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ElectionsCampaign TrailMatt Dorsey's Treasure Island problem

Matt Dorsey’s Treasure Island problem

It's a key part of the district's future—but he hasn't been able to explain his vision (or even his understanding of the issues).

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Incumbent San Francisco District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey has a big challenge as he faces voters for election to his new position this November.

He entered this race as a relative unknown on Treasure Island, and he likewise lacks knowledge about its history and problems. TI doesn’t have the same drug and safety issues that much of the rest of District 6 does. (The district also includes SoMa, Mission Bay, East Cut.) Instead, it has its own peculiar issues as a new residential development being built on a dilapidated and infrastructure-challenged former military base that started as a redevelopment project before the state eliminated redevelopment agencies and their tax increment financing.

Sup. Matt Dorsey isn’t sure about the future of Treasure Island. Photo from Mattdorsey.org

Dorsey’s signature pro-housing, Yimby message is redundant on the island. For 25 years TI has been waiting for the promised units, especially the affordable ones. The controversy isn’t whether to build, but when it is going to get done and whether it will have the social justice component Dorsey promotes—not displacing low-income people and people of color—and how to make sure it will be a sustainable neighborhood and community beyond its traffic issues.

On Sept. 28, I sat down with Dorsey in his Soma campaign office. I wanted to learn where the new supervisor stood on the issues roiling TI in advance of the election, particularly the toll, transportation, and housing and development issues on the island.

Throughout the interview, when pressed for specifics, (over and over again) he fell back on his need to learn more. His remarks were peppered with statements such as:

I’m gonna need to get way better educated than I am on this.

Do I have a lot more homework to do on this? So stipulated.

I have to acknowledge that there’s 25 years of agreements and legislation and things that I need to unpack to prudently make a decision.

I can talk from a set of the perspective of principles and rely on others for details.

As a supervisor, I’ve still got a lot to learn

Matt Dorsey is a 57-year old out gay white man who is openly HIV positive, a former substance and alcohol abuser in recovery. He worked for 14 years as the chief press person in the City Attorney’s Office and for the past two years as the head of public affairs for the San Francisco Police Department.

Dorsey considers the SFPD to be a progressive department and a national leader in police reform. He supported the recall of DA Chesa Boudin and the candidacy of new DA Brooke Jenkins.

Mayor London Breed appointed him as the District 6 supervisor last May after then-Supervisor Matt Haney left the position to become the Assembly member representing the east side of the city.

In his public appearances he had presented himself as a “progressive” who wanted to be a “brave” and “bold” supervisor. He said he admired state Senator Scott Weiner because he never equivocated—he always told you where he stood without ambiguity.

Dorsey had allocated 45 minutes for our interview. He started off like he was filibustering it, using up the time so we couldn’t get into anything in any depth, repeating his stump speech stories, talking fast to make it hard to find an opening to interject until he finally asked if I had a question.

At other gatherings he had used some variation of the “need to learn more” response when addressing the toll, so the obvious question was where he stood on it now. He responded with four sharp words.

“I’m against the toll,” he said.

Then came the equivocation.

“If we get to a situation where the toll, if this is so baked in that it’s gonna tank 8,000 units of housing, you know, if there’s a scenario where we have to have a toll because it’s something that’s been done, and it’s a done deal and it’s baked in and nobody’s getting out of it…” he began, sounding like he was about to let go of his toll opposition for his housing goals. And then a telling admission.

“I don’t know that there’s support on Board of Supervisors [for the toll], even if I was for it,” he said.

It would require a two-thirds vote of the Board of Supervisors—8 of 11, a high bar—and mathematically it wouldn’t make a difference if Dorsey voted for it or not.

“Treasure Island is just one precinct in District 6, but it punches above its weight,” Dorsey said, acknowledging the neighborhood’s organizing success.

For whom the toll tolls

He called the toll regressive, even with its resident exemptions and discounts. And it complicates his main concern—building more housing.

“The optics of the toll are terrible for the entire pro-housing movement. This is bigger than Treasure Island,” he said.

But he doesn’t sound like a candidate entirely convinced of his own positions.

“Here’s my worry about the toll. We can’t have 20,000 new residents coming onto Treasure Island with private automobiles,” he said.

But the plan wasn’t always for 20,000 residents on the islands. In fact, the first proposal for the development in 1996 envisioned no housing at all, just using the area for cultural and entertainment facilities, sports fields, and open space precisely because with only one way to get on and off the island by car—the bridge—it was considered infeasible to put many people there.

