What’s really going on with the US and Iran?

US troops in Kurdistan. Photo by Reese Erlich.

On Jan. 2 a US drone fired a missile on a car caravan leaving the Baghdad airport, killing Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani and leaders of Iraqi militia groups. The Trump administration claims the attack eliminated terrorists planning attacks on US forces. But many Iraqis and Iranians consider it an act of war. Who is Suleimani and what impact will his assassination have on the region? 48 Hills talked with Reese Erlich, author of our Foreign Correspondent column, who has reported from Iran and Iraq for 20 years.

48 Hills: Who was Qassem Suleimani and why is his assassination significant?

Erlich: Suleimani was a top leader in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and headed up the Quds Force, Iran’s elite troops fighting in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region. He played an important political role, for example, recently negotiating with Iraqi political parties to select a new prime minister. The US claims he was responsible for killing US soldiers during the 2003 Iraq War.

US troops in Kurdistan. Photo by Reese Erlich.

Suleimani was extremely popular at home, enjoying a 83 percent approval rating within Iran. It’s as if Iran had assassinated Eisenhower during World War II. The Iranians will almost surely retaliate.

48 Hills: What form will that retaliation take?

RE: I don’t have a crystal ball, but we can see what Iran and its allies have done recently. We may see more large demonstrations against the US Embassy in Baghdad, attacks on US-allied shipping in the Persian Gulf and/or assaults on US forces in the region. Ironically, before the most recent US attacks, tens of thousands of Iraqis were demonstrating against Iran’s presence in Iraq. In November, protestors even burned the Iranian consulate in Najaf, Iraq. Recent Trump administration actions, however, have swung Iraqi popular opinion against the US, and the anti-Iran demonstrations have stopped.

48 Hills: Is the recent attack an example of “Wag the Dog,” in which Trump seeks a war in order to divert attention from his impeachment and the 2020 elections?

RE: In the days ahead, we’ll learn more about the internal discussions in the White House leading to the attacks. Trump undoubtedly hopes to rally the country round the flag in his new offensive against “terrorism.” But the current actions are also the logical outcome of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran launched in 2017. Since Iran hasn’t buckled under unilateral US sanctions, military action is the next logical step for him. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter about Trump’s intentions. His actions are illegal under international law and a disaster for the people of the US and the Middle East.

48 Hills: Who are the “Iranian backed militias,” which Washington blames for attacking US troops?

RE: From 2003-2011, the Pentagon spent billions of dollars training the Iraqi Army. But when the Islamic State attacked Iraq in 2014, the US-trained army collapsed. With ISIS approaching Baghdad, the call went out to form self-defense groups. Iran, with ISIS also approaching its borders in northeastern Iraq, armed and trained some of these militias. The various armed groups later formed the Popular Mobilization Units and formally affiliated with the Iraqi Army. Today the Iraqi government pays their salaries and provides them with ranks equivalent to the Army.

The US trained and armed its own factions within the Army, most notably the Iraqi Counter Terrorism forces. In Syria, the US armed the Kurdish-based Syrian Democratic Forces and has trained and armed the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq. It’s rather hypocritical to blame Iran for training armed groups while the US does exactly the same.

In response to US economic warfare against Iran, its allies in Iraq launched mortars and rockets at several bases billeting US soldiers. Then on Dec. 29, the Pentagon bombed the base camp of one militia, Kataib Hezbollah, claiming the group was controlled by Iran. Kataib Hezbollah is also a unit of the Iraqi Army.

Just prior to the Dec. 29 bombing, which killed 19 and wounded 35, the Trump administration consulted with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Israel–but not Iraq. Understandably, Iraqis across the political spectrum criticized the bombing and assassination of Suleimani as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The US seems intent on fighting Iran on Iraqi soil.

48 Hills: Does Iran pose a danger to US national interests?

RE: Iran’s government is a right-wing, religious-based regime that represses its own people. It seeks regional influence, mainly in countries with large Shia populations such as Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, but also Syria. Washington cares little about human rights violations in Iran or anywhere else. It wants to reestablish a pro-US regime in Iran that will allow US oil companies to once again dominate the economy. The people of the US have no national interest in protecting oil company profits. Recent events have shown that people in the region don’t want to be dominated by any foreign power, whether the US or Iran.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. He is author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with U.S. Policy. Follow him on  Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Investigation: Complaints cite racist, sexist harassment by Muni fare inspectors

Hundreds of passengers have complained about Muni fare inspectors.

