Mayor Holds Up Housing Funds Despite Veto-Proof Vote at the Board

by Paul Hogarth on May 31, 2007

Two weeks ago, I questioned whether it makes sense to challenge Newsom for re-election this November. He’s a very popular Mayor who will be hard to beat, and we can still pass most of our agenda because the Supervisors often have eight votes to override a veto. So when the Board passed the $28 million housing supplemental on May 1st by an 8-3 vote, I expected it would become a reality. But in a shameful display of arrogance, Newsom allowed it to become law without his signature, but said that his Administration will simply not spend the money. In other words, it was a “non-veto” veto. While the Mayor has snubbed the voters this year on Question Time, here Newsom has defied democracy on a far more serious and substantive matter. $28 million for affordable housing could mean a real difference in the lives of people, and advocates who worked so hard to get it passed should be outraged and demanding answers from the Mayor’s Office.

Ironically, if Newsom had simply vetoed the Housing Supplemental, the Board had enough votes to override it – just like when they overruled him last November on foot patrols. So to avoid another political embarrassment, he nullified it in a way that the Supervisors could do nothing about it. At 5:00 p.m. on a Friday, Newsom returned the ordinance authorizing the $28 million with a letter explaining why he thought it was a bad idea.

“This last-minute spending measure doubles the City’s budget deficit in the coming fiscal year,” said Newsom, “and therefore my administration will not spend funds which we do not have.” He then went on to explain how he would present his own budget in a few weeks and that “all of us share affordable housing as a key budget priority.” But the Mayor did not veto the budget supplemental – he just returned it without his signature.

I was confused for a while about the practical effect of the Mayor’s letter and assumed that it was just another veto. But there’s apparently a legal distinction in the City Charter between vetoing a bill and returning it unsigned. “If the Mayor returns any legislation unsigned,” explained Matt Dorsey, press secretary to City Attorney Dennis Herrera, “it becomes law ten days from the day the Mayor first received it. The Mayor must affirmatively veto a measure to prevent it from becoming law, at which point the Board has the opportunity to override with a supermajority vote.”

In other words, Newsom allowed the $28 million Housing Supplemental to become law. And when a bill becomes a law, you assume – at least the way I studied the Constitution – that it becomes legally binding. But now Newsom has vowed to render the Board’s action meaningless by simply refusing to spend the money. And legally, it looks like he could get away with it.

“The actual expenditure of funds is the responsibility of the executive branch,” said Dorsey. “In the case of appropriations, the Board of Supervisors adopts ordinances authorizing particular expenditures. But upon adoption of the ordinance, control of the appropriation passes to the executive … who has an independent authority to decide how best to promote the public interest when making spending decisions.”

Here, the Board passed an Ordinance that appropriates $28 million to the Mayor’s Office of Housing for the “acquisition, construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing,” with an emphasis on keeping families in San Francisco. But because Newsom controls how and when the Mayor’s Office of Housing spends the money allocated, he has the power to thwart the will of the Board.

Those hoping to challenge Newsom’s re-election repeatedly raise the fact that he won’t attend a monthly meeting of the Board of Supervisors after voters made it city policy. The Mayor’s actions on such an issue are indefensible and undemocratic, but let’s get real. Who wants to run a Mayoral campaign based on Question Time, and would voters care?

But refusing to spend $28 million on affordable housing after letting it become law is a totally different story – it makes a tangible difference in the lives of families trying to stay in San Francisco. It’s always a struggle to create more affordable housing with the high cost of land and construction, and laws requiring private developers to build some “affordable” units are not sufficient.

Take the current fight in the Mission between a private developer and affordable housing activists. The developer wants to build a 60-unit condominium complex at Mission and Cesar Chavez, but activists say that it won’t serve the area’s low-income residents. A family of four lucky enough to get one of the project’s nine “affordable” units would have to earn $91,200 a year to qualify. And because it’s condos, there may be prohibitive condo fees in the affordable units that are not immediately apparent.

The Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition has appealed this project after the Planning Commission approved it, but activists shouldn’t have to spend all their time fighting market-rate projects. With more subsidies, new housing projects could be made affordable. A non-profit developer has proposed an alternative project for the site that would be affordable, but it would require a $6.5 million subsidy. As a general rule, building affordable housing is expensive.

The Mayor’s refusal to spend $28 million on affordable housing after the Board voted by a veto-proof majority means less money for a crying need — plain and simple. Housing activists and children groups should be outraged, and I don’t get why those who spent so much time getting the Board to pass it aren’t making a bigger issue out of this. It certainly sounds like a better cause to get worked up about than Question Time, and a reason to take him on in November.

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