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Monday, September 30, 2013

The 8 Washington lies

I was walking around Glen Park on Saturday with my son, who is a volunteer on the No Wall on the Waterfront campaign, and we wandered into a laundromat where a friendly woman helped Michael hang a poster. "Is this the thing where they're going to build a park on the waterfront?" she asked.

No, actually, it's not, I told her. It's the thing where they're going to build the most expensive condos in San Francisco history, housing for the one percent of the one percent, in part on public land, with a massive spot-zoning increase in the allowable height limit for the area. It's a terrible idea.

But it's also going to be a low-turnout election, and not a lot of voters are paying attention, so there's bound to be some confusion. And developer Simon Snellgrove and his partners are taking advantage of it, pouring a truly obscene amount of money into the November election -- and running an almost comically misleading campaign.

Check out this ad. Nowhere does the ad even mention condominiums, much less condos that would be priced in the multiples of millions of dollars. Nowhere does it discuss the actual issue on the ballot -- should the height limit on the waterfront be raised from 84 to 136 feet so that exceptionally rich people can buy $5 million condos and Snellgrove can clear about $400 million?

But that doesn't matter -- Gavin Newsom and Ed Lee like the project!

The ad talks about affordable housing. It's a joke. Snellgrove will put $11 million into the city's affordable housing fund. That might pay for 30 subsidized units for low-income people. There are more than 100 families evicted every month in San Francisco right now. And, again: The developer is going to make vast sums of money from this deal. I'm not making up the $400 million number; I get that from Sup. David Chiu, who is hardly a left-wing radical. There have been public hearings on this; the figures are no secret.

The ad talks about a "private club." Actually, that would be the Golden Gateway Swim and Tennis Club, which is "private" the same way the YMCA, which I belong to, is private. You can pay a monthly fee to join. It's not like the Olympic Club, where you have to be voted in. A lot of the members are seniors who live at Golden Gateway. When Snellgrove is done, there will be a new PRIVATE club on the site, which you can pay a fee (no doubt much higher) to join.

But let's get to the bottom line here. This does nothing to solve the city's housing crisis. It's a way to bring more very rich people to the city. And it will pave the way -- literally -- for more intensive, highrise, PRIVATE development on the waterfront, which ought to be a public treasure.

Check out the numbers.  If this was such a public-spirited venture, would it take more than $800,000 in developer money to sell it to the public?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

An eviction reprieve, for now

Sometimes, we win one. The locksmith was on hand and the sheriff's deputies were on call Wednesday to haul the Lee family out of a home where the septuagenarians and their disabled daughter have been living since 1979. But more than 200 people showed up to protest, the Chronicle (finally) picked up on this and put the story on page one, and the sheriff backed down. According to the Tenants Union (and the twitter feed @stopsfevictions) the Lees have a short reprieve. The eviction is off for now, and it will be next Tuesday or Wednesday before the Sheriff's Office can be geared up for the next round.

Sup. Jane Kim was there. Sup. David Campos showed his support. Mayor Ed Lee was nowhere, and his press office still hasn't been willing to answer my questions or make any sort of statement.

But Tommi Mecca, a longtime tenant advocate, said it well: "Yesterday demonstrates how fed up folks are with what is happening. We have to send the message that it's no more business as usual until the evictions stop."

That's how we ought to be thinking about this. No more business as usual until the evictions stop. Every landlord who wants to make a quick buck be destroying people's lives should be shamed and protested, and every attempt to remove longterm tenants should be met with community resistance. We need to work on TIC buyers, too, and make clear to them the social cost of evictions; the Lee's unit ought to be considered a crime scene, and anyone who moves in should be forced to remember, every day, how awful it was.

Perhaps the Lee eviction will become a version of the I-Hotel, the fight that comes to symbolize a much larger battle over the preservation of low-income communities and the struggle for affordable housing. But this one isn't over yet: The owner of the building, Matthew Miller, still plans to evict the Lee family and turn the place into TICs. The delay is just that -- a delay. And tenant advocates will need to be back on the streets next week.

And I still wonder: Where is the mayor?


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Biggest problem in SF: Cost of living.

Message to Mayor Ed Lee, who has been pushing what he calls a "jobs agenda" by allowing all the new development possible and encouraging tax breaks to bring in tech firms: The main concern of the majority of San Franciscans isn't jobs, or homelessness, or crime.

