Editor’s Note: This story by our Foreign Correspondent columnist Reese Erlich is accompanied by photographs by Beth LaBerge. In Laberge’s words, “I spent two weeks in June traveling between Qamishli and Kobani with a group of mostly academics, accompanied by two Asayish guards.
We crossed by boat at the Semalka border crossing from Iraqi Kurdistan, drove through oil fields and along the Turkish border. We visited the Martyrs’ Cemetery and areas destroyed by the Islamic State in Kobani, met YPJ members and injured veterans and spent time at Rojava University in Qamishli, where several professors taught seminars.
Havin Guneser, from the Kurdish freedom movement and Freedom for Ocalan, organized the trip overall. The Bay Area contingent of the trip to Rojava was organized by Andrej Grubacic, a professor at Berkeley and CIIS.
FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT The crowd gathered slowly last Saturday in downtown Oakland astwenty-something women with multiple piercings and bearded hipsters waited for the rally to begin. Unlike some peace demonstrations populated mainly with baby boomers, this rally against the Turkish invasion of Syria included many younger activists.
One signs read “Queers support Rojava and Palestine.” An activist handed out buttons “Punks for Rojava.” Rojava is the name of the Kurdish region in northern Syria recently invaded by Turkey.
Some 300 people eventually joined the rally and march, part of national demonstrations supporting the Kurds and opposing foreign intervention in Syria.
“Do we want Putin, Erdogan, or Trump?” asked rally moderator Andrej Grubacic. “Or do we want a world without nation states?”
A cheer went up from the crowd receptive to the anarchist critique of all government. Rally organizers called for a cultural and economic boycott of Turkey.
As a result of Turkey’s aggression, so far 250 Kurds have died and 300,000 forced to flee their homes. Erdogan has publically announced plans to move to northern Syria the 2 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, thus displacing the indigenous Kurdish population.
“Trump allowed civilian massacres,” rally organizer Grubacic told 48 Hills in an interview. He also chairs the Department of Anthropology and Social Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco. “What Trump did exposed Kurdish civilians to ethnic cleansing.”
The Syria conflict makes for very strange alliances. Beginning in 2015, the leftist Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) decided to build a strategic alliance with the US, acting as the Pentagon’s ground troops to fight ISIS in Syria. The SDF is supported not only by black bloc anarchists, but by Republican senators and Democratic Party hawks.
The Pentagon backed the SDF as the only pro-US force capable of defeating ISIS. The Pentagon ignored the SDF efforts to build “democratic confederalism,” in which civilians participated in local governing councils, because they were such effective fighters.
The US pressured the SDF to break off talks with Syrian President Bashar al Assad about a possible political settlement. The Pentagon also forced the SDF, who was expecting a Turkish invasion, to reveal their defenses to prove they wouldn’t attack Turkey. The US allowed the Turkish military to inspect the sites and later used intelligence gathered there to launch their attack.
Grubacic argues, however, that the alliance with the US was a good idea. It allowed the SDF to build up Rojava for five years, he said, while fighting the ISIS.
“They didn’t expect the US to stay forever,” he said. “But they didn’t expect Trump to make a deal with Erdogan. They were genuinely surprised and shocked.”
So after the Turkish invasion, the SDF struck a deal with Damascus and Moscow. Assad sent troops back into northern Syria for the first time since 2012. Russia will hold joint patrols with Turkey near the border.
Trump, on the other hand, claims he wants to bring the troops home and stop fighting “endless wars.” He was supported by libertarian Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky). In reality, Trump pulled US troops back, allowed the Turkish invasion, then reversed course and sent troops to occupy Syria’s oil fields. When this mess began, the US had some 1000 troops in Syria. When the new deployments are complete, there will be 900.
Trump has managed to destroy U.S. credibility, anger allies, and embolden enemies—all without actually bringing US soldiers home.
Meanwhile, on Oct. 22, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to a ceasefire in which the SDF will be forced out of a zone 20-miles deep stretching along the entire Syrian-Turkish border, basically achieving the goal of Turkey’s invasion.
Leftists, and anarchists in particular, were drawn to the SDF because of its promotion of grass-roots democracy and women’s rights.
“All organizations in Rojava have men and women co-chairs,” Targol Mesbah told 48 Hills. She is an assistant professor of Anthropology at CIIS, who visited Rojava in June. “You can feel the liberated power of these women.”
SDF critics argue that visitors to Rojava get a one-sided view. They say the Kurdish leadership prohibits other political parties from organizing in Rojava, sometimes roughly conscripts residents into their armed wing and promotes a cult of personality around imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.
But Mesbah says she saw a different reality. She visited Jinwar, Kurdish for the Village of Free Women, a cooperative of 11 women. They run a school, ecological projects, harvest wheat and operate a bakery.
But just a few days after her delegation left, “the wheat fields were intentionally burned, most likely by ISIS or the Turkish government,” she said.
It was always difficult to build local institutions under wartime conditions, and now the Turkish invasion could wipe it out altogether.
The future of Rojava now hinges on SDF’s relations with Damascus and Moscow. During the initial US withdrawal, the SDF and Assad government declared an alliance.
The SDF agreed to join the Syrian army’s Fifth Corps, a unit that includes foreign fighters and is commanded by Russia.
Joshua Landis, director of Center for Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma told 48 Hills that the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the SDF’s armed wing, will maintain its internal structure within the Fifth Corps – for now.
“But eventually the regime will purge the military as it has done with other militias who joined the army,” he said. “The Syrian regime rejects the north Iraq model with the peshmerga (armed militia) as an independent force.”
And Assad rejects the kind of autonomy practiced by the SDF over the past eight years. But in a recent meeting with Kurdish leaders, he left room for concessions.
“The Syrian government has the right to defend the territorial integrity of Syria and be aware of separatist calls, but the Syrian state has no problem with Syrian diversity and finds in that richness and strength,” he said.
Landis said Damascus is only offering some cultural autonomy, such as teaching Kurdish in schools and celebration of Kurdish holidays.
“There’s a monstrous political difference between the SDF and Damascus,” said Landis. “The US gave them quasi-independence and that’s gone.”
Grubacic is more optimistic. He argues that the SDF has spent years building local political structures. “If the Syrian government eliminated them, everything would fall apart,” he said. “We can only hope that they can have some level of autonomy.”
But it won’t come without a fight on the ground in Rojava and in the court of international public opinion. And that’s where Saturday’s rallies fit in, Grubacic said.
“I have faith in grassroots, international pressure.”
Mayor London Breed is running essentially unopposed – but that doesn’t mean she’s popular with the electorate. A series of recent, reliable polls obtained by 48hills show that the mayor’s support has been declining rapidly over the past eight months.
No one poll can precisely pinpoint the electorate, particularly today when so many techniques are changing – polls that used to rely on random phone numbers now have to deal with cell phones that aren’t listed anywhere. Internet polling is getting better, but is still subject to biases.
But when you look at a series of polls, over time, done by top-level professionals (who are paid a lot by campaigns to get this right) and they show a single, clear trend, it’s worth noting.
Campaigns for all kinds of issues and candidates look at how the voters view elected officials. They’re looking, for example, at whether the endorsement of a certain official will help or hurt their campaign.
It’s very common to ask what voters think of the chief executive, even if the poll isn’t about the mayor’s race.
And here’s what several recent polls show:
In February, 63 percent of SF voters had a strongly or somewhat favorable opinion of Breed, compared to 30 percent who had a negative opinion.
In March, the numbers were 56/17.
In August, they were 53/22.
In October, they were 48/22.
When less than half of the electorate has a favorable opinion of a mayor, it’s a sign that that person is in trouble. When the positive reviews decline that fast, political consultants start to get alarmed.
Again: Breed will be re-elected. She will have four more years to address the crises facing the city, to bring voters around to supporting her. But right now, today, the numbers suggest her influence is declining – and that could have a major impact on two races that she has been heavily invested in.
Both Vallie Brown, the mayor’s appointee for supervisor in D5, and Suzy Loftus, who Breed just appointed interim district attorney, are counting heavily on the mayor’s support in their campaigns.
“This is outrageous,” Mark Gruber, a cab driver and member of the Executive Board of the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance. “After everything the city has done, you would think they could support their own, local, regulated taxi industry.”
Typically the city refuses to do business with companies that have bad labor records.
