measure has crippled schools and municipal government all over the state. And when there’s actually a way to raise property taxes – buy selling bonds for something good – we ought to be able to convince two-thirds to go along.

But we don’t try: Instead, City Hall creates long-term plans to float new bonds only as there’s room in the cap. And those ten-year plans are important: Investing in public needs is a huge issue. But there’s nowhere near enough scrutiny on how those plans are set and what the priorities are.

Case in point: The press has pretty much ignored the fact that the city’s Budget and Finance Committee will meet Wednesday/15 to consider and adopt a plan for bond priorities through 2025. Once it’s set in place, it can be changed (the mayor wants $250 million this fall for affordable housing, which wasn’t a priority in the last plan) but it’s hard. In reality, once these priorities are set, they don’t tend to change much.

When I was critical of the last park’s bond – not because I don’t like parks, but because I didn’t like the leadership and priorities of the Rec-Park Department – I was told that we had to pass a park bond in 2013 – because there wouldn’t be another slot for park bonds for five more years. The priorities had already been set.

So what are we talking about now? Here’s the plan for the next $1.7 billion in bonds:


Then there are “pay-as-you-go” General Fund expenditures and “certificates of participation,” which are another way of borrowing money, generally at a higher rate.


Among the priorities: A new jail and the complete overhaul of the Hall of Justice, which isn’t up to seismic code.

Sup. John Avalos is suggesting that the city ought to double the affordable housing bond this fall. There might be people who want to argue that right now, today, housing is more important than parks. Maybe it’s more important than the next transportation bond. Maybe there are things that ought to be on this list that aren’t.

Maybe homes are more important than a new jail. Maybe the whole $1.7 billion ought to go for housing.

Maybe we should reconsider the idea of only borrowing money when it doesn’t mean a tax hike – particularly now, when money is so cheap.

That’s why this gets discussed in public – and if you want to weigh in on the plan, the meeting’s at 1pm in Room 250, City Hall.


Housing activists have been fighting for years to get City Hall to take seriously the balance between market-rate housing (that is, luxury condos) and affordable housing, which the city’s own studies say ought to comprise 60 percent of the new construction.

Sup. Jane Kim had a plan to make it hard to build new market-rate housing until the affordable mix was higher, but the mayor shut that down. Now Kim’s  is pushing legislation that would at least require the city to monitor the balance. It comes up at the BOS Tuesday/14.


The Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, with Sup. Eric Mar and Sup. David Campos as a majority (joining Sup. Julie Christensen) is becoming a place where progressive ideas are heard. On Thursday/16, Mar and Campos are holding a hearing on “equitable access to broadband internet service in San Francisco,” and considering what my Comcast bill is (and the level of service I get if there’s a problem) it’s pretty clear that we have a problem.

And there’s a possible solution, too: Why aren’t we talking about municipal broadband?

The city already owns a lot of underground fiber. It connects public buildings, and if you add in what other public agencies have, there’s the beginning of a citywide network.

We are moving toward public electric power (slowly, but we are getting there.) Does anyone think that Comcast is doing such a bang-up job that a little competition from Muni cable couldn’t help?


And mark your calendars: Sup. Julie Christensen, as part of her re-election effort, will appear before the SF Democratic County Central Committee Wednesday/22 for a Q and A. It’s open to the public. There will also be discussion on an early endorsement of Mayor Ed Lee. 7pm, 450 Golden Gate.




Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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  1. A billion is a billion, no matter what you want to call it. City jails are a necessity due to misplaced priorities. This would be the perfect time to start downsizing and phase them out.

  2. City jails are a necessity. It’s hardly spending a “billion on a new Prison Industrial Complex”. Nice reach, though.

  3. From the article, under the BIG chart: “Among the priorities: A new jail and the complete overhaul of the Hall of Justice, which isn’t up to seismic code.”

  4. No idea, please see the data source [PDF].

    From 1979-1980 to 2005-06, property tax revenue of state and local government per $1,000 of personal income dropped 3%, ranking California 36th among states on that metric.

    There are fifteen states with zero property taxes.

  5. I wasn’t aware that the city and county of San Francisco had built, or was planning to to build, any prisons. Could you shed some light on this?

  6. What unintended consequences? it is doing what it is supposed to do – limit taxation and government excess

  7. Maybe if we had spent a couple of billion on affordable housing, public education, and jobs programs, we wouldn’t need to spend a billion on a new Prison Industrial Complex, if indeed we do, and we probably don’t.

  8. How old are you?

    Prop 13 kept people from being taxed out of their homes. But, like many laws, it needs to be modified for the unintended consequences.