It's the cost of living. Something directly -- and badly -- impacted by Lee's runaway growth policies.

In fact, when you read the survey (pdf), the cost of living and the lack of housing option is overwhelmingly cited as both the biggest problem facing the city and the biggest problem people see facing their families. And whatever the authors say about the survey, it's a relatively conservative sample (see: the small percentage that read the Bay Guardian regularly.)

Mayor Lee, ironically, gets good marks -- which is, I think, part of the failure of the local news media and political leaders to connect him to the eviction epidemic that has every single renter in town living in utter fear of an Ellis Act eviction. Of course, as I've pointed out, Lee can't stop the displacement alone -- but he's not even acting as if this is an important issue. And when he does address housing, it's all about building more -- despite the fact that virtually none of the new housing in the pipleline will do anything for affordability.

The Board of Supervisors, as a whole, doesn't fare as well in the poll as the mayor, which I think is, again, a sign of a misinformed public: I have issues with the board, but its members are, by and large, smart, competent people having intelligent debates about policy. I also think the poll is somewhat a result of district elections; if you ask people in D9 what they think about David Campos, you'll get high name recognition and strong positives. Those same people may have no idea who Katy Tang is.

And it's fascinating to see how many San Franciscans get their news not from the dailies or TV but from a local website. Maybe I'm on the right track here.

Energy industry publication denounces Mayor Lee

Energy News Data, an industry publication that serves the people who work in and follow the electric utility business, has some remarkably harsh words for the mayor of San Francisco. In a piece titled "A Disempowered City," reporter Chris Rafael blast the mayor for delaying and possibly killing CleanPowerSF:

In the face of such an imminent threat [of Climate Change], one might expect the mayor of what is ostensibly the most progressive city in the United States -- San Francisco -- to approve a city plan to purchase more renewable power. Guess again. Lee helped kill the plan, which took years of painstaking work at city agencies to piece together. And so Lee, in his own way, has joined the ranks of Republicans in Congress, climate-change deniers, and the fossil-fuel industry -- all symbols that political obstruction and big business can thwart reasonable attempts to deal with climate change.
He dissects and devastates the mayor's arguments against CleanPowerSF, pointing out that the community-choice aggregation plan offers an important pathway to lower carbon emissions.

Lee, who has offered no concrete plan of his own for reducing emissions, recently explained his reasons to the Board of Supervisors for opposing CleanPowerSF. In what ranks as one of the most absurd things I've ever heard, Lee complained that the program uses too many renewable-energy credits, which amounts to saying the program should be made more expensive by building local.
As most readers know, building local renewables is very costly -- perhaps prohibitively so in San Francisco -- and procuring RECs from facilities in prime solar and wind zones these days is very cheap. A more expensive program is unlikely to attract enough participation, dooming the effort from the start. And in any case, CleanPowerSF needs revenue from the program to finance any kind of buildout.
For the record, this is not a radical left-leaning publication. It's a mainstream news service focused on (and read by) both private and public-sector utility professionals. The reporters are people with extensive experience in what is often a complex technical and economic field.

And they think Lee is utterly wrong. Something to think about.

Monday, September 23, 2013

And speaking of evictions ...

You have to wonder how bad it has to get before the mayor of San Francisco says something -- anything -- about the epidemic that is ravaging this city.

Take this Ellis Act tragedy near Chinatown. As the Examiner notes, a Chinese couple in their 70s, who live with their disabled daughter who is 48, are getting thrown out of the house where they've lived since 1979:

Speaking in Cantonese, Gum Gee Lee, 73, said, "We raised our family here and we paid rent for more than 30 years. This new landlord knew we lived here when he bought the building. But he did not plan to keep us. He started to evict all of the tenants right away."

The Lee family's case is among the most egregious examples in The City of a rising number of evictions using the Ellis Act, a state law adopted in 1985 that allows a landlord to evict tenants in order to get out of the residential rental market.
The new owner, Matthew Miller, most likely will do what he's done with another property: Clear out all the tenants and sell it as TICs, turning a tidy profit in the process. It's all perfectly legal. The state has taken away from California cities the right to protect rental housing from backdoor condo conversions.

Would any of this stop if the mayor spoke out? Would Miller listen if Ed Lee called and told him to spare this home and these vulnerable tenants? I don't know. And none of us will know unless he tries it.

