The Muni vs. housing clash

Two recent meetings illustrate the difference between legislating based on people's needs and agency politics


OPINION Two votes at the Board of Supervisors and the Municipal Transportation Agency Dec. 4 laid out a stark contrast between two different approaches to transportation advocacy — one based on a sense of justice and the idea that public transit is an issue of equity, and another based on the self interest and transactional politics of a cash-strapped transportation agency and its dedicated allies.

After years of work, organizing transit riders and talking to policy makers from the local to the regional levels, a scrappy group of transit justice advocates, many of them young, most of them people of color, got the Municipal Transportation Agency board to approve a $1.6 million plan to fund free Muni passes for low-income youth. It sent a strong message that a new kind of transportation advocacy has arrived, one that puts race, class, and environment at the center.

Meanwhile, a separate vote was taking place at the Board of Supervisors that seemed to pit community organizations, nonprofit service providers, and affordable housing developers on opposite sides of the fence from what has become a mainstream transportation and bicycle advocacy community.

We should have been on the same side. But a last-minute maneuver by Sup. Scott Wiener to add to the MTA's strained budget (a worthy goal) by expanding the 30-year Transportation Impact Development Fee (TIDF) to include nonprofits that provide critical services in our neighborhoods backfired and sent his amendments out the door in a 9-2 vote.

Many transportation and bicycle advocates seemed incredulous that the rest of the world did not accept their arguments.

I consider many of these transportation advocates friends and acquaintances whom I have known and worked with for years. But rather than seeing themselves as part of a greater social justice movement rooted in the communities who are most affected, some of these advocates have become increasingly narrow in their scope, single-minded in their pursuit of funding for bike lanes and bulbouts, as well as rapid transit projects serving downtown commuters.

Real-world politics requires that activists, organizers, and policy advocates be flexible and willing to figure out how to work with others very unlike themselves. Recently an organization I work for was able to work in a broad coalition, convened by the mayor, to develop and campaign for a Housing Trust Fund to create a permanent source of funding for affordable housing, as a direct response to the State of California taking away the city's housing budget when it dissolved the redevelopment agencies. We walked into the room knowing that we would have to make tough decisions, and have to take those back to our allies in the progressive movement.

But we also walked in with non-negotiables. We were not going to entertain any attempt at weakening rent control by tying the Housing Trust Fund to lifting the condo conversion lottery. We would not support a set-aside without increasing city revenue to support not just our housing trust fund but also critical health and social services. We do not screw over our broader movement for pure self-interest.

We stand at a crossroads, and we could very well end up with two different transportation advocacy communities, both talking about the same thing, but with very little to say to each other. As the old mineworker's song used to say, it's time to decide: "Which side are you on?"

Fernando Martí works at the San Francisco Information Clearinghouse


Non-profits, by definition, do not make a profit. Their cashflows may result in a surplus from time to time, but that is simply carried forward to fund the following year's expenses. There are no shareholders to pay dividends to, nor are there any owners, stock options and all the other features of a corporation.

Further, UCSF is essentially a government agency, so you might as well complain that, say, DPT makes a profit and so should pay tax.

And of course entities like UCSF do indirectly pay lots of tax, via payroll tax, income tax by it's employees, sales tax and all the indirect economic activity that they create. In fact, these large non-profits are large revenue earners for the city.

Impact fees aren't taxes anyway. They are fees for actual services used. If they don't use a service, then you don't pay the fee, just like someone who doesn't own a vehicle doesn't pay a vehicle license fee.

Posted by anonymous on Dec. 19, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

"Non-profits, by definition, do not make a profit."

No, they just pay huge salaries to their executive directors!

That's not a profit!

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Dec. 19, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

costs. You can read that in any textbook.

Or do you now want to control how much money managers can make? Guess what? - you already do, since the taxpayer funds them.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 19, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

The US economy has changed over the past few decades to being dominated by large institutions, many of which are formed as non-profits for legal and funding reasons. The people who control and manage these giant non-profits, and oftentimes many of the people who work at them, make enormous salaries that dwarf the household incomes of most people.

