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News + PoliticsThe Agenda, Jan 4-11, 2016: Motorcyles and short-term rentals

The Agenda, Jan 4-11, 2016: Motorcyles and short-term rentals

Planning Commission hears a case of industrial displacement -- and a remarkable request to turn housing into legal hotel rooms

Moto Guild is the kind of business there ought to be room for in SF. Photo by Michael Redmond
Moto Guild is the kind of business there ought to be room for in SF

JANUARY 4, 2016 – The Board of Supes doesn’t start meeting until Jan. 12, but the Planning Commission is back in action this week with two cases that reflect the dramatic changes happening in the city.

One is the conversion of a motorcycle DIY repair shop to luxury apartments in Potrero Hill – a move that probably meets all the legal requirements but that reflects badly on how the city is addressing the loss of industrial space.

The other is a proposal to turn a three-unit Nob Hill building into a legal hotel – after it’s been rented, according to the city, as short-term (and thus illegal) units for years. The owner of the building says she won’t rent to long-term tenants because she thinks the city’s rent-control laws are too onerous and wants permission to do what she has been doing anyway – but housing advocates say that the proliferation of these hotel conversions are eating away at the local rental housing stock.

The Planning Department staff has recommended that the application be denied and that the owner, who has been warned repeatedly about unpermitted short-term rentals, be told to follow the law.

If the application is approved, it could pave the way for hundreds of other landlords to seek to turn their properties into hotel rooms.

 

Moto Guild is a cool business, the kind of shop that ought to have a place in San Francisco. It’s a small operation in  6,000-square-foot warehouse that allows motorcycle owners a friendly and helpful place to store, fix, and learn about their machines.

I am a believer in the Robert Pirsig philosophy of technology – people ought to be able to understand how the equipment that they use in their lives actually works. That’s especially important for motorcycles, which are inherently dangerous and require a connection between rider and bike that includes a comprehension of what might be going wrong when something sounds funny or wiggles or flashes.

At Moto Guild, you can take a class that teaches you how to change a tire – or how to strip and overhaul your engine. You can work on your bike with their tools for $15 an hour, or leave the broken “project” in the shop for as long as you need for $175 a month (way less than the cost of a garage.)

The place caters to locals, of course – people don’t go long distances to work on their bikes. And now it’s going to have to move to the East Bay.

And now a developer is seeking a permit to demolish the building, on DeHaro St. near the Anchor Steam brewery, and construct a 40-foot-tall building with 17 units, 15 of them two-bedrooms and the others one-bedroom. There will be no affordable housing onsite; instead, the developer will pay the statutory fees to support low-cost housing someplace else.

The owners of Moto Guild didn’t respond to my request for comment on the project. I am told they knew when they signed their lease three years ago that they might be displaced for housing at any time. They are moving to operation to Berkeley, where they will need a new customer base: Nobody drives across the bridge for this kind of neighborhood-based service.

The zoning allows for housing. The laws allow a building owner to evict an industrial tenant, demo the place, and build condos or apartments. But isn’t this the kind of place we ought to want to save in San Francisco? Isn’t the ongoing loss of industrial space (there was nowhere else in the city for Moto Guild to go) something the Planning Commission ought to think about?

Maybe not: This item is on the “consent calendar.” It can be approved along with a bunch of other items that are considered “routine,” with no discussion or debate.

Just another little piece of San Francisco, tossed out of town because it’s disposable. Happy New Year.

 

Then we go to Nob Hill, a block or so from Grace Cathedral, where Jennifer Solomon has owned a three-unit building at 40 Pleasant Street for more than a decade. She bought it vacant, she told me, and according to city documents, for some time it has been listed on VRBO as a short-term rental.

“I didn’t want full-time renters,” she told me. “I don’t want to be stuck with the problems.”

Solomon said she thinks that the rent laws are “stacked against the landlord” and “have morphed into something socialist. The city has taken away all the landlord rights.”

The problem is that the city doesn’t allow residential units like these three flats to be kept out of the housing stock and turned into hotel rooms. A neighbor. Alfonso Faustino, told me that he has filed numerous complaints with various city agencies – and indeed, Department of Building Inspection and City Planning records show that the property has been investigated for illegal short-term rentals.

