Everyone but Mayor Lee sees SF's worsening "housing affordability crisis"

Homes should be for sale in San Francisco, but the city of San Francisco shouldn't be for sale.

There was a clear theme that ran through yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting from beginning to end, something understood equally by renters, homeowners, and politicians from across the political spectrum: San Francisco has a crisis of housing affordability that is forcing people from the city.

And the only person who doesn’t seem to understand or care about that is the person with the most power to deal with the situation, Mayor Ed Lee, who opened the meeting by essentially dismissing both short- and long-term gentrification forces and claiming “our city has some of the toughest anti-displacement laws in the country.”

It was a claim that Lee made twice, first in response to a question by Sup. Eric Mar about Plan Bay Area and the massive displacement of current San Franciscans that it would create by 2040. And it was also how he answered a question by Sup. John Avalos about rents that are now skyrocketing beyond what most San Franciscans can afford.

I followed Mayor Lee back to his office, asking him to explain his claim, and he cited the city’s “elaborate” rent control laws and the Rent Board recently hiring new personnel as he briskly retreated toward his office. But surely he’s aware that displacement is already happening and getting worse, I told him, citing Rent Board figures showing that evictions are now at a 12-year high.

Lee looked at me dubiously and said, “I’ll have to check the figures on that.” I followed up today with Press Secretary Christine Falvey to ask whether Lee did check those figures -- which show 1,757 evictions in the last year, up from 1,395 the previous, both numbers representing returns to the mass displacement of the last dot-com boom -- and I’ll update this post if/when I hear back.

“It shows he’s out of touch with what’s happening in San Francisco,” Avalos told me in response to the mayor’s remarks.

Lee seemed to bristle at the suggestion that his aggressive economic development policies might have a downside that he’s going to have to deal with at some point. He touts the 44,000 jobs the city has added during his mayoral tenure, even deflecting criticism that he’s too focused on the technology industry by citing estimates that every tech job creates at least four other jobs (seemingly oblivious to the fact that most of these are low-wage service sector jobs, the very people who are being forced from the city).

“I’m just hoping you’re not blaming the 44,000 jobs we helped created,” Lee told Avalos, saying that he understands the concern about the rising cost of living, “but those are 44,000 people drawing a paycheck and taking care of their families.”

Yes, Mr. Mayor, but those paychecks are having an increasingly tough time paying for housing in San Francisco. That concern animated the condo conversion debate that took place later in the meeting, voiced by those focused on the lack of affordable homeownership opportunities and those focused on reducing the city’s rental stock to create those opportunities.

“I don’t think saying ‘it’s good that we have a growing economy’ is enough to address the issue,” Sup. David Campos said during the condo debate, referring to Lee’s earlier remarks.

Speaking near the end that discussion, Campos summarized the concerns expressed by both sides and sought to put the legislation into perspective: while important, the condo deal is a drop in the anti-displacement bucket. “We are only dealing with the issue of affordability in San Francisco on the margins,” he said, later adding, “I don’t think we’re doing enough to deal with the fundamental issue of who gets to live in San Francisco.”

The debate on the condo conversion began with its original author -- Sup. Mark Farrell, who represents District 2, the wealthiest and most conservative in the city -- explaining his desire to help middle class people who want to own homes remain in the San Francisco.

“This is the most affordable form of home ownership in San Francisco today,” Farrell said of tenancies-in-common, the fiscally and legally precarious middle step between an apartment and condominium. Later, he said, “We need more affordable homeownership opportunities and not less.”

Farrell argued that “this didn’t need to be a zero sum game,” but that’s exactly what the stock of rent-controlled apartments is in San Francisco, where only housing built before 1979 is protected from the market forces that can drive rents up to whatever a landlord demands.

“We have a fixed rent control stock. Every apartment that converts to a a condo is one less unit,” said Board President David Chiu, who worked with Sups. Jane Kim and Norman Yee and tenant group to amend Farrell’s legislation to help both renters and homeowners.  

“These units were once the homes of tenants who were displaced,” Kim said, objecting to the notion that one person’s apartment should be another person’s affordable homeownership opportunity and arguing that the city should be building more condos for first-time homebuyers instead of cannabalizing the homes of the nearly two-thirds of city residents who rent.

Like Chiu and Kim, Yee said that he wanted to help the TIC owners of today without simply clearing out of the backlog and letting the condo lottery continue unabated, which would green-light even more conversion of apartments. “We want to curb the speculation,” Yee said.

That idea that the city should help people who live in the city, without simply feeding the speculative investors who profiteer off of housing in San Francisco, was a strong theme among critics of condo conversion.

A pro-tenant crowd packed the Board Chambers. Although barred by board rules from addressing the condo legislation directly (that occurred at the committee level), one commenter said, “Giving any more power to the real estate market in San Francisco should be considered a crime.”

To help ward off real estate speculators once the annual condo conversion lottery resumes in 2024, the legisation also limited future conversions to buildings of less than four units, instead of the current cap of six units, a change that Farrell resisted.

“This is not an academic exercise anymore,” Farrell said of the condo conversion restrictions that were added to the legislation. “This will negatively impact thousands of TIC owners in the city.”

Farrell’s original co-sponsor, Sup. Scott Wiener, had a more pro-tenant point-of-view, objecting to the changes that Chiu inserted on more narrow grounds. In his comments, he noted how close the two sides were and how they share the same basic goal: preventing displacement of current city residents.  

“The one thing we can all agree with is we have a housing affordability crisis,” Wiener said, praising the city’s rent control and tenant protection laws, but adding, “TIC owners are also part of this city.”

The price of dealing with the rapid growth in the city -- whether it comes to infrastructure or housing affordability -- was also a point that Wiener made earlier in the meeting as the board approved the term sheet for a massive office and residential development project proposed at Pier 70.

“We are not doing what we need to do to support the public transportation needed for those projects,” Wiener said, also referring to other projects along the waterfront (the Warrior Arena at Pier 30 and the Giants/Anchor Steam project at Pier 46) and in the southeastern part of the city. “We don’t have the transit infrastructure to support our current population, let alone new growth.”

It’s about striking a balance, as Chiu said he did with the condo legislation, and not just a balance between renters and TIC owners. It’s about striking a balance between how to protect the San Francisco of today while planning for the San Francisco of tomorrow.

Yes, that means working with market rate housing developers, and it also means diverting some of their would-be profits into the city’s affordable housing fund and its infrastructure needs. Yes, it means private-sector job creation, but it also means more public sector jobs and providing a safety net for people without jobs or who work as artists or social workers or other professions that are being driven from the city. And it means beefing up our public housing and turning around the exodus of African-Americans, concerns raised at the meeting by Sup. Malia Cohen.

We at the Guardian last year looked at how Oakland has become cooler than San Francisco, largely because of the displacement from here. And now, even many people within the tech community have begun to decry the gentrifiction that is being driven by Mayor Lee’s narrow economic development vision.

“Plan Bay Area is an opportunity to think regionally and strategically about planned growth,” Lee said when addressing Mar’s question, sidestepping the direct answer that Mar sought on a set of specific proposals for mitigating some of the displacement planned for San Francisco and maintaining this city’s diversity.

Yes, we do have an opportunity to think strategically about the city we’re becoming and who gets to live in it, but only if we don’t think “jobs” is the answer to every question.