Labor Council makes pact with Lennar that could save the floundering Prop. G
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Mayor Gavin Newsom stood with San Francisco Labor Council executive director Tim Paulson, flanked by Sup. Sophie Maxwell and representatives from megadeveloper Lennar, the San Francisco Organizing Project, and the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) May 20 to announce "a historic community benefits agreement."
Lennar had been persuaded to promise more affordable housing and other giveaways in order to win some important new endorsements in their troubled bid to take control of Candlestick and Hunter's points and cover them with about 10,000 new homes.
"This is a very big deal," Newsom said, plugging the Lennar-financed Prop. G and bashing Sup. Chris Daly for his leadership of the campaign to qualify Prop. F, which would require that half the new units be affordable to households making less than $75,000, a requirement that Lennar casts as a deal breaker.
"Prop. F is a pipe dream that guarantees you only one thing: what you already have," Newsom said. "We have to get the message out what a Trojan horse Prop. F is." Lennar's top local executive, Kofi Bonner, added that the agreement "enables us to go forward, because now we have new allies."
The Labor Council's ability to invigorate a campaign makes it an important ally. Yet Lennar's giveaway of more than it had previously promised and the fact that the agreement comes just two weeks before the June 3 vote seem to indicate that the Prop. G supporters have grown desperate.
Lennar already has spent $3.26 million to promote Prop. G and oppose Prop. F, only to find polls showing Prop. F well ahead despite a campaign that has raised less than $10,000. The weak poll numbers clearly convinced Lennar and its backers in the political power structure that voters would be more likely to support Prop. G if Lennar came up with something that seemed legally binding.
But by supporting a deal that appears to pin down Lennar on levels of housing affordability and community investment, Newsom ironically seems to be validating the concern of Daly and Prop. F's other backers that Prop. G lacks guarantees on these fronts (see "Promises and reality," 04/23/08).
Not even Newsom could deny that Prop. F's presence on the political landscape pushed Lennar to seek a community benefits agreement with the Labor Council and ACORN, a group that had been a solid part of Daly's affordable-housing constituency.
"It probably has," Newsom told the Guardian. "That said, I don't think Prop. F should suggest the deal is better because of them. Perhaps it's worse."
Daly dismissed Newsom's attacks as more attempts to hurt Prop. F's popularity by trying to attach it to Daly's personal negatives. Daly also attacked the agreement as overstated in its promises and impossible to enforce.
"I really don't know if there is any net gain from one deal to the next," Daly said. "And how is it enforceable? We're not sure anything legally binding is on table now. If there was a development agreement then obviously we would have some surety, as we would if we had a development plan that had cleared the approval process Lennar's financial vulnerabilities notwithstanding."
Noting that the city has had "bad luck with big order projects before," Daly recalls how Lennar reneged on building rental units at the Shipyard's Parcel A, where the developer also failed to properly monitor and control asbestos dust despite promising to do so.
The agreement, which doesn't include the city or any government agency as a party, is certainly unconventional. But is the deal legally binding? And just who benefits from it?
The CBA purportedly commits Lennar to create 31.86 percent "affordable" housing units in the Bayview, contribute $27 million to provide affordable homes throughout District 10, rebuild the Alice Griffith public housing project, and give down payment and first-time homebuyer assistance on another 3 percent of the homes.
All told, Paulson claims the deal locks in an unprecedented 35 percent affordable housing into Lennar's mixed-use proposal for the Bayview. The deal also obligates Lennar to invest $8.5 million in workforce development in District 10, hire locally, pay living wages, and allow worker organizing with a card check neutrality policy.
"This legally binding agreement is a way we can insure that our community gets the benefits it needs," said SFOP co-president and longtime Bayview resident Eleanor Williams.
Paulson said May 22 the deal is still being "lawyered up" to ensure its enforceability, and ACORN's John Eller insists the deal was done with community input. "We have had numerous meetings in which the community was demanding accountability and clear commitments to the workforce and housing, including the possibility of home ownership," Eller told the Guardian.