But then the plan was amended with the magic words “affordable housing” and suddenly, like an engineering transfiguration, the Bay Bridge no longer loomed so formidable as an obstacle. At first it was to be for only one or two thousand people. But the numbers increased four more times at the developer’s insistence that they couldn’t make it financially viable without more units, going up to 2,800 in 2002, to 5,500, to 7,540, and finally to 8,000 in 2010.

The majority of the housing will not be affordable.

That begat the problem of bridge congestion, which begat the toll solution and placing the financial burden on the residents, later expanded to anyone who came to the islands. That begat the Treasure Island Mobility Management Agency (TIMMA), plans for a rapid ferry to the mainland, and an expanded traffic bureaucracy that added to the costs the toll had to cover with its proposed $10 charge—the highest bridge toll in California—which, if you are coming from the East Bay is added to the $7 it costs to get on the Bay Bridge, adding up to a $17 to visit Treasure Island.

That begat a political and financial migraine San Francisco politicians are still looking for a next patch to fix.

Dorsey acknowledged he didn’t know that history, so he had little to offer as a way out.

He did suggest charging the wealthy people buying the luxury condos on Yerba Buena Island a six-figure fee for a parking spaces (already being done and likely to include parking fees for all residents and visitors). While tax-the-rich proposals have a nice progressive ring to it, the rich and speculators who want the condos with the best views of the Bay will pay, but it will not take many cars off the bridge or ease congestion.

Dorsey also floated the idea of just having the city pick up the tab for all that the toll revenue is slated to cover, effectively socializing the costs throughout San Francisco. He said he figures the property taxes on the island housing, which he called the biggest source of city income, would cover it. Perhaps, but that could have been decided years ago and saved much time and money.

To be fair, there is consistency in his consistency. His main principle is building more housing. His stump speech emphasizes that he wants to be the housing conscience of the board. He constantly talks about the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation, the number of units a city must build or lose state funding for affordable housing and transportation.The city is required to make room and clear approvals for 82,000 units in the next eight years. The TI project would provide nine percent of that requirement.

“I’m gonna support housing in my district and your district and your district,” his stump speech goes.

And he wants to do that with an emphasis on “not repeating the mistakes of generations past”, that is, displacing low-income and people of color as was done in the Fillmore and Manilatown.

While saying his pro-housing principles would guide his decisions, he dismissed the calls from Treasure Islanders for an economic impact study on how the toll would affect its residents and businesses as well as the livability of the island. How do you know what’s a good idea or a bad one for the future of TI without some data to guide you?

For instance, Dorsey said he doesn’t know, and apparently neither does the city, just how much money the city needs the toll to raise to pay for its bus and ferry alternative transportation modes; how much it is giving up in toll dollars to cover its multiple and complex discounts for residents, island business employees and low-income visitors; or the costs of administering the tolls and FASTRAK record-keeping that it has developed to try to address all the valid objections and placate opposition. No one even has a ballpark figure that justifies the proposed $10 toll.

No island is an island—state coastal protections

In 2014 the City and County of San Francisco signed legally binding contracts with the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the State Lands Commission, which oversee the development of California’s coastal regions and tidelands, including Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island. These agreements gave San Francisco permission to build a residential development on the islands in exchange for free public access to these public trust lands, like all coastal areas in California.

By 2016 it became clear to the city officials that due to poor planning and an inadequate agreement with the development group, the expanded bus and ferry service projected would cost more than the commitments made by the developer. So in July 2016 the Board of Supervisors extended its toll policy to charge all TI visitors the toll—in violation of these agreements. That could cancel permission for all 8,000 housing units Dorsey sees as essential to fulfilling the City’s housing goals.

But Dorsey said he had no knowledge of this roadblock to his pro-housing dreams, and showed little interest when asked about it. Neither the mayor, nor her allies on the board, nor or any of the staff whose jobs it is to complete the project bothered to inform him of this wrinkle, even though the city has been aware of the issue since it began to make plans for the development in 1996. All of them continue to proceed as if they can ignore the matter.

