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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

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City HallThe AgendaSaving residential hotels, limiting public comment—and the budget process begins

Saving residential hotels, limiting public comment—and the budget process begins

Plus: Why Downtown failed, and what we can learn. That's The Agenda for Feb. 27-March 5.


The Board of Supes Rules Committee will again take on Monday/27 the thorny issue of remote public comment. During the height of the pandemic, the supes met remotely, and people who have the legal right under the Brown Act to comment did so the same way, by calling in on a phone line.

Now the city’s declaration of emergency is ending, and Sup. Rafael Mandelman wants to end remote comment. He told me that remote comments have made meetings excessively long, and he doesn’t think this is the best way to communicate to the district supervisors.

So now what are we going to do with all these empty buildings? Wikimedia Commons image by GyozaDumpling

At the last hearing, Feb. 6, Sup. Matt Dorsey asked for a delay because he wanted to coordinate the supes policy with other city agencies. I have seen no agenda items for other agencies that discuss ending remote public comment; perhaps we will hear more about that Monday.

In the meantime, a coalition of more than 100 organizations just announced that they will be at City Hall at 9am to meet with the supes, and will be giving testimony at the 10am hearing:

Said Jessica Lehman, Executive Director of Senior and Disability Action: “This ordinance seeks to silence San Francisco residents who, due to their work schedules, caregiver duties, disabilities, lack of transportation, concerns about COVID, and a host of other barriers, cannot appear in person at public meetings to provide input on topics of deep importance to their lives.This population includes the vast majority of San Franciscans. We refuse to let this stand.”

One of the lessons learned during the pandemic is that allowing remote public comment at government meetings results in greater participation from those who have historically been unable to participate. One year ago, Washington State passed a law endorsing and encouraging the practice, noting the positive aspects of expanding the democratic process. “Why is Supervisor Mandelman framing remote public comment as such a negative thing? Why is he so opposed to hearing from a diverse array of constituents?” said Elissa Matross, Senior and Disability Action member.

Whatever the result of the committee hearing, which will include remote testimony, the measure will go to the full board Tuesday/28.

San Francisco learned in the 1970s that residential hotels were an important part of the city’s housing stock. At one point, there were some 35,000 of the affordable units, but as the city moved to become Manhattan West, many (particularly in Soma) were demolished, and the owners of others started to convert them into tourist hotels. The owners could make much more money renting to tourists for short stays.

(Imagine: The city lost more than 10,000 affordable SRO units, and now there are 8,000 homeless people. Go figure.)

By the late 1970s, the city passed laws preventing SRO owners from turning their building into tourist hotels. The rules limited short-term occupancy, and later gave SRO tenants the right to rent control and eviction protections once they occupied a unit for 30 days or more.

This was the subject of extensive litigation. SRO owners would routinely evict tenants after 29 days, make them live on the streets for a couple of days, then let them back, so they never became protected tenants.

In 2017, Sup. Aaron Peskin introduced and got passed an extensive update on the law, aimed at preventing not just conversions but “musical rooms.” Some hotel owners sued. If you want to read a whole lot about the history of the landlords, you can go here.

It’s complicated litigation, but in the end the city settled, with the idea that hotel owners would have some time to shift away from tourist rentals back to permanent affordable housing.

That comes before the Land Use and Transportation Committee Monday/27, and the landlords are still unhappy. They say that the new plan would make it hard for low-income people to rent by the week, which is wrong: Tenants can still pay weekly rent, but if they stay for four weeks, they get protections under the city rent-control law.

And landlords have two years to move from tourist units back to legal SRO units.

“There’s a lot of money in ripping off poor people,” Peskin told me.

That hearing starts at 1:30pm.

The budget process for the coming year, which will be a difficult mess, begins in earnest Wednesday/1 when the Budget and Appropriations Committee holds its first hearing, calling for a report from the City Controller’s Office on the six-month budget status.

Right before that, on the same day, the Budget and Finance Committee (which is the same panel, minus two members) will discuss a report from the Budget and Legislative Analyst on the status of downtown and possible alternatives for the future.

One of the (obvious, but often unstated) conclusions:

The City’s economy is heavily concentrated in a small number of industries.

Let’s think about this for a moment.

On Feb. 13, the Chron ran a feature on Fyrn, a company that makes high-end chairs in San Francisco. The chairs have become a big hit with restaurants, and business is booming.

Fyrn is a manufacturing business on Alabama Street on the edge of the Mission. It’s an area that used to have a lot of light industry (and even, at one point way back when I worked nearby, a Best Foods mayonnaise factory). There were inexpensive artists spaces.

But over the years, most of that “diversified” economy was driven out by tech companies and high-end designer lofts. Fyrn charges $675 and up for a chair, and has a lot of customers, so is able to pay the rent, but that’s unusual.

The same is true of Soma, and to a certain extent, the financial district, or certainly the areas around the edges. Soma used to have a thriving printing industry and a lot of light manufacturing. The city even tried to protect some of that, sort of, by creating areas zoned for “PDR,” that is, production, distribution, and repair.

And then the tech companies wanted that space, and had so much money the greedy commercial landlords couldn’t resist, so the diversified industry was forced out, often illegally—and the city under Mayors Newsom and Lee, so eager to please this new booming office sector and the property owners who were getting rich off, just let it happen, even when it cost the city money.

Planners these days, even the more mainstream ones, worship Jane Jacobs. But when it comes to decision-making, they forget that one of Jacobs’ strongest arguments: Successful cities have diversified economies. Monocrop cities, like monocrop farms, are at high risk of catastrophic failure.

San Francisco leaders allowed and encouraged the city to become a monocrop economy, with planning and zoning decisions supporting the downtown finance, insurance, real-estate, corporate headquarters, Pacific Rim trade, and later tech sectors above all else.

And now San Francisco’s downtown is the absolute last among major US cities in COVID recovery.

It would nice if just once some of the folks who made this happen, to the benefit of developers and landlords, would admit they were wrong, so we can do things a different way in the future. It would be nice if we could tax the people who made billions in the process and use that money to create an environment for home-grown small businesses, primarily by reducing the office space rent and changing the zoning to allow more non-office uses.

The first hearing starts at 10am.

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

Tim Redmond
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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