Condo conversion legislation on hold for now

Tenants rallied outside City Hall in a show of opposition to proposed condo-conversion legislation
Guardian Photo by Rebecca Bowe

Following a contentious five-hour hearing, a committee of the Board of Supervisors postponed voting on a controversial housing proposal, and agreed to revisit the issue on Feb. 25. Over the next few weeks, opposing sides are expected to negotiate a possible alternative.

Authored by Sups. Scott Wiener and Mark Farrell, the proposed condo conversion impact fee would have allowed as many as 2,000 tenancy-in-common (TIC) units to be immediately converted to condos for a fee, allowing owners to bypass a housing lottery system that places an annual cap on conversions.

While TIC owners voiced frustration about the backlogged lottery system, tenants expressed fears that the legislation could give rise to a wave of Ellis Act evictions if landlords or speculators interpreted it as a signal that lucrative condo conversion would be easier to achieve.

Prior to the hearing, a group of tenants gathered in front of City Hall in a show of opposition to the condo-conversion legislation, waving signs that read, “Stop the Attack on Rent Control.”

“The reality is, if this legislation passes, there will be more evictions in San Francisco,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Housing Rights Committee, who spoke at the rally.

Tenant advocates worry that the legislation would result in a permanent loss of affordable, rent-controlled units from the city's housing stock, at a time when rents are soaring. When landlords rent out their condos or TICs in San Francisco, there's a key difference: TICs are covered by rent control, but condos are exempt.

"I've been evicted three times," one woman said while addressing members of the Land Use & Economic Development Committee. "I know so many people who have gotten evicted. I don't know anyone who's won their case against eviction."

During the hearing, Farrell adopted a defensive tone against critics who’d described the proposal as an attack on rent control. “The tactics that these opponents have deployed is out of line,” he said. To assuage concerns, he noted that he and Wiener had included a provision guaranteeing lifetime leases for existing tenants in units that qualified for condo conversion under the program.

But Sup. Jane Kim drilled down on this detail, questioning whether such an agreement would be legally enforceable in the long run. In response, a representative from the City Attorney’s office said he thought the provision was on solid legal ground, but noted that the specific matter “has not been litigated before,” meaning there is still a question as to whether it could withstand a court challenge. When Kim asked if any funding was set aside to enforce these lifetime leases, the response was "no."

Board President David Chiu proposed holding off on a vote for several weeks. “I do not support the legislation in its current form,” he said. If the current generation of TIC owners were allowed to convert this time, he explained, the next generation’s frustrations with the housing lottery would only “lead us back to an identical debate in a short period of time.”

Kim echoed this point. “My concern was that … folks were looking at this legislation as an ice-break for more condo conversion,” she said just after a public comment session that lasted several hours. And she acknowledged that there is a larger problem to consider. "It's very tragic that we have set up a situation where [TICs and renters] are pitted against one another," she said.