The rides the taxpayers are paying for range from the normal business-travel stuff to the ridiculous.
When mayoral staffer Edward McCaffrey went to the Conference of Mayors in Washington, DC in January, he took an Uber from home to SFO ($32.15), and Uber from Dulles Airport to the hotel ($39.39) and another Uber from the hotel back to Dulles ($46.39).
That’s about the same price those rides would have cost in a normal taxicab.
Then one mayoral staffer took Uber to Gymboree’s office on Stevenson St. and to LinkedIn’s office on Second Street for meetings, at a cost of $30.74. Apparently Muni – which runs regularly down Market Street from City Hall — isn’t good enough for the Mayor’s Office.
The largest department spending came from Public Health, which spend $10,972 on Uber and Lyft. The Human Services Agency spent $7,675. Even the MTA, which runs Muni, spent $2,713.
Sup. Shamann Walton, who has been pushing for better regulations on Uber and Lyft, told me that it’s still hard to get a cab in the Southeast part of the city, which is also badly served by Muni.
“So everyone’s situation is different,” he said. “But I would hope and encourage all of us to use public transit as much as possible.”
Uber has acknowledged in a federal filing that its long-term goal is to privatize public transportation around the world.
In a document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the ride-hail company reports that it seeks, as part of its growth strategy, not just to get people out of private cars but to get them off public buses and trains.
That stunning revelation is deep in a 300-page document called an S1, which the SEC requires for any company planning an initial public offering.
Uber’s IPO is expected this Friday. The document was filed April 11. I don’t think any of the major news media covering the IPO have noticed or reported on this part of Uber’s plans.
The S1 is fascinating reading (if you’re into this sort of thing). You can find it here. Uber admits in the document that it might never make a profit; that it continues to lose billions by underpricing its product (rides) to gain customer loyalty and market share; and that its entire business model could collapse if regulators or the courts decide that its drivers are employees, not private contractors.
So how is this company going to be attractive to investors? By about page 160, the company starts talking about its “Total Addressable Market.”
Here’s the first sign of what’s going on:
Our Personal Mobility TAM consists of 11.9 trillion miles per year, representing an estimated $5.7 trillion market opportunity in 175 countries. We include all passenger vehicle miles and all public transportation miles in all countries globally in our TAM, including those we have yet to enter, except for the 20 countries that we address through our ownership positions in our minority-owned affiliates, over which we have no operational control other than approval rights with respect to certain material corporate actions. These 20 countries represent an additional estimated market opportunity of approximately $0.5 trillion. We include trips greater than 30 miles in our TAM because riders already take trips over 30 miles on our platform, and over time riders may increasingly use our Ridesharing products for trips greater than 30 miles as the cost of such trips, and ultimately the degree to which individuals acquire their own automobiles, declines.
That’s right: The “market” for Uber includes all of the passengers who now take public transportation.
Increasing Ridesharing penetration in existing markets. Our large addressable market opportunity means that with approximately 26 billion miles traveled on our platform in 2018, we have only reached a less than 1% penetration of miles traveled in trips under 30 miles in the 63 countries in which we operate. We believe we can continue to grow the number of trips taken with our Ridesharing products and replace personal vehicle ownership and usage and public transportation one use case at a time, including through continued investment in our affordable Ridesharing options, such as Uber Bus and Express POOL.
That’s right: Uber plans to grow its business by replacing public transportation.
The company, as far as I know, has never admitted that before. Its PR materials always talk about the environmental benefits of getting people out of private cars. The idea of decimating public transportation in the name of profits for a global corporation is pretty scary.
We have seen this before, starting in the 1930s, when a handful of big companies including General Motors and Standard Oil bought up urban rail lines around the country to force people to buy private cars. This is now considered a dark moment in environmental and transportation policy that created, among other things, the freeways and smog of Los Angeles and the end of rail transit on the Bay Bridge.
There’s a reason transportation, especially urban transportation, is public. Many Muni lines would lose money if they were treated as business ventures; they don’t have enough passengers to justify their existence. But San Francisco has a policy of making transit available to everyone, in every neighborhood.
The 8 Bayshore and the 9 San Bruno, for example, serve southeast neighborhoods that badly need transit access – but that likely wouldn’t get an Uber bus.
But Uber is telling Wall Street that its future as a company may depend on its ability to convince people to take private cars and buses instead of public transit, starving transit and ultimately forcing everyone to pay Uber to get around.
Sup. Aaron Peskin, who chairs the Land Use and Transportation Committee and has long been critical of Uber, told me that “this sounds like a Machiavellian plan to harm the tens of millions of people who rely on public transit … if there’s a definition of evil, this is it.”
He also said that San Francisco should fight the plan and not allow Uber buses. “I hope this is fought by every city in the United States,” he said.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission has been planning a coup.
Not the putsch kind of coup, where armed insurgents overthrow a duly constituted government, but an insidious takeover led by an ad hoc public-private coalition, authorized by new laws, and justified by artful rhetoric—above all, a reiterated declaration of emergency. The goal is not to overthrow the ruling order, i.e., the capitalist growth machine, but to secure and aggrandize it at the expense of the most vulnerable.
The MTC cabal, otherwise known as The Committee to House the Bay Area or CASA, would have us believe that the region’s housing crisis necessitates:
creating a public-private agency that would standardize zoning across the region
imposing as much as a billion dollars of new taxes on the Bay Area
rolling back environmental review
lowering housing affordability standards
re-zoning “high opportunity” single-family neighborhoods for higher-density market-rate housing development, regardless of transit accessibility
accepting the assumption that building market-rate housing lowers the price of all housing
enhancing private developers’ profit margins
ensuring continuous, explosive job growth while ignoring services and infrastructure to support that growth
These fatuous propositions inform the “CASA Compact: A 15-Year Emergency Policy Package to Confront the Housing Crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area,” a 31-page manifesto and plan of action finalized on December 12. Now MTC/CASA is lobbying the state Legislature to pass laws, including SB 50, State Senator Scott Wiener’s do-over of his failed SB 827, that implement the Compact’s recommendations.
For the sake of democratic governance, fiscal sanity, environmental protection, and housing justice, MTC/CASA needs to be stopped.
Laying the groundwork: MTC’s hostile takeover of ABAG
As MTC’s name indicates, the agency’s official mission is transportation. Every region in California has a Metropolitan Planning Organization that channels federal transportation dollars to the area. The Bay Area’s MPO is MTC. Created in 1970 by the California Legislature, MTC administers more than $2 billion a year, including more than $600 million in bridge tolls, for the operation, maintenance, and expansion of the Bay Area’s surface transportation network. It is rich, powerful, and feared.
MTC is also a profligate, rogue agency. In 2010, MTC lost more than $120 million worth of bridge tolls in credit swaps gone bad. It had a major hand in the Bay Bridge debacle. Its new headquarters in San Francisco ran $90 million over budget; the agency’s use of bridge tolls to buy the building prompted then-State Senator, now-Congressman, Mark DeSaulnier to get the state Legislature to unanimously pass a law forbidding MTC to use bridge tolls for real-estate speculation. MTC is facing two lawsuits over the constitutionality of placing Regional Measure 3 on last June’s ballot as a fee, not a tax; the passage of RM3 increased bridge tolls by three dollars, starting with a $1 raise on January 1.
The grim state of the region’s surface transportation attests to MTC’s failure to carry out its basic mission. Congestion is so bad, Bay Area News Group reporter Gary Richards recently wrote, that in 2019, local transit agencies will seek state legislation to authorize a once “unthinkable” practice: allowing buses and possibly carpools to drive on the shoulder of freeways and bridges during the heaviest commute times. According to Richards, MTC “is a strong proponent” of the change.
Like every other major region in California, the Bay Area also has a land use planning agency called the Council of Governments (COG). The Bay Area’s COG is the Association of Bay Area Governments. Unlike MTC, a state agency, ABAG is a voluntary organization, created in 1961 by the cities and counties of the Bay Area. Whereas MTC is dominated by the three biggest cities in the region, every city in the Bay Area has a representative in the ABAG General Assembly.
In every other region in California, the MPO is subordinate to the COG. The Bay Area has been an exception. Until 2016, MTC and ABAG uneasily co-existed as semi-independent bodies. ABAG, the poor relation, was financially dependent on MTC. With the passage of SB 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008, the two agencies were forced to collaborate on Plan Bay Area.