In January, 2019, a woman called Muni’s customer service to complain about what she described as her daughter’s alarming interaction with a fare inspector. “She was going to pay with cash and the POP [officer] physically [grabbed] her by the arm and took her off the bus at Union and Columbus,” a complaint filed by the customer states.

“The [officer] [started] going through her purse and pulling all the content on the floor looking for her I.D. She was shaken, then POP officer threatened her by calling the police, she was very scared.”

Hundreds of passengers have complained about Muni fare inspectors.

This was not an isolated incident. Over the past three years, records obtained under the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance show, more than 241 complaints have been filed against fare inspectors — and half of them charge racial or sexual discrimination or harassment.

The complaints charge gender discrimination, profanity, discrimination against people with disabilities, transphobic language, and stolen personal items. In almost half of the complaints, patrons claimed emotional and in some, physical harassment.

In at least 16 of 90 discriminatory complaints, riders reported inspectors seizing personal belongings such as wallets, Clipper cards, and most often, identification cards.

This is most likely a tiny sample of the problem. According to the customer service training program at First Financial, only 4 percent of American consumers who are treated badly by institutions take time to file complaints. By that standard, there could be 6,000 unreported incidents from December 2016 to early April 2019.

The fare inspector program began in 1999 as a way to halt SFMTA’s financial losses from fare evaders. According to the Chronicle, the program brings in around $2.5 million a year in citation payments.

But an analysis of inspectors’ salaries and benefits from Transparent California shows an average pay rate of $113,251, so with 50 inspectors, the program costs $5.6 million – twice what it yields in revenue.

And according to the Examiner, fare inspectors are pressured to issue tickets to meet what amount to quotas.

Of course, the threat of a ticket is supposed to encourage riders to pay – although according to Hoodline, the inspectors tend to limit their work to areas pretty close to their own headquarters.

Page two of the SFMTA fare inspector training manual lists the words “respect,” “inclusivity,” and “integrity” as core values of the proof of payment unit. But the list of complaints is alarming.

In December 2016, a patron filed a complaint alleging an inspector called them a racial slur after being targeted by a white inspector. “I choose to keep my name anonymous, because I am frankly embarrassed and truly disappointed in the actions and behavior of this officer and do not feel comfortable sharing my name,” the patron wrote in the report.

“Being a black man, I felt targeted for no other reason than race,” he added.

In another complaint from October 2018, a rider detailed an incident in which an officer voiced transphobic language toward the patron’s family member during a bus inspection on the outbound 27 Bryant.

In some complaints, riders claim their personal belongings were taken from them or rummaged through. People with disabilities describe being harassed or yelled at by inspectors. In some cases, patrons claim inspectors physically pulled them out of their seat or off the bus.

In an incident from February 2019, a mother complained she was carrying her baby as an inspector placed their hands on her body and pushed her toward the sidewalk.

The agency has redacted around 20 pages of its fare inspector training manual from the public, keeping its policies and motives hidden from those outside of the organization. Whitney Smith, a Muni union shop steward, said it could be because of changes being made to the program.

“There’s changes being made to our department almost every day,” Smith said.

According to the SFMTA’s public record online portal, the agency cites personnel, medical, and legal files as means to redact public information.

When a rider decides to file a complaint against an inspector, they are directed to a feedback form and drop-down menu of seven forms of complaints. Of the seven, the label “Discourteous/ Insensitive/ Inappropriate Conduct” accounts for almost half of the complaints. Others include “Criminal Activity” and service-related tags.

While most of the cases’ resolution information is redacted from the complaints, the words “No Merit/Dropped” appear in several forms. Smith explained these cases were investigated and the rider was found at fault. Several dropped cases involve claims of severe discrimination.

A complaint from February 2018 alleges an inspector targeted a man who was Black on the 22-Fillmore bus route. “Was only African American man on bus and, no one else was humiliated like this,” the form reads.

The case was dropped within two days with a no merit code.

