Critics Ignore Mayor Lee’s “Bold Solutions” for SF’s Middle-Class

by Randy Shaw on April 8, 2014

An April 4 SF Chronicle op-ed charges Mayor Lee with failing to propose measures “bold or innovative enough” to address San Francisco’s middle-class exodus. Yet the mayor has not only pushed nearly all of the “bold” measures proposed by the author, he is promoting several other innovative housing policies that his critics ignore.

In publishing Hina Shah’s op-ed, “S.F. needs housing solutions to keep middle class in city,” the Chronicle’s editors must have shared the writer’s assumption that Mayor Lee’s solutions to the city’s housing crisis “were not bold or innovative enough.” Otherwise, why publish a list of policy prescriptions that the mayor has not only already implemented, but that the Chronicle has already reported on?

Critics of Mayor Lee cheered the policy ideas. Community College Board Director Rafael Mandelman, a frequent critic of the mayor, wrote on Facebook, “Finally, some smart thinking on housing solutions for SF’s middle class!” Ted Gullicksen of the SF Tenants Union posted the story, adding “Good ideas here.”

Gullicksen is correct. Shah’s op-ed did include good ideas, which is why Mayor Lee has adoped almost all of them. What’s striking about Shah’s piece and the response is how people blame Mayor Lee for not acting instead of their own failure to pay attention to what the city is actually doing to combat the housing crisis.

Bold and Innovative Ideas

The first such idea is to “Increase city-owned land that can be developed into subsidized housing.” Shah describes how Vienna shows how San Francisco “must become a key player by owning and managing housing stock.”

Shah didn’t have to look to Austria for this “bold” idea—she could have used Mayor Lee’s reinvention of public housing or his plan to transform city owned land, like the school site at 1950 Mission, into affordable housing. The Bay Guardian and other media covered the 1950 Mission deal last December, but it was apparently overlooked by those claiming the mayor is not pursuing this strategy.

Equally odd is Shah’s claim that the city must ensure that its Housing Trust Fund “be used to build affordable units.” It was Mayor Lee who led the effort for the Trust Fund on the November 2012 ballot, bringing the biggest financial windfall for affordable housing in San Francisco history. Rafael Mandelman was running in that election, so he had to be aware of the mayor’s “smart thinking” about the Trust Fund.

The op-ed also urges the mayor to “induce tech giants such as Google” to invest in affordable housing. The Mayor has done precisely that. He has told Google and other tech companies that they need to be part of the solution to the city’s housing crisis.

The op-ed’s next “bold” idea is overturning the state Costa-Hawkins law, which prevents rent controls on single family homes and condos as well as local vacancy control laws. That idea is less “bold” then it is politically impossible. No tenant group has pushed Mayor Lee (or Senator Leno) to make this a priority because it has no chance of success.

The strongest sign that the mayor’s housing critics are profoundly uninformed about his actions comes with the op-ed’s final proposal that Mayor Lee move to “Change the Ellis Act to Stop Speculator Evictions.”

Mayor Lee pushing for such reform has been a front-page Chronicle story, and the subject of multiple pieces in BeyondChron. He is the first San Francisco mayor in history to push for Ellis Act reform, and is up in Sacramento today to testify in favor of SB 1439 (the Ellis bill) at the Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing.

Housing Directive and More

The Mayor’s agenda to address the affordable housing crisis involves many other “bold” and “innovative” strategies that are likely also off his critics’ radar. These include his December 19, 2013 Executive Directive to preserve and increase rental housing and his first in the nation strategy to give affordable housing projects priority in the approval process. Next in line will be market rate projects agreeing to a higher inclusionary percentage, a strategy creating incentives for developers to build more affordable units.

The Mayor also backed a change in the city’s capital improvement passthrough law that will reduce rent increases to tenants. And the incentive for additional affordable units is just one of many changes to the city’s inclusionary law that the mayor’s working group is addressing as we speak.

The mayor also unilaterally doubled the amount of downpayment assistance the city will make available, specifically targeting middle-class families unable to buy a home without more assistance. He also unilaterally doubled the budget for Ellis eviction defense representation, which helps keep middle-class and low income tenants in their homes.

Has the Mayor reduced rents on vacant apartments or single family home prices? No. And if that’s the criteria for success, then he and likely every future mayor of San Francisco is certain to fall short.

But if the test is whether the Mayor is promoting bold and innovative housing strategies to create more affordable housing and slow the city’s middle-class exodus, the answer is clearly yes.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron

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