The preparation of the initial Plan Bay Area, which was approved by MTC and ABAG in July 2013, engendered conflicts over policy and finances. Those tensions moved MTC to execute a hostile takeover of ABAG in 2016. That offensive entailed a year-long fight that culminated in the so-called merger of the two agencies under the aegis of MTC’s administration. ABAG retains its board, but its staff now reports to MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger.
The takeover signaled MTC’s intention to transform itself into a one-stop regional transportation and planning agency. Enter CASA.
Who is CASA?
A year and a half ago, Heminger secretly hand-picked 53 “stakeholders” to participate in CASA. The group is dominated by the real-estate industry, with representatives from some of the region’s largest market-rate and affordable housing developers (Related California, TMG Partners, MidPen Housing), as well as the California Apartment Association, the Building Industry Association, pro-growth affordable housing advocates (Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California, SV@Home), think tank SPUR, and BART).
TMG Partners Chairman and CEO Michael Covarubbias is one of CASA’s three co-chairs. A second co-chair is SV@Home Executive Director Leslye Corsiglia, formerly a staffer at the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development and director of the San Jose Housing Department.
CASA’s paid consultants include Carol Galante, former CEO of Bridge Housing and current head of UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation. The ferocity of Galante’s attacks on CEQA are rivaled only by those emanating from Holland & Knight attorney and CASA member Jennifer Hernandez. Terner also has a representative on CASA, Committee, Visiting Scholar Ophelia Basgal, listed on the roster by another of her UC Berkeley associations, the Center for Community Innovation. Basgal and Hernandez are joined on CASA by Janice Jensen, who represents another vocal CEQA opponent, Habitat for Humanity.
Big Tech (Google, Facebook), Big Philanthropy (Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, San Francisco Foundation), and Big Pharma (Genentech) are also at the table. San Francisco Foundation CEO Fred Blackwell is the third CASA co-chair.
Other CASA members include local officials, half of whom represent the three largest of the region’s 101 cities; equity advocates (PICO California, Urban Habitat, Working Partnerships USA, Tenants Together, California Housing Partnership); building trades unions (Alameda County Building and Construction Trades Council and Nor Cal Carpenters Regional Council); and a healthcare workers union (SEIU-UHW).
The original CASA lineup included as one of its two putative environmentalists Jeremy Madsen, then-Executive Director of Greenbelt Alliance. Introducing himself at the CASA Steering Committee’s meeting on September 26, 2017, Madsen said, “I sometimes joke internally that “we’re the most pro-development environmental group you’re going to run across.” In January, Madsen left Greenbelt Alliance to became program director for The Energy Foundation; he subsequently resigned from CASA. His seat was taken by Greenbelt Alliance Deputy Director Matt Vander Sluis. Growth environmentalism’s other representative on CASA is Stuart Cohen, Executive Director of TransForm.
The full CASA roster appears at the end of this article.
CASA operates largely in secret…
CASA has two sub-groups: a 32-member Technical Committee, which has done most of the work, and an eighteen-member Steering Committee that has itself been steered by CASA’s three co-chairs and Heminger. From June 2017 to December 2018, the Technical Committee met publicly almost every month; the Steering Committee met publicly six times on an irregular basis.
Only three of the public meetings published written minutes, and only one of those three (the summary of the Technical Committee’s first meeting on June 28, 2017) documents the names of the speakers and summarizes what they said. The other two only name CASA members in attendance and people who spoke at public comment. Two meetings lack official video or audio documentation; three have only audio. And of course the secret meetings have no public documentation at all.
If the meetings were secret, how do we know that they took place?
Simple: At the public meetings, Technical Committee members repeatedly referred to them. They professedly met at night, on weekends, and on at least one holiday: On November 14, Covarrubius boasted to the Steering Committee, “We were here six hours on Veterans Day, about 30 people”—“here” being MTC headquarters.
The most spectacular instance of this covert activity came to light at the Steering Committee’s Dec. 12 meeting, when Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf referred in passing to a trip that she and other, unspecified CASA participants had recently taken to New York City. That trip never appeared on any CASA agenda, nor was it ever mentioned at any of CASA’s public meetings before it took place. I’ve filed a Public Records Act query with MTC asking to see documentation of the costs associated with each member’s travel, room, and board as well as itineraries and agendas.
I also asked the California First Amendment Coalition about the legality of CASA’s lack of written minutes. I was told that because CASA is not an official legislative or judicial body, it is not subject to the Brown Act and does not have to publish written minutes of its meetings.
At the CASA Technical Committee’s meeting of May 16, committee Co-chair Covarrubias approached me and said, “You’re a journalist?” I replied: “Yes. I have to come to these meetings, because there are no minutes.” Covarrubias: “We like it that way.”
…but is publicly financed
Technical Committee members—all volunteers—repeatedly congratulated each other on their diligence and dedication. And they did work very hard. But their labors were considerably eased by MTC’s largesse, which included a free, tony meeting space; free food; ample support from staff and paid consultants; grants for outreach to community-based organizations; a place on MTC’s website that featured a professionally produced video; a telephone poll “of all Bay Area residents;” and the trip to New York City.
The only information about the CASA funding that appeared on any CASA agenda was contained in a memo to the Technical Committee dated December 6, 2017 and posted on the committee’s December 13, 2017, agenda. Under the heading “DRAFT Community Outreach and Engagement Plan,” MTC Planning Director Ken Kirkey wrote:
In order to engage communities traditionally unrepresented in government decision making,….MTC will provide a $5,000 stipend each to four community-based organizations (CBOs) to host and conduct the first of two rounds of outreach meetings with disadvantaged communities” in spring 2018.
MTC will provide a second round of stipend to the same community-based organizations to conduct a second round of meetings with disadvantaged communities.
On April 23, I filed a California Public Records Act Request with MTC asking to see all documents related to funding the Committee to House the Bay Area. In response, on May 18, MTC provided with 55 pages of documents that included
sole source contracts with Estolano LeSar Perez Advisors “for facilitation services for the Committee for Housing the Bay Area” totaling $450,000
sole source contracts with the UC Regents totaling $133,400 for Terner Center Director Carol Galante and Urban Displacement Director Karen Chapple “for facilitation service for the Committee for Housing the Bay Area” that included “Just Cause Policy Research,” a “Protection Lens for Rent Gouging and Costa Hawkins Research,” an “Equitable Development by Neighborhood Conditions Framework” and “Production Pipeline Analysis.”
a “Letter of Agreement for $19,922 between the San Francisco Foundation and MTC for the CASA Initiative” to “support research that will be conducted by the Urban Displacement Project” at UC Berkeley
a letter from Heather Hood and Geeta Rao, Enterprise Community Partners to “Ken Kirkey and Team, Metropolitan Transportation Commission” setting forth the “Scope for Bay Metro to Support CASA with Research,” thanking MTC “for entrusting us to be a thought partner,” and estimating the total cost of the work to be $25,000, of which Enterprise “can contribute $25,000 of that time and materials in kind (paid by grants we have already secured).”
On December 12, I made additional PRA Requests, asking (again) to see all documents related to CASA’s funding, as well as all expenditures that passed through MTC to fund the recent trip to New York City, including allocation for CASA members’ travel, room, and board, and any agendas and itineraries.
On December 21, MTC informed me that, as per the California Public Records Act, because my request necessitated “consultation with another agency having substantial interest in the matter of the request or among two or more components of the agency having substantial subject matter interest therein,” additional time would be required to respond, and that it anticipated releasing a response by January 11, 2019.
The CASA Compact
While the political energies of many Bay Area residents were absorbed by the two elections of 2018, CASA drew up its Compact. Finalized in mid-December, the 31-page mainfesto/plan of action is organized around “Three Ps:”
Increasing housing productionat all levels of affordability
Preserving existing affordable housing
Protecting vulnerable households from housing instability and displacement (p. 5)
The gist of the compact is contained in ten dense “elements,” each setting out a major policy proposal (a list of the elements appears at the end of this article).
The two most audacious Elements— Number 9, “Funding and Financing the CASA Compact,” and Number 10, “Regional Housing Enterprise”—deal with money and governance. One of CASA’s many foundational myths is the fiction that “everyone” is to blame for the Bay Area’s housing woes, and thus everyone should “share the pain” of remedying them. “[T]he beauty of this,” co-chair Covarrubias told the Technical Committee on September 18, is that it’s “a solution that doesn’t have a target, [but] that has everybody as a target.”