The same day, a rider claimed inspectors targeted people with disabilities. “They rudely [asked] ONLY [DISABLED] riders to take out their cards and ID. [Elderly] man was asked rudely and [asked] for more ID,” the report reads. “People with transfers or regular clippers cards were NOT discriminated against. Please STOP harassing disabled…”

Several complaints from riders involve inspectors allegedly stealing identification cards. In a February 2019 incident, a rider was ticketed and said they had their California state ID confiscated. In March 2019, a patron wrote that an inspector threatened to write her a ticket and took her ID. She wrote, “I need my identification back, it is not fair for her to take my documents without my consent.”

During the hazardous wildfires of November 2018, a rider called in a complaint claiming an inspector harassed a person who appeared to be homeless. “I had offered to pay her fare. The officers then took the lady off the bus and the lady was screaming please don’t kill me,” the form reads. “I was trying to help the lady out and the officer threatened to have me arrested for trying to help this homeless woman out. The air quality is bad and I can understand why people are trying to ride the Muni.”

According to the agency’s training manual, proof of payment inspectors do not have the authority to arrest people.

In March 2019, a rider called in a complaint against an inspector who forced them off the bus as they were paying the fare. The patron was on the phone with their sister who was recently admitted to a hospital. They were on their way to meet her. After the experience, the patron wrote they could hear the inspectors laughing. “These people make you feel dehumanized,” the rider wrote.

Most disciplinary actions for inspectors begin with just a warning. “It’s progressive discipline, it all depends on the situation and circumstance. Some situations are more severe than others,” Smith said.

When asked for an example, Smith said, “A fare inspector just got a written warning for their behavior and how they talked to a patron, which was inappropriate, it was disrespectful. And when you’re on the job, you have to remain professional and be courteous to the patron. And this particular fare inspector wasn’t courteous and they got disciplined, they got a written warning.”

“You’re not going to get terminated off the bat unless it’s severe,” she added.

According to Smith, severe actions would be in the realm of physically touching a patron or taking money from a patron instead of citing them.

A March 2017 complaint described a patron warning an aggressive inspector of their intent to report him, only to hear “So what, nothing is going to happen,” in reply. Several forms detail incidents in which inspectors threaten to have the patron arrested by San Francisco police officers.

In March 2019, a complaint alleges, an inspector took a rider’s bank card from their hands and refused to give it back. When the patron said they would call the police, the inspector said “good maybe they will arrest you.” Later, the patron said the inspector “came back and threw my ID at me and said go ahead and call the police and get yourself arrested.”

The Examiner reported in January 2019 that Dolores Blanding, an “ombudsperson” appointed by Mayor Breed to investigate the transportation agency, found several cases of unresolved misconduct by SFMTA employees.

“A number of MTA employees and managers described bullying and verbally abusive behavior as being tolerated in the workplace,” Blanding wrote in the report. “It has been described as a culture of silence.”

Muni’s top official, John Haley, retired in October 2018 after several women came forward to claim sexual harassment against Haley. The retirement came one month after his assistant sued the agency because of Haley’s harassment, according to the Examiner.

We made numerous attempts to get a comment from Muni regarding our findings, but the agency did not respond.

Muni union president Roger Marenco sees the transit issues coming from SFMTA’s lack of oversight and contentious environment. “At the moment, Muni is in a state of debacle. It is in a downward trajectory, unfortunately,” Marcenco.

Marenco said he believes Muni’s board members possess too much power with little consequence. “It is a culture of complete autonomy and there’s no scrutiny over them when it comes time to make decisions,” Marenco said. “There’s no accountability.”

The safety of Muni patrons is also a major concern of Marenco. “Things continue occurring in the exact same manner, pertaining to health and safety and nothing is being done about it,” he said. “These issues are not being addressed. Issues pertaining to safety with the general public are not being addressed in an adequate manner.”

SF General nurses told not to provide bilingual services

Why is it so hard for nurses to get paid for bilingual services?

When Lauren Cook heard that the new contract her union, SEIU 1021, had negotiated with San Francisco General Hospital included provisions to streamline the process of receiving bilingual pay, she was initially excited.

