Housing Equity Front and Center in Last Board Meeting of 2018

The last Board of Supervisors meeting of 2018 was jam-packed with legislation to protect both affordable housing and low-income renters.

Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting — the final one of 2018, and the last ever for Supervisors Malia Cohen, Jane Kim, and Katy Tang — included a slew of last-minute attempts to slide in major proposals before the end of the year.

Among the mix of arguments were several valiant efforts to protect affordable housing units and low-income renters — which, if passed, could have sweeping effects on the city’s affordability crisis for years to come.

Supervisors Aaron Peskin, Rafael Mandelman, and Norman Yee teamed up for one of them, which would institute a clearer definition of “demolition” across city codes to include any physical loss of residential housing, and institute a harsher set of laws and penalties for building owners who illegally convert or demolish multi-unit buildings and replace them with massive single-family homes.

Lee Hepner, a legislative aide for Peskin, says that he has a list of more than 70 addresses that were once multi-unit but had since been demolished or merged to create enormous single-family homes, many of which sell for tens of millions of dollars. For example, 460 Vallejo St. used to be a two-unit building, until it was bought in 2014 for $1.65 million and converted into a four-bedroom, five-bathroom home with a roof-level pool. It’s now on the market for $13.8 million.

“It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that in the middle of a housing crisis we must protect our city’s existing homes from destruction,” Peskin says. “This bad behavior will stop with this legislation.”

It’s no coincidence that this legislation comes just one day after the Bi-Annual Housing Balance Report was released, which disclosed that for every two new affordable housing units built in the city, one is removed, most commonly through demolition, or by coming off the market after an owner move-in. In the 10-year span between 2008 and 2018, an average of 350 units were lost each year.

“There are a lot of numbers thrown around these days about housing,” says Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations. “In this Housing Balance Report, authored by the Planning Department, we have the real story from the city’s own Building Permit data, Planning data, and Rent Board data.”

This means that the countless hours of meetings, appeals, and protests people wage in efforts to increase the number of affordable units in new developments are not actually having the sweeping effect on the overall housing stock activists hope they are. To radically change San Francisco’s ratio of exorbitant-to-affordable units, there also needs to be significant attention spent on preservation of existing, rent-controlled stock.

A repeal of Costa-Hawkins would have helped with this, enormously. If the city were able to legislate a rent control date more recent than 1979, we could increase our affordable units citywide by the tens of thousands. Between 1980 and 2016, it’s estimated that 32,000 rental units were built citywide, none of which are currently eligible for rent control thanks to Costa-Hawkins.

But in the wake of Proposition 10’s failure, the city’s Board of Supervisors has to get creative within its limited scope of power, which is where this new anti-demolition legislation slides in.

“The time of ‘two steps forward, one step back’ is about to be over,” Peskin says.

Now that the legislation has been introduced, the Planning Commission and Department has 90 days to give comment before it returns for a Board of Supervisors hearing, most likely in late February.

Peskin’s office isn’t the only one brainstorming ways to protect San Franciscans’ abilities to access affordable housing. Supervisor Sandy Fewer drafted legislation to give qualified affordable housing nonprofits a first-right-to-purchase for any multi-family residential building and vacant lot that hits the market — as long as the end goal is to create or preserve permanently affordable housing.

Called the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA), the legislation would be a major boon to nonprofits like the Mission Economic Development Agency, which has purchased a significant number of both small and big buildings across the Mission to preserve current tenants’ affordable housing. MEDA lost its bid on 2820 Folsom St., a three-unit, rent-controlled building that was put on the market in 2016, despite it being higher than serial-flipper Danny Sun’s, solely because they didn’t get their offer in on time. The 13 tenants now face eviction.

“Acquisition of properties across the city is a tried-and-true approach to keeping San Franciscans in place,” says Karoleen Feng, director of community real estate at MEDA. “COPA will add alternatives to the sale of buildings to investors, and reverse the trend of displacement in San Francisco.”

The catch: COPA is not exactly free. Fewer’s plan is dependent upon a decent portion of the city’s newly acquired and highly desired $181 million tax windfall being allocated to this project to help nonprofits become competitive players against developers. A first offer means very little if the second is millions of dollars more.

But it does fit the bill for a one-time financial investment, which use of the windfall requires.

By giving affordable housing nonprofits the first-right-to-purchase and stabilize rent-controlled buildings as permanently affordable housing, we have the opportunity to challenge the notion that homeownership is the only secure form of housing,” Fewer says.

Last but certainly not least in Tuesday’s affordable housing efforts was legislation introduced by Supervisor Hillary Ronen that closes an eviction loophole used by landlords who are blatantly determined to evict residents from single-family homes and condos. (Neither are subject to rent control, thanks to Costa-Hawkins.)

Meant solely to target those who are using “egregious tactics” to evict tenants, Ronen’s legislation clarifies that landlords do not have the right to raises the rent beyond what is considered “substantial” — for example, far over market rate for a comparable unit — particularly if it’s done within six months of other attempts to evict tenants.

For homeowners scared this will mean they can never evict tenants, fear not. It’s not a common type of case; Fred Sherburn-Zimmer of the Housing Rights Committee says they only see about 50 incidents per year that would qualify. And it won’t be used lightly. In order to be chastised, landlords have to show a pattern of harassing and intimidating.

“The burden of proof in San Francisco for harassment is crazy,” she says. “You have to have all this documentation and there’s no enforcement, so this has a high bar.” 

For renters in San Francisco, these steps toward creating a more equitable housing stock citywide should provide a balm on the burn of Prop. 10’s failure, which garnered a majority of support in San Francisco despite failing statewide. With its loss, supervisors’ hands are tied in exactly how much change they can legislate — but they’re certainly finding ways to push new laws through any available loophole.

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