Another CASA conceit is that the compact is a “grand bargain” in whose formulation all parties have compromised for the sake of the common good. But some parties are expected to compromise a lot more than others, as indicated by the “Allocation formula” in Element 9, which divvies up the anticipated new revenues by percentages:
minimum 60 percent for “subsidized housing production”
up to 10 percent for tenant protection services
up to 10 percent for “local jurisdiction incentives (including funding for hiring more building inspectors”
up to 20 percent for affordable housing
Note that production is designated for the lion’s share of the funding, and that only production comes with a funding floor. The other allocations all have an ambiguous (“up to”) ceiling; in other words, they could get less than the designated percentages.
Also ambiguous: the term “subsidized housing production.” Exactly what kind of housing is CASA proposing to subsidize? Is it market-rate? If not, why does “affordable housing” have a different allocation?
Answers to these questions may be gleaned from “Figure A: The CASA Compact Framework,” which shows “Numeric Targets” for each of the P’s. Under “Produce,” we read: “35,000 Housing Unit/Year, 14,000 of Which are Affordable to Lower-Income and 7,000 to Moderate Income Households” (p. 5).
In other words, 60 percent of the total funds for housing production would apparently go to—or to borrow the Compact language, subsidize—market-rate housing. And, as noted in detail below, thanks in large part to the Bay Area’s insane housing prices, what’s officially affordable is far beyond the means of many of the region’s residents.
The funds would be disbursed by the “Regional Housing Enterprise,” a new governmental agency described in Element 10 as an “independent,” public-private, regionwide entity that has authority to impose taxes; issue debt; buy, lease, and sell land; provide technical assistance to local governments; “collect data to monitor our progress;” and administer zoning standards for the region’s nine counties.
Heminger has referred to the Regional Housing Enterprise as a “housing assembly authority” (Technical Committee, October 17, 2018) and “a financing vehicle and data warehouse” (Steering Committee, December 3, 2018). At the Steering Committee’s meeting in October, he described CASA as “a public-private enterprise” and said that “it would make some sense to try to mimic that in the governance of this new institution.” Just so, Element 10 recommends that “[s]tate law should establish an independent board, with broad representation to [sic] MTC, ABAG, and key stakeholder groups that helped develop the CASA Compact.”
Some people, including me, complain that MTC and ABAG are undemocratic because their governing boards are not elected. More precisely, the officials sitting on those boards—mayors, councilmembers, county supervisors—are elected, but they’re not elected to oversee regional agencies. In terms of representative democracy, the Regional Housing Enterprise would be even far less accountable to the public: its board would include and very likely be dominated by individuals who haven’t been elected to anything at all.
At the Technical Committee meeting on December 3, Heminger responded to criticism made at public comment that the Regional Housing Enterprise would be unelected. “The fact is,” he asserted, “that there’s only one elected regional board in America—in Portland.”
The MTC chief then sought to further discount a regionally elected government by commending the “innovation” of having private parties on the RHE board. Apparently the novelty that distances government further from the public at large is welcome at MTC/CASA, while the kind that puts the two in greater proximity is not.
The compact says that “[t]he new enterprise will not have direct regulatory authority” (Preamble). But the two models referenced in the compact—the New York City Housing Development Corporation and the Twin Cities revenue-sharing program—both exercise regulatory authority. Neither program was ever discussed in detail at a public CASA meeting.
With the authority to “levy fees and seek voter approval to impose taxes for housing” (E10) and to “administer any new regional funds that might be approved for housing” (Preamble), the Regional Housing Enterprise would effectively be calling some big shots on land use in the Bay Area. And as envisioned, it would have a lot of money at its disposal.
Dodging Bay Area voters
The compact estimates the cost of the Regional Housing Enterprise at $2.5 billion a year for 15-20 years, with $1 billion coming from unspecified state and federal sources and the remaining $1.5 billion from new regional and “local self-help measures.”
A “menu” of potential new sources of revenue are laid out in Compact Element 9. CASA confusingly distinguishes “parcel taxes,” “taxes on local governments,” and taxes on “taxpayers.” In fact, “taxpayers” would be paying all three kinds of charges, as well as the interest on the general obligation bonds.
Taxes on Property Owners: $200 million
1% tax on vacant homes, regionwide ($100 million)
$48 per year region-wide parcel tax, regionwide ($100 million)
Taxes and fees on Developers: $400 million
$5-$20 per sq. foot commercial linkage fee on new construction ($200 million)
$10 per sq. foot flat commercial linkage fee on new construction ($200 million)
Taxes on Employers: $400 million
0.1%-0.75% regionwide gross receipts tax; small businesses and employers in a jurisdiction with an existing tax would be exempt ($200 million)
$50-$120 per job regionwide variable head tax ($200 million)
Taxes on Local Governments: $300 million
25% “Redevelopment Revenue Set-Aside for affordable housing” ($200 million)
5-year term general obligation bonds issued by Regional Housing Enterprise, renewed every five years ($100 million)
At the Technical Committee’s meeting in October, Heminger noted and then discounted objections to certain items on the revenue menu. Sales tax, he observed, “is regressive, but here in California, food and medicine are exempt….[I]f you’re spending it to fund a bunch of affordable housing, I would consider that progressive.” He also noted that
some of [the] measures in the developer-employer orbit could be considered fees, and, depending how the enabling legislation is passed in Sacramento, could be authorized without a vote of the people. I have no doubt that that would be litigated; we’re litigating RM3 right now for bridge tolls.
Heminger seemed unfazed by the prospect of new litigation, possibly because at the end of February, he’s leaving MTC. “Maybe,” he joked, “we’ll use our precedent to see what we can do on housing.” He also opined:
“I doubt that you could put five of these suckers on the same ballot and expect to pass any one of them. So one, we’re going to have to be selective; and two, some of these may not require voter approval, and that’s indeed helpful, if that’s true…”
Indeed, as Heminger wrote in a memo for MTC’s November 28-29 retreat at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, the compact advances “a suite of legislative reforms” whose authorization requires action in Sacramento. Well before MTC approved the compact, CASA members were negotiating behind the scenes with the Bay Area’s state legislators. The compact says that they will continue lobbying the Legislature “to implement” its “principles” (p. 5).
Missing from the compact is the “CASA Work Window” that was handed out at the Technical Committee’s September 2018 meeting. That document set out a five-year plan:
2018 CASA Development
2019 Legislative Package
2020 Election #1 Presidential
2021 PBA/RHNA Adoption
2022 Election # 2 Gubernatorial
On October 17, Heminger told the Technical Committee that the “infrastructure community” was discussing a regional “mega-measure” to pay for a second BART tube. “If [that proposal” is “live around 2020 election,” could his listeners entertain “some scenario where we might join forces and help each other?” Going in as “partners,” he mused, “might involve a better chance of success for both.” At the Steering Committee’s November meeting, he said getting such a measure on the 2020 ballot was an “imperative.”
Heminger and the CASA co-chairs have repeatedly stated that the 10 elements in the compact must go forward together. But on December 3, the first day of the Legislature’s new session, members of the Bay Area Caucus introduced bills—most notably Wiener’s SB 50—that incorporate CASA’s recommendations. Except for Skinner’ SB 18, which vaguely echoes Element 3, “Emergency Rent Assistance and Access to Legal Counsel,” none of the measures incorporate any of the compact’s proposals for either a regionwide just cause eviction policy (Element 1) or an emergency rent cap (Element 2); instead, they’re all aimed at weakening restrictions on growth. So much for a package deal.
AB 4 (Chiu): Redevelopment 2.0
AB 68 and AB 69 (Ting): further loosen regulations on in-law units
SB 4 (McGuire and Beall): Limit local land use policies that restrict housing and encourage new housing near transit and job centers
SB 5 (McGuire and Beall): Redevelopment 2.0
SB 6 (Beall): Streamline housing production and penalize local planning that restricts production
SB 13 (Wieckowski): further loosen regulations on in-law units
SB 18 (Skinner): legal assistance for tenants
SB 50 (Wiener): upzoning near transit and job center
Plus AB 2065 (Ting): surplus public lands (introduced in 2018 and still live)
CASA’s legislative initiative has a pay-to-play aspect: Estelano LeSar Perez Advisors, the consultantcy with the $450,000 contract with MTC noted above, is co-owned by Jennifer LeSar, the wife of California State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins.