A fluent Spanish speaker who lived in Mexico for two years, Cook has worked at the hospital as a registered nurse for more than five years.  Before that, she was a volunteer at the hospital, and a student nurse there.  “I spent my entire nursing career there,” she said. “I grew up in the city, and I always knew that was the place I wanted to be – part of the safety net (of the city).”

Why is it so hard for bilingual nurses to get designated as translators?

Receiving bilingual pay under the old system was onerous, at best. Employees had to become certified by taking a language proficiency test issued by the San Francisco Department of Public Heath, which runs SFGH. Employees were then required to fill out a form each pay period documenting precisely how many hours they spent speaking a second language, get their manager to sign off on it, and then submit it to the payroll department – all to receive a measly extra $25 a week.

It was such an arduous process for such a tiny reward that hardly anyone bothered to fill out the form.  Even after getting their managers to sign off on the paperwork, the payroll department would sometimes second guess it and ask if it was really needed, several nurses told 48hills.

The new contract, which took effect July 1, promised to streamline the system.  That old, burdensome form was history, and the bilingual pay bump increased to $30 a week.

Excited that the dreaded payroll form would no longer be a barrier to receiving bilingual pay, Cook took the hour-long language test in July at a DPH building near City Hall.  She passed.

“It was pretty rigorous. I was surprised at some of the vocabulary we were expected to know,” she said. “They printed out this really fancy certificate.  It had shiny gold leaf on it, and you’re like, they spent money on this?”

Cook put a copy of the certificate in her manager’s inbox and contacted payroll to let them know she was now eligible for bilingual pay.

She got an email from Human Resources instead.

“Passing the exam doesn’t mean that you have been designated by hospital admin/HR to do bilingual services or be paid,” a hospital HR team member wrote to Cook. “We will soon send out from HR leadership new guidance/policy on how to get certified and designated to get bilingual pay.  Right now, no new requests are being processed as we are awaiting clarification.”

The email went onto say that Cook “should not be performing bilingual duties as you have not been designated to do so, and thus won’t be paid to do that work.”

But Cook, who works in the ACE Unit – providing acute care for the elderly, as part of a medical-surgical unit – has always used her bilingual skills on the job.  She just hasn’t been paid for it.

“There was never anything written, or said that prohibited me from doing so,” she said, and she estimates that somewhere between 25 and 35 percent of her patients are Spanish-speaking.

Cook said she’s often pulled into other rooms to translate for co-workers.

Translation services are also available through a phone system, but it’s a cumbersome process that often doesn’t work well with many of Cook’s patients who have hearing loss, or are experiencing dementia.

“It’s almost impossible a lot of the times to use an interpreter phone because of the hard of hearing, or baseline confusion. It’s one of the big things that keeps coming up in terms of safety and equity,” she said.

Many patients recovering from surgery don’t often understand that they need to stay in bed for their own safety and to prevent falls. If they can’t receive instructions in their own language, Cook said, patients often try to climb out of bed, which leaves nurses with few choices.

“The next thing is restraints, which is embarrassing to say, but a lot of times we do need to restrain patients because of communication breakdown,” Cook said.

Cook is hardly alone in struggling with the rules on translation services.

Christa Duran, a nurse in the Emergency Department and a union shop steward, said that of the approximately 180 nurses in the ER, 43 speak a second language, such as Spanish, Russian, Cantonese, or Vietnamese. Of those 43 nurses, only four of them are certified to receive bilingual pay. Duran herself is one of those four, who is certified to speak Spanish at the hospital.

“We have a really diverse community – we need as many bilingual people as we can get,” Duran said.  “I speak Spanish for my entire shift, I am not exaggerating. I have Spanish-speaking clients for 10 out of 12 hours of my shift.”

Brent Andrew, a hospital spokesperson, said that only 61 percent of patients speak English, according to data collected by the hospital.

Spanish speakers make up 24 percent of the patient population, and Cantonese speakers nine percent – although the hospital did not have data showing how many of those Spanish and Cantonese speakers also speak English.

Given the huge need, Duran said she doesn’t understand why hospital administration has been making it harder for bilingual nurses to become certified to receive bilingual pay.