“She is taking precious housing out of the market,” Faustino told me.

There’s no way these flats on Nob Hill are going to be affordable housing. But when you take thousands and thousands of apartments and turn them into tourist rentals, it has an impact on the cost of housing. Hardly anyone disputes that.

Solomon told me that she never evicted anyone, that she bought the property vacant. But as Share Better SF and Local 2 ask in a letter to the Planning Commission, the place clearly hadn’t been a hotel forever:

How did the building become vacant so short-term rental could occur?  Were the tenants removed from this building?  How was building emptied out?  When did that occur?  Was it unit by unit?

Legalizing removal of the entire 3-flat rent-controlled building from desperately needed housing violates the Planning Code, the Master Plan and Prop M Priority Policies.  It exacerbates the loss of housing in the residential Nob Hill neighborhood.

And what 40 Pleasant is about, in a larger sense, is the city’s (terrible) attitude that it’s fine to ask for forgiveness instead of permission. If Solomon was running this place for years as an illegal hotel – and she never denied that to me – then she was breaking the rules. To turn around now and say: Oh well, that’s the way it is, so let me keep going” is similar to what we’ve done with Uber and Airbnb.

Solomon told me that she agrees there are too many STRs in some parts of town. “But this is Nob Hill, it’s perfect,” she said. “I rent to opera singers and the people who run the ice skating rink.”

And at one point in time, a few places like this might not have been a problem. But thanks to Airbnb, which turned a small-time STR market into a venture-capital driven international monstronsity, those days are over.

Solomon says she is going to ask for a month’s continuance, and the commission typically grants those requests. But there can still be discussion. And if the panel decides to reject the suggestions of its own staff, it will be a huge and dangerous precedent.fs

And if a landlord in San Francisco doesn’t want to be a landlord (with all the rules that the occupation includes, which really aren’t that awful), he or she has every right to sell the building to someone who does – and in this case, considering how much the place has appreciated in the past decade, that doesn’t seem like a hardship.

 

 

 

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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111 COMMENTS

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  3. You’re mistaken. The amount of unused industrial space in HP, still sitting there, is proof it wasn’t competition, and displacement that led to factories leaving. You’re using the City designation of PDR… which is a catch all ball of nonsense. The real demand for it is the lack of restrictions that come with the zoning. The entire reason cultural centers, and artists went to these areas is because they wouldn’t be bothered, and they weren’t desirable, so it meant cheap, and less rules to abide by.

    Claiming great artists as residence doesn’t amount to a community, or thriving art scene bursting at the seems in need of new spaces. People talk about artists, but they don’t truly care.

  4. Despite the epic wipeout of PDR there is still millions of square feet of light industry space remaining in SF and, yes, there is a huge demand for it. As the pool of PDR spaces shrinks the competition grows and more and more groups and jobs are being displaced to the east bay and SJ.

    As far as the arts scene goes, it has taken a lot of huge hits, and still many great artists live and work in the city, but I would estimate that a few thousand have left the city in the last few years.

  5. A rent of zero would not be rent because the concept of a contract requires consideration.

    The issue with rent control is not the initial rent since that is not limited, but rather the inability to get your home back. Solomon made that fairly clear.

    Again, how does a ten year census identify how many times a rental unit turned over? You can duck but you can’t hide.

  6. If owners do not want long-term rentals but do them there is no indictment. Again, no owner wants to rent. That’s why rent isn’t $0.

    Current Population Survey monthly, Housing Vacancy Survey quarterly, American Community Survey annual. All Census.

    C’mon, Sharpe Ratio, a portfolio manager whose performance isn’t just luck knows his data sources backwards and forwads.

  7. The indictment I referred to was citing the owners who decline to offer long-term rentals and not those who offer them but somehow are unhappy about that. Why misrepresent my statement?

    I never said those two numbers were the same. I was simply debunking your applying significance to one number while ignoring the other.

    The census happens every ten years. How does it know how many tenancies came and went during that time?

    Dude, when you are in a hole, stop digging.

  8. If owners do not ‘want’ long-term rentals, but do them anyway, there is no ‘damning indictment of the city’s policies.’

