Perhaps it’s the timing; nobody pays much attention to news at the beginning of a long holiday weekend. But the SF Planning Commission vote on Mayor London Breed’s new housing plan got little in the way of press coverage. Mission Local wrote a pretty straightforward piece; other than that, the whole thing seems pretty far under the political radar.
Which is too bad, because the hearing and the vote raised a lot of critical issues that the supes will have to address when they make a final decision on the ordinance.
The essence of the plan, sponsored by Breed and Sups. Joel Engardio and Matt Dorsey, is the “reduction in constraints” that supposedly slow the construction of housing for the middle class. We all know the line: If the city gets out of the way of developers, eventually the private market will bring prices down.
In this case, the reductions are pretty dramatic: The plan would, among other things, eliminate conditional-use hearings and even neighborhood notification for the demolition of existing housing.
It also has deeply inadequate protections for tenants, something even the commissioners noticed, and absolutely no guarantees that new housing will be affordable to anyone but the rich.
Engardio, at the commission, described his plan as “domicity.” He talked, as he has in the past, about how San Francisco’s West Side can be more like Paris.
“This denotes five stories about commercial, a little bit of Paris in San Francisco,” he said, praising the Haussmann apartments that have become a signature of that city’s livable density.
There’s a little more to that story, as reader Peter Pirolli writes:
I’m not a Parisian historian, but my wife and I love the place and have been there many times, and at least I have read enough histories in travel books or Wikipedia to know that those Haussmann apartments and beautiful boulevards did not come about through trickle-down housing deregulation. Napoleon III and Haussmann blew through what would today be at least $75 billion on massive public works to gentrify the city and drive out the poor, and every aspect of the apartments’ exteriors was designed, built, and heavily regulated by Haussmann. From what I can dig up in a few minutes on the Google machine, the end result was that rents went up.
Who knew that Emperor Napoleon III was really a trickle-down Reaganite?
Today, those apartments aren’t even remotely “affordable;” they list at around 2.5 million euros, which is about $2.7 million at today’s exchange rates. A lot have become short-term rentals.
“Density,” George Wooding, a neighborhood activist, noted at the hearing, “does not mean affordability.”
But let’s set Paris aside for a moment and talk about San Francisco.
Gen Fujioka, representing the Anti-Displacement Coalition, noted “grave concerns about the proposal. We are concerned that this will open the door to the loss of hundreds or thousands of rent-controlled units.”
Imagine this scenario: It’s suddenly legal, without any hearings or notification, that take a two-unit building that’s been rental housing for years and tear it down to build, say, a ten-unit building.
Under the proposal, developers can’t do that if the place is currently occupied by renters or has been the subject of a no-fault eviction in the past five years. But as Fujioka pointed out, the number one source of displacement in the city these days is forced tenant buyouts—that is, a landlord tells the tenants they are going to be evicted anyway, but if they go quietly, they will get some money. Those are not always recorded, and under the mayor’s proposal, a place where the tenants were paid to leave is eligible for demolition.
Under the state’s Ellis Act, a landlord can evict all of the tenants to “go out of business,” and flipping and demolishing that property to turn it into, say, new high-end condos would quality.
“The ordinance does not exclude tenant buyouts,” Planning staffer Aaron Starr told the commission. “I don’t think we can hold an Ellis Act eviction against an owner.”
The law requires that rent-controlled tenants have a “right of return” to the new building at their old rent. But planning staff admitted at the hearing that nobody enforces that rule; it’s up to the displaced tenants, who may have moved far away, to demand their place back, and only if someone complains does the city even investigate.
When you give real-estate developers and speculators a way to get rid of tenants who are paying below-market rent, they will do it. They will find ways around the restrictions, cheat if they need to (because they hardly ever get caught and the penalties are so minor it’s worth the risk) and walk away with huge profits.
That’s how it’s worked for many decades in San Francisco. And this, tenant advocates say, opens yet another door for displacement.
Commissioner Sue Diamond told her colleagues that this legislation was just the implementation of the policies the panel approved when it passed the city’s latest Housing Element. But Commissioner Kathrin Moore disagreed:
“Constraint reduction we agreed to,” she said. “But I am unfortunately disappointed today that a major aspect of what we tried to support was creating housing for low-income people. This does not address that aspect.”
She mentioned that the city has as many as 60,000 units of vacant housing, many of which have been sitting vacant for years. And the commission has already approved thousands of units that remain unbuilt.
“I don’t think the extra measures in this legislation will address the real obstacle, which is money.”
Money was the huge missing piece of the entire discussion. The much-touted Housing Element calls for 42,000 units of affordable housing, which will cost about $19 billion, and nobody in the Breed Administration has offered any idea of where it might come from. Neither had Engardio or Dorsey. (Dorsey’s at least honest; he told me “I don’t know.”)
Nor did anyone other than Moore even mention that under the current economic conditions, with high interest rates, private developers can’t get financing to build much of anything. We do not have an Emperor Napoleon III with plenipotentiary powers to spend unlimited public money on housing construction.
All of the commissioners agreed that the ordinance was missing a restriction on demolitions of units where there’s been a tenant buyout, and the proposal by Diamond to recommend that the supes approve the law included that amendment.
But Moore, along with Theresa Imperial, said that wasn’t enough. “I am concerned about the shutting out of community participation, and cutting the Planning Commission out of the process,” Moore said.
The vote to recommend the ordinance was 4-2, with all of the Breed appointees voting in favor and Moore and Imperial voting no.
The plan will now go to the Board of Supes, and the mayor and her allies will try to spin any opposition as progressives opposing new housing. I hope the news media pay a little closer attention.