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Housing advocacy leaders spar over local ballot measures

Photo used with permission, credit: @AaronPeskin
Supervisor Aaron Peskin with SF Chronicle reporter JK Dineen

If you follow the politics of housing development in San Francisco you know it’s been a highly divisive year; long-time affordable housing activists havebeen sparring with pro-growth advocates. The city’s November ballot reflects that divide.


There are at least six housing-related measures up for a vote this November. Their outcomes will change both policy and the balance of power on either side of the divide.

It helps to understand the two sides involved. There’s the pro-growthers, the people who believe we need to build our way out of this housing crisis with more housing of every kind, including luxury. These are the YIMBY’s (Yes In My Backyard). This group has really gotten mobilized this year. They tend to align more with moderate leaders including Mayor Ed Lee, and in some cases the real estate lobby.

On the other side there’s the people that have been fighting for affordable housing for decades. Like the Council of Community Housing Organizations. CCHO is a big coalition of advocacy groups and nonprofit developers, like Mercy Housing, MEDA and the Chinatown CDC. CCHO has been instrumental in shaping San Francisco’s rules around housing for a long time. They tend to ally themselves with the progressive supervisors.

The difference between this side and the YIMBY’s, is these folks don’t see unbridled market-rate construction as a solution. They tend to prioritize maintaining the right mix of income levels in all new construction, even if it means less overall housing gets built.

Let’s start with Prop M. This one’s put forward by the progressive supervisors on the Board. It would create a commission to oversee housing and development decisions, the kinds of decisions that are currently made by the Mayor’s office with recommendations from the planning commission. At a debate Monday night at the Swedish American Hall, Progressive Supervisor Aaron Peskin said that kind of smoke-filled back roominess is why so many housing policy decisions end up getting protested when they’re announced.

“If we had an open and transparent body instead of having litigation subsequently thereafter we would resolve those things at the front end rather than more lengthy at the back end,” Peskin said.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, a moderate on the board, doesn’t buy it. He says there are lots of ways to speed up the development process—this is, in fact, the main goal of the YIMBY’s—but, he says, adding more engagement processes will do the opposite.

Wiener argued that Prop. M is in fact just one of a bunch of measures that