The San Francisco Planning Department has never really been about planning; in the 35 years I’ve been in San Francisco, it’s been driven by meeting the needs of developers. Planning means setting out an agenda based on what the city needs, and inviting the private sector to decide whether it wants to participate (being fully aware that sometimes land won’t be built to its “highest and best” use, that profits and investor returns may not be maximized, that growth might slow down, and that some parts of town may be preserved for low-cost housing and businesses that can’t pay tech-office rents). In this city, developers set the growth-driven agenda, and Planning responds.
So I shouldn’t be surprised that the Planning Department staff has come down pretty much 100 percent on the side of Sups. London Breed and Ahsha Safai on the battle over affordable housing.
Planning released a report last week that looks at both the Breed-Safai bill and a competing measure by Sups. Aaron Peskin and Jane Kim. It’s supposed to be a neutral analysis that gives the Planning Commission some direction.
But from the start, the report bows down to the developer world, talking about “maximum economically feasible” alternatives – that is, everything is based on the idea that our policy must allow private developers to make the type of returns that they are now seeking in a marketplace where luxury housing in cities is exceptionally lucrative.
The Breed-Safai version of two competing bills is far more developer friendly; it would allow the folks who make a fortune building market-rate housing in San Francisco to make even more money.
And that’s done in the name of creating housing for middle-class people.
We have examined this in some depth, so I won’t go into the details, except to say: If you allow developers to claim housing is “affordable” when the subsidized rents are not far from market-rate, you are giving them a huge financial windfall.
I’m not saying the city shouldn’t mandate affordable housing for middle-class families. That’s the segment of the market where we are falling the furthest behind. We can fix that.
But the way you do that is to tell developers that about 50 percent of their new units should fit into the middle-class category, not 10 percent. If that means a few of them back off from their projects, fine – others will come along. And remember, at 25 percent affordable housing, the city actually loses ground in the housing game.
The city controller has looked at the question of how much developers can pay, and concluded that “economically feasible” means that a project has to return far more than most other investments these days. It’s not about whether the project will make a profit; it’s about whether that profit is higher than what speculative money would make in some other vehicle.
This is, of course, the wrong question.
The report is just a series of recommendations to the Planning Commission, which will then make recommendations to the Board of Supes, which actually gets to decide. But the report makes clear that Planning staff worked closely with the Mayor’s Office of Housing on the recommendations, so I think that says where Mayor Ed Lee is on all of this.
The measure comes before the Planning Commission April 27.
It’s been a tough battle almost from Day One, but supporters of City College have pulled it off, and as of next fall, the college will be free to San Francisco residents. That’s right – if the cost of tuition was or is an issue for you, you can now take classes for nothing.
And if you support this civic institution, taking a class is a great way to show it. “The best thing you can do for City College right now is to enroll and take a free class,” College Board member Tom Temprano told me.
The school’s holding a citywide set of open houses Friday/21 from 9am to noon at every one of the campuses. Faculty and administrators will be on hand to help you through the enrollment process.
The supes are beginning the process of cracking down on owner move-in evictions, a longtime problem that’s only getting worse. The law says that the owner of a housing unit has the right to move in, and evict the current tenant, if they or a close relative wants to occupy it. The problem is, of course, that once a tenant is gone from a rent-controlled unit, the landlord can simply re-rent the place (at a much higher price) to somebody else. And the city never checks.
That’s right: Nobody ever follows up to make sure that the landlord actually moved in. So abuse is rampant, as a Channel 4 investigation last fall showed.
The only way a tenant can get an recourse is to do their own legwork (which is hard, after you’ve been evicted and probably moved away from the city) – or to hire a lawyer who can sue if the eviction was fraudulent.
That’s possible, Mark Hooshmand, a local tenant lawyer who has won some big unlawful eviction cases. “You can come to us, and we will hire the investigator for you at no cost,” Hoosmand told me recently.
The potential recovery can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But there are thousands of these evictions, and even if every tenant lawyer in the city had the resources to go after them full time, some landlords would still get away with it.
And if you sue, you get some money – but the landlord faces no other penalties for breaking the law.
It’s hard to crack down; the District Attorney’s Office says a prosecutor would have to prove that the landlord intended to cheat the tenant (as opposed to, say, just changing their mind after living in the place for two days and moving out again.)
So both Sup. Mark Farrell and Sups. Jane Kim and Aaron Peskin have introduced legislation that would require follow-up monitoring – and impose criminal penalties on scofflaws.
The Farrell measure would mandate that landlords sign a statement under penalty of perjury confirming that they are moving into the unit; that would allow the DA to file charges more easily.
The Peskin-Kim bill also mandates a sworn statement, and requires a landlord to file annual reports for three years showing that they are actually occupying the place as a “principal place of residence.” A landlord who does an OMI eviction then rents out the unit at a higher price than the previous tenant was paying would be guilty of a crime.
I suspect that the board will pass a version of one of these bills, since nobody can honestly say that landlords should be allowed to violate city law with impunity.
It raises another question: Why doesn’t the Rent Board have a staff of investigators who go out and check for landlords who break the rules? A follow-up visit from a city inspector every three months after an OMI would make it even harder to profit from this scam.
If you apply for a building permit, the Department of Building Inspection is supposed to check out the place after the work is done to make sure it’s up to code and in compliance with that the permit allowed. Why can’t the Rent Board do the same thing? Why does the burden fall on an evicted tenant?
I’m sure we could fund that program with a modest fee on every OMI. Worth considering.
Full disclosure: I am a regular guest lecturer at City College.