The Agenda, July 10-16: A landlord attack on ballot initiatives …

... plus what to do when robots take all our jobs, and Prince Gavin hides from the press. We look at the coming week

A landlord-sponsored bill that would make it harder for local residents to pass growth-control ballot measures – and would have a huge impact in San Francisco – is headed for a key state Senate hearing Wednesday/12.

The Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments will consider AB 943, which passed the Assembly with the support of both of San Francisco’s representatives, Phil Ting and David Chiu.

A citizen ballot measure stopped billionaire condos on the waterfront, and the landlords want to make sure that doesn't happen any more
A citizen ballot measure stopped billionaire condos on the waterfront, and the landlords want to make sure that doesn’t happen any more

The measure would require a 55 percent vote to approve any citizen initiative that would “reduce density or stop development or construction of any parcels located less than one mile from a transit stop.” That, of course, would include all of San Francisco.

As we noted in June, when the bill cleared the first house, it would have blocked Prop. M, the 1986 measure that now has widespread support around the city and is generally considered a dramatic success in land-use planning. That measure passed with just 51 percent of the vote.

It’s much, much harder to get a 55 percent vote – and that’s the point. The California Apartment Association, which is sponsoring the bill, sees it as a way to prevent the voters in a city from slowing down housing development.

But it also would also apply to commercial development (say, luxury hotels or a Warriors arena on the waterfront).

And it’s another attempt by the real-estate industry to undermine a central part of the state Constitution – the notion that the voters have the right to challenge what their elected officials do.

It’s similar to the ongoing efforts by the state Lands Commission and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom to prevent the voters from controlling waterfront land-use decisions.

The measure’s author, Miguel Santiago, is unhappy about Measure S, a growth-limit bill in Los Angeles. But that proposal lost by 70 percent; changing the threshold wouldn’t have made any difference.

Tenants Together, the statewide renters group, opposed the measure. In a letter to the committee, Executive Director Dean Preston notes:

AB 943 is a power grab by the real estate industry, pure and simple. The industry that is doing just fine under existing rules, enjoying record runaway profits. In addition to their ever–‐increasing lobbying expenditures and candidate contributions, CAA in particular has dedicated millions of dollars to defeating grassroots ballot measures backed by tenants. They win some and they lose some. It is unnecessary, unfair and anti–‐democratic to change the rules to make sure the industry wins more often, which is exactly what AB 943 seeks to do.

Imagine for a moment if Tenants Together proposed a law in Sacramento that local rent control ballot measures only needed 45% of the vote to become law. We would win rent control in most cities in the state under such a regime. But we would be laughed out of Sacramento with such a bill. Our request would be no more absurd than CAA’s request in this bill.

Jon Golinger, representing No Wall on the Waterfront, which led the battle to mandate voter review of waterfront height-limit changes, notes in an opposition letter:

 AB 943 is bad policy because it would establish a double-standard for local ballot initiatives that would require citizen-initiated ballot measures that are qualified for the ballot through petition signature gathering to win a higher percentage of votes in order to pass than identical ballot measures that are placed on the ballot by local politicians.  In San Francisco, the No Wall on the Waterfront coalition collected 21,000 petition signatures to put the Waterfront Height Limit Right to Vote Act on the ballot in 2014 to protect the waterfront precisely because elected officials at City Hall had failed to do so.  How could increasing the vote requirement for this kind of citizen ballot measure to 55% while allowing an identical measure put on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors to pass with 50%+1 votes be anything other than a blatant attempt to silence the voters? 

AB 943 would not apply to measures placed on the ballot by the Board of Supes. Like Newsom’s lawsuit against the city, it’s based on the idea that the professional planners (at the City Planning Department or the Port) and the elected officials know better than the voters.

The problem with that, of course, is that the initiative process was put in the Constitution to protect against elected officials whose loyalties are bought by, say, developers. In the case of waterfront development, the mayor and his Port Commission have agreed to projects supported by campaign contributors and powerful lobbyists – but rejected by the voters.

If you want to comment on the measure, you can email and address your comments to Sen. Henry Stern, the committee chair.


Sup. Jane Kim has an interesting oped in the SactoBee, talking about her new working group to study the consequences of automation – that is, robots taking over human jobs. It’s nothing new, but it’s accelerating at a startling rate: In the next 15 years, 38 percent of all US jobs could be automated; that’s 57 million people replaced by robots. The unemployment rate would soar to levels far beyond the Great Depression; the country would be in a state of economic shock. Her point:

Given the inevitability that robots will soon be doing jobs that had employed humans, we have options: Run and hide, or get ready.