  9. At a given rate of property tax, Prop 13 is facially a subsidy, paid by newer owners of real property to owners with longer tenures.

    Judging effects of the Prop 13 1% cap combined with these subsidies takes no more than the observation that California ranks at the very bottom of the country in per pupil spending.

    There is no government excess. There are only terrible schools, saving money so that commercial property is more profitable and that the wealthy can leave heirs very slightly larger trust funds.

  10. Over the thirty years from fiscal 1979, the first Prop 13 year, to fiscal 2008, property tax revenue of state and local government per $1,000 of personal income grew 10%.

    Not 10% per year – 10%.

    Even if there had been high growth in property tax revenues, however, it would not change the desirability of property taxes as a less distorting, fairer sharing of the tax burden.

  11. It is only a subsidy if you assume the tax saved is paid for by someone else. Insofar as Prop 13 causes the government to spend less, there is no subsidy.

    The effect is a safety valve as it deters government excess and makes people feel more safe in their homes.

  12. Partially correct: with rent control, the transfer is from the property owner to favored tenants; with Prop 13, from other taxpayers (including disfavored property owners), local government and schools to favored property owners.

    Aside from identity of payee and payor, these are the same.

  13. Prop 13 is neither price control nor a safety valve. It is a subsidy for a subset of property owners: welfare, to a first approximation.

  14. You supported Prop 13? That was in 1978? How old are you?

    I see nothing in Prop 13 to change. It’s a good example of how the people can write better laws than politicians – sometimes.

  15. Sam, I supported prop 13 and I support making some changes. I do not have an ideology of unlimited taxation.

  16. No because, again, a landlord does not have taxing power. All he can do is offer a place for rent and hope that he gets the rent he is asking. He cannot set the rent and demand that a tenant pays it.

    Ultimately landlords do not set rents. Tenants do.

  17. “Property owners are sitting ducks for punitive taxation,”

    Indeed, much as renters are sitting ducks for punitive pricing in the face of an oligopolistic market with low supply.

  18. The property owner can relocate but the building cannot. If he moved to Nevada he still has to pay CA property tax on his CA property.

    People can move; buildings cannot. Well maybe some homes can be lifted up and moved, but the land certainly cannot.

    Property owners are sitting ducks for punitive taxation, which is why cities abused and exploited them in the 1970’s, and why there was a popular revolt.

    I am gratified that you support Prop 13.

  19. Yes, the tenant can leave – and the homeowner can move to Nevada. There is not a single argument for Prop 13 that can not also be made for rent control, with minor substitutions.

    I’m OK with residential (not commercial) property tax controls, with very particular conditions. I’m also OK with rent controls, with very particular conditions.

  20. A landlord can only charge a rent that a tenant is able and willing to pay. The tenant is always free to leave and escape the burden.

    How do you move a physical building in the same way as a person can move?

    All that said, it sounds like you support Prop 13.

  21. A transfer tax that applies on only the increased value would seem fairer to me. However, the transfer tax is a city tax and the city is not allowed (thank God) to impose either an income tax or a capital gains tax on its residents.

    A transfer tax on only the increased value might be attacked legally on the grounds that it is a de facto income tax. or CGT

    Also, much of the Prop 13 money is passed onto the state, even though it is collected at the county level. While transfer tax is purely local. So the one isn’t a direct substitute for the other.

    One final point. What if a property goes down in value while you own it. Do you then get a rebate from the city?

  22. “Rented property is different because it is the only asset that cannot be rented outside of the taxing jurisdiction. So there must be protections for the renters of such properties to prevent landlord exploitation.”


  23. As a professional in both social justice and organizational development, I am interested in assessing every aspect of current code and systems operation in order to support well-being, equity, and efficiency while decreasing waste and harm. Any reassessment of transfer tax or property tax MUST be equitable and pro-actively identify and mitigate unintended consequences.

    Since you are well-versed in tax code, is it possible to determine tax transfer percentage AFTER subtracting previously paid property tax, initial investment cost, and any capital improvements (not passed through previously to tenants)? So if someone bought thehouse for $500K and paid $200K in combined property tax and capital improvements, the transfer tax could be determined from what amounts to the net gain. So if this hypothetical property owners sells their house for $2million, the modest transfer tax would be applied to the $1.3 million gain that SF added to the property?

    Opinions aside, I’m exploring with you what is legal. To restate, can transfer tax be applied to net gain (that subtracts property tax, initial cost of investment, and capital improvements). Then, increasing the transfer tax a very small percentage would help capture the value added by SF, and could fund affordable housing in a variety of creative and mutually beneficial ways.