    If the number of rental units converted to owner occupancy and vacancy is as low as the tiny number of new rental units built each year, that is facial evidence almost all owners are renting long term.

    The Census tracks household tenure. The number of tenancies under one year is the annual number of rental units turning over.

    Dude, when you are in a hole, stop digging.

  9. You ducked four of my six refutations. To the ones you didn’t duck:

    I never said that most landlords do not rent out their units long-term. And anyway, if they did not, then they would cease to be landlords anyway by definition, so you’re muttering a tautology.

    The census does not enumerate the annual number of rental units turning over. You can jump back and forth like that but smart observers will notice.

    The number of rental units can remain stable if the number of new non-controlled units equals the number of controlled units going away. That doesn’t mean the latter doesn’t happen.

    I strongly recommend that you stop confusing Google with wisdom, and get out of your armchair and actually talk to people who deal with this in real life.

  10. ‘Only counts vacant units that are being actively marketed’ was false. Rephrasing as ‘dividing the number of actively marketed vacant units’ doesn’t make it less false. Quietly dropping the point amid an explosion of word salad still leaves it false.

    If ‘owners do not want to do long-term rentals,’ some large fraction of forty thousand rental units turning over each year would exit the rental stock for owner occupancy, short rentals and vacancy.

    Instead, the rental stock is relatively stable and vacancies are low.

    ‘Half dozen killer blows’ is six syllables, like ‘sophomoric blowhard’.

  11. In theory, the City can hit owners with abandonment. Alarm bells should be sounding in your head at the suggestion of this, however.

    It’s meant to stop a landlord from withholding half a building from the market on a huge rental building. But instead, we’re talking about going after buildings that might have 1 unit used for Airbnb or a second home for an owners son who lives in Denmark most of the year.

    The numbers are made up, in my opinion. It’s impossible to know. What’s important is the vacancy rate is low. Building a lot of undesirable homes doesn’t make the more desirable homes less desirable. We’re discussing a lot of fallacies, and people will get rich off it, while the city suffers.

  12. How much light industry or industry at all exists in SF? You think there’s really demand for factories?

    Art spaces are wonderful, but that’s our preference. I’ll take it a step further and say SF is lacking in the fertile arts community to even support more art spaces. I don’t think the people who talk about the artists actually know that the art crawls in SF died on the vine long before the galleries closed.

  13. Foginacan, do you have any data that indicates the number of units that are held vacant and off the market? I have heard estimates that it is anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 but it’s a difficult number to validate.

    Also how can the city “penalize” an owner who leaves a building vacant? Assuming it is well maintained and the property taxes paid? I know there are a few places in Europe where a city or country can actually take over the management of a privately owned building that is unused, but did not think that was constitutionally possible in the US.

  14. Choosing not to rent is a myth.

    The cases where it would be economically viable hardly exist. Warehousing typically happens in freezing cold markets, or as a method to redevelop.

    You can also get penalized by the city.

  15. You have to win a debate before you can mock the defeated.

    And the quickest way to make it obvious that you have lost is to have no answer to the half dozen killer blows I delivered to your derivative speculations from the census.

    Better get googling again!

  16. Why continue to post when you have clearly abandoned the topic and seek only to try and offend others?

  17. Oh, kitten. When you have almost everything wrong, here on Census methodology, why keep mewing so piteously?

  18. In my experience people do attempt a refutation when they can, but resort to personal remarks when they cannot. You achieved both which is doubly special.

    Better luck next time.

  19. Oh, honey, no. When those mean people on the internet make fun, it does not mean pookums has won. It means people are tired of explaining the same thing in words of ever fewer syllables.

  20. So you cannot answer any of my questions and criticisms? Not even one?

    Googling outdated census results, believing them without question and then making speculations based on them is certainly easier than going out into the real world and asking real people who are actually involved in this business.

    But it’s no substitute for doing the real work, and your results show why.

  21. What a lot of words. Summarized: ‘having no clue how the Census collects data never stopped anyone on the internet. Excelsior!’

    (NB: the use of Jean Shepherd’s catchphrase is intentional.)