Many of these giant, powerful institutions are not even subject to tax and local zoning laws. Thus, a Hastings College or a UC Med - state schools that graduate a few thousand doctors and lawyers every year, with most hoping to make a fortune at society's expense - can build car garages where there should have been housing, or tear down rent controlled apartments when they could have been rebuilt with additional housing added just because they can, the local community be damned. For example, look at what UC is doing with their square city block at Haight and Laguna. They are acting like any other greedy for-profit developer, mazimizing rents and land value while giving the community little in return. When built, the project will have a material impact on the use of streets, transit, parks, sewer system, etc. These large institutions are like the new land-barrons, maximizing their profit and leaving the costs to masses. Non-profit status is the new sexy way to gain fame and wealth without paying many taxes or following the "regular people" rules along the way. Tres chic.

When any institution or person, or even government, wants to change the physical environment in some manner, there needs to be consideration for the costs to the existing community. Those costs need to be incorporated into the final price of any development project. If the project needs to be subsidzed after the full costs have been added, let it be done though the transparent and competitive budget process rather than exempt them because of some true or false perception they are natually do-gooder organizations.

All new development needs to be assessed fees for its impact on transit, schools, parks, and all of the other amenities the community has already bought and paid for, otherwise they are merely greedy predators on the exisiting community no matter how laudable the goals of the development project.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 19, 2012 @ 5:01 pm

developments, so even if these non-profits paid no taxes or fees, there would still be massive spinoff and indirect benefits for the city.

And that, of course, is why we gave Twitter a tax break and give these entities a break on impact fees. Basic economics.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 19, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

You all will not be content until San Franciscans are compelled to bear in procession gold bricks upon red velvet pillows with golden tassels to those who have purchased elections and pass laws to that effect.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 19, 2012 @ 7:05 pm

dominate this website with their ill will as they write to each other in the comment pages of various articles. is rapidly becoming a site to ignore like the comment pages of sfgate. What a shame!!

Posted by Eddie on Dec. 19, 2012 @ 8:33 pm

Discreditting any election result that you don't like on the grounds that the result was "bought" or resulted from "voting fraud" is the usual tired old left-wing excuse for losing. You're better than to parrot that here.

If you want to win elections, then listen to what the voters want. Lee did and heard that we wanted a pro-jobs, pro-business agenda. He won by a landslide over the anti-jobs Avalos.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 6:56 am

why do the corporate interests spend so much money on them?

Posted by Eddie on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 9:40 am

Most of the Supes that stand have a budget of maybe a few tens of thousands. Indeed, we have district elections to minimize the effect of money.

While for the propositions, we might see larger sums but, again, not that large unless you think a few hundred grand is a lot.

Compare that with State and Federal elections, where millions are routinely expended.

Complaining about money or fraud every time the left loses an election glosses over the real point - that many of the policies and candidates of the left just don't appeal to the silent majority.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 10:18 am

Truly the words of an uninformed, manipulative idiot.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 10:43 am

As soon as the other "Guess" is refuted, he makes everything personal.

How typical.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 10:58 am

Supe campaigns almost always run well into the six figures.

Propositions often run well into the seven figures when the wealthy desire an outcome.

San Francisco's costs per vote generally are several times higher than comparable jurisdictions.

The disconnect is between the ethically challenge nonprofits that pretend to represent San Franciscans but answer to the Mayor for their funding and between San Franciscans who have no representation in this system of government.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 11:15 am

in the composition of the BofS, and in the Mayor's office.

I voted for Wiener in my district, and for Lee for Mayor. Both won, indicating that my views are in synch with a majority in my district and city.

What you are really complaining about is that elections usually don't go your way. And that, I'm afraid, says more about your skewed viewpoint than it does about how elections are won.