  24. Prop 13 isn’t a price control. It’s a safety valve for taxpayers.

    RE is different because it is the only taxable asset that cannot be relocated out of a taxing jurisdiction. So there must be protections for the owners of such properties to prevent municipal exploitation.

    And any government that doubles its spending year-on-year should be kicked out.

  25. Color be surprised, Sam, that you don’t like price controls when you’re on one side of the transaction (as a landlord) but like them when you’re on the other side (as a property owner paying taxes).

    “If the “cost of governing” is doubling year-on-year, then there is something very dysfunctional about that government.”

    Nonsense. Costs can go up due to any number of conditions. Governments are as affected by volatile markets, supply shocks, and acts of nature as private entities are.

    Your “starve the beast” argument is just standard Norquist-esque ideological warfare, and not at all interesting. I want a government that works. I am indifferent to how it achieves that end.

  26. Inflation in the 197-‘s was nowhere close to 100% a year, so clearly far more was going on than that. And in general, governments do well out of inflation because taxes go up with tha inflation, while their debts erode in real terms.

    No income is thrown off a property unless you rent it out, and then you have to pay to live somewhere else.

    You still haven’t justified a 7% annual increase in revenue when inflation is 2% a year. Presumably you cannot. The state has plenty of money – it just spends too much.

  27. I see them as different. With rent control, the landlord effectively pays part of his tenants’ rent. But with Prop 13, there is an alternative to anyone subsidizing property owners. Instead the government could get the message of Prop 13 and simply spend less.

  28. Rent control is a public subsidy as surely as is Prop 13. Reading either as a tax is a fundamental misunderstanding.

  29. Prop 13 passed because of 1970s inflation. Then Carter put Volcker on the Fed, the Volcker Fed ended ’70s inflation and the supposed voter revolt of Prop 13 promptly evaporated.

    Economic rent has been part of the canon since at least Ricardo.

    Under current tax law, owner occupied housing throws off untaxed income: the right to live in it. In a perfect world, we would not only tax property, we would tax owner’s equivalent rent, so that tenants and owners were treated the same.

    Like Prop 13, rent control passed thanks to 1970s inflation. Like Prop 13, rent control has failed most tenants, though like Prop 13 it has delivered handsomely to the few with long tenures.

    What does inflation adjusted price history have to do with anything? Prop 13 is a very expensive government subsidy that has near zero beneficial effects and starves schools and local government. Those subsidies should end.

  30. If the “cost of governing” is doubling year-on-year, then there is something very dysfunctional about that government. And if a government will not put its house in order, as CA cities were failing to do in the 1970’s, then the people must rise up and de-fund them to force them to correct their errant ways.

    Rent control isn’t a tax so the same argument doesn’t apply.

    While much of the criticism of Prop 13 is coming from the far left, who never met a tax or a tax hike that they didn’t like. If an exemption is granted for commercial properties, then that will just embolden them to think they can win the real prize – removing Prop 13 from residential buildings too.

    The beast cannot control itself and must be starved.

  31. “Why would you want municipalities to again be able to give annual increases of 100% to tax bills?”

    Because municipalities should be able to increase tax bills in ways that reflect the cost of government services? Much as, say, a landlord should be able to raise rents in a manner that accurately reflects the cost of ownership and maintenance?

    It’s always entertaining to see the cognitive dissonance involved in people who take one view towards rent control, and the opposite towards Prop 13 – it’s where people betray their self-interest.

  32. A very high transfer tax would act as an obstacle to moving and therefore to social and occupational mobility. Since Prop 13 and rent control both do that already, hiking it would make things much worse.

    It is not clear to me why any political leader would wish to atrophy the housing market by making it punitively expensive to ever move.

    And Prop 13 is very very popular.

  33. The real issue is that the BMR/BMP program is far too small to make a difference. Expending real energy on raising the requirement or eliminating in lieu fees is a waste of effort.

    At any given time, 65% of tenancies are either non-rent controlled or started four or fewer years ago. What most people face in San Francisco is the market: market or near-market rents for 140,000-plus tenancies. What is important is not BMR/BMP lottery tickets, but building enough market rate housing so hundreds of thousands of people face less onerous rents.

  34. Doesn’t it makes sense then to assess how existing transfer tax could be better utilized as an equitable work-around until Prop 13 is altered? Supervisor Avalos has been doing this successfully by raising the transfer tax on commercial property sales. I just read that he is proposing another increase for commercial properties for the 2015 ballot. What are your thoughts about these methods?

  35. Not really. The massive mandate that voters gave via Prop13 was that they thought the government was spending too much, and not just taxing too much. You have to place the last few decades in the context of a broad populist national movement against excessive taxation. And the GOP could not have blocked higher taxes without the support of the people.