When BCDC got wind in late 2021 that the Treasure Island Mobility Management Agency was planning to vote to pass the toll at an upcoming meeting, BCDC reminded the city of its legal commitments. In a Nov. 15, 2021 letter, BCDC suggested TIMMA get in touch with BCDC’s legal department before proceeding. The previous contract would need to be renegotiated and a new EIR might need to be done to resolve the differences between the original contract and this new toll policy. That could delay the whole project, which is already over budget and way behind schedule by years.

Lottery evictions—losing by winning

Treasure Island is a man-made landfill project built in the 1930s on the shoals of Yerba Buena Island to be the site of the Golden Gate International Exposition celebrating the newly completed engineering feat of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges. The plan was to turn it into an international airport until WWII intervened. Then the US Navy took it over.

The Navy’s legacy is an island littered with toxic and radioactive waste it was supposed to have cleaned up before closing the base and turning it back over to San Francisco for civilian use in the 1990s. Although officially the Navy and the city claim the cleanup is complete and the island is safe, their actions suggest otherwise. They advise residents not to dig in the yards around their housing units or let their kids play there. Sections of the island have been fenced off with radiation and toxics warning signs. The housing in the northwest Gateview neighborhood, near where the Navy had its “burn pits,” is slated to be torn down and not rebuilt there. It will be left as an open space park.

State officials now admit  the site was never properly cleaned up and parts of it remain highly unsafe.

While planning and preparations for San Francisco’s new neighborhood on the island proceeded, the city moved homeless and low-income people into the former Navy housing and rented out other facilities to businesses to collect revenue in the meantime.

This has been going on for 25 years while cancer clusters and the lawsuits they engender continue. Nonetheless, the lack of affordable housing in San Francisco and the promise of long-term affordable units for those who stay have kept people who have few other options there.

Approximately 1,800 people live on TI, the majority of whom are people of color, and about 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Over the years, as people will, they have built community there and still seek to make a better life for themselves and their families.

Dorsey said he knows next to nothing about the next big controversy facing Islanders, what they refer to as “lottery evictions.”

Many of the residents have lived on TI for 10, 15, 20 years or more. These long-timers have been promised first shot at the new low-income housing units still to be built. They have been living in temporary Navy housing since the 1990s and enduring the indignities of life in limbo without proper amenities. Cell and internet services are spotty. Power outages are a way of life, accompanied by throwing out half a refrigerator of food, and sewage backups that sometimes run down their streets.

But they have clung to the promise of low-income housing even as the date for building the new homes has slid further and further into the future. The Treasure Island Development Agency, the city entity that runs the island developments, held a lottery last May among residents who qualify for the new units that puts them in line for the housing. Residents were given numbers and know their place in line, but they don’t know when the numbers will start to be called, how quickly the queue will move, whether the unit they will be offered will be comparable in size and cost to what they have now, and whether it will work for all members of their households—or if instead they will have to accept a minimal payoff and relinquish their rights to a home on TI.

While awaiting their turn, residents’ lives are on hold and the future of their families’ housing is unknown. Into this vacuum of information rumors have rushed in, raising the anxiety level on the island. TIDA could let people know the answers, but hasn’t.

Those selected first don’t get first choice of units. Instead, they are offered a unit by TIDA that it deems appropriate, according to the agency’s arbitrary and ever-changing rules and timelines. They get to be first to choose to take it or leave it and leave the island. And among the rumors flying around the island now is that the first lottery winners will be offered some of the least desirable units. In other words, if you win, you lose.

Residents brought this to Dorsey’s attention at the July 25 TI Town Hall where they pleaded with him to intercede on their behalf. As D6 supervisor he has an ex-officio seat on the TIDA Board and could demand the information. At that time, he said he had to learn more about the issue, but two months later the matter barely cracked his consciousness when raised again in our interview. He pivoted back to his default position of needing to get more information on it.

Tenants fear the system is set up to get rid of them so the new housing can be offered to non-islanders the city has no obligations to and can charge higher rents, effectively fulfilling their greatest fear since the anti-toll movement began four years ago — that TI will become a wealthy, gated, bedroom enclave.

When pressed for reasons why TI residents and business owners should vote for him given his lack of program and proposals to deal with their issues, he replied, “If people aren’t convinced to vote for me, that’s fine. I can’t win every vote.”

Steve Stallone is a 48hills.org correspondent and a founding member of theTreasure Island Organizing Committee, a coalition of residents and business owners working against the toll, for fair housing and other quality-of-life issues on the island.

COMING NEXT: Honey Mahogany on Treasure Island.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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