You wanted district elections because you thought they'd be "fairer" (translation - more likely to get the result you wanted). Then you wanted IRV/RCV (translation - the same). The agony of being a progressive activist is that you know the numbers are stacked against you and so you constantly make excuses for losing (money, fraud, blah blah) rather than face the fact that your ideology doesn't resonate with the majority.

Listen more; talk less.

Posted by Anonymous on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 11:32 am

why do the corporate interests spend so much money on them?

Posted by Eddie on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 9:42 am

This is a taxpayer revolt. After the rude wake-up of the economic downfall and the constant fiscal cliff warnings voters are not asleep at the wheel. They are watching their spending and expect the government to do the same. So far SFMTA has not delivered the better more reliable public transit they were promised. Instead SFMTA and their supporters claim Muni is broke while they spend millions of dollars on non-Muni activities designed to slow down traffic and create congestion. Then they have the temerity to blame cars and charge drivers to clean up their messes.

After two years of constantly deteriorating streets, diminishing Muni service, increased parking restrictions, fines and fees, and disappearing parking spots, San Francisco taxpayers have had enough. They are demanding a change in direction at the SFMTA. Join us at if you want to be a part of the solution.


Posted by ENUF on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 2:05 am

the very antithesis of prudent fiscal management. We should reward Muni when it gets things right, but punish them when they fail.

Personally I'd like to see some competition for Muni - maybe private jitney cabs on popular routes, and more corporate-sponsored transit as we already see with UCSF, Apple etc.

We should diversify our transit options and not over-centralize them in a single agency that has continually failed us in the past. And if we can't get transit right at all, then let's suspend the "war on cars" until we can.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 6:59 am

"But rather than seeing themselves as part of a greater social justice movement rooted in the communities who are most affected, some of these advocates have become increasingly narrow in their scope, single-minded in their pursuit of funding for bike lanes and bulbouts, as well as rapid transit projects serving downtown commuters."

The transit advocates can be bought off for as little as a parklet and the poverty advocates can be bought off for as little as $1.6m for one year of free Muni to low income youth out of a near $1b Muni budget out of a $6b city budget, we're talking fractions of percentage points here.

Neither approach comes close to appealing to a plurality of San Franciscans and both movements remain divided as the corrupt regime conquers.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 9:52 am

but ratehr prefer a more moderate course of action than either you or the author here prefer.

The agony of an activist is rarely seem more clearly than when he tries to force water to flow uphill, simply because his views are forged in isolation and without regard to the plurality.

If you want to know what a plurality of SF'ers want, then get out from behind that keyboard, get out there, and ASK THEM! That's what Ed Lee did in 2011 - the people told him it was all about jobs, jobs and jobs. He campaigned single-mindedly on that, and won.

There's the answer to your question - talk less and listen more.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 10:21 am

The voters have repeatedly voted for transit first and to provide funding for Muni. In all cases, the elected officials have delivered to developers and siphoned off cash dedicated to Muni into the cesspool of municipal corruption.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 10:26 am

It sound nice and, if you ask people, of course they'll say they want that. People want everything.

But how you word the question is critical. Ask voters whether we should give more cash to muni rather than bring the pay and benefits of muni operators to a more sustainable level, and you'll get a rwsounding "No".

It's not about endlessly throwing money at Muni. People want to see real progress in the quality of public transit in SF and, so far, they're not seeing it.

"Transit first" is little more than a cliche. It include bikes, which aren't transit at all, for instance. It's really a "war on cars" and, since most SF'er either own, use or are dependent on private cars, it's clear that we need solutions that continue to see vehicular transit as core.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 20, 2012 @ 10:54 am

Most big cities have high rises, i have seen them, they also have low rise areas, see family homes, row houses, flats. Just like most of the places in SF. High rises belong with other high rises buildings, in areas of subways, transit routes and those high paying jobs.

Posted by Garrett on Dec. 26, 2012 @ 11:37 am

want SF to look all low-rise and Mediterrean. SF can either be cute and expensive, or ugly and affordable.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 26, 2012 @ 11:52 am

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