    What “returns” on a property are not taxed? There is transfer tax, regular property tax, income tax (on rents) and CGT on gains. How many more taxes would you like? And the insidious thing about it is that most homes do not generate any income, so property owners have to find those $$ from their household expenses. There is no guarantee that an owner will have the cash to pay the tax.

    Econ 101 says no such thing. Not in any school I know of.

    Prop13 has in fact been a success and not a failure. Its aim was to stop cities gouging residents, and it has worked. At least, it has worked as well as some think rent control has worked

    And you still haven’t explained why the state cannot live off 7% average annual increases at a time when inflation is only 2% a year

  36. Partially right: other taxpayers certainly subsidize Prop 13 subsidy recipients. However, we know the tax shift was not complete: the state GOP aggressively blocked all new taxes for years. What taxes could not be shifted come out of public budgets: from local government and schools.

    On fairness, the rationale for higher property taxes is that unlike wage income, most returns to property are not earned. These largely are true economic rents, which Econ 101 rightly suggests the state should to a large extent tax away.

    When spending is stupid, it should cease. Prop 13 has had thirty five years to prove itself something else. It has failed.

  37. No, if there is a subsidy going on it is from the payers of state income tax and sales tax to the payers of property tax.

    It has surely not escaped your attention that CA has the highest rate of state income and sales tax in the nation. So all the state really did, in response to Prop 13, was to jack up other taxes to compensate.

    And since both sales tax and income tax are broader taxes then property tax, it is easy to argue that is fairer. Everyone should pay towards the city services they consume, and not just an arbitrary third of the city residents.

    But again, why is a 7% annual increase in property taxes not adequate when inflation is only 2%? The real problem is excessive spending and not inadequate revenues – taxes in CA are very, very high.

  38. Prop 13 is a subsidy. The transfer is from local government, schools, income tax payers and recent individual purchasers to commercial property and long tenured residential owners.

    It is this spending that bears the burden of justification. What is the beneficial effect of this subsidy, if any? Is that beneficial effect worth the cost of the subsidy? The answers seem to be ‘nothing’ and ‘no’.

  39. Because Prop 13 applies to and limits the regular property tax and not the property transfer tax. The former is a wealth tax; the latter is a transaction tax.

    I assume you are a tenant if you are not aware of the difference.

  40. Interesting. Please explain though how was it that 2014’s Prop. G “anti-speculator” tax would have been legal, since it would have increased the transfer tax significantly if the sale was within 5 years?

  41. Let’s work together, dear neighbors! Tim, I would love to talk with you and your readers about bond priorities, as well as a “thought exercise” from the YIMBY/WEISS for Mayor campaign to address widening disparities due to Proposition 13. We call this thought exercise “SF ADDS VALUE”. Below is our write-up of the challenge presented by Prop 13 and proposals for how to use the additional revenue. I’ll let you contact me to find out more about our proposed solution if you are curious. Contact me via yimbyformayor.com.

    Find your YES!

    The San Francisco Bay Area has experienced an enormous boom in property value and housing costs in recent years, as well as a burgeoning housing crisis. While normally a portion of the property value gain is shared with the community, increasingly it is not shared in San Francisco due to the Proposition 13 cap on annual tax increases. Voters initially supported Proposition 13 in order to protect our elder and fixed-income neighbors from losing their homes due to unaffordable annual increases in property tax, but this good intention has unfortunately created widening disparities within our city. Although local government, neighbors, tenants, and/or community organizations contribute to gains in property value for property owners, the community is currently limited from sharing in that prosperity and therefore loses vital revenue to support local services and neighbor(hood) well-being.

    Housing Trust Fund>>>

    Provide loans for the acquisition of multi-unit and/or group housing co-op property through SF Community Land Trust and/or other land trust organizations which take property off of the private market and into the public trust

    Finance the development of additional dwelling units within the existing building envelope and in backyards with the caveat that property owners rent to low-to-mid income neighbors who serve the community through education (e.g. teachers), social service, nonprofit work, arts, neighborhood safety (e.g. police and firefighters), etc.

    Create a voucher system, similar to Section 8, to assist above-poverty and working class San Francisco neighbors in bridging the gap between 1/3 of their salary and their monthly rent payment.

    Additional Use Areas to Consider>>>

    SFUSD Education Fund

    Small/Local Business Fund

  42. It is a de facto negotiation because, as you appear to acknowledge, if the rate is too high, another city gets those construction dollars.

    That is why our mayor and our supervisors oppose the artificial and arbitrary nature of a higher mandate. Because the know it will lead to LESS below-market homes being built, as well as less supply in general.

