Mayor Lee Rejects Housing Groups Blackmail

by on July 28, 2016

Small Businesses and Arts Groups Testified Against Imposing Commission over OEWD's Invest in Neighborhoods Program

SF’s Nonprofit Housing Groups Walk Into Realtors Trap

On July 26 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 6-5 to place a Charter Amendment on the November ballot creating a Housing Development Commission. The Commission would oversee the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD)

The debate on the measure was telling for two reasons.

First, it was entirely detached from political reality. A measure conceived in City Hall’s back rooms was promoted as increasing “transparency,” “accountability” and “community input” regarding the city’s affordable housing and community development programs.

Public testimony over four hearings overwhelmingly opposed placing a Commission over OEWD’s operations, But that “community input” made no difference. That’s because the Charter Amendment was driven not a desire to improve government but as a strategy for nonprofit housing groups to defeat two other ballot initiatives backed by the SF Association of  Realtors.

Second, the debate exposed how little support nonprofit housing groups believe they have among San Francisco voters. Instead of mobilizing grassroots opposition to the realtors’ initiatives, the nonprofits instead pursued a Supervisor and Mayor-driven insider strategy of defeating the realtors through a poison pill provision in a Charter Amendment of their own. A poison pill provision that said if the nonprofit-backed measure won, it would prevail over the realtors’ measures even if the latter got more votes.

I previously explained why this charter amendment was very bad policy and even worse politics. And to my disappointment the process got even worse.

The Poison Pill

Tucked away inside a ballot measure allegedly seeking transparency is the following provision: “ordinances regarding inclusionary housing requirements and rules regarding competitive selection for affordable housing adopted under the processes set forth in the Charter may supersede ordinances and rules adopted by the Board of Supervisors or the voters prior to March 1, 2017, at an election  to be held on November 8, 2016.”

Let me translate.

The Realtors are sponsoring one ballot measure “regarding inclusionary housing requirements” and another on “rules regarding competitive selection for affordable housing.” The Supervisors Charter Amendment was drafted so that its passage invalidates the two realtors’ measures even if they win by far greater margins.

It’s the classic poison pill. And if including such a poison pill in an alternative ballot measure was the best strategy for defeating the realtors’ initiatives, then the nonprofit housing groups were on the right track.

But then the nonprofits decided to try to blackmail Mayor Lee. That foolish tactic played right into the Realtors’ hands.

Blackmailing the Mayor

Here’s what happened. The nonprofit housing groups asked Supervisors Peskin and Kim to propose a charter amendment creating a Housing Development Commission, which takes power from the mayor. They reasoned that by threatening the mayor with the loss of control over housing and economic development, he would give in to the nonprofits’ demands in exchange for their dropping the Commission proposal.

What were these demands? That he formally oppose the realtors’ initiatives and raise money for the campaign against them.

If Mayor Lee agreed to this blackmail, the nonprofits would revise their Charter Amendment to only make the new Commission Advisory. But there was no way the mayor—-who already has the sales tax increase and other priorities on the ballot— would commit to raising money to defeat the realtors’ measure. And particularly not the $800,000 that my sources say was the amount demanded.

So instead of trying to turn Mayor Lee into an ally in their fight against the realtors, or working to build allies in their fall campaign, nonprofit housing groups chose blackmail and alienated the mayor and other potential allies.

That’s political bungling at its worst. You pursue a strategy that alienates potential allies and aligns the city’s most powerful politician with your adversaries, which is now the case since Mayor Lee and community groups backing OEWD will be joining with the realtors in working to defeat the Charter Amendment.

All the nonprofits had to do was ensure that their alternative measure with the poison pill provision passed. This should have led them to include the provision in an uncontroversial measure with no likely opposition.  Instead, they included the provision in a measure that unnecessarily turned allies into adversaries.

That’s called walking into your adversaries trap.

Why Do Nonprofits Feel So Weak?

The real story here is why nonprofit housing groups are convinced they cannot win a large turnout election against a group (realtors) not popular with voters.

I’ve been involved in tenant ballot measures in the city since 1979. I cannot recall a single time when the tenants’ movement felt it needed money and endorsements from a mayor to defeat a realtors’ or landlords initiative. This was true even when we faced rent control repeal measures in off-year, low-turnout elections.

Tenant groups always felt that an electoral majority was with them. Why do the housing nonprofits feel otherwise?

Why are they convinced they are so lacking in public support that they need a huge campaign chest to defeat realtors during an acute housing crisis? Nonprofit housing groups claim to be “community based,” so why can’t they mobilize their communities to defeat the realtors?

That some of these groups would even ask the mayor to throw them a life raft when they have relentlessly criticized him is quite a display of chutzpah. It’s a passive-aggressive approach reflecting an internal lack of confidence in the public’s support for their vital work.

I predict that if the realtors’ measures win and the charter amendment fails, the nonprofits will ignore their own political weakness and bungled strategy and instead blame their defeat on Mayor Lee. It harkens back to activists blaming Lee for the city’s reducing inclusionary housing requirements from 15% to 12% in 2011, a deal actually struck by the nonprofits.

Many pleaded with the nonprofit housing groups to make small changes in their measure to protect grassroots economic development activities that have nothing to do with housing. But the nonprofits refused, creating division among likely allies.

Should the realtors measures win and the Charter Amendment fail, the housing groups  have only themselves to blame.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.

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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