To be fair, the mayor didn't create the Ellis Act, and it's not his fault that so much of the state Legislature is in the pocket of the landlord lobby. San Francisco doesn't have the legal tools to prevent this type of eviction.

But there are only two ways that will change: If every big-city mayor gets organized and demands that Sacramento return to local governments the right to regulate housing -- and if the community and City Hall make it so unpleasant for evictors that they decide it's not worth the price. 

I send Lee's press person, Christine Falvey, an email today and asked if the mayor was aware of this particular eviction, and if he would be making a statement about it. Haven't heard back. 

You know you live in the Mission if ...

You're a young, white hipster who has no clue about the people who lived here before you came, and very little concern about what you're doing to their lives. I mean, seriously, is this the worst kind of Chronicle dreck, joking about a place where gentrification is driving out longterm residents. Gross.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Even the rich face evictions

The wave of evictions that's transforming the east side of San Francisco is creeping into the wealthier areas. Russ Flynn, the owner of a 33-unit luxury building on Nob Hill, wants to turn the place into TICs, and at least half a dozen of the current tenants will have to go.

J.K. Dineen, who covers commercial real estate for the Business Times, has the scoop. Flynn thinks he could get as much as $100 million when he sells the apartments -- not a bad haul, since he bought the place for $35 million and is putting another $15 million into upgrading it. That's $50 million spent, $100 million returned, for a double-your-money profit that will make the already wealthy landlord even richer. By far.

Now: It's likely that most of the renters who are facing eviction will be okay, since nobody rents in that district without a fair amount of cash. I don't know who the six tenants are who will lose their homes, and maybe some of them are on fixed incomes and won't be able to afford a similar place, since they've been under rent control for years.

But if this works out for Flynn, it's going to encourage other owners of larger buildings to use the Ellis Act to force everyone out in the name of a big, quick profit. That's a scary thought -- for the most part, TICs have been limited to smaller buildings. Under city law, no buildings with more than six units are eligible for conversion to condos, and most TIC owners want to convert eventually (it makes financial a little easier and makes the unit more valuable.)

So Flynn is going to have to warn his prospective buyers that the apartments will be TICs -- similar to the co-ops that are popular in New York -- forever. In that past, that would put a damper on potential sales, but he's no fool, and if he thinks he can market this, he's probably right.

And if he makes $50 million, and the city can't find a way to limit this sort of thing, then no tenant anywhere in the city is safe.

Now, let's remember: The reason San Francisco has rent control today is (in part) because Angelo Sangiacomo, another big landlord, started raising rents on wealthier, socially prominent tenants in the late 1970s, and pressure from tenant groups combined with pressure from the Swells in Sangiacomo's buildings drove the supervisors to approve the Rent Stabilization Ordinance.

Is it possible that a wave of Nob Hill evictions will have a similar impact? Does Russ Flynn care? Not when he's got another $50 million in his pocket.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

No room for chess on a new spiffy mid-market

There's apparently no room for homeless people to play chess in Mayor Ed Lee's new, fancier mid-Market.

I doubt that removing the chess tables will do much for (a) homelessness or (b) drug use, but it might cause people who were hanging out on the street, doing something people have been doing there for three decades, to move somewhere else. Where they won't be as visible to the tech workers, denizens of new high-end housing, and shoppers who will soon dominate the area.

Every nonprofit that has office space in what used to be the low-rent district is worried, facing displacement at the end of its lease.

There are costs to gentrification. The mayor and his allies either don't seem to get this, or don't care.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Jill Wynns is seriously considering Assembly race

Longtime School Board member Jill Wynns called me this morning. I guess we must have just crossed wires or something; she says she never got the message that I was writing about the 2014 Assembly race. She told me that the rumors are true: She is seriously considering joining Sups. David Campos and David Chiu and seeking the Assembly seat that will open up when Tom Ammiano is termed out.

Wynns isn't getting much attention in what has been portrayed as a two-way race, but if she decides to run, she could be a factor -- Wynns got more than 106,000 votes in November, 2012 (that's citywide, and this is an East Side, more progressive district, but still, she has supporters). She'd be the only woman in the race. She's an expert on education and education funding. And she can probably raise money -- particularly from people who think the other two are both too far on the left.

Wynns told me she would run as the "practical" candidate: "My concept of politics isn't right against left, it's ideological against practical," she said. "I'm on the more practical side.  It's not the positions that you take, it's getting the work done."