“They have promised culturally competent care – that when people come in, they are going to get care they feel comfortable,” she said. “They are boasting to the community, on their website, everywhere, that they know how to take care of our diverse community. But they don’t want to allow our diverse staff to speak our language and establish rapport with our clients?”

Duran said that even after the email from HR was widely shared among the nurses, nurses on the floor have not stopped speaking other languages, even if they are not receiving bilingual pay. “That would be a huge disservice,” she said. “I’ve stopped patients from being intubated as a result of a language barrier.”

More bilingual nurses are requesting to take the test and become certified for bilingual pay, but are repeatedly being told that the test is not available, Duran said.

Sasha Cuttler, a nurse and chair of the SF General SEIU group, told 48hills that “Latinx nurses are not hired in proportion to our patient population, so it is particularly galling that speakers of other languages are made to beg for the bilingual  stipend. While SF is under attack for being a Sanctuary city, we need to make sure that we can support our immigrant patients.”

Andrew said that while the program had been on hold for some time, a new policy was finalized and emailed to managers in October describing the procedure for adding bilingual workers.

“So far, no managers have filed papers on it,” he said, but that he couldn’t comment on how managers for groups such as the Emergency Department were making those decisions. “I don’t know the inner workers of how that department decides how many bilingual practitioners they need.”

“I can’t explain why in this instance mangers are not filing for this, whether the outreach hasn’t yet been sufficient,” Andrew said. “I don’t know, I really can’t speak to that.”

Meanwhile, the nurses – and patients – are still waiting.

Special report: Bay Area academics visit Kurds in Northern Syria

Members of the Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) near Qamishli, Northern Syria on Jun. 17, 2019. The YPJ is the all-female brigade of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed forces of the Syrian region of Kurdistan. The Kurdish-led forces welcome people from all nations and religions and they not only receive military training, but are taught about feminist ideology and Jineology (science of women). They fought many battles including with the YPG and United States against the Islamic State. © Beth LaBerge

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 as twenty-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. 

Students perform a traditional dance at Rojava University in Qamishli, Northern Syria on Jun. 17, 2019. Founded in 2016, Rojava University teaches science, art and humanities as well as Jineology (the study of women), agriculture, medicine and engineering. Classes are taught in Kurdish Arabic and English. The University provides free education to many who had formerly not had access.
Students attend a lecture at Rojava University in Qamishli, Northern Syria on Jun. 17, 2019. © Beth LaBerge
(From left) Seth Holmes and Targol Mesbah speak with Havin Guneser before a lecture at Rojava University in Qamishli, Northern Syria on Jun. 16, 2019. © Beth LaBerge

Turkish invasion

On Oct. 9, Turkey sent troops and Syrian mercenaries into Rojava with Trump’s implicit approval.

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.”

A family crosses the Tigris River from Northern Syria to Iraqi Kurdistan at the Semalka border crossing on Jun. 9, 2019. © Beth LaBerge
Memorials to People’s Protection Units (YPG) members line the road going into the city of Qamishli in Northern Syria on Jun. 9, 2019. © Beth LaBerge
Graffiti lines the Northern Syrian side of the border wall between Syria and Turkey, near the city of Qamishli on Jun. 14, 2019. Graffiti reads Kurdistan and biji Rojava (long live Rojava). © Beth LaBerge
Laundry hangs to dry in an area of Kobani, Northern Syria called ‘The Museum’ on Jun. 11, 2019, where rubble is deliberately left as a reminder of the Siege of Kobani. The siege by the Islamic State (IS) lasted from September 2014 to January 2015 and destroyed much of the city. It was in The Museum area that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) eventually defeated the militant group. Local goverment thought it was important to memorialize what happened there so plan to make the destroyed downtown an open air museum. Some families have moved back into what they can salvage of the area.
Xalid, a member of the Internal Security Forces known as Asayish, at the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Kobani, Northern Syria on Jun. 11, 2019. The cemetery houses the remains of civilians and fighters who lost their lives in the battle against the Islamic State (IS). The Kurdish-led forces say they lost at least 11,000 while fighting the Islamic State. © Beth LaBerge

Strange bedfellows

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.

