The three worst things that have happened to renters in this city recently, and how to measure the response of elected officials

Protesters note that the Twitter tax break cost the city millions. It also spurred evictions and displacement
Protesters note that the Twitter tax break cost the city millions. It also spurred evictions and displacement

By Tim Redmond

Sup. London Breed was not happy when I wrote that she was weak on tenant issues, and she has a point: She voted for Sup. Jane Kim’s Eviction 2.0 legislation, and she supported the Mission Moratorium, and she’s been with the tenants on some other significant legislation.

She texted me saying my description of her record was inaccurate (and I like to be told when I get something even a little bit wrong), so I corrected the sweeping language which might not have done her credit (I originally wrote that she was “bad” on tenant issues, when in fact her record is more mixed.) But she got me thinking:

What does it mean to be a “pro-tenant” politician in San Francisco today?

There are people who say Mayor Lee is pro-tenant. Lots of others would like that label (in a city where two-thirds of the potential voters are renters, it’s a powerful claim to make). Instead of singling out any individual, Breed or Lee or anyone else, I think it’s worth taking the time to try to define what the term “pro-tenant” means.

Let me start with a pretty radical statement. I think the three worst things that have happened to renters in this town in the past ten years are, in rough order, the Twitter tax break, the city’s failure to regulate Airbnb, and the Google buses.

Then you can add in the influx of market-rate housing with inadequate affordable units.

If you use that lens, you get a different picture of which politicians are pro-tenant.

Oh, and being pro-tenant doesn’t just mean voting the right way now and then – it means endorsing, supporting, and helping in any way possible the candidates and ballot measures that are part of the tenant movement.

The tax break: When Mayor Lee decided to do whatever he could to attract tech firms to San Francisco, he set off a displacement bomb. It was a cataclysmically bad bit of urban planning. You can’t bring thousands of high-paid, mostly young, mostly single workers with a lot of disposable income to a city with a tight housing market and not see rents soar. You can’t attract that many new jobs without first making sure there are places for the new arrivals to live.

Lee talked about bringing the unemployment rate down, but most of the new jobs didn’t go to unemployed San Franciscans. They went to people who moved here from somewhere else to take the jobs. That was the beginning of the worst housing crisis since the Great Earthquake.

Airbnb: For years, San Francisco did nothing at all to regulate this new company that was making bank by encouraging residents to break the law. Short-term rentals were always illegal, but the mayor said that Airbnb was a local company, and his pal Ron Conway is a major investor, so nobody lifted a finger to enforce the existing rules.

In the process, thousands of tenants were evicted as speculators decided that property was more valuable when it was turned into hotel rooms. And thousands and thousands of potential rental units were removed from the market as landlords decided instead to use them for short-term high-return tourist rooms.

Right now, it’s safe to say that more than 5,000 apartments are off the market because of Airbnb and other STR platforms. That’s far more rent-controlled affordable housing lost than the city has been able to build.

Eventually, long after Airbnb had enriched itself and its investors with illegal rentals, then-Sup. David Chiu worked with Airbnb’s lobbyists to craft a set of weak and unenforceable regulations. On the key vote, Sup. David Campos tried to amend the bill to ban Airbnb from posting unregistered, and thus illegal, units. That would have had a dramatic impact, putting thousands of new housing units back on the rental market.

The law, weak as it is, limits STRs to places that are occupied full-time by the host. That is, it’s fine to rent out your spare room, or rent out your house while you’re on vacation, but it’s not fine to buy an entire building, evict all the tenants, and turn the whole thing into hotel rooms. Which is happening all over town.

Those places, which provide Airbnb with much of its revenue, could never get a city registration certificate (because, of course, they are illegal). The Campos amendment went down, 6-5.

The Google buses: Again, for years the tech companies broke the law by providing private luxury shuttles to take workers from San Francisco to the corporate campuses on the Peninsula. The giant coaches parked in Muni stops without permission, but the city had a secret “handshake agreement” with the companies not to give out tickets.

Then the supes agreed to a deal that allowed the private companies to use public bus stops to make it easier for Peninsula cities to outsource their housing problems to San Francisco.

The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project has found that evictions and rent hikes increase in the blocks near tech-shuttle stops. The tech firms justify the shuttles by saying that workers would otherwise drive – and they might, for a while. But people who value their time (and spend their hours on the wifi-equipped buses working) would find the traffic from SF to the Peninsula intolerable. Many would seek housing closer to work – and the companies would be under pressure to break the no-density politics of places like Cupertino and Menlo Park.

Any new transit system makes nearby housing more desirable. This private one, created with no public input, has had an undeniable impact on rents and has made life more difficult for less-wealthy tenants.

Other major issues:

The defeat of Prop. G, which would have imposed a high tax on speculation and The court ruling that threw out the Campos Ellis Act relocation-fee legislation (which the supes could do nothing about).

And there’s the approval of thousands of new units of market-rate housing, which cause a net deficit in affordable units and create displacement in areas like the Mission.

Then there are endorsements.

If you support politicians – including your colleagues – who vote against tenants, then you aren’t helping the tenant movement.

So if you supported the tax break, and the Google buses, and Airbnb, and you support more market-rate housing without adequate affordable units, and you support other politicians and candidates who took the same positions, it’s hard to argue that you are “pro-tenant.”

Just my take on that label.