Some wealthy entrepreneurs are already opting for the first strategy. A recent story in The New Yorker featured interviews with a number of people who are worried about the civil unrest that will almost certainly follow massive layoffs and job loss. These millionaires and billionaires are buying luxury bunkers built out of former missile silos or readying getaway properties in New Zealand.

They understand that the automation revolution will naturally lead to uprisings and democratic decline if we do nothing – and rather than working to avoid or mitigate the impacts, they are choosing to run or hide. Meanwhile “regular” people are left behind to deal with the fallout.

Kim is talking about a “robot tax” – a way to make sure that the companies that replace people with machines still pay the current payroll taxes. That’s a good idea – but really, it’s just the start.

The idea of automation destroying jobs (and self worth) has been around a long long time. One of my favorite essays of all time looks at Ned Ludd and the history of the rebellion against technology; it’s by Thomas Pynchon, and was written in 1984.

The knitting machines which provoked the first Luddite disturbances had been putting people out of work for well over two centuries. Everybody saw this happening — it became part of daily life. They also saw the machines coming more and more to be the property of men who did not work, only owned and hired. It took no German philosopher, then or later, to point out what this did, had been doing, to wages and jobs. Public feeling about the machines could never have been simple unreasoning horror, but likely something more complex: the love/hate that grows up between humans and machinery — especially when it’s been around for a while — not to mention serious resentment toward at least two multiplications of effect that were seen as unfair and threatening. One was the concentration of capital that each machine represented, and the other was the ability of each machine to put a certain number of humans out of work — to be ”worth” that many human souls.

Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, published in 1952, talks about a future where most humans have been put out of work by machines, leading (as Pynchon and the “German Philosopher” he cites, noted long ago) to deep class divisions in society.

Kim is right to be concerned, and I’m surprised that more people in public office aren’t thinking about the problem; self-driving cars alone could wipe out 5 million jobs in this country. In the process, the companies like Uber that operate taxis (and the trucking firms that employ drivers) will get even richer, since there won’t be any payroll costs anymore.

Soon, Amazon will deliver packages by drone; no more UPS driver. (In fact, Google wants to replace me with a robot.)


In the past, technological changes have eliminated some jobs but created others; this time around, it’s entirely possible that large numbers of people will just be out of work because there’s not enough work for them to do. You can’t solve the problem by educating and retraining everyone; if there aren’t enough jobs, period, then PhDs and coders won’t be working, either.

The question that I hope Kim’s task force looks at is a profound one: At what point do we as a society decouple income from work? At what point do the benefits of automation really pass down to all of us, so that the standard work week becomes ten hours – at what used to be 40 hours pay? That will only happen if the wealth created by automation doesn’t all accrue to the top – if the benefits are shared, as they were not in the first Industrial Revolution (but were, to a much greater extent, in the post-War US, where unions made sure that capital didn’t keep all the nation’s wealth and taxes on the very rich approached 90 percent, limiting the number of vast fortunes and creating a functioning middle class).

That’s a political issue. Might as well start talking about it now.


The folks at Calbuzz, Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstein, who have had a lot of fun and covered a lot of ground in the past few years, are shutting down their blog for the moment. Roberts is former managing editor of the Chron, Trounstein the former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News, and they are both semi-retired reporters who know a whole lot about state politics.

I am not the fan of Dianne Feinstein that Roberts is (he wrote a biography about her), and we’ve had plenty of disagreements over the years. But they have that old-school approach to political journalism that takes no prisoners, and their last blog is no exception.

On Gavin Newsom (and his handlers):

Candy-ass Gavin: We’re astonished, if not surprised, that Prince Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in governor’s-race polling, is too much of a scaredy-cat wimp and cowardly wuss to answer a few basic questions about the state and what he would do as governor, as every other serious contender has – shout-out to Antonio, Delaine, John and Tom (not to mention Jerry Brown when he was preparing to run back in 2009).

His overpaid coat carriers at Ace Smith’s SCN Strategies (who double as consultants to Sen. Kamala Harris) have hilariously tried to explain why they won’t let their clients talk to us.

On October 10, 2016, after Harris’s debate with former U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, SCN’s Sean Clegg wrote:

I noticed no byline on your debate story. I just have to say you guys do a poor job concealing your misogyny. What shallow crap. Good thing your blog hasn’t been relevant since 2010.  Will be advising all my clients thusly! [Note: Calbuzz has never used bylines except for our guest contributors.]

And on May 8, 2017, when we were trying to get Newsom on the phone for an interview before the California Democratic Party convention, SCN’s Dan Newman wrote:

I say this not on behalf of any of my colleagues or clients, but personally I would be reluctant to facilitate any interview because I find your blog’s occasionally savvy insight and wit tarnished by mean-spirited cynicism. This isn’t partisan or personal — you needlessly demean my friends and foes, clients and competitors, with schoolyard taunting and petty name-calling. I’m certainly guilty of doing the same thing on occasion over the last two decades, but as I get older while wandering through the Trumpocalypse, I find this approach increasingly distasteful and unproductive.