Addressing the Steering Committee on November 14, Heminger said that the region’s state legislators “are quite excited about this CASA thing you’ve all invented.”
This is the Part One of a series on CASA and Bay Area housing and development.
Co-Chairs and Convener
Chief Executive Officer | The San Francisco Foundation
Executive Director | Silicon Valley at Home
Chair and Chief Executive Officer | TMG Partners
Executive Director | Metropolitan Transportation Commission
CASA Steering Committee Members
Associate Director | Genentech
Executive Officer | Nor Cal Carpenters Regional Council
District 3 Supervisor | Santa Clara County
President | SEIU
Second District | County of Sonoma County
Executive Director | Urban Habitat
General Manager | BART
Mayor | City of Rohnert Park
City Council Member | City of Santa Rosa
District 5 Supervisor | Alameda County
Regional President, Northern California | FivePoint
Mayor | City of Oakland
Mayor | City and County of San Francisco
President | MidPen Housing
Director of California Public Policy | Facebook
Chief of Public Policy and Government Affairs | Google
Mayor | City of San Jose
Founding Executive Director | TransForm
CASA Technical Committee Members
TOD Program Manager | BART
Director | SPUR
Associate Director | Tenants Together
Executive Director | Non-Profit Housing Association
Secretary-Treasurer | Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County
Chair and CEO | Related California
Executive Officer | BIA Bay Area
Policy | Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
Housing Committee Co-chair | Bay Area Council
Executive Director | Working Partnership, USA
President | Mercy Housing
Jacky Morales Ferrand
Housing Department Director | City of San Jose
President and CEO | Habitat for Humanity
Partner | Holland and Knight
Dr. Jennifer Martinez
Executive Director | Faith in Action Bay Area
Vice President of Development | Summerhill Housing Group
Executive Director | Contra Costa Housing Authority
Senior Vice President, Northern California | California Apartment Association
President | Eden Housing
Attorney | Goldfarb Lipman LLP
Managing Director | Saris Regis Group
President and CEO | EAH Housing
President and CEO | California Housing Partnership
Matt Vander Sluis
Deputy Director | Greenbelt Alliance
Director, Housing & Community Development | City of Oakland
Visiting Scholar | Terner Center for Housing Innovation
Community Development Director | City of Mountain View
VP and Market Leader for Northern California Market | Enterprise Community Partners
Principal, Zezen Advisors | California Community Builders
Senior Research Analyst | Nor Cal Carpenters Reg. Council
Executive Director and CEO | Hamilton Families
CASA Compact Elements
#1 Just Cause Eviction Policy
#2 Emergency Rent Cap
#3 Emergency Rent Assistance and Access to Legal Counsel
#4 Remove Regulatory Barriers to ADUs
#5 Minimum Zoning Near Transit
#6 Good Government Reforms to Housing Approval Process
#7 Expedited Approvals and Financial Incentives for Select Housing
On January 19, I attended UCLA Extension’s 2018 Land Use Law and Planning Conference at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Seated in long rows of tables under the glittering chandeliers of the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom, hundreds of elected and appointed public officials, developers, attorneys, and consultants are annually briefed by sharp pro-growth land-use lawyers and other like-minded experts on the latest California land-use legislation and case law.
This year the star of the show was State Senator Scott Wiener. He earned that role by authoring SB 35, the controversial “by-right” housing bill that Governor Brown signed into law in September. Like his fellow Yimbys, Wiener believes in a supply-side, build-baby-build solution to California’s housing woes and blames those woes on local jurisdictions’ resistance to new residential development. He presents himself as a brave policymaker who grapples with hard issues that others have dodged—an image belied by his evasive responses to my questions.
In California, Wiener told the conferees, “housing has been a purely local thing.” There have been “few laws on the books,” those that are on the books “are not enforced” and are outdated. What needs to happen, he said, is that the state should govern housing the way it governs education. Local school boards “set policy,” but “the state sets the ground rules.” Just so, last February the senator told Streetsblog, “if you [a city] are meeting your RHNA [Regional Housing Needs Allocation, set by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development] goals…you maintain full local control.”
This strains to the breaking point any reasonable definition of local control, which, moreover, the Legislature has been chopping away for years. For starters, see SB 375, which spawned Plan Bay Area; SB 743, which eliminated local congestion as an environmental impact; and, in last year’s “housing package,” SB 35, SB 167 and AB 1515. On January 3, Wiener introduced two new bills, SB 827 and SB 828, that move beyond chopping into slash-and-burn territory.
Drafted by California Yimby Executive Director Brian Hanlon, and coauthored by State Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), SB 827 would prohibit cities from limiting heights to lower than 45 feet (six stories) or 85 feet (eight stories)—depending on the width of the street—on parcels within a half-mile of a “major transit stop” or a quarter-mile of “a high-quality transit corridor.” For such parcels, SB 827 would also suspend local parking minimums, density restrictions, and “any design standard that restricts the applicant’s ability to construct the maximum number of units consistent with any applicable building code.”
The bill defines a major transit stop as “a site containing an existing rail transit station, a ferry terminal served by either a bus or rail transit service, or the intersection of two or more major bus routes with a frequency of service interval of 15 minutes or less during the morning and afternoon peak commute periods.” The California Government Code defines “a high transit corridor” as “a corridor with fixed route bus service that has service intervals of no more than 15 minutes during peak commute hours.”
Wiener’s companion bill, SB 828, would exponentially increase both cities’ Regional Housing Needs Allocations (RHNAs) and state authority over local land use planning. I’m going to review the bill in wonky detail, because though SB 827 has gotten the lion’s share of publicity, support, and pushback, SB 828 is likely to have at least as much impact.
Every eight years, the California Department of Housing and Community Development determines how much housing at various income levels will be needed to accommodate each region’s forecasted population. The region’s council of governments—in the Bay Area, the Association of Bay Area Governments—divvies up this number among its local jurisdictions, who must then plan and zone accordingly.
Wiener and other agents of the California growth machine have long complained that the RHNAs have “no teeth,” that the state lacks the legal authority to force cities to approve housing commensurate with their allocations. The senator marketed SB 35 as a first step toward providing such dentures; the new law ties by-right approval—no public hearing or environmental review—of certain infill housing projects to a city’s RHNA shortfalls. SB 828 would further strengthen Sacramento’s bite.
According to the SB 828 summary from Wiener’s office, the RHNAs have the following problems:
“The state’s historic population forecasts do not take into account historic underproduction of housing.”
“As communities stifle housing construction locally, their population is limited by how many new homes are built, creating the illusion that population growth is slowing or stagnant. This illusion is prevalent even in areas that have thriving job markets and skyrocketing housing demand and prices.”
“No rollover mechanism” ensures that “communities who underperform in one cycle are held accountable to their remaining obligation when the next cycle starts, creating a perverse incentive for cities to routinely underperform on RHNA.”
The upshot: cities’ “population growth will slow, their previous obligations will be forgiven, and their allocations will be reduced.”
RHNA methodology varies from region to region, with little state oversight, resulting in “heavily politicized allocations that are divorced from the data about true housing demand and fair share principles.”
For example, in the current cycle, three “adjacent and demographically similar coastal communities” in Los Angeles were awarded highly disparate RHNAs: Redondo Beach, got 1397 units, Manhattan Beach got 37, and Hermosa Beach got two. At the conference, Wiener cited these numbers and said that wealthier communities get lower allocations.
(The choice of jurisdictions is a bit strange, given that the Southern California Association of Bay Governments, whose purview includes the three coastal cities, embraces the build-baby-build agenda. Indeed, last fall SCAG produced a seven-minute video, “The Bay Area: A Cautionary Tale,” in which Yimby Action Executive Director Laura Foote Clark and other Bay Area growth evangelists, backed by a mournful Philip Glass-like score, sermonize about their region’s failure to produce sufficient market-rate housing to support the burgeoning tech economy.)
Cities “are expected to zone for precisely 100% of projected growth,” an “underwhelming requirement that sets communities up for failure in housing production, as not every newly zoned parcel will have a development application completed and project constructed to its full capacity within several years.”
