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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

We've Moved!

Hey folks, I'm not giving up this blog entirely, but I've finally launched my new project,, which will be a progressive online daily newspaper, so you can read my reporting and comments there every day?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

How we can fight evictions -- at home

I'm really glad that Mayor Ed Lee has gotten the message and is ready to join the fight against evictions. Although it's hard to tell exactly what he's proposing, except to try to get the state Legislature to modify the Ellis Act and give cities more control over evictions. (The Ellis Act, of course, is only part of the problem, but it's a big part: There is little in the way of legal defense to an Ellis eviction.)

The only way we're ever going to get the state to give local governments the tools they need to fight displacement is if big-city mayors get involved, and this is start. Lee ought to be trying to drag the mayors of San Jose, Los Angeles, Oakland, and every other city that is or will be facing housing pressure to join him.

But we all know that it won't be easy: Landlords dominate the state Legislature. Tenant bills are always an uphill battle, and this one will be brutal, and may take a while. So I'm still looking at what we can do now, in San Francisco.

I've suggested that the city can, and should, raise the statutory relocation fee for Ellis evictions, and Sup. David Campos is going to introduce a bill to double it, from around $5,000 to around $10,000. That's a good start, but there may be even more we can do.

Federal law already addresses the issue of displacement: If you're tossed out of a place because of any development involving federal money, you have the right to be made whole, at least for a while: The Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1970 was set up to ensure that people whose homes were taken for urban renewal or infrastructure project had the right to stay -- not just in the region but in the same city. Under the law, the government is required to pay relocation compensation equal to the difference between what the resident was paying in rent or mortgage and the current market rate -- four four years.

That would give displaced people a fighting chance to stay in their neighborhoods.

The law remains on the books. No court has ever invalidated it. The presumption -- that when you lose your home through no fault of your own, you should not also lose your community -- is pretty well enshrined in the statute.

So why not simply take the same standard -- the same legally defensible standard -- and adopt it as San Francisco law?

The relocation assistance required under an Ellis Act eviction would be designed not to punish a landlord or to make Ellis evictions too expensive, which might not be legal, but simply to ensure that the resident gets to say in town. Just like the feds have guaranteed since 1970 (when a left-wing radical name Richard Nixon was president and signed it into law).

If the state needs to get involved, this is a perfect piece of legislation for all of our local reps to carry. It's so simple and basic. It preserves existing vulnerable communities. It doesn't stop or repeal the Ellis Act; it simply states that part of the cost of evicting someone who has done nothing wrong is to make it possible for that person to rent another equivalent place at existing market rate.

What could possibly be wrong with that?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The "new" Warriors arena

The most important thing to understand about what the Chron calls a "lower, slimmer, and greener" Warriors arena is that the most troubling part of the project hasn't changed at all.

The key to comprehending this project is to realize that the arena is only a part of it -- the part the mayor and the Warriors owners want to talk about. But the owners know the arena won't pay for itself, and they don't want to spend their own money -- so they're asking to build hotels, a condo tower and a huge mall on public property.

Buried deep in the Chron story:

the $1 billion project includes two 105-foot hotel towers, a 175-foot condominium tower and about 120,000 square feet of retail space spread across Piers 30-32 and a 2.3-acre site across the Embarcadero now used as a parking lot. The new design makes no changes to the development planned on the parking lot, officially called Seawall Lot 330. Both sites are owned by the city.
Now: the waterfront isn't zoned for highrise hotels and condos -- or for that level of retail. None of this has anything to do with the maritime use that is supposed to dominate anything built on  Port land.

The defeat of 8 Washington should be a warning to these folks: Whatever you feel about an arena on the waterfront, the public doesn't seem to want highrise condos there. And if the project were limited to just the arena, it wouldn't get built.

So really, nothing new here: Just hype about a slightly modified architectural rendition that doesn't show the big towers in the background. And I don't think this will change the way critics look at the project.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What we should do with the waterfront

Art Agnos, the former mayor and foe of both 8 Washington and the Warriors arena, floated out an idea today that I've been talking about for years. Why not stop selling off parts of the waterfront to raise money, and instead ask the voters to approve a bond act that would pay for repairing some crumbling piers, demolishing the rest of them -- and turn as much as possible of the Port's underused land into parks and open space?

