8 Washington Was Not a Referendum on Mayor Lee

by Randy Shaw on November 12, 2013

Despite a meager 28% voter turnout that saw the highest vote come from long gentrified Telegraph Hill and the smallest (10%) from the lower-income, multi-racial Tenderloin, Bayview, Ingleside and Central Market, opponents of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee believe that, “What started as a referendum on height limits on the waterfront has become a referendum on the mayor and City Hall.” Many share the Bay Guardian’s view that “the current political moment is beginning to feel a little like 1999, when Brown won a narrow re-election victory against the upstart write-in campaign of progressive hero Tom Ammiano and a movement stirred by the evictions and gentrification of the last dot-com bubble.”

Putting aside that Brown’s 58%-39% victory margin was hardly “narrow,” 2013 is not a replay of 1999 and 8 Washington was not a referendum on Mayor Lee. First, if progressives had lost a city vote with a 28% turnout of disproportionately upper income white voters, they would justifiably be discrediting the impact of the results, not claiming them as a “referendum.” Second, because Mayor Brown had appointed several Supervisors, the Board in 1999 was vulnerable to progressive challengers in 2000. But no Board incumbent is in jeopardy in 2014. Third, other than on 8 Washington, the overflowing Planning Commission meetings by opponents of new housing developments, so common in 1999, have not occurred. And many 8 Washington opponents support market rate housing elsewhere. Finally, if a no vote on 8 Washington says voters want the mayor to do more about Ellis evictions and rising rents, than this message was equally directed at the Board; the Mayor has done as much if not more than any Supervisor on these issues since winning election in November 2011.

If people want to believe that in the wake of 8 Washington Louise Renne, Quentin Kopp and Art Agnos are leading a populist uprising on behalf of the 99% against plutocrat Mayor Ed Lee, that’s certainly their right. But the Bay Guardian pilloried Renne for years while a Supervisor and City Attorney, and Kopp was the most anti-tenant, anti-poor person politician in modern Board of Supervisors history.

Agnos so disillusioned supporters that progressive icons Calvin Welch and Sue Hestor did not even endorse him for re-election (for more on Agnos’ mayoralty, see my new book on how he dealt with tenants, homelessness and the Tenderloin). These and other facts should cause many to doubt whether 8 Washington’s defeat means that a rising majority now opposes Mayor Lee’s agenda.

Take Back City Hall—For What?

The most common demand by those claiming that Mayor Lee must change course is that he “stop building housing for the rich.” And how is that done, exactly?

The Mayor could prevent any upzoning for new market rate housing, which is what led to 8 Washington’s defeat. But this would not impact the 5000-10,000 already entitled market rate units, and the thousands more in the pipeline that comply with area zoning.

The Mayor could announce that San Francisco would no longer consider any new market rate development projects not already at the Planning Department, but there is little political support even among the most progressive supervisors for such action. A complete ban on all market rate housing would prevent projects like the Schlage Lock plan for Visitacion Valley, which strong mayoral critics like John Avalos support.

If 8 Washington opponents believe that the election sent a message to stop any new construction not undertaken by a non-profit, they are badly mistaken.

Recall that in the huge turnout November 2012 election voters reduced inclusionary housing requirements (affordable units a developer must provide as a condition of building) as a means of encouraging market rate housing. The far smaller 8 Washington turnout did not supersede this result.

Talking about the city “stopping building housing for the rich” may be a popular talking point, but the city cannot legally restrict housing developments based on projected sales price.

Build More Housing for the 99%

Those claiming that Mayor Lee cares only about housing for “the 1%” and not “the 99%” must have been in a cave during 2012. That’s when the Mayor initiated the campaign and organized passage on the November 2012 ballot of the largest affordable housing funding measure in San Francisco history.

All of the 1.3 billion in that measure will go the 99%. Most will go to the city’s very low-income families.

Prior to Mayor Lee taking up the issue.San Francisco voters had repeatedly rejected ballot measures to fund affordable housing. And at a time when national and state politicians were failing to fund housing for low-income people, Lee made it his priority and got the measure passed.

Stop Ellis Evictions, Rising Rents

I think its great that 8 Washington is being seen as sending a message for greater action on Ellis Act evictions and rising rents in San Francisco. What’s not clear to me is why people think Mayor Lee has a worse record on these issues since winning election in 2011 than the Board’s progressive supervisors.

What legislation have progressives John Avalos and David Campos advanced to address these issues that the Mayor and his Board allies have blocked? None that I know. To the contrary, the Mayor backed the pro-tenant condo conversion plan and the long overdue tenant hardship provision for capital improvements, measures that reduce tenant evictions and steep rent increases.

Lee also used his own power to triple Ellis Act eviction legal defense funding, and to add $700,000 for increased tenant counseling.

Some believe the Mayor should issue a one-year moratorium on rent increases and evictions. But no progressive supervisor has proposed such legislation. And state preemption prevents such a law from limiting rent increases on vacant units or preventing Ellis evictions, the city’s two most notorious housing problems.

Tenant groups recently proposed local legislation to create a disincentive to Ellis, but it has not been drafted. What’s really needed is to once and for all stop the obscene misuse of the Ellis Act in San Francisco by changing state law. I’ve been involved in two efforts that got changes around the edges (the one-year notice provision, restoring protections against demolition and others in 1999, exempting SRO’s in 2003) but in 2014 speculator evictions through Ellis must be stopped.

Progressives viewing Mayor Lee as the enemy and Quentin Kopp as an ally are not interested in the mayor’s actual record. They see the mayor’s success at getting moderate, business-oriented forces to back progressive measures like the Housing Trust Fund as a negative, notwithstanding the benefits to the

In the end, the outcome of 8 Washington was a referendum—-on 8 Washington.

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