    Better to have a lower rate and negotiate up from there where the market allows that.

  43. Yes, you should protest Prop 13 by not paying your property taxes! Genius.

    Except of course that it is almost exclusively the people who don’t pay property taxes that oppose Prop 13.

    Why is a tax whose revenues have on average increased annually by 7% a year since 1978 such a burden? Why would you want municipalities to again be able to give annual increases of 100% to tax bills? (Because that is what was happening prior to Prop 13 and, indeed, was the reason for Prop 13’s massive victory and revolution?

  44. It is not a negotiation: the city makes whatever rules it likes, within constitutional restraints. The question is whether those rules would be so onerous as to make any development sufficiently unprofitable as to choke off development.

    BMR/BMP seems like a distraction, though. At best the policy adds some lottery winners on the margins, but leaves the vast majority subject to onerous market rents. Improving transit and infrastructure to support significant housing growth across the area would seem the real challenge.

  45. There is a group working on Prop. 13 reform in San Francisco called Evolve-California. They seem like good people. It might be worthwhile to see what they are trying to develop. Prop. 13 is a tax subsidy for commercial real estate entities which is crippling the next generation. It would be nice to lift the rock of Prop. 13 off the backs of our children so they have a chance to experience the same high quality, affordable education as the previous generation have had for the last 40 years. I would love it if every person who was over 40 and received low-cost education in the state of California went on strike for 48 hours. Then we could see how much we depend on it.


  46. Hi, Tim!

    Perhaps you are new to California? Here’s the operative text from Prop 13 that explains why localities cannot raise property taxes to the level you suggest even with a 2/3 vote:

    Section 1. (a) The maximum amount of any ad valorem tax on real property shall not exceed one percent (1%) of the full cash value of such property.

  47. It’s not a matter of being an advocate for developers or anyone else. It’s about describing the reality that we exist in. You cannot just demand ever higher fees and taxes on business without risking that they go elsewhere.

    It’s a negotiation and not a mandate. You have to ask for a reasonable deal and not expect that you can all the shots. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

  48. The cost basis of the land is irrelevant. That profit has already been made, and the developer can simply sell the land and move on. ROI computations have to be made on the basis of today’s numbers.

    The fact that you “don’t mind” if a developer makes less profit is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether the developer minds. And he has investors to pay off, loans and interest to repay, risks to assess, and if the ROI doesn’t pencil out he will move.

    We can pass any minimum BMR percentage we like. But what is important to realize is that, at some point, it becomes counter-productive to demand ever more free stuff because the goose that lays the golden eggs may decide to lay them in someone else’s yard.

    The idea of trading zoning for affordable units is based on the idea that any real solution should be a win-win – better for both sides. Too many people here want a win-lose: more for us and less for them. Not surprisingly that doesn’t work. The reality is that the city needs developers more than the developers need the city. They can take their money anywhere and be welcome. Who would we turn to if we drive away the money?

  49. For developers who are buying land now it won’t be easy to have high BMR percentage, unless they add to the price of the market rate units. However, many are building on land bought 5-10 years ago or more, and are making hundreds of % in profit. I don’t mind if they only make millions instead of tens of millions.

    Trading no zoning for extra BMR… Swell! What could possibly go wrong? Surely no one could game that!

  50. Tim, it’s not just home-eowners who oppose hikes in property tax. It’s also tenants as the extra bond interest can be passed through to tenants.

    There is a form to do this from the Rent Board. Some landlords don’t bother to complete it and attach it to the annual rent increase. But I ALWAYS do the pass-through increase even if it is only a few dollars a month.

    It’s on principle. It’s not good for democracy when a majority of people can vote to increase a tax that they won’t have to pay. Everyone should pay something

  51. it’s not so much that developrs would fight a 50% BMR cut. But rather that they would simply walk away and invest elsewhere, because the ROI on that would not be worth it.

    So you’d lose all the BMR units and, for that matter, all the market-rate homes as well.

    A few “build nothing” NIMBY’s like marcos would be fine with that. But if you think SF lacks homes at all price-points, and needs new supply, then 50% BMR (and probably 30% BMR) is a non-starter in most cases.

    A better idea would be to allow developers to go beyond zoning as much as they like, as long as 50% of the extra units are BMR. That might be workable.

  52. Why Comcast? Monkeybrains is local (Dogpatch! Surely you biked past them on Sunday Streets today) and, based on our experience, roughly one million times better than Comcast.

  53. $1.7bn will get you 2000 units, maybe, which is not enough to make a difference. More affordable units in new developments would be more effective, like 50%+ on-location, but developers will fight it to the death, and City Hall will take their side.

Comments are closed.

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