It's an expensive proposition, but when you look at the long term -- say , the next 50 years --is it worthwhile for the city to have a world-class waterfront filled with public space (and prepared for sea-level rise)? Or is it better to take the short view, and lose public land now for quick cash?

At least we're starting to talk about it. And I can pretty much guarantee that  in the next year or two there will be a major campaign, and probably a ballot initiative, to lock down lower height limits on Port land, the Embarcadero, and the immediately adjoining areas. That would shoot down the Warriors arena, probably 75 Howard, and the Giants ambitious development plans for the parking lots near AT&T Park.

At the very least, we ought to have a serious waterfront planning process that sets some rules -- and then follow them. Right now, every project that's planned for that part of town violates existing zoning and height limits. Every single site has to be spot-zoned. Every single developer is getting some sort of a break from the city.

Supporters of 8 Washington, like Chuck Nevius,  like to say that the developer, Simon Snellgrove, went through a long, involved planning process and got all the necessary permits. But what he didn't do was follow the existing rules. He could have built a condo complex on that site that met current zoning rules; it would have been smaller, and he wouldn't have made as much money. But he would have avoided the ballot battle -- which, after all, started off as a referendum on the single-site height increase.

So let's talk firs about what we want to do with this part of the city city, and then offer developers a chance to fulfill that mission. And keep as much of it public as possible. That would actually be logical.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

After 8 Washington

As I think about it, the 8 Washington vote was about three things: Whether the mayor's popularity has any staying power and coat tails; whether the voters are satisfied with the direction of the city; and whether it's time for an entirely new approach to the city's waterfront.

The answer to the first question is clearly No. Ed Lee made it very clear that he wanted this project to move forward, and nobody seemed to care. It still lost by 20 points. That doesn't bode well for his "legacy project" of the Warriors arena. The second is pretty obvious, too -- when even the Chron puts evictions as its lead story, the anger among the populace is pretty serious. And I think the next thing we're going to see is some sort of a campaign to rethink development along the Port and nearby areas -- possibly a vote-approved height limit of some sort. Or maybe, in a more lasting way, an approach that looks at what the Port does with its land and whether we really want to continue allowing private-sector development and the money it brings in to fund Port operations. Maybe we just do a big bond act, clean up the piers we can fix, create a lot of new open space, and let the other piers decay into the Bay.

The larger, overarching issue, of course, is housing. It seemed pretty clear that the voters didn't see $5 million condos as part of the solution to the housing crisis. But the debate still goes on: Can we build enough market-rate housing to bring prices down? Is there any connection between supply and demand in this city?

That's what Urban IDEA and the SF Progressive Media Center (among others) are going to talk about tomorrow (Thursday) night at a special forum at the LGBT Center. It starts at 6 pm, and we're going to hear a wide range of expert panelists discuss the local housing market, whether new construction will bring prices down, and what can actually be done. If you care about housing in the city, you want to be there.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

We won B and C -- and maybe it's the start of something

After the speeches, after the results were final, as the crowd was thinning out at the No on B and C party, former Planning Commission member Dennis Antenore, who has watched politics in this city for many years, turned to me and said: "Wherever Mayor Lee is tonight, he better be shaking in his boots."

Seriously: The election was over almost before the night began, and when all the votes were counted, the 8 Washington project went down in a landslide. Outspent more than 4-1, the opponents (a crazy coalition) won by 20 points. And for better or for worse, Lee was the face of the Yes campaign.

In TV ads and fliers, Lee (along with Lite Guv Gavin Newsom) talked about parks and "neighborhood housing." The developer, Simon Snellgrove, made every effort to turn the  mayor's popularity into a yes vote on luxury waterfront condos. And it was a total failure.

The vote tonight was a lot more than a referendum on one development project. It was a statement by San Franciscans that they're fed up with the direction the city is going. It was as much about the epidemic of evictions and the influx of rich techies as it was about height limits on the waterfront. And it was a vote of confidence in the mayor --one that he lost, badly.

As I sat and watched a range of speakers who not so long ago would never have appeared on the same stage -- retired Judge Quentin Kopp, former Mayor Art Agnos, former City Attorney Louise Renne, former Supervisor Aaron Peskin -- I realized that something profoundly important was happening here. People of all political stripes who have lived in San Francisco for a while are realizing that their city is being stolen away from them.