She said she expects her support would come from "the large majority of liberal Democrats who won't ask if you're left enough."

That sounds a lot more like the type of line Chiu has used and will use -- that he's a pragmatist who gets things done at City Hall (even when that means cutting bad deals.) So if Wynns does enter, I think she takes more votes from Chiu than from Campos, who has a solid progressive base (and the support of Ammiano, who is hugely popular in the district).  Even if she places third, she could be a factor in the primary, dragging down Chiu's vote total and moving Campos into first place.

But this is a two-two runoff, and I would be seriously surprised if Wynns finished first or second -- so I still think we're going to see Campos and Chiu in the November, 2014 general election.

Work five jobs to pay the rent

The SF Department of Public Health has a map that's not too surprising, but still worth a look: It shows how many minimum-wage jobs it would take to rent a two-bedroom apartment in different city neighborhoods. In the Mission, for example, it would take 5.5 jobs to pay the current market rate for an apartment. That means either: You're crowding five working people into that apartment (and none of them have kids), or you've got three people living there and all of them are working two full-time jobs.

That's the Mission. It's worse in Soma, North Beach, Potrero Hill, even Civic Center.

And does anyone really think that all of this development is going to make it any better?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Everything you need to know about the economy

Is pretty much right here:

1. Five years after the banking crash that led to the Great Recession, the rich are doing better than ever.

2. The level of state funding for public schools is lower now than it was before the recession.

But now worries; Twitter's going public, so there will be even more millionaires trying to evict you from your apartment in San Francisco.

Assembly race shapes up as centrist vs. progressive

The lines just got very clear in the race to replace Tom Ammiano in the state Assembly. Sup. David Chiu has entered the race with the support of Sup. Scott Wiener -- making it clear that Chiu will run not as a progressive but as a centrist willing to cut deals with the conservative wing of the board.

That leaves Sup. David Campos as the sole political heir to Ammiano, who has in both his local and his state career been a solid, unwavering voice of the left in one of the most progressive districts in California.

Chiu confirmed to me that he's running, and will probably use the same type of line he used in the mayor's race, talking about "our shared progressive values." But Wiener doesn't share what most of us call "progressive values." He's a talented and straightforward legislator, and my disagreements with him are not personal -- but on economic issues, he's really pretty conservative.

Now: The immediate rumor has it that Wiener will now get Chiu's nod if he decides to run for the state Senate seat that will be open in 2016, when Mark Leno is termed out. Wiener denies that: "I'm running for re-election to the Board of Supervisors next year," he told me by text message. "At the appropriate time I'll ask David Chiu to endorse my re-election. I didn't ask him for anything in return for my endorsement. I endorsed him on the merits."

And what Wiener (and Leno, and a few other politicians in town) decides to do in the future will depend on whether Rep. Nancy Pelosi sticks around after the 2014 elections. At some point, she's going to retire -- and an open Congressional seat is a once-in-a-lifetime chance that lots of people will jump at.

Still, the fact that Chiu sought and is promoting the support of Wiener indicates that he plans on running as more of a moderate (the way he got elected board president the second time around). Wiener my get him some support in the LGBT community (where Chiu is up against the fact that this seat has been held by an LGBT person for many years); Wiener has proven his popularity. But it will be among the more conservative elements of that community.

The interesting twist to all of that is the report circulating around that School Board member Jill Wynns may enter the race. I haven't been able to reach Wynns (odd; she usually calls me right back) but her name is everywhere. And she would be more of a rival to Chiu than to Campos.

Wynns has a distinguished record on the School Board, and (despite the urging of many of my friends and allies) I supported her re-election last time around. But if anything, she would probably run to the right of Chiu, and the only way she'd have a chance is if she went after downtown money. That wouldn't be a fitting way to end her long career as a public servant.

And let's remember: This election will take place under the state's new open-primary rule, where the top two finishers (no matter the party) in June will go on to the November general election. Even in a three-way race (maybe even more so in a three-way race) Campos -- with the progressive constituency pretty much to himself -- will finish strong enough to make the general election. I don't see Wynns beating Chiu. I can see her taking votes from both (more from Chiu than Campos) but she'll wind up out of the running.

In the meantime, Campos told me he's a little disappointed that Wiener would support a non-LGBT candidate for this seat, but he's not that worried. "I'm feeling good," he said. "There are ups and downs in any campaign, but we're doing well."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Poll: SF is building too much luxury housing

Nearly two-thirds of San Francisco voters think the city is building too much luxury housing for the rich, a new poll shows.