To address these issues, SB 828 would
Require HCD to do “a one-time unmet need assessment for every California region before the next housing cycle, and then add those numbers to the forecasted allocations”
Establish “methodologies that acknowledge the particular need for moderate and above-moderate income housing in areas where housing prices are increasing at a rate far faster than wages.”
Authorize HCD “to challenge inequitable allocations between comparable jurisdictions.”
Require HCD “to rollover jurisdiction-specific underproduction from the last cycle to the next if a city has underperformed and not met their [sic] RHNA.”
Prohibit “regional planners from purposely underallocating in cities that they know are underperformers and will have rollover numbers.”
Require the “Housing Elements” in cities’ General Plans “to zone for 200% of their housing obligation every cycle—not 100%.”
Wiener dodges my questions
Wiener’s panel was followed by a short Q&A. I got to ask the last question—or more precisely, questions, for I had two. The first dealt with the unfunded mandates that Sacramento keeps imposing on local jurisdictions. SB 827 and SB 828 would dramatically increase cities’ populations and hence the demand for services—police, fire, sewerage, water, parks, schools, and transit—without providing funds to pay for the new services.
I didn’t have time to point out that SB 827’s concluding paragraph specifically lets the state off the hook:
SEC. 3. No reimbursement is required by this act pursuant to Section 6 of Article XIIIB of the California Constitution because a local agency or school district has the authority to levy service charges, fees, or assessments sufficient to pay for the program or level of service mandated by this act, within the meaning of Section 17556 of the Government Code.
But I did cite Wiener’s fellow panelist, attorney Barbara Kautz. Another supply-side devotee, Kautz dutifully recited the growther catechism, asserting that the California Environmental Quality Act is being misused by opponents of development, that project approvals take way too long, and so forth.
But Kautz also displayed flashes of objectivity: her PowerPointed inventory of barriers to new housing included a list with the heading “NO FISCAL BENEFITS”:
Not enough $$ to pay for school expansion
Perceived as a fiscal loser
No state $$ for infrastructure
No state $$ for planning (until SB 2 passed last year)
Loss of RDA [Redevelopment Authority] $$ without replacement
At the mic, I pointed out that while growth resisters are called racists, elitists, and reactionaries, Kautz had identified “objective” factors behind such resistance.
In reply, Wiener first conceded that when it comes to services, “we have lot of challenges.” He mentioned in passing Prop. 13 but notably did not state his support for a split roll. Nor did he refer to any of the items on Kautz’s list. Mainly, he dismissed my question as irrational and uninformed.
On the first charge: some people, he claimed, say “until we fix everything all at once, don’t fix everything at once, and we should fix housing.” But under the pretext of fixing housing, SB 827 and SB 828 would worsen a huge existing problem: California cities lack the money to serve the populations they already have.
On the misinformed count, Wiener asserted that “housing does not bring people in….People come here whether or not we build housing. Don’t build it, and they’re going to come anyway,” leading to soaring rents and overcrowding.
This is partly true: people come to California for jobs. But a major source of both current housing unaffordability in the Bay Area and the region’s growing wealth gap is the influx of hundreds of thousands of highly-compensated tech workers. If policymakers were serious about lowering housing prices (and undoing gridlock), they’d stop approving new mega-office projects. Problem: Wiener and California Yimby are generously funded by the tech industry. More than 100 tech executives have signed a letter supporting SB 827.
My other question addressed housing equity. SB 827 would inflate real estate values by encouraging massive new development in so-called “transit-rich” neighborhoods. In major cities, many such neighborhoods are home to low-income people of color. Some of the most vehement opposition to the bill has come from community leaders who view it as an engine of gentrification and displacement. In a blistering manifesto issued days after Wiener introduced the bill, Crenshaw Subway Coalition Executive Director Damien Goodmon called SB 827 “a declaration of war on South LA” that “must be killed.” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín subsequently reiterated that sentiment.
As initially drafted, SB 827 contains no provisions against displacement or demolition. There was no point, however, in asking about such provisions, because in a Medium piece posted on January 16, Wiener said that such provisions would be added.
Instead, I queried him about support for repealing the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act, the 1995 law that allows rent-controlled units to be leased at market rates when a tenant moves out. “You wrote on Medium that under SB 827, ‘if a city has rent control, it will continue to have rent control,’” I said. “But Costa-Hawkins’ vacancy de-control makes rent control—if not a dead letter, then a very weak one. Please comment.”
Wiener began by stating that he’s been “very public about supporting repeal” of Costa- Hawkins. Then he attacked AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein, who’s providing major funding for an initiative to put repeal on the California ballot in November. This, said, Wiener, is “just another losing ballot measure” supported by the same people who ran Measure S, the Los Angeles slow-growth initiative that was defeated last March. During the post-panel break, I followed Wiener into an adjacent room and asked again about Costa-Hawkins. He said he’d like “to bring everyone to the table” to work out legislation that would allow “new apartments to transition over time into rent-controlled affordable housing.” When I pressed him on the content of the initiative, he launched another personal attack on Weinstein: “He loses everything. Weinstein will set Costa-Hawkins reform back” by “driv[ing] it into ground.” But that is a discussion about political strategy, not about the issue.
SB 828 would make RHNAs even more unfair
If I’d had time, I would have specifically asked about SB 828. I agree that the Regional Housing Needs Allocations are arbitrary. But by pegging housing RHNAs to doubled forecasted population growth and above all to high-end residential construction, SB 828 would make them even more so. To claim, as the draft bill does, that
Median rent or home prices that exceed median income will be alleviated by rapidly increasing housing supply for moderate and above-moderate income households.
Communities with high rates of income growth must also have a high rate of new housing production for households of all income levels to ensure equity and stabilize home price and communities.
is to ignore market realities. Rapidly increasing the supply of high-end housing will ensure inequity and destabilize housing prices and communities.
Moreover, the overview of SB 828 put out by Wiener’s office undercuts the claim that local approval or disapproval is the major factor in housing production. That document accurately observes that “not every newly zoned parcel will have a development application completed and project constructed to its full capacity within several years.” Translation: housing is built by developers, not cities, and even when their projects have been approved, developers, not cities, decide if and when to pull a building permit, and if and when to build. And as Wiener doubtless knows, just about the only housing that developers are building is housing for the high end, because that’s the only kind that pencils out for their investors.
Finally, if the Legislature really wants the RHNAs to foster equity and stabilize housing prices, it should start by eliminating the requirement that each city must allocate
a lower proportion of housing need to an income category when a jurisdiction already has a disproportionately high share of households in that income category, as compared to the countywide distribution of households in that category from the most recent decennial United States census. [CA Government Code Section 65584 (d)(4)]
As Berkeley Housing Advisory Commissioner Tom Lord has explained, this is a pro-gentrification, pro-displacement policy in a city such as Berkeley, where the percentage of low-income residents is higher than the countywide percentage. The state’s RHNA policy requires Berkeley to zone for more affluent residents, even as the current red-hot market is displacing low-income Berkeleyans. “In the short term,” Lord point out, “the RHNA demands that the most affordable parts of the [Bay Area] become less affordable.” How about fixing that?
This year is different
When he drafted SB 827 and SB 828, Wiener did not bring everyone to the table. At the Biltmore, he expressed the same contempt for local democracy that he voiced at the Yimby national conference in Oakland in July. Once again, he said that colleagues in Sacramento privately thanked him for authoring SB 35, whose draconian measures would be anathema to their constituents (had they known about them).
The stealth approach worked in 2017. The cities didn’t wake up to the threats posed by SB 35 until much too late in the legislative season to make a difference. Other than tenants’ rights and affordable housing advocates in the state, who mounted the major opposition to the bill, the grass-roots barely stirred.
This year is already different. Vigorous local opposition to SB 827 is flaring from social equity advocates and others, and some power players have come out against the bill. The Sierra Club California formally opposed SB 35 but, cowed by the Yimby lobby, did little more than state its opposition on the club website. On January 18, the club sent Wiener a letter asking him to withdraw SB 827. And, remarkably, on January 23, the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board registered its objections to the bill.
On the other hand, the San Francisco Chroniclewelcomed the legislation, noting that in an interview Wiener had “acknowledged” that SB 827 is “’an aggressive bill for sure” whose draft “’is unlikely to be its final form.’” Does this mean that he and California Yimby are going to put out something outrageous, tweak it to something slightly less outrageous, and then declare, “we’ve compromised?”
