Mayor Lee Earns High Marks on Tenants Rights

by on October 13, 2015

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee

Last week, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee backed sweeping new eviction protections Supervisor Jane Kim sponsored for the city’s tenants. That’s nothing new.  Lee has supported every single piece of tenant legislation that has passed the Board since taking office in January 2011.

Lee has also stopped Ellis Act evictions. He did this by dramatically boosting funding for tenant legal representation, which has led to legal victories for tenants and discouraged speculator evictions by raising their costs.

Lee’s Small Sites Program has purchased small buildings where tenants are facing, or are likely to face, displacement due to the Ellis Act. High-profile Ellis evictions like that of Benito Santiago were first stopped by legal action and then permanently halted when the Small Sites Program was used to purchase Santiago’s building.

Lee is also the first and only mayor in California to go up to Sacramento as part of an all out effort to enact state Ellis Act reform. Lee led San Francisco’s all out lobbying effort to stop speculator evictions in 2014, and again pushed for the Leno bill’s passage this year. Lee’s campaign did not win reform, but it did  lead to a reduction in Ellis evictions as speculators awaited the bill’s outcome.

But despite a record that makes him the most pro-tenant mayor in San Francisco history,  Lee’s critics don’t see the mayor as pro-tenant. A San Francisco Chronicle article published the same day the Jane Kim-sponsored eviction protection legislation became law stated, “critics say Lee is just playing in the margins — meanwhile, artists, nonprofit workers, teachers, families, minorities and others are being permanently priced out.” The article quotes Housing Rights Committee Director Sara Shortt: “in terms of serving the real needs of the majority of the city’s residents who are in dire crisis right now, I think he’s really failed.”

Shortt sent out a press release last Friday stating that the mayor-backed legislation means “thousands of tenants have a fighting chance to stay in their homes. This legislation is crucial to stemming the tide of sham evictions and abuse of tenants that we see on a regular basis.”

That certainly isn’t the action of a mayor who has “really failed” tenants.

Shortt may have given her Chronicle quote amidst widespread and completely unwarranted fears that the Mayor would veto Kim’s legislation. These fears were sparked by wildly misleading headlines such as “Source: Mayor Lee Considering Veto of ‘Tenant Protections 2.0.’” The unnamed source appears to be a member of a landlord group pushing for a veto who cleverly used anti-Lee reporters to create a false buzz about an impending veto.

Some saw signs of an imminent Lee veto due to his meeting with small property owners and tenant advocates to resolve questions about one provision in the ordinance. The Board’s tenant stalwarts, Kim and Campos, regularly hear from both sides, as did Aaron Peskin when he was on the Board; yet when Lee does it he’s seen as anti-tenant.

Why the Anti-Lee Hostility?

Why is Mayor Lee, who has the most pro-tenant record of any mayor in San Francisco history, regularly denounced for ignoring renter concerns?

The obvious answer is that people are upset, angry and frightened over the city’s spiraling housing costs. And many blame Lee, despite the mayor’s legal inability to regulate rents on vacant apartments or on house or condo prices. Nor can the mayor legally impose a moratorium on Ellis Act evictions, as many activists have urged.

Some blame Lee for the economic boom that has caused housing prices to skyrocket. But I didn’t hear any progressive supervisors arguing the city should tell tech companies, hospitals, and other new businesses to not operate in San Francisco. Lee did strongly back the geographically limited Mid-Market-Tenderloin tax credit, but so did strong tenant allies Supervisors Kim and Mar.

San Francisco is just one of many cities in California and along the West Coast experiencing skyrocketing housing cost increases, and tech is not a factor in most of these cities. Rents were skyrocketing in San Francisco before Twitter relocated to Market Street in the summer of 2012.

The chief cause of skyrocketing rents on vacant apartments is that the city is barred by state law from enacting vacancy control, which limits such rent increases. Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s repeated veto of vacancy control in the 1980’s paved the way for state preemption through the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Act.  State preemption would not have occurred had it impacted a large city like San Francisco (it affected Berkeley, West Hollywood and Santa Monica).

Yet Lee critics like David Talbot routinely attack Lee while ignoring Feinstein’s responsibility for the city’s current affordability crisis. Incredibly, Talbot’s book, Season of the Witch,  describes Feinstein as a “raving liberal.” The book completely ignores her repeated vetoes of the vacancy control legislation whose campaigns  defined San Francisco politics in the 1980’s.

Ballot Measures

Finally, many Lee critics see the mayor’s failure to endorse Prop G in 2014 (the anti-speculation tax) and opposition to Prop’s F and I this November as confirming he is not “pro-tenant.” ( These positions apparently overtake Lee’s leadership in the 2011 ballot measure that created a $1.3 billion housing trust fund and his role in creating Prop A, the $310 million housing bond).

Tenant activists made no effort to make Mayor Lee part of the Prop G drafting process. Then, once they put something on the ballot that he had no role in, they expected his endorsement.

That’s not how politics works with big city mayors. Mayors do not lend their names to ballot measures they don’t have a major say over. Tenants had the right to go to the ballot with the exact language they wanted, and had they wanted the mayor’s endorsement they should have engaged him in the process at a much earlier stage.

As for Prop F and I, both are housing supply rather than rent control/tenant issues. The mayor was not going to support a housing moratorium when he sees inclusionary housing as part of the affordable housing solution and  is committed to building 30,000 units. Nor was not going to support new restrictions on short-term rentals after just signing the revised legislation on this.

I’d love to hear about an actual big city mayor who Lee critics can point to who always does exactly what tenants and other progressive constituencies want. Lee is far more progressive on housing and tenant issues than New York City’s Bill de Blasio. And Los Angeles’s Erik Garcetti did nothing to help pass state Ellis Act reform and his city still allows speculators to use the Ellis Act and then demolish rent-controlled housing.

Ed Lee is the most pro-tenant mayor in San Francisco history.His 100% support for legislation coupled with his work to reduce Ellis evictions earns him high marks for supporting tenant rights.

Can he do better? Absolutely. But if his critics really had a case that he had “really failed” the city’s tenant majority, Lee would not be winning re-election without serious opposition.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book is 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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