  22. Yes, for people like Redmond it’s all about having the “right” kind of people here. And luckily we have Redmond around to define for us who is desirable and who is not,

  23. Social engineering. To the progressives any new market development is automatically “Luxury”; which is code for “will not vote progressive”.

    Why do you think we are reading a story about a housing crisis which bemoans the fact that new housing is going to replace a motorcycle repair shop?

  24. Wow: you mean you think that you are right?

    The census does not know whether a home is a rental or not because that is not a characteristic of a home but only of the particular use of a home at one point in time (once every ten years).

    Homes move to and from the rental market all the time so it is meaningless to try and derive such data from a rigid snapshot.

    Nor can the census successfully classify the reason for a home not being rented. It may perform a guess but I cannot conceive how.

    The only way to determine if a property owner is keeping a unit off the rental market specifically because of rent laws is to ask the owner. In Solomon’s case we know it is true because she has stated it.

    You would also need to allow for buildings that are converted to TIC’s or condos because of rent control.

    Talk to enough property owners and you will be able to start to assess the scale of the problem.

  25. Right, there have been two such since 2000: the last two recessions, when SF likewise was not enjoying the fruits of a robust economy.

  26. Good question, which suggests a followup: why aren’t the first, second and third planks of a progressive housing policy, ‘build enough places for people to live’?

  27. Wow: that is almost wholly wrong.

    The Census excludes transient (i.e., non-SRO) hotels and lodging houses, but does not exclude rentable units kept off the market for any reason. The Census makes no attempt made to define potentially rentable homes. The Census not only does count units off the market, but it classifies the reasons, including explicitly for-rent and -sale units.

  28. A breach of the planning code is hardly like murder.

    I was simply seeking to determine if the scale of the alleged problem is minor or extensive. I’ve been reading conflicting accounts of that here.

  29. You obviously haven’t spent time in San Jose and Alameda. There have been a few times in the last few decades when they were not enjoying the fruits of a robust economy.

  30. “There’s no way these flats on Nob Hill are going to be affordable housing. But when you take thousands and thousands of apartments and turn them into tourist rentals, it has an impact on the cost of housing. Hardly anyone disputes that.”

    Why doesn’t that work in reverse? If removing thousands of “non-affordable” homes will raise the cost of housing, why won’t adding thousands of “non-affordable” homes lower the cost of housing?

  31. Totally different. If a tax cheat is detected he will always be punished. But short-term rentals have been openly and notoriously operating in the city for decades, have been known about, and only very rarely have been punished.

    The census would have no way of knowing whether a tenancy is short-term or long-term, nor controlled or non-controlled. The oft-quoted vacancy rate is determined by dividing the number of actively marketed vacant units by a number estimated to be the total number of potentially rentable homes.

    If there really is a “huge” problem with STR’s in the city then the clear implication, and certainly one that Tim makes, is that there are thousands of rental homes being withheld from the long-term market.

  32. The vast majority of tax cheats have no problems, too.

    The rental vacancy rate published by the Census excludes transient (i.e., non-SRO) hotels and lodging houses, but does not exclude rentable units kept off the market for any reason, including this one.

  33. Yes, any sustained discrepancy between economic activity in different Bay Area cities and counties will be arbitraged away as businesses seek out lower cost locations. The motorcycle business cited is just one example of how that naturally works.

    It’s a mistake to look at any Bay Area city in isolation to the rest of the local urban area.

  34. If the economy is bustling in San Francisco and in the toilet in Alameda or San Jose, the metro division will tell the tale: it excludes Alameda and Santa Clara counties and hence both areas.

    It is interesting to hear there have been many times the economy was bustling here and in the toilet in Alameda or San Jose. The only obvious time that springs to mind fitting that description is never.

  35. wcw, how many of those “six figure settlements” have there been in the 30 years that hiker claims that such businesses are illegal?

    The vast majority of owners who have done STR’s have had no problems and it is really only in the last 2-3 years, and with Airbnb, that this topic has been on anyone’s radar.

    The vacancy rate is low but of course that only counts vacant units that are being actively marketed. It tells you nothing about the number of potentially rentable units where the owner elects not to have long-term controlled tenants, like Solomon in this example.