We’ll soon find out. SB 827 and SB 828 will have their first hearings in February. They should be lively.
Sen. Wiener will be holding a town hall meeting Saturday/3 at the Taraval Police Station Community Room. 2345 24th Avenue. RSVP: 415-557-1300.
As if there weren’t already enough ways to evict tenants, unscrupulous owners now have a new weapon in their arsenal: temporary moveouts justified by renovations, or “renoviction.”
Often, “temporary” becomes permanent when owners propose projects that will obviously take years to complete, or drag out small construction projects that shouldn’t have required relocation in the first place, or pass through rent increases that prevent tenants from being able to afford their apartments.
Advocates have long been aware of tenants permanently displaced by building renovations. But the current Planning Department process for approving permits exacerbates the problem, with neutral technocrats focused on paperwork efficiency using the excuse that they have “no directive” to investigate tenancies.
San Francisco won’t make headway on its quest to solve the affordability crisis by causing the eviction of tenants with low rents and allowing landlords to raise the rents to unaffordable levels. Yet we have found ourselves fighting on behalf of existing tenants caught between owners, planners, and an opaque and time-sensitive permit process.
Protecting existing tenants could be easier if the human costs are considered during the process of approving construction permits and communication improved between government departments. The Planning Department has a moral (and legal) imperative to do so as spelled out in the San Francisco General Plan.
Currently, tenants facing Temporary Eviction for Capital Improvements get standard relocation assistance. Renovations are to be completed within three months after owners, permits in hand, obtain permission from the Rent Board. In a major loophole, beyond three months tenants are on their own to cover costs (in temporary homes likely paying far more in rent) as they hope to re-occupy their apartments. Owners have an incentive to drag on construction and hope the tenant simply gives up their right to re-occupy.
The Tenants Union seeks reform this loophole by increasing the amount due after three months, to incentivize shorter construction times.
If the tenant does return they will likely face higher rent because 50 percent of capital improvement costs can be passed through—whether or not the tenants want the upgrades. Absurdly, in San Francisco tenants are on the hook for 100 percent of seismic work, meaning they must pay so the building does not collapse on them, while the owner retains all the equity. In Los Angeles and other cities, the costs are shared equally between tenant and owner.
Protecting Tenants through discretionary review
On February 9, 2017, the issue of how permits can lead to dire consequences for tenants came to a head with the death of Carl Jensen during a permit application battle. Representatives for the speculator who purchased the building omitted the presence of the 95-year-old tenant from their permit application as they sought to extensively gut and alter Jensen’s unit around him.
When a neighbor testified at the first Planning Commission hearing that Jensen existed and had nowhere to go, attorney Ryan Patterson nervously testified that Jensen would be offered a lifetime lease guaranteeing his security. Tenant advocates who spoke to Jensen disputed that such an agreement was ever actually offered.
An owner can claim one thing to tenants, or the Rent Board and another to the Planning Department and neither mean much, as these departments do not communicate with each other. The Rent Ordinance is complicated and ever-changing, so on their own planners do not always understand the many protections tenants do have.
At the sad second hearing after Jensen had died, Commissioner Dennis Richards urged the planning director to come up with commonsense guidelines for staff to investigate tenancy issues before approval. While there was a nodding of heads by planning staff and Director John Rahaim, as of last week a planner assigned to a renovation project we are objecting to told us that there is still no directive to reach out to existing tenants.
505 Grand View Ave
After new legislation, owners have an incentive to build Accessory Dwelling Units — or small living spaces in extra space such as garages and basements—at the same time as renovation projects and without thorough review of plans. While we support the building of ADUs in existing buildings, they should not be approved without considering how the existing tenants will be affected.
In order to stop dodgy projects, someone must file a “Discretionary Review” in order to have a project undergo extra scrutiny by planning staff.
The Tenants Union filed our first DR for 505 Grandview Ave where three occupied rent-controlled units would have been vacated so that the owner could install a private elevator through their apartments to a new two-story penthouse. Despite expanding the top floor units to two floors, this extra work snuck through under the ruse of ADU and seismic permits. One tenant who has lived in her apartment for 41 years would have had her exterior wall removed, deck cut in half and apartment made smaller to accommodate the standard open space requirements for an ADU.
The Tenants Union pointed out to the assigned planner early on that this would force the tenant out for up to 18 months (according to the architects) and that ADUs for future tenants would be gained at the expense of existing tenants with affordable rent. Despite this, the planner recommended approval of the project to the planning commission. After the DR presentation and testimony from the tenants facing displacement, the commissioners voted unanimously to overrule the recommendation and sent the architects back to the drawing board with several commissioners objecting to ADUs that disrupt existing tenant’s lives.
Ironically, the Planning Code prevents owners who have formally evicted tenants in the past 5-10 years from being able to apply for ADUs. But by only looking at past eviction history, the same legislation inadvertently allows owners to evict tenants upon obtaining their ADU permit.
The Tenants Union has three more DRs in the pipeline with tenants of 30 or more years in all three buildings. Each property was purchased by a real estate agent or investor who tried buyouts within months of the purchase and never intended to live there. If tenants are allowed to be evicted by the permit process, the city will be sending a signal to future speculators that all occupied housing is fair game.
The Planning Commission is tasked with the stewardship of San Francisco’s General Plan but often gets bogged down in technical rulings based on design features rather than the bigger picture of a housing policy that benefits city residents. We argue that the planning department’s assertion of technocratic detachment violates the directives passed by voters with 1986’s Prop M.
The importance of the General Plan and Proposition M
California law requires every city to develop and adopt a General Plan. The General Plan is a comprehensive, long-term policy document that enunciates a community’s values related to physical development. San Francisco’s Planning Code is among the chief set of rules for planners to implement the General Plan.
Both San Francisco’s General Plan and Planning Code are unwieldy and have been that way for decades. People started noticing that, like the Bible, you could find something in either document to support or oppose just about any proposal. And so, in 1986, linked with a measure that to this day limits annual office growth in relation to housing production, seven general plan policies were adopted by voters through Proposition M to clarify application of General Plan policies.
Proposition M clarified that when policies conflict, decisions should favor the preservation of housing, small businesses and neighborhood character. Housing and tenancy protection are key to the implementation of Proposition M.
Historically, one of the most important General Plan policies in San Francisco has been Objective 3 of the Housing Element: “Protect the Affordability of the Existing Housing Stock, Especially Rental Units.”
Some 64 percent of San Franciscans are renters. And with approximately 172,000 units, the city’s rent-controlled stock is by far the largest supply of affordable housing, dwarfing the number of below-market-rate, public, or non-profit housing units. It is for this reason that the Tenants Union has long been laser-focused on pushing our elected officials to take the preservation of private rental stock seriously when it is much more glamorous to be at ribbon cutting ceremonies for shiny new buildings.
When the city allows a rental unit to be doubled in size it is not protecting the affordability of rental units nor creating new housing. If a tenant is occupying that unit, as Carl Jensen was, it is obvious the tenant will have to be evicted to complete the work approved by the permit. Carl Jensen would have been at best displaced for a year and a half and at worst never been able to move back.
When the city allows landlords to evict tenants by obtaining a permit to install ADUs, the city is not protecting the affordability of existing rental units. Eviction may occur because the ADU permit requires walls in the units of existing tenants to be moved – as it did in the Grand View proposal. Or eviction may be required because the ADUs require such extensive structural upgrading that all occupants are affected. Or, worse yet, the seismic or ADU work may not really even require existing units to be vacated but “extra” and unnecessary work is thrown into the permit to force tenants out.
The city is not living up to its legal obligation under the General Plan and Proposition M to protect rental housing. It is too easy for planners unfamiliar with the details of the Rent Ordinance to pass off evictions and other consequences of permit approval as out of their domain.
Unscrupulous speculators make their living by increasing profits without regard for those who already inhabit the buildings they have purchased. If anything, existing tenants are seen as a deterrent to profits rather than as cherished city residents who have contributed to a property’s value and to San Francisco’s social fabric. We urge our city officials to acknowledge the on-the-ground reality that tenants are facing and reconcile department procedures with the objectives of the General Plan.
