In a rare challenge to mayoral appointments, a Board of Supervisors committee recommended a rejection of Mayor London Breed’s pick to the Rent Board — the last option to battle burdensome rent increases all too familiar in San Francisco.
Breed appointed former Mark Leno aide and her mayoral transition team staffer, Reese Isbell, for the tenant seat on the Rent Board last month. But tenant advocates questioned why the mayor appointed someone without deep housing knowledge needed to defend renters against mega-landlords like Veritas, or why tenant rights groups were not consulted. Typically, the two tenant seats and two landlord seats— the last being neutral — are chosen with the recommendation of those respective communities.
At Monday’s Rules Committee hearing, Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Gordon Mar agreed.
Isbell failed to explain basic tenant law definitions, like burden of proof, and name recent legislative changes passed by the Board of Supervisors when questioned. Though Ronen said he would be qualified for any other commission or as an alternate Rent Board member, the stakes were too high for him to not know the legal ins and outs right off the bat.
“This is not the type of position where you can learn on the job,” Ronen said. “This is a critical, critical appointment that’s going to have real impact on thousands of our most vulnerable residents in the city.”
Supervisor Shamann Walton, on the other hand, said his only “sin” was being new and that the Board of Supervisors should not interfere with mayoral appointments. He voted to send the issue to the full board but against the rejection of Isbell, who outlined plans to increase the board’s outreach to all sorts of nonprofits.
“Yes, I’m not a lawyer and those are pieces that I’m learning,” Isbell said. “It can be so much more and that’s what I want to bring to it.”
Though several came to speak to Isbell’s compassion, work ethic, and ability to research, public commenters overwhelmingly admonished Breed for not consulting with tenant or housing rights groups, as is the norm. (Breed, a renter herself, also failed to work with those groups as supervisor when drafting a weaker version of November’s tenant-right-to-counsel, which she didn’t initially support.)
Moreover, his predecessor Polly Marshall served on the Rent Board since 1984, through several mayoral administrations, and was seen as a reliable representative with deep legal knowledge. Marshall reportedly found out she would be replaced when the Bay Area Reporter broke the news of Isbell’s appointment.
“The mayor did not follow the protocol that has been set for 40 years,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a tenant counselor of 19 years now with the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. “Is this going to be a precedent for this administration, that they’re not going to consult with tenants?”
Tenants facing pass-throughs before Fewer’s legislation preventing such practices went into effect, in particular, feel they don’t have the time for Isbell to get up to speed. At his first Rent Board meeting as a member on April 9, Isbell voted in favor of tenants at 430 Baker St. but did not make legal arguments needed to sway the neutral vote. Veritas, the building owner, won the ability to pass the cost of property taxes and mortgage costs onto its tenants with a 3-2 vote, which Ronen argued sets precedent for other appeal cases.
Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, stood firmly by Breed’s choice.
“Mayor Breed appointed Reese because of his history of policy work and advocacy on tenant issues at the local and state level, as well as his personal experience living in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco for the past 20 years,” Cretan said. “She is confident that Reese can work with the entire community to advance and protect tenants’ rights as a member of the Rent Board.”
Eight supervisors would need to vote to reject Breed’s appointment, which goes to the full board on Tuesday, April 23.