San Francisco “Diversity” Ignores Class

by Randy Shaw on July 23, 2012

Last week’s Board of Supervisors debate over Michael Antonini’s re-appointment to the Planning Commission exposed how “diversity” is still defined in the city. Some argued that instead of Antonini, a white-male, dentist, District 7 homeowner, and registered Republican, the Commission needed representation from the Southeast and Eastern Neighborhoods. Antonini’s defenders responded that he was the only Planning Commissioner from his neighborhood, and that he shouldn’t be blamed for the body’s lack of representation from other ethnic, racial and neighborhood constituencies. Yet amidst all the talk about diversity, nobody talked about class. While 66% of the city are tenants, property owners have long dominated SF’s key land use commissions. How is “diversity” achieved when tenants and low-income residents are excluded?

Whether Mike Antonini gets another four year term on the Planning Commission (he has served since 2002) will be decided at the July 24 Board meeting. But the debate over his appointment has already proven illuminating. It shows that despite Occupy and all of the focus on class and income inequality, such issues are invisible and irrelevant when selections are made for key land use commissions in progressive San Francisco.

The Rise of “Neighborhood” Diversity

Starting in the 1970’s, San Francisco mayors sought to make appointments to the Planning Commission and Board of Appeals that reflected the city’s diversity of gender, ethnicity, race and sexual orientation. The Feinstein years had land use commissions that met these diversity goals while consistently backing developer and landlord interests.

If there were a single tenant on either Planning or the Board of Appeals during her mayoralty, they kept their distance from tenant advocacy groups.

The Antonini debate showed that “diversity” now includes neighborhood representation. Supervisor Cohen began the discussion by expressing concern that Antonini’s appointment would leave the Southeastern portion of the city and Eastern Neighborhoods without Planning Commission representation. Others echoed Cohen’s view, and Supervisor Jane Kim observed that there is nobody on Planning or Board of Appeals from South of Market, the Tenderloin, or anywhere in District 6.

Considering that District 6 had the most development in the past decade, the lack of representation on the Planning Commission is unfortunate. And Kim could have added that there has never been anyone serving on either key land use body who lived or worked in the Tenderloin.

What neighborhoods are represented on the Commission? Well, District 3 has three of the seven seats. When Aaron Peskin was Board President he appointed two D3 commissioners who live only blocks from each other. Both are architects; Cindy Wu, appointed by Board President and D3 Supervisor David Chiu, works in District 3.

Elsbernd took umbrage at Kim’s suggestion that Antonini did not reflect “diversity” by saying (I am paraphrasing) that if she thinks someone from D7 represents the same interests as someone in D1 or Seacliff she really does not know the city. But from a class perspective, Kim is correct. All three areas are majority homeowner districts in a city that is 66% tenant. The class composition of all three districts is more similar than to the rest of the city as a whole, despite such differences as Seacliff including more upscale homes and D1 having more tenants.

These three areas also include few voters that are Latino or African-American, and none have much or any nonprofit or publicly owned affordable housing.

Members of the Planning Commission and Board of Appeals have long disproportionately come for primarily homeowner neighborhoods. And while people of all ideologies and values live in all neighborhoods, when D3 resident Commissioner Sugaya joked that the Tenderloin would benefit from a grocery store selling drugs, some commissioners’ disconnection from the daily realities that many city’s residents face hit home (Sugaya was a Peskin appointee).

Avoiding Class

While the Board has no hesitation decrying the lack of neighborhood, Latino and gay and lesbian representation on the Planning Commission, raising concern about the lack of tenant and low-income representation is another matter. That apparently is off-limits.

Yet as someone whose organization has spent far more time representing tenants at the Board of Appeals over the past three decades than any other entity, I know that the composition of this body makes a big difference. Having members who are or had long been tenants makes the risks of unfair eviction more understandable; owner or landlord members who have no experience with tenant problems are much harder to convince.

The problem is not that a homeowner dominated land use body is “anti-tenant.” Rather, it’s that many Commissioners operate in a social and business environment where they are far more likely to hear from landlords complaining about tenants than from tenants facing unfair evictions.

The public and media focus on the political influences on land use Commissioners, but there are social and broader business factors that loom far larger. This impacts the real estate attorneys that have headed the Board of Appeals, as well as those who may be hesitant to rule against a landlord or developer who is part of their larger circle of relationships.

Current Supervisor Christina Olague is the only person ever appointed to either top land use body that had experience working with SRO tenants. It’s no coincidence that she proved a strong tenant advocate, and her circle of relationships likely contributed to this just as the other representatives are shaped by their personal connections.

San Francisco preaches “cultural competency,” but this term does not embrace having land use commissioners whose own status as working-class or middle-class tenants could make them more attune to the problems of these constituencies.

Mike Antonini has proved a dedicated public servant for ten years on the Commission, but let’s not make believe that his reappointment is necessary to further “diversity.” Regardless of what occurs in his case, it’s well past time for appointing mayors and board presidents, and the supervisors that confirm these appointments, to consider class diversity as well.

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