  36. If you are correct that there are only a “few” owners acting that way then why is this allegedly a problem?

    The law of unintended consequences is often observed to happen when lawmakers do not think through new regulations. In 1979 when rent control was implemented, did the Supervisors believe that by 2016 SF would have the highest average rents in the nation?

    Laws have real-life effects.

  37. As there have been many times when the economy was bustling in San Francisco and in the toilet in Alameda or San Jose, etc, for evaluating the risk of the erosion of economic diversity of businesses that pay taxes and employ residents, regional data doesn’t help.

  38. The city has sued property owners for these illegal conversions and has walked off with six-figure settlements. This isn’t jaywalking.

    Owners never want to rent; tenants are annoying and maintaining property is tedious. That’s why tenants pay rent. Vacancies are really low, which suggests this indictment isn’t particularly damning.

    The real indictment of city policies is the number of new units built.

  39. MOST apartment owners choose to rent and are making a ton of money. That a few ideologues choose not to rent should not at all influence policy or laws. Perspective is everything. A few miscreants who whine a lot should be ignored.

  40. A “technical breach” is simply an act that is technically illegal but there is no public policy imperative to enforce it. I can give many examples around issues like parking and jaywalking. For instance, you are not supposed to cover up your front yard and park your car here, but thousands of people do it and nothing ever happens. It’s contrary to the planning code and so a technical breach. But nobody cares.

    Indeed, the Chiu law came about precisely because the previous rules were widely perceived as not enforced except when as, you note, a building is getting “busted for many things”.

    Anyway, all this debate about STR’s misses the real point here, which Solomon stated very clearly. The way the rental rules are currently, owners do not want to do long-term rentals. And that is a damning indictment of the city’s policies.

  41. wcw ↷ jhayes362

    Not everything is about you, my friend.

    That said, the trajectory is clear: manufactring is down locally in lockstep with a national decline. ‘Information’ employment is up locally, but remains a small component of a diverse economy.

    Metro divisions are small; here, SF and San Mateo counties. The region combines two large statistical areas, San Jose (mostly Santa Clara) and SF (SF + SM + Alameda + C. Costa + Marin).

    ‘PDR’ is a mishmash of the BLS categories; it includes manufacturing, wholesale trade, construction, transportation, auto repair, printing, audio/video and utilities.

  42. >”But when you take thousands and thousands of apartments and turn them into tourist rentals, it has an impact on the cost of housing. Hardly anyone disputes that.”

    Um….did we forget something? San Francisco prices are not affected by the laws of supply and demand. Remember?

  43. No, conversion of residential to short-term has been illegal for decades. It first came to my attention more than 30 years ago when a boutique BnB on California tried to annex the building next door to expand. They got busted for many things, but converting residential to short term was the major issue.

    There is no reasonable argument to convert a business from residential to short-term rentals, especially in a crisis. That is why it is illegal.

    Your assertion of ‘technical breach’ is pretty funny. I guess the same can be said for any criminal behavior.

    Let the owner eat cake.

  44. Certainly Chiu’s regulations have only been around for the last couple of years. Prior to that doing short-term lets at most was merely a technical breach of the planning code and not enforced unless there was a specific complaint as with other types of planning code violations.

    So there is a reasonable argument here that her business is “grandfathered” into the rules that existed at the time, and therefore the city should formalise it. The situation would be different if someone bought a building now with the intent of doing STR’s.

  45. I choose to focus upon SF and not the region and I wasn’t even discussing manufacturing. Is a motorcycle shop considered manufacturing? How about other PDR businesses?

    Regardless of the statistics, the trajectory is clear.

  46. Short term rentals violated the law before. Regulatory changes allowed these to be let legally under some circumstances.

  47. The local economy is relatively diverse already. Of the roughly million people who work in the metro division (SF and San Mateo), 13-15% are in a, trade, transport & utilities, b, education & health care, c, leisure & hospitality, and d, government. Only 6% are in ‘information’.

    True, manufacturing employment is down below 4%, but the local trend there simply tracks a national move. It has nothing whatever to do with tax breaks or local policy.

    What is the point of changing zoning and tax policy when the mooted city value of economic diversity already exists?