Children play on the entrance gate of Jinwar, a village for women and children, in the autonomous region of Northern Syria, on Jun. 14, 2019. Jinwar welcomes women from surrounding villages who have often left violent relationships or are widows of YPG members. Opened in 2018, the village has 30 houses, a communal kitchen, store, bakery Jineology (Women’s Studies) Institute and school for the children. © Beth LaBerge
A traditional Kurdish dancer outside of Rojava University in Qamishli, Northern Syria on Jun. 16, 2019. © Beth LaBerge
A traditional Kurdish dancer outside of Rojava University in Qamishli, Northern Syria on Jun. 16, 2019. © Beth LaBerge
Leyla Ahmi, a professor at Rojava University, outside of Amuda, Northern Syria on Jun. 10, 2019. © Beth LaBerge

Rojava experiment

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.

Rojava’s future?

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.”


Freelance journalist Reese Erlich has reported on Syria since 2002 and is author of Inside Syria: The Inside Story of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect.

Breed’s popularity dropping rapidly

London Breed, Mayor of San Francisco, at the YGL Alumni Annual Summit 2018. Copyright World Economic Forum / Stephen Porter

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.

Mayor Breed’s support is dropping, recent polls show.

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.

If it turns out that the endorsement of Mayor Breed isn’t a net positive with voters, it could hurt both Loftus and Brown. (Even the Chron notes that Breed’s appointment of Lofus could backfire.)

The numbers could also impact her ability to push an agenda.

Politics moves fast in San Francisco. If these trends continue, then a year from now serious contenders will start lining up for the 2023 mayor’s race.

SF pays $58,000 for Uber and Lyft rides

Protesters challenge Uber's economic inequality. Photo by William Fitzgerald

San Francisco spent almost $58,000 in the past year reimbursing city employees for rides on Uber and Lyft, public records show.

Records obtained from the Controller’s Office and the Mayor’s Office under the Sunshine Ordinance show public employees took 1,664 rides with the two “transportation network companies.”

Protesters challenge Uber’s economic inequality. Photo by William Fitzgerald

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who heads the county Transporation Authority, said that paying for Uber and Lyft rides is “counter to the policy that has been set by the Board of Supervisors and the TA.”

The TA, he told me, has consistently refused to spend public money on Uber and Lyft.

In the context of a $12 billion city budget, $57,958 isn’t a big number – but it’s a big deal to the beleaguered taxi industry, which was devastated by illegal Uber and Lyft competition while the city looked the other way.

“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.”

And, of course, Uber in particular has terrible labor problems and is trying to attack public transit.

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’s plans include attacking public transit

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.

Those public services would be replaced by Uber Buses, now being tested in Cairo.

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.


We estimate that our TAM comprised 11.9 trillion miles in 175 countries in 2017. As detailed in the table below, this estimate includes both vehicle miles and public transportation miles. Our TAM is based on 7.5 trillion vehicle miles. We derive the number of vehicle miles in our TAM by multiplying the number of passenger cars in each country, based on third-party data, by our country-level estimates of miles traveled per car, based on 2018 reports from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration and the International Road Federation (©IRF World Road Statistics). Our TAM also includes an estimated 4.4 trillion public transportation miles.

Here’s where you get the real point:

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.

Uber would probably not exist in its current format if San Francisco and other cities had not allowed it to break the law and run illegal cabs for years. Now, as always seems to be the case, policy-makers are scrambling to figure out how to deal with the impacts of Uber-friendly policies.

And I’m not sure anyone is prepared for an all-out assault on public transit, backed by billions in venture capital and Wall Street money.

But we need to get ready – now.

Regional planners mount a quiet coup to promote developers and attack vulnerable communities

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 

SF Mayor London Breed endorsed the plan at a Dec. 12 meeting

The CASA power grab is predicated on a prior usurpation: MTC’s 2016 hostile takeover of our region’s land use planning agency, the Association of Bay Area Governments. 

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.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf also endorsed the plan.

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.

Kirkey added:

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:

Allocation formula

  • 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)
  • 20% “Revenue Sharing Contribution from future property tax growth, regionwide” ($100 million)

Taxes on Taxpayers: $500 million

  • 1/4 –cent sales tax, regionwide ($400 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. 

