Enforcing a hidden anti-eviction law

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As the Board of Supervisors was in the process of approving a measure to require a public hearing before converting rental units into condominiums – a measure Mayor Gavin Newsom has shamefully pledged to veto – Sup. Chris Daly told his progressive colleagues they shouldn't be cowed by accusations that they are against home-ownership opportunities.

He's exactly right. The city's building new condos at a rapid clip, with more than 9,000 for-sale units in the pipeline right now, while rental units are disappearing. It's more fair to accuse Newsom and his allies of being hostile to renters than to somehow say progressives oppose home ownership.

In fact, as Daly pointed out Jan. 10, the city isn't even using existing tools to help tenants.

Six months ago, the San Francisco Tenants Union and Sup. Aaron Peskin unearthed a 25-year-old city law that could prevent many future condo conversions. Section 1386 of the city's subdivision code, approved in 1981, requires city planners to reject condo conversions in which evictions or steep rent hikes have been used to clear the building for sale.

The law is a bit outdated – it requires landlords to provide only a five-year history of building occupancy. The supervisors should amend it to allow city officials to consider how a building was cleared out of tenants, whenever that occurred, and if Newsom wants to be seen as anything more than a fan of evictions and a shill for speculators, he should direct planning officials to start aggressively enforcing the law's provisions.

That's just one step the supervisors can take to deal with a mayor who seems unwilling to take even modest steps to slow the flood of evictions and the loss of rental housing. Newsom insists smaller condo conversions – ones involving fewer than five units – shouldn't even be subject to Planning Commission hearings because that august body needs to save its time and energy for larger land-use issues.

So tenant activists and Peskin are pursuing with the City Attorney's Office the possibility of requiring public notice for all condo conversions, of any size, which would give tenant activists the ability to appeal those permits to the full Board of Supervisors. It's a good idea: If the poor, overworked planners are too busy to protect rental housing, and the supervisors want to take on the job, it will be hard for Newsom to say no.