Now: There have been many times in the past when Old San Francisco complained about newcomers, from the Beats to the Hippies to the Punks to the Gay and Lesbian population -- but this was very different. Nobody at the party tonight cared a bit about how new arrivals looked or smelled or what they smoked or wrote or who they loved. It was, and is, all about money. About longtime residents being forced out of town purely because they aren't rich enough to stay.

As David Campos put it, in a preview of the coming state Assembly race: "There is a tale of two cities. We have an affordability crisis, Ellis Act evictions are up 170 percent, and City Hall doesn't get it." He noted that the supervisors just hours earlier voted (with Sup. David Chiu the swing vote) for a bill to push homeless people out of the parks.

"Enough is enough," he said in a fiery speech. "San Francisco is a city for all of us, not just for the ultra-rich. We have a crisis here, and we have to act as if it's a crisis."

It was stunning to hear Renne -- an appointee of Dianne Feinstein and never a foe of development -- proclaim that "To all those developers, this is a message: Don't mess with our waterfront." Renne even praised environmental lawyer Sue Hestor, who for man years fought bitterly with Renne over planning policy.

Everyone was talking about how to turn this momentum into something bigger. As Kopp put it, "This is the beginning of the end of five more years of a Willie Brown administration." Added Agnos (who used to fight bitterly with Kopp): "This is the beginning, and it feels like a movement."

Among other things, the Warriors arena, the 45 Howard highrise condo project, and the Giants development on the waterfront are now all very much in play. There's likely to be a ballot measure to set strict waterfront height limits.

And Campos is already talking about introducing legislation to start attempting to control the evictions.

There was hope in the air tonight. Labor, environmentalists, neighborhood folks, along with a whole lot of San Franciscans who used to be on the opposite side of major issues, came together to say, as Campos put it, "Enough is enough."

I rode my bike home from North Beach thinking that maybe we can still save San Francisco.

Why I voted No on B and C (and why I think we will win)

Not many people at my polling place today. At least half of the ballots cast were mailed in over the past few weeks. Somehow, I always wait for Election Day; it seems a lot more festive.

At any rate, I proudly voted against the Wall on the Waterfront, No and B and C. I was feeling crabby and unsure about Sup. Mark Farrell's health-care reform measure, Prop. A, so I went with the League of Pissed Off Voters and SEIU 1021 and voted no. Prop. D is harmless enough.

The Chronicle's coverage makes it seem as is Props B and C are just about one development on one site where the developer is promising housing and parks. Actually, the project won't add more than a few square feet of new public open space. And the housing is all for the very, very rich.

But there's a much larger issue here: The city never rezoned the waterfront for taller buildings. In fact, over the past 30 years or so, the trend has been exactly the opposite: Height limits have come DOWN along the Bay.

If Simon Snellgrove and his partners had come to the Port, the Planning Commission, and the Board of Supervisors and said: Hey, we think the city should allow intense, highrise development along the Embarcadero and the southern piers, we could have had that debate. And the developers would have lost.

Instead, they asked for spot zoning, for a special exception to the rules for this one site, so they can make a whole lot of money. And if the voters go along with it, every other greedy developer with a vision for a new Fontana Towers will try to grab waterfront land and start building what will become a real Wall.

I'm honest about my position: I don't think the city should build ANY more high-end housing until we catch up on the need for affordable places to live. And if you think that building more luxury condos will bring down prices, perhaps you should read this.

But whatever you think about housing, this is the wrong way to make planning decisions in an area as sensitive, and as important to the public, as the waterfront. If you are reading this and you haven't voted yet, go out right now -- your boss has to give you time off from work -- and say NO on B and C.

And despite the millions Snellgrove has spent on this campaign, we have a real chance. Low voter turnout might actually help us, since the people on the East Side of town who take five minutes to go to the polls will more than likely be on our side.

The polls are close on Prop. B. But I think Snellgrove's camp is nervous, which is why you've seen the flurry of last-minute TV ads featuring the mayor and lite guv. TV is expensive -- and this wasn't just late-night cable stuff. This was World Series, Monday Night Football ... shows why you're buying not just SF but the whole region, paying for millions of viewers just to reach a few thousand. You don't do that unless you're really nervous.

If B and C go down, the path to building a Warrior's arena and a highrise at 45 Howard and a giant complex near the Giants stadium gets tougher. Because it will send a message that the voters want the waterfront open. Here's hoping.