Jennifer Fieber is staff at the San Francisco Tenants Union. Mary Gallagher is an independent land use consultant who can be reached through her website: www.mgaplanning.com
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Check out the 48 Hills newsletter on Monday, January 29, for instructions on how to enter! We will be giving away 10 tickets to three great shows:
>> OPENING NIGHT FILM STUCK PLUS AFTER PARTY ON FEB. 1:
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“A loner who restores arcade games finds the monotony of life broken when a gamer girl steps into his shop, the same day a mysterious arcade cabinet shows up. As his romance flourishes, so does his obsession with the game, creating a man/machine carnal contact of the Cronenbergian kind.” More info here.
>> “MOVING PARTS” ON FEB. 3
“This quietly gripping drama puts a fresh spin on the subject of human trafficking by introducing us to a young Chinese woman smuggled into Trinidad and Tobago. After the death of her father, Zhenzhen hires a smuggler to take her to the Caribbean island where her brother, Wei, works in construction. Wei gets her a job at a restaurant, but when the smuggler demands more cash, the delicate beauty is forced into a compromising position. Help comes unexpectedly from Evelyn, who runs an art gallery in the neighborhood—but the contrast between the dark rooms above the restaurant and the blindingly white gallery calls everyone’s innocence into question.” More info here.
>> GINGER NATION ON FEB. 4
“Redheads are hot and fiery gay comic Shawn Hitchins has made flame-haired world domination his mission. He verges on Spalding Gray in this intimate concert filming of his internationally acclaimed and award-winning comedy, Ginger Nation. This humorous and heartfelt one-man show has the affable entertainer recounting his experience as a sperm donor to his lesbian friends. Hitchins’ spunky storytelling effortlessly weaves tales from his adolescence and his brushes with celebrity as a stand-up comic with bizarre tales of turkey basters and masturbating in increasingly suspect bathrooms…” More info here.
>> THE ICARUS LINE MUST DIE ON FEBRUARY 4
Fifteen years ago the band, Icarus Line, was rocketing to the top of the LA underground with a hot debut album and a major-label deal. Now frontman Joe Cardamone is 36 and broke, and the record companies won’t touch his new stuff. Plus, he’s getting death threats by text. Cardamone and director Michael Grodner wrote the script and plays a thinly veiled version of himself in this No Wave-style noir about navigating the modern music biz, co-starring fellow musicians Ariel Pink and Keith Morris (Circle Jerks). The screening will also feature a live musical performance by Joe Cardamone and Annie Hardy. More info here.
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A close political ally of Sup. Ahsha Safai who has little or no connection to local police-reform groups is trying to out the city’s best Police Commission member.
Olga Miranda, president of SEIU Local 87, has applied to replace Petra DeJesus on the powerful panel. DeJesus’ term ends April 30 and reports that she may not be reappointed shocked police reform advocates.
There’s a clear stink of politics here: Miranda helped Safai get elected, and he chairs the committee that will screen applicants for the job.
Police commissioners have to live in San Francisco, and in her application, Miranda said she is both a resident and a registered voter.
But that’s a stretch: She has lived in the East Bay for years, and only registered to vote in San Francisco on April 6, 2017 — five days before she filed an application to be on the Police Commission — voter registration data shows.
The move is odd: Miranda owns a house on Stannage Ave in Albany. She has been registered to vote there until early April.
She has, if her filings are accurate, moved from there to a single-family house on Paris Street that has at least three other residents, according to city planning and voter-registration data.
Planning Department records show that house is owned by Roberto and Macaria Canchola, who are registered to vote there along with Andrea Canchola. Multiple sources close to the matter told 48hills that Roberto Canchola is a former board member of Local 87. At the time of filing of this report, we weren’t able to independently verify this information.
DeJesus has been a leader on the Police Commission during the most crucial period of police reforms, including deliberations on the use of force policy, the scathing Blue-ribbon report, the Department of Justice’s critical assessment and list of more than 200 recommendations, and the appointment of a new police chief.
Miranda, local activists involved in police issues say, has no known experience on police reform. However, she and her union have been known for their victories against Airbnb, Uber, and Square for better treatment for custodial workers. She is linked to Assemblymember David Chiu, who honored here as Woman of the Year. Mayor Ed Lee also recently honored her, saying “her years of fighting for good wages, health care and retirement benefits for the thousands of her mostly-immigrant members is legendary.”
Miranda’s application is supported by Safai, whom Miranda strongly backed during his race for supervisor. Safai chairs the Rules Committee, which will consider the application.
Safai worked as a consultant for the union until 2012. Miranda refuted the allegations and said supporting Safai came down to choosing a candidate that had policies that worked for the janitors.
Former District 11 Supervisor John Avalos says there are eligibility questions that need to be asked when it comes to Miranda’s application: “I think people on the Board of Supervisors are looking at whether Olga Miranda’s application is legitimate, and it’s known that she has been living in Albany. The question is, I hear she’s registered to vote in San Francisco now, but she hasn’t voted in the recent elections. So if you just moved to the city and just registered to vote does that meet the qualifications?”
Progressive politician and former Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, who led the movement for a more independent Police Commission, said that reports of DeJesus being ousted is like “pouring vinegar on our wounds at a time when police reforms are being attacked by the Trump administration and Jeff Sessions is working towards undoing all the hard work done to push for police reform in the country. Removing one of the most viable and effective police commissioners San Francisco has ever seen is an attempt now to further erode the independence of the commission.”
In her application submitted to the Board of Supervisors, Miranda talks about experiencing police and gang-related violence as she grew up in Los-Angeles: “(…) those formative years I survived shootings, beatings and was well aware of the mistreatment that many in my family experienced in the hands of police officers; I attended more funerals than school dances. It’s these type of experiences that foment a lack of trust from minority communities towards law enforcement,” she wrote.
“…the commission needs people who will act and understand escalated discipline, collective bargaining agreements and can work hand-in-hand with all stakeholders, that is me.”
That worries former ACLU police watchdog John Crew who says the reference to “collective bargaining agreements” reminds him of the approach the Police Officers Association has taken: “They’ve been perpetrating a myth that negotiations are needed to implement the [recommended] reforms,” Crew told us. “Many police issues — especially those that involve how the police act towards the public — aren’t treated as working conditions questions that must be negotiated under state law or under the city charter because of their impact on the public. If she thinks the SFPOA has more rights than the public, that’s inconsistent with law and would reveal her to be an opponent of reform,” Crew said.
We reached out to Miranda for clarity but she declined to answer questions.
It’s important to note that for commissions such as this one when an incumbent comes up for re-appointment, the standard is usually simple: Is he or she doing a good job?
There’s little question that DeJesus is the most progressive member of the commission, and she’s done a great job holding the department accountable and pushing reforms. There’s no reason to oust her – except, perhaps, to repay a political favor to someone who has nowhere near the same qualification and until a couple of weeks ago didn’t even live in the city.
Mustafa Abuzeid landed in San Francisco from Kaula Lumpur and was swiftly escorted to a room: “I was in a room with other people. They just told me to stay there and wait and they took my passport,” Abuzeid said.
Abuzeid’s family anxiously awaited his arrival and organizers made announcements before his release: “We need to stay together and embrace the families and wait with them until their loved ones are released,” organizers said.
Abuzeid runs a small business and has had a green card for more than 20 years. His brothers and father are US citizens: “I’ve never had to face this, I travel often. Last time I came back home it took me five minutes to go through immigration.”
Abuzeid said he saw approximately 50 people in detention alongside him. This is the first we’ve heard about approximate numbers; so far officials have not released any details of number of being detained at San Francisco International airport. The lack of information has left many in limbo but protests have continued to grow.
Abrahim Abuzeid was worried as he waited for his brother to arrive: “I was very very worried. It was very hard for me and family.” Abrahim lives in Oakland and works for a building maintenance service providing office cleaning services in the Bay Area.
“We live here. My father came here decades ago this is where we live,” said Abrahim. He was overwhelmed to see people showing up in support: “It was great to see so many people coming out and supporting. When I saw them I was hopeful that I’ll see my brother,” he said expressing his frustration over the executive order: “I’m Muslim but I never think of people as different because of color and religion. We are one people, we are the same we are one,” he said.
Abuzeid said he wasn’t mistreated but was exhausted and thirsty after two days of travel and six hours in detention. The family embraced each other as Abuzeid looked exhausted but teary eyed with joy: “This is my home,” he said.
Lawyers are now approaching families of those detained to facilitate phone calls and advice people on approaching questions from immigration officers: “No need to sign anything unless you’ve a lawyer present.”