    Data sources: 1, local employment, 2, local vs national mfg

    Manufacturing chart:

    https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/fredgraph.png?g=325I

  48. I do not believe that the laws and rules about STR’s were around ten years ago when she started this business. So it seems to me that she is doing the right thing by asking the city to formalise a well-established and successful business for which there is clear demand.

    An analogy would be something like the way that people can illegally squat and occupy an empty building and, after a few years, submit a claim for the city to formally recognize their legal ownership of that building.

  49. Your idea requires a lot more central control than currently available – that’s the point. Tim thinks that a motorcycle business is desirable and a short-term residence building is not desirable. But judging by popular demand, the STR business is supported by the market and the motorcycle business is not.

    To reverse that situation requires more than just tax breaks and zoning technicalities. It requires the city to take over much of the decision-making about what businesses should be where. And risks potentially having businesses that are not really sustainable.

    Affordable housing may well be a city value, as you claim. But that doesn’t in much of it being created. The city mostly relies on private developers building them as a by-product. It is not clear to me how the city could micro-manage the local business portfolio in a way that Tim would like, without a lot more centralised powers and rules.

  50. FYI, the attempted to scare with the words “centrally controlled” is another way of red-baiting, and that means the return of Sam.

  51. The landlord bought the building – a ‘business’ – 10 years ago and is now in violation of city law because she changed that business from residential to short-term rentals.

    The city cannot compel that landlord to rent her apartments to people who want to be long-term residents, but they can stop her from doing anything else short of keeping the units vacant or selling the building/units, which is what they should be doing.

  52. Allowing businesses to be displaced for residences isn’t the same as businesses closing or moving away for a “variety of reasons.”

    And yes, we can cultivate creating desired businesses – just look at what the Twitter tax break did. There are other tools that the mayor can use as well.

  53. I’m not talking about a centrally controlled economy. Cities have a lot of tools to promote economic development; zoning laws and the twitter tax break are but two examples. Economic diversity should be a city value, just like affordable housing.

  54. The Mayor may agree with you and decide that the city wants a very specific mix of businesses going forward.

    But the city cannot create those desired businesses. Nor save desired businesses that close or move away for a variety of reasons.

    If you’re going to have a centrally controlled economy, you’d need a lot more laws and a lot less free choice. And historically that hasn’t worked out so well.

  55. “And if a landlord in San Francisco doesn’t want to be a landlord, he or she has every right to sell the building to someone who does – and in this case, considering how much the place has appreciated in the past decade, that doesn’t seem like a hardship.”

    True, although the seller will get a much better price by having no long-term tenants in it, so there is a reward for not renting the units out. And of course the buyer of that building will not necessarily rent out the units long-term either if the rules make that unattractive.

    The city can control rents and evictions, but the city cannot compel property owners to use the property in a very specific way. If the city really wants that level of control, then it should go to the voters and ask for a large tax increase so that the city can buy up every rental building that comes onto the market.

    And then, presumably, run it at a loss.

  56. Good point hiker. Here are some questions that should be put to the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development:

    How has the composition of the city’s workforce changed in the last 5 and 10 years?

    Looking ahead, what are the goals for the composition of the city’s workforce and how are they being implemented?

    My suspicion is that planning under Lee’s administration is willy-nilly, with a nod to development wherever it can take place.

  57. Forgetting for a moment about the morality of these conversions, it is better to have a diverse economic base in San Francisco. Displacing small businesses that are not ‘tech offices’ puts us at further risk for economic calamity when there is a correction in the tech sector.

  58. SLOW MOTION TRAINWRECK
    Developers–with the City’s permission–continue to methodically sweep the city clean of its light industry and arts spaces to the tune of billions of dollars in profits.

    They earn as much as $100,000,000 per project by converting these light industry “Urban Mixed Use” properties into nearly entirely luxury housing.

    This demolition/conversion displaces blue-collar workers and shops, communities of color, and art spaces and artists, while driving up rents and increasing displacement on the surrounding blocks.

    It’s time to stop the selloff of our city. There are currently 3 such projects in the planning stages in the Mission alone: 1726 Mission, 19th/Bryant, and 2000 Bryant. This 540 De Haro project is just the latest in what is quickly becoming a long string of these cash cow proposals.

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