The survey, by the highly respected firm David Binder and Associates, which has done work for the White House, found that 63 percent of people likely to vote in the November election agreed with the statement that "the city is adding too much luxury housing that only the wealthy can afford." Only 30 percent disagreed.

The opposition to the city's current policy of encouraging all high-end housing resonates not only citywide but in every single supervisorial district. Even in the conservative District 2, 59.9 percent of the voters said the city is building too much luxury housing. In District 8, 63 percent agree.

That's not good news for Simon Snellgrove and his plan to build the most expensive new condos in San Francisco history on the waterfront. Two ballot measures -- one a referendum on the increased height limit needed for the project, another asking the voters to approve the height increase and the project itself -- appear headed for defeat, the poll shows.

Proposition B, the developers' initiative, was supported by only 42 percent of likely voters, and the height limit increase, Prop. C, got the nod from 36 percent. That's when voters were presented with nothing but the ballot language.

When balanced arguments in favor and against -- taken from the official proponents and opponents ballot statements -- were presented, support for the Prop. B dropped even further, to 38 percent supporting the project. A full 55 percent said they were likely to vote No.

That, of course, is before Snellgrove and his allies pour millions of dollar into their campaign. The developers are no doubt doing their own polls, and seeing the same numbers. And they will try to run a campaign on the little issues: Is the park the Snellgrove wants to build better than what we have now? Will his new (private) swim club be better than the current (private) swim club? Will the project create jobs (of course; so would building a prison, or rebuilding the Embarcadero Freeway.)

But the campaign against 8 Washington now has a chance to make this election about the bigger issue: Should we be allowing the construction of more and more housing for a smaller and smaller segment of the market? Should we be giving public land over for condos that only the 1 percent of the 1 percent can ever own? Is it a good policy to build housing that the owners won't live in most of the time?

The polling suggests that if the campaign is about the city's housing policy, Snellgrove loses. And that's something everyone at City Hall should be thinking about.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Who's covering the America's Cup?

Isn't it a bit interesting that, other than Joe Eskenazi, the best newspaper coverage of the America's Cup has been in the sports pages? It's as if the daily reporters can't manage to break through the hype around the races (and oh, please), but the Chron's sports desk, where reporters are used to dealing with arrogant billionaires who own teams and try to screw the public out of money, seems to be able to figure it out.

The real context of the CleanPowerSF fight

The Board of Supervisors is taking action -- or at least, starting to take action -- to push back against the San Francisco PG&E Public Utilities Commission, which is trying to derail a modest move toward public power.

Sup. London Breed is sponsoring a resolution that will likely get at least eight votes calling on the SFPUC to quit acting like a PG& subsidiary end its obstructionism and get with the program:

By failing to set rates, Breed stated, the PUC is "contradicting the policy directives of the Board of Supervisors and neglecting its own obligations" under the City Charter If the PUC continues to refuse to set the rates, Breed wrote, the board will either pass legislation or place a measure on the ballot and "exercise every means at its disposal to enact its policy objective and preserve its role as the elected policy-making body of San Francisco." Supervisor John Avalos has made similar threats.
The SFPUC will likely ignore it, since the majority of the members don't want to defy PG&E let San Francisco develop plans for its own clean energy. The decision had nothing to do with the rates, or for that matter, with concerns over doing business with Shell Oil; Shell is a bad corporate actor, and so is PG&E, and so are most private energy companies. The point of the contract with Shell is to get the city started, to get a customer base and a revenue stream, which can then be used to replace both Shell and PG&E with locally owned renewable energy.

That prospect is what is freaking PG&E out and leading to all the efforts to scuttle CleanPowerSF, which is really a pretty modest program.

If you want to know what this is really about, what the national political context is, check out this amazing, powerful story out of Boulder, Colorado, where the city (with the support of the mayor, sadly lacking here) realized that the only way to get a renewable future was to get rid of the local private utility monopoly. The private company is fighting back, with huge sums of money -- in part because the entire private energy industry, worth hundreds of billions of dollars in profit, is deeply threatened by the emergence of public power as a green alternative in an era of growing concern over climate change.

I wish we had the money to put the Boulder video on TV in San Francisco. I wish everyone who doesn't get what this fight about would pay attention.