Poor babies.

Gavin’s refusal to sit down with Calbuzz — as enforced by his vaunted brain trusters — demonstrates something worse than cowardice: it’s a signal of his weakness of character and his willingness to hide from critics and questioners that ought to serve as a warning to serious political reporters, donors and activists that Newsom does not have the stones to govern California.

I have personal experience with this: Newsom would come to Bay Guardian editorial meetings as a candidate for mayor (and for re-election) when his political consultants advised him to. Other than that, he had little use for reporters who were critical of him.

His press people would refuse to take my phone calls and answer my emails. He would try to avoid my questions whenever he could. It wasn’t just me: He has stormed out of interviews and insulted reporters.

There are always going to be crazy trolls (I get them too, and I try to talk to them), but I was never impolite or disrespectful to Newsom; I never even got into his personal life, since it’s really none of my business.

I just challenged his policies. I dared to say that he was a mayor who was all about flash and dazzle with no substance. And that he was on the side of the wealthy and not the rest of us.

He could get away with that as a supervisor, and even as mayor. But when you reach a certain level of high office, you can’t hide from reporters. Even the ones you don’t like.

If you want to be president of the United States, you have to expect that the press is going to go after you, all the time. That’s part of the job. You aren’t going to like a lot of the coverage, and if you can’t deal with that, then you are … Donald Trump.

Same goes for governor of California. There are going to be reporters who are jerks and only want to play “gotcha.” There are going to be lots of people who find fault with everything you do. You can’t just ignore them; it’s not a job for a thin-skinned prince.

We will miss Calbuzz. And if Newsom can get elected governor of this state without seriously interacting – in a non-scripted way – with an aggressive news media, then there’s a real problem.


  1. The only way to end this shortage is to build, build, build. You know: that supply/demand thing? When the haves (homeowners) can block all action at the local level (NIMBATS), gridlock ensues. VIVA EL YIMBYismo. VIVA la revolucion!

  2. So, does AB923 apply to ALL development? Or just to residential development?

    CA has a serious shortage of housing, so sweeping away attempts to restrict that have some merit. AFAIK, CA does NOT have a severe shortage of office space or industrial sites (well, with the exception of oil refineries that produce CA gasoline).

    But why would the CA Apt. Assoc be a big backer of office and industrial development? (and one might even question why they’d want to increase competition in the residential area) Or is the headline just another example of media (in this case, “progressive” media) ‘click-bait’?

  3. Does anyone really think that drones are going to be used as widespread vehicles for all deliveries? Do you think the airlines and FAA are going to tolerate having planes plan their schedules so they have to avoid having a drone get stuck in the engine when they take off or land? Do people really want to look up at the sky and not be able to see the clouds because huge massive ugly birds are landing on people’s rooftops?
    Self driving cars have not yet been able to figure out what to do in case of all the unlimited possibilities that can occur, for example an unanticipated animal in the road. They also can’t handle bridges and tunnels. I hate to be skeptical but I heard that self driving cars would be available in five years five years ago.I’d love to have one because I don’t like to drive, but Im not holding my breath. In addition, the technology doesn’t allow the driver to just fall asleep. You still have to have a person watching and paying attention, as you need an airline pilot to monitor when the plane is on auto pilot.
    Not that automation isn’t a problem but those two examples may be exaggerated.

  4. Funny how YIMBYs & BARFers continue to spew the giant lie that there is a housing shortage, when, in point of fact: there is an affordable housing crisis and a glut of empty market rate units that few can afford. Remember too that Yimbots and Barfbots are funded by developers, speculators, realtors and Ron Conway, and when the issue of truly affordable housing for San Franciscans is on the line, these 2 groups are a no show.

  5. AB 943: A good first step in ending the NIMBY stranglehold of California. We have huge housing shortages throughout the coastal counties in California because NIMBYs impede construction to depress supply and keep their property values high. VIVA EL YIMBYismo!

  6. Thanks for the details on AB 943. It looks like all the Committee Members are in SoCal so that is who we need to contact them.

  7. Now more than ever: political candidates MUST make themselves available to their potential constituents and to voters….at public forums….at town halls and in press conferences. You seek our votes. You serve us, and not corporate masters. Democracy first. Now more than ever.

  8. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that Candidate Gavin Newsom would repeatedly dodge a free and independent press in his run as governor. What does he have to hide? Where Trump and his squad of handlers demonize, silence and marginalize an independent press’s essential role in vetting worthy candidates, we, the voting public reject those who hide from questions regarding their records and their future plans for our state. It is that simple!

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