CASA Roster:

Co-Chairs and Convener

Fred Blackwell
Chief Executive Officer | The San Francisco Foundation

Leslye Corsiglia
Executive Director | Silicon Valley at Home

Michael Covarrubias

Chair and Chief Executive Officer | TMG Partners 

Steve Heminger 
Executive Director | Metropolitan Transportation Commission

CASA Steering Committee Members

Ariane Hogan

Associate Director | Genentech

 Bob Alvarado

Executive Officer | Nor Cal Carpenters Regional Council

 Dave Cortese

District 3 Supervisor | Santa Clara County

 Dave Regan 

President | SEIU

 David Rabbitt 

Second District | County of Sonoma County

 Ellen Wu

Executive Director | Urban Habitat

 Grace Crunican

General Manager | BART

Jake Mackenzie
Mayor | City of Rohnert Park

 Julie Combs

City Council Member | City of Santa Rosa

 Keith Carson

District 5 Supervisor | Alameda County

 Kofi Bonner 

Regional President, Northern California | FivePoint

 Libby Schaaf

Mayor | City of Oakland

 London Breed

Mayor | City and County of San Francisco

 Matthew Franklin

President | MidPen Housing

 Michael Matthews

Director of California Public Policy | Facebook

 Rebecca Prozan

Chief of Public Policy and Government Affairs | Google

 Sam Liccardo

Mayor | City of San Jose

 Stuart Cohen 

Founding Executive Director | TransForm

CASA Technical Committee Members

Abby Thorne-Lyman
TOD Program Manager | BART

Adhi Nagraj

Director | SPUR

 Aimee Inglis

Associate Director | Tenants Together

 Amie Fishman

Executive Director | Non-Profit Housing Association

 Andreas Cluver

Secretary-Treasurer | Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County

 Bill Witte

Chair and CEO | Related California

 Bob Glover

Executive Officer | BIA Bay Area

 Caitlyn Fox

Policy | Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

 Denise Pinkston 

Housing Committee Co-chair | Bay Area Council

 Derecka Mehrens

Executive Director | Working Partnership, USA

 Doug Shoemaker

President | Mercy Housing

 Jacky Morales Ferrand 

Housing Department Director | City of San Jose

 Janice Jensen

President and CEO | Habitat for Humanity

 Jennifer Hernandez

Partner | Holland and Knight

 Dr. Jennifer Martinez

Executive Director | Faith in Action Bay Area

 Jonathan Fearn

Vice President of Development | Summerhill Housing Group

 Joseph Villarreal 

Executive Director | Contra Costa Housing Authority

 Joshua Howard 

Senior Vice President, Northern California | California Apartment Association

 Linda Mandolini 

President | Eden Housing

 Lynn Hutchins 

Attorney | Goldfarb Lipman LLP

 Mark Kroll 

Managing Director | Saris Regis Group

Mary Murtagh 
President and CEO | EAH Housing

 Matt Schwartz 

President and CEO | California Housing Partnership

 Matt Vander Sluis

Deputy Director | Greenbelt Alliance

 Michele Byrd

Director, Housing & Community Development | City of Oakland

 Ophelia Basgal 

Visiting Scholar | Terner Center for Housing Innovation

 Randy Tsuda 

Community Development Director | City of Mountain View

 Rich Gross 

VP and Market Leader for Northern California Market | Enterprise Community Partners

 Robert Apodaca 

Principal, Zezen Advisors | California Community Builders

 Scott Littlehale 

Senior Research Analyst | Nor Cal Carpenters Reg. Council

 Tomiquia Moss 

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

#8   Unlock Public Land for Affordable Housing

#9   Funding and Financing the CASA Compact

#10  Regional Housing Enterprise

Scott Wiener’s war on local planning

Sen. Scott Wiener wants to force cities to allow more high-end housing, without giving them the tools or money to control the impacts

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.

Sen. Scott Wiener wants to force cities to allow more high-end housing, without giving them the tools or money to control the impacts

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.

SB 827

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.”

SB 828

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.

and that

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 Chronicle welcomed 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.  

Protecting tenants from ‘renoviction’

Rent control is only a problem because of the loopholes in the law

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.

Tenants are facing evictions through renovation — and city planners don’t seem to care. Photo by Gerard Koskovich.

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.

Existing Loopholes

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