No progress in condo conversion standoff, despite the Chron's spin

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This poor PacHeights couple profiled by the Chron just wants a home they can sell. Should we blame tenants or Realtors?
Liz Hafalia/SF Chronicle

Perhaps it was just an unfunny April Fool's Day joke or some wishful political spin, but the San Francisco Chronicle's April 1 article about how tenancy-in-common owners and their political supporters are pushing legislation that would allow them to bypass the condo conversion lottery seriously misrepresented the city's biggest current political standoff.

Nevermind the article's over-the-top bias in favor of those poor, hard-luck TIC owners, like the featured Pacific Heights couple forced to raise their baby in a closet when all they really want to do is flip the apartment they bought for a profit. Or how the Chron all-but-ignored the fact that these TICs were rent-controlled apartments in a city where two-thirds of citizens rent. That kind of top-down view of the world is pretty typical for the Chron, even in its news stories, despite the paper's strained claim to “objectivity.”

No, the article's real sin was to get the basic facts wrong on where this political stalemate now stands, presenting the wishful spin of one side as if it were the latest news. Between the headline, “Owners seeking condo conversions may have shot” and the first deckhead, “Making progress” (which plays off this paragraph. “'I think we're making progress in our discussions and negotiations,' said [sponsoring Sup. Mark] Farrell, while noting the talks with tenant advocates, TIC owners, and real estate interests are 'far from the finish line.'”) the article leaves the impression current negotiations may produce a compromise.

But the problem is that there aren't any current negotiations between the two sides, and there haven't been for weeks, according to tenant and other involved sources. In fact, they say there's been no movement in this standoff since almost a month ago when I last reported that tenant groups and progressive supervisors were preparing a set of hostile amendments to the legislation.

They would allow a one-time condo lottery bypass for the nearly 2,500 TIC owners in the pipeline in exchange to shutting down the lottery for many years and preventing any conversions of rent-controlled apartments into condos until city builds a comparable amount of new affordable housing, and then probably restricting condo conversions to smaller buildings after that to protect large rent-controlled apartment buildings from real estate speculators.

That proposed compromise, which the article barely mentions before letting Farrell say "his legislation poses no threat to rent control," would help the poor Pacific Heights couple at the center of the article. But the real estate industry and its conservative allies don't really care about that couple as much as they do maintaining the flow of rental units into the real estate market, which is why the negotiations have broken down.

Instead, the Chron has Sup. London Breed – who is indeed a swing vote of the issue, but not one that tenant groups are counting on given how close she is to Plan C and the landlord lobby – citing a compromise proposal that would prevent the new condo owners from selling their properties for five years to discourage real estate speculation.

Perhaps that's something the TIC owners and real estate interests that the article relies on think is a realistic compromise, but it's not something that has been seriously discussed with tenant groups, mediating Sup. David Chiu, or the other interests that would be needed to pass this legislation.

Sara Shortt, the token tenant activist that the Chron talked to for the article, confirmed to us that there is no real compromise deal in the works and preventing the creation of new condos from existing apartments is a bottom-line issue that unites everyone who is now opposed to this legislation.

“The Plan C/Realtor etc. won't concede on our key issue: restriction on future conversions in exchange for the bypass. We have given as much as we can give and they have given virtually nothing in return,” Shortt, executive director of the Housing Right Committee, told us by email.

Even Sup. Scott Wiener, who co-sponsors the legislation with Farrell, told us there has been “no change from before,” when negotiations broke down. But the legislation is on the April 15 agenda for the Land Use and Economic Development Committee – for the fifth time, with most hearings canceled because of the lack of negotiating progress.

If the Realtors and Plan C (which is dominated by real estate and banking interests) stick to their intransigent position – hurting this poor Pac Heights couple in the process, which the Chron fails to note – then tenants and progressive supervisors are likely to amend the legislation and call the bluff of those who claim this issue is simply about poor TIC owners stuck with shared mortgages.