SF’s Unfinished Business For 2016

by on July 19, 2016

2016 has already been a productive political year in San Francisco. The highlights: a long needed Department of Homelessness was launched, consensus for police reforms emerged, and legislation sought to close a critical loophole promoting illegal short-term rentals.

In June, voters raised the inclusionary affordable housing threshold from 12% to 25% (Prop C), though the number of affordable units that will ever be created from this remains unclear. The Board also passed a scaled down version of the Affordable Housing Density Bonus Program (which should add 200-300 affordable units).

Supervisors Peskin and Farrell reached agreement on July 18 on legislation to allow construction of new accessory (i.e. in-law) units citywide. Based on the prior experience with legalization of these units in the Castro, expect a few hundred such units to be built. This is a positive in a city desperately needing housing, but will fall far short of  the 30,000 that sponsor Aaron Peskin estimated would be created. That number appears to have been picked to match Mayor Lee’s projected new housing units for his entire mayoralty.

But some key problems remain that could still be addressed in 2016, particularly regarding housing. Here is a sample.

Protect Tenants From Fires

I may sound like a broken record for constantly calling for sprinklers in apartments, but the fires in the Mission won’t stop without it. The city had an even worse epidemic of SRO fires displacing tenants that quickly ended after passage of an SRO sprinkler law. That law was sponsored by Supervisors Gavin Newsom and Chris Daly, showing the broad political support for protecting tenants from fires.

The June fire at 29th and Mission seems to have finally galvanized sufficient political support to make passing an apartment sprinkler law a priority. Supervisor David Campos is meeting this week with interested parties to come up with a legislative solution, and the sooner it passes the better because owner’s have to be given at least a year to comply.

A measure limited to wood frame, rent-controlled buildings in the Mission would be a good first step.  Its success could then provide political support for expansion. There is no reason an apartment sprinkler law could not be enacted before the November election.

Stopping fires from destroying rent-controlled housing and displacing tenants with below-market rents is essential to slow Mission gentrification. Let’s hope action is taken this fall.

Stabilize Short-Term Rental Law

Now that the Board is seeking to penalize short-term rental companies for posting unregistered listings— though Airbnb has sued to overturn the law and the home-sharing industry won a similar case against Portland—the supervisors need to finally acknowledge that even if their new law is upheld  the city’s short-term rental law needs stronger enforcement.

In other words, who is going to sue to stop illegal short-term rentals? If allegations about the extent of illegal rentals are even half true, the City Attorney’s Office would have to direct multiple staff to fulltime work on enforcement—this is not feasible given the Office’s other responsibilities.

The most logical answer is to follow the approach of the city’s hotel conversion ordinance and allow nonprofit groups prioritizing affordable housing to directly sue to enjoin short-term rental violators. This creates enforcement without diverting other city attorney resources.

Why has nonprofit standing already not been enacted?  The people leading the effort to restrict short-term rentals feared it would substitute for more sweeping changes. Further, some people are so driven by dislike for Airbnb that they  are not enthused about a strategy that targets the person doing the illegal renting instead of Airbnb or another home-sharing company.

With the new law likely to be held up for months if not years by the courts, there is no reason for the Board not to move forward to increase enforcement of the short-term rental law.

Strengthen City’s Hotel Conversion Law

Supervisor Peskin returned to the Board eager to strengthen the city’s chief law protecting residential SRO hotels. A key new legislative provision soon to be introduced  would clarify existing law to stop the common practice of residential units being rented on a weekly basis to tourists.

Supervisors Peskin and Jane Kim represent the two districts most impacted by this practice, and they may end up co-sponsoring the legislation. If passed, this legislation will do more to expand housing opportunities for low-income people than any other measure enacted by the Board this year.

Require Geographic Equity in Homeless Services

Despite all the articles about San Francisco homelessness in late June none focused on this grand hypocrisy: San Francisco promotes racial equity, economic diversity, and the idea that “every” neighborhood must do its part to combat homelessness while placing the overwhelming majority of homeless services in Districts 6 and 9.

Why does our progressive Board majority accept such race and class based siting of services? Is it because the hypocrisy implicates Norman Yee, who insisted he would not accept homeless services in his predominately white and affluent District 7?  Progressives needed Yee’s vote to declare a city homeless “emergency” so they have avoided legislation compelling his district to provide homeless services.

I would love to see a supervisor introduce legislation requiring all districts have at least one site providing homeless services before adding to other districts. That would be put up or shut up time. Will this happen? Past history says no but it would be fun to watch the “no” voters justify their resistance.

Resolve Local Density Bonus

Due to progressive opposition, Supervisor Tang’s density bonus law only applies to 100% affordable projects. The for-profit projects representing the vast majority of new construction were excluded, even though Tang has backed the measure’s applicability to her historically not in my backyard Sunset district.

The city needs more housing built in the Sunset. It can be steered there by limiting the density bonus law to districts with height limits of 40 feet or less, or to neighborhoods failing to meet a threshold minimum of new housing. Opponents of new housing in the Mission should back incentives for development in neighborhoods that have not done their fair share.

Just saying no is no longer a viable strategy. Developers will sue the city if they are not granted density bonuses required by state law. Such local resistance to state housing mandates might also be addressed as part of Governor Brown’s “as of right” housing proposal (which, despite some opposition in San Francisco, is a heavy favorite to pass).

The Board could feel it has spent enough time on strategies for new development, and as noted above, the hotel conversion ordinance legislation will do more to expand truly low-cost housing than anything else the Supervisors do this year. Yet Tang’s support makes the “third rail” of new housing in the Sunset possible, and the city will regret if it misses the opportunity.

There are still many big decisions left for July, but it’s not too soon to begin planning a policy agenda for September.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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