But Julian Gross, director of the San Franciscobased Community Benefits Law Center, clarifies that the deal only becomes legally binding if Lennar builds a mixed-use project in Bayview/Candlestick Point. "A community benefits agreement gives people a way to work in a coalition," said Gross, who helped negotiate CBAs at Oakland's Uptown and Oak to Ninth projects, and at Lennar's development in San Diego's Ballpark Village in 2005.
Michael Cohen, director of the Mayor's Office of Economic Workforce and Development, said the city hopes to enter into its own legally binding agreement with Lennar over a mixed-use project by the end of 2009, once environmental reviews on the project are completed.
Given that the project is expected to take 1215 years to complete, could Lennar change the CBA's terms after it starts to develop the Bayview? Yes, says Donald Cohen of the San Diegobased Center for Public Policy Initiatives, but only if both sides agree to any changes.
"In a private deal between private parties, those parties can agree to change the terms of the deal at any time," Cohen explained.
That's significant given the divisions over development within the Labor Council. As Paulson confirmed, the building-trade unions were pushing for outright endorsement of Prop. G and opposition to Prop. F, but he successfully pushed for the negotiations with Lennar, which lasted more than eight weeks and almost broke down several times, Paulson told us.
"I told them, I don't think that's where we are coming from because Prop. G doesn't contain guarantees on affordable housing or jobs," Paulson said of his initial response to Prop. G supporters.
The agreement appears to stretch the definition of "affordable housing," reaching up to those earning 160 percent of area median income, which is essentially market-rate housing for the low-income southeast sector.
Prop. F supporter Alicia Schwartz of People Organized to Win Employment Rights said that what labor's deal with Lennar means is that only 15.6 percent of the housing will truly be affordable to the folks who currently live in the Bayview. While "3,500 units sounds good," Schwartz observed, "Only 50 percent of them will be for families making 60 percent and less of area median income, while the other 50 percent are for 80 to 160 percent AMI. That means $500,000 condos, which 70 percent of the Bayview can't afford."
Yet Cohen said it's understandable that the Labor Council crafted a deal that caters to those with above-average incomes.
"Affordable-housing policies over the last 10 years have tended not to address the needs of many of their members," Cohen said. "Many families make more than $64,000, so they can't qualify for affordable housing, but don't make enough to buy. This provides a fantastic and large-scale opportunity to address the problem of the squeezing of the middle class in San Francisco."
Public records obtained from the Mayor's Office show that prior to this latest deal, Lennar planned to build up to 75 percent market-rate housing at the site, including hundreds of million-dollar townhouses, thousands of high-rise units at $787,483, mid-rise units at $734,400, townhouses at $651,366, and low-rise units at $592,797.
But under the CBA, the top tier of condos that Lennar deems "affordable" cost about the same as the cheapest market rate units it had already planned to build, leaving only 1,566 rental units at rates truly affordable to San Francisco's low-income workers.
Paulson believes the resulting agreement "ensures that residents, workers, tenants, and future homebuyers have a path to new jobs and housing." He also claims that it is tied to the land, "meaning that it would be transferable to other developers if Lennar pulls out."
Joseph Smooke, executive director of the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, said he believes the jobs agreements labor negotiated are good. "It's the housing stuff where they gave away the store," Smooke said. "Why didn't they stick to the jobs piece and support Prop. F?"
Pointing to the Board of Supervisors' passage of policy saying that 64 percent of housing in eastern neighborhoods should be targeted at 80 percent of AMI and below, Smooke added, "There are ways to make 50 percent affordable work. This is free land. It's not rocket science. But is it city policy to protect a developer's stated desire for 18 to 22 percent profit?"
Meanwhile, Schwartz hopes SFOP and ACORN are being accountable to their base of low-income workers. "Lennar would like to tell you that if Prop. G doesn't pass, nothing happens. But in reality, the community's plan stays, plus now there is a 50 percent affordable-housing requirement," Schwartz said. "That's a win-win."
"For Newsom and Lennar to say that Prop. F is a poison pill the irony is not lost on the Bayview," Schwartz added, recalling the city's failure to hold Lennar accountable for its promises and misdeeds. "We're looking to change the way business is done in San Francisco." *