Supervisor Says Rent Control Caused Housing Crisis

Photo of Sing Tao Daily

The local race to watch this election isn't the mayor's race (no well-funded opposing candidates? bo-ring), but instead is the red hot race for District 3 supervisor between incumbent Julie Christensen and not-quite-incumbent-anymore Aaron Peskin.

Now a new flub by Christensen, who allegedly denounced rent control in a meeting concerning affordable housing, is the newest entry in the District 3-slugfest. 

Peskin was District 3 supervisor for eight years, first elected in 2000 and again in 2004, and also served as board president. Christensen's experience is mostly in the private sector, though she also performed advocacy work in North Beach.

The more conservative/moderate wing of the Board of Supervisors, as well as the mayor, all fear a Peskin win, which may help tip the balance between moderates and progressives on the Board of Supervisors to progressives' favor. 

So Lee and other moderates have much funding (including an eye-popping $25,000 from Lee's friends, the tech industry) and much political capital riding on Christensen, making the race for D3 all the more explosive.

Much of that conflict is playing out in Chinatown, where advocacy groups and some residents are more than a little peeved at Christensen for referring to them as “lower class” in a January speech, which she later called a “first day flub.” District 3 includes Chinatown and North Beach, among other neighborhoods.

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District 3 Incumbent Christensen 'Flubs' Again?

Now Chinese language newspaper Sing Tao Daily brings us our latest alleged Christensen flub (Christen-flub?), reportedly made as the supervisor sat in a room full of developers and housing advocates: During the meeting, Christensen allegedly said rent control caused the housing crisis.

You know rent control, the broad term for a set of local and state laws which keep any tenants like, for instance, seniors on fixed incomes (many of whom can't even afford to ride a bus), paying reasonable rents for years instead of seeing those rents skyrocket to $4,000 a month.

You know, that rent control.

From a translation of the April 10 edition of Sing Tao Daily

After referring to Chinatown residents as 'lower class', the new District 3 Supervisor Julie Christensen who also represents Chinatown is in yet another controversy. Sources who attended the Housing Bond meeting organized by Mayor Lee last week revealed that during the meeting, Christensen said rent control is one of the causes of the housing crisis, shocking all the tenants rights advocates in the room. Christensen denied saying those words on Thursday, and said she meant that the sloped hills and stairs are everywhere in the district which makes it difficult for seniors to be mobile.

We confirmed our translation of the Sing Tao Daily article with its author, Isabelle Yiu. 

To housing advocates, this is a cardinal sin. They say rent control is one of the few laws keeping low-income and moderate-income San Franciscans in their homes. Other more conservative politicians argue rent control raises rents in San Francisco as a whole. 

“Aaron Peskin is known for his divisive, angry and threatening presence on the Board of Supervisors six years ago,” Christensen spokesperson Maureen Erwin wrote in a recent press release. Now, its Christensen who appears to be causing divisions in Chinatown.

Speaking on behalf of the supervisor, Erwin denied Christensen denounced rent control in an interview with SF Weekly. “That's not what she said,” she told us. “Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers.”

Ouch. One would imagine Sing Tao Daily wouldn't like hearing their articles called into question. Just to be sure, we called around to confirm what the paper reported: We received repeated confirmations — “yes, she said that” — from our sources.

Housing Rights Committee Director Sara Shortt heard Christensen denounce rent control and couldn't believe her ears.

“It was in the context of a meeting on the housing bond, and the mayor gave a spiel on what it was all about. He then asked different supervisors in the room 'what do you think?'” Shortt said.

“When Christensen spoke, rather than focusing on the overall problem of affordable housing and the solution provided by the bond, she said, among other things, that 'then there's that rent control problem, you have a family who's in a home where they need more space, and they can't move because their rent is so low.'” 

She allegedly then wrapped that classic “golden handcuffs” argument, and others, into a reason behind the housing crisis as a whole.

Rent Control Causes SF's Affordable Housing Crisis?

It would be good at this point to point out that Shortt and other affordable housing advocates point to speculation by deep-pocketed investors as the cause of inflated prices, not rent control.

“I don't know what [Christensen] was really driving at,” Shortt continued, “except that when asked about the affordable housing crisis she talked about the rent control 'problem.' She saw the 'problem' as being the low rents, and not the fact that rents are so unbelievably high in the rest of San Francisco. It made me concerned that perhaps she wasn't very in touch with the every day experience of renters.”

Ken Tray, political director of the United Educators of San Francisco, said he heard Christensen as well, and was equally surprised.

“I turned to (housing advocate) Peter Cohen and he said, 'you heard that too, right?'” Tray told us. 

This concerned Shortt in particular, who noted to Sing Tao Daily she worried Christensen may vote against legislation related to rent control. Such a move would be puzzling, as even Mayor Ed Lee has now renewed his call to roll back the power of Ellis Act evictions statewide; the Ellis Act is law often used to evict rent controlled tenants.

And in Christensen's very own district, a number of tenants faced rents that may have tripled, with some facing eviction. The tenants of the Emery Lane Single Room Occupancy complex were saved after numerous activists (including those at the Chinatown Community Development Center) intervened, asking the mayor to call the realtors to halt the evictions. The realtors did, and the mayor shared some of the credit with Christensen for stopping the evictions (a politically astute move for a mayor concerned for his chosen candidate). 

According to Sing Tao Daily, Christensen walked back the remarks, saying she only meant to point out that some seniors in District 3 have difficulty walking on hills and stairs (huh? okay, I guess) and therefore more senior housing is needed.

So, again, and just so we are clear, did Christensen really say rent control caused the housing crisis? On one side, you've got a slew of people in the meeting saying she did, and the reputable Sing Tao Daily verifying those claims. In the other corner, you've got one potentially embarrassed politician and her politically-connected spokesperson telling us Christensen said nothing of the sort.

Still, we all make flubs when we speak once in awhile, right? But we're not all in charge of an entire district's worth of people whose access to affordable housing hangs on a fragile thread. 

Photo: SFWeekly File Photo

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