Free City College, Trees and Airbnb: Do Voters Matter?

by on December 13, 2016

The connection between Prop W and Free City College was hard to miss

Supes To Decide Whether to Affirm Voters’ Will

San Francisco recently had three measures on the ballot: A transfer tax hike to pay for free tuition at City College (Prop W), a measure imposing city responsibility for maintaining street trees (Prop E), and one imposing restrictions on short-term rentals (Prop F, Nov. 2015).  Now the Mayor and Board of Supervisors must decide whether to defer to the voters choices on these initiatives. While the answer may seem obviously yes, the debate has gotten  complicated.

Free City College

I see the Board’s implementation of Prop W—which imposed a higher real estate transfer tax on properties over $5 million to fund free City College tuition—as an open and shut case. Prop W was marketed as “Free City College” and I think Yes on W voters knew they were directing money for that purpose.

Others see it differently. They think many voters read a ballot question raising transfer taxes on upscale properties and voted yes without knowing where the money would go. Since there was no language about City College in Prop W, they question the causal connection that I and other Prop W backers automatically make between Prop W and funding free tuition.

Despite the blizzard of campaign material many voters do not decide how to vote until they are in the polling booth and read the ballot question. So some  Yes on W voters may not have known the money would go to City College, but the huge public campaign likely means this group is a small minority.

For me, directing Prop W funds to Free City College is essential for San Francisco politicians to retain credibility about ballot measures.

Due to our inability to reform Prop 13, California still requires 2/3 approval of so-called special taxes—taxes where the recipient is designated in the initiative. Cities are  getting around this by either placing two measures on the ballot—one the tax, the other the designation—or passing companion legislation that earmarks where the money will go.

These earmarks are not legally binding, which is why we are even talking about directing Prop W funds away from City College (and some even briefly contemplated shifting soda tax funds from their purpose, an idea quickly shot down). But if cities are going to raise necessary revenue, elected officials must honor the voters’ will.

I’ve read reports that Mayor Lee might phase in the $9 million at issue for free City College tuition, which may be a function of that being an annual amount that covers only six months of the current budget.  It makes no political or policy sense, however, for Mayor Lee to reduce the allocation to free tuition from the Prop W tax.

It’s bad politics because it defies voters and prioritizes city money to homeowners and landlords who own trees (Prop E below) over the tenants who will overwhelmingly benefit from free tuition. It’s bad policy for that reason and also because voters will be far less likely to support this key strategy for raising revenue without a 2/3 vote in the future.

Let’s hope a strong Board majority does the right thing and protects the voters support for Prop W.

City Maintains Trees

Scott Wiener’s Prop E shifted the $19 million annual street tree responsibility to the city. The initiative gave the Mayor a one-time opportunity to terminate the set-aside prior to January 1, 2017 if budget considerations warranted.

In light of the city’s budget problems, those eager to seize Prop W funds should instead be looking at Prop E. After all, Prop E’s 82% victory margin was likely padded by voters in the pre-Trump era who counted upon the Mayor to invoke the one-time termination clause if necessary.

But Prop E’s 82% margin has silenced all critics. So despite pressing city needs in many areas, San Francisco will honor the voters will and begin spending $14 million more each year (it currently pays $5 million) on tree maintenance.

Airbnb/Short-Term Rentals

In November 2015, 56% of San Francisco voters rejected Prop F, which strengthened restrictions on short term rentals. Its provisions limited homeowners or tenants who rent out rooms, whether hosted or shared, to 75 days per year.

Last week, Mayor Lee vetoed legislation that would have reduced short-term rentals to 60 days per year. Backers were outraged. Many charged the mayor with being unduly influenced by Airbnb, which opposed the legislation.

Was voters’ rejection of the 75 day limit in 2015 politically irrelevant a year later? Mayor Lee did not think so, and cited this reason among others for his veto.

Many Supervisors backing Prop W’s implementation because “The People Have Spoken” also back the 60-day short term rental measure that voters rejected at a more liberal 75 days.

What’s the difference?

One obvious factor is the massive No on F spending that led its backers to question the result. Prop F also included provisions, like the right of neighbors to sue neighbors that took on an outsized role in convincing voters to defeat the measure.

I wrote on January 19, 2016 (“ Stopping SF’s Illegal Airbnb Rentals”) that “there is no way the Mayor is going to sign Prop F into law after the voters rejected it.” Yet that’s what backers of the new legislation asked the mayor to do.

A Better Strategy

San Francisco’s approach to short-term rentals has failed. The system is plagued with registration problems that frustrate both sides of the dispute. Most importantly, current law allows homeowners or tenants to rent their spare rooms out 365 days a year to tourists, essentially converting residential units to full time hotels.

Year round tourist rentals is a crazy policy. It is not what Airbnb was supposed to be about. Yet that is where San Francisco stands due to a failure of the warring factions to come together on a plan.

Had the ShareBetterSF coalition gone to the ballot with a single provision limiting rentals to 75 days (instead of throwing in less important provisions), I think it could have overcome the big money opposition and won. But the coalition politically overreached. It may have done so again by passing an even lower, 60 day cap rather than a 90-day limit that would have given a nod to voters will. A cap above 75 days would also have prevented Lee from claiming that he was deferring to voters, though this assumes that the coalition was eager to avoid a veto.

Yet the contrary appears true. ShareBetterSF anticipated its legislative solution to short-term rental abuse would be vetoed. Its Facebook post states in response to Lee’s veto, “The mayor was one of the leads on the existing Airbnb law that hasn’t worked for the city, so this was expected.”

I clearly practice activism differently from these folks as I would not invest resources in legislation that I expect to be vetoed unless we thought we could override it or it was a prelim to an upcoming ballot measure. I drafted an anti-demolition law to stop the original demolition plan for Trinity Towers that we knew Mayor Newsom would veto in 2004 but we proceeded because we thought an eight vote override was possible (Supervisor Bevan Dufty gave us the 8th vote on the first reading and then became the deciding vote against the tenants on second reading).  We saw the legislative campaign as a prelude to the anti-demolition initiative we then qualified for the November 2004 ballot.

But there is no chance of the short-term rental measure picking up an 8th vote. And San Francisco has no election next year.

That its backers expected a veto should also raise questions about the political deals that traded progressive non-support for Dean Preston in D5 for London Breed’s support of the 60-day law. If Lee’s veto was expected, why make any deal around legislation that won’t become law?

With the hotel industry facing declining occupancy with Moscone’s closure from April to September, reaching a consensus on a far scaled down number of allowable short-term rentals is urgent.  Can the ShareBetterSF coalition and Mayor Lee overcome their past disagreements and reach a legislative compromise in early 2017?

Here’s to hoping.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. For inspiring and fun holiday reading, check out my book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.

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's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior 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. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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