Economic cleansing, part two

Don't let realtors' cash determine the future of San Francisco

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EDITORIAL Over the next two years, tens of thousands of San Franciscans will face the loss of their homes. If the current tech boom is anything like the last one, the impact on the city will be the economic equivalent of a massive earthquake, with displacement transforming entire neighborhoods and low-income tenants, artists, writers, musicians, small merchants, cheap restaurants, and nonprofits getting chucked aside to make way for an influx of wealthier people and the businesses that serve them.

That's why the supervisorial races are so critically important — and why groups like the Association of Realtors, which wants to limit tenant protections, is throwing such a huge amount of money into two district races.

San Francisco in the late 1990s was a terrible place for anyone who wasn't making a lot of money. Housing prices quadrupled in just a few years. Evictions doubled and tripled as dot-com money flowed in and young white people with pockets full of cash forced older, low-income people out of "hip" neighborhoods like the Mission, Soma and Bernal Heights. Families were driven out of town. Community-serving businesses and nonprofits were displaced as landlords sought higher-end tech companies who paid wildly inflated commercial rents. In a famous essay, writer Paulina Borsook denounced "how the Internet is ruing San Francisco."

We called it "economic cleansing." And it's starting to happen again.

When reporters talk about candidates like David Lee, who's challenging Sup. Eric Mar in district 1, supporting "rent control," they're missing the point. Nobody running for office in this city is going to call for a repeal of the city's weak rent-stabilization law. Even the realtors aren't talking about that.

And for good reason: Rent control only applies to units built before 1979 and applies only to the current occupant. Once the place is vacated, for whatever reason, rents can go up to market rate. And market rate in this city is far beyond what most people who work in San Francisco can pay.

Meanwhile, it's perfectly legal under state law for a landlord to clear every tenant out of a multi-unit building and sell the place to buyers who want tenancies in common — a backdoor way of doing a condo conversion. It's the worst kind of class struggle, often pitting working-class renters against somewhat better-off people who want to buy but can't afford a single-family home.

So rent control isn't the issue; it's eviction protections, condo conversion limits, rent subsidies, affordable housing funding, taxes and fees that discourage speculation, and other policy measures that seek to protect and preserve vulnerable communities — before allowing any new development.

Mayor Ed Lee has made it clear whose side he's on in this coming battle for the city's future. He's about bringing in tech companies, cutting their taxes, and hell with the consequences. He's doing it in the name of "jobs," although seriously: How many unemployed young people in Southeast San Francisco who lack college degrees is Twitter going to hire? And what exactly are the new tech giants doing to help the public schools and City College? (Very, very little).

No, Lee's creating jobs for people who don't live here, who will force out people who do. Just as his old pal Willie Brown did during the last boom.

And the only possible check is a progressive majority on the Board of Supervisors that can attempt to control, at least a little bit, the insanity of the next gold rush and make sure that there's still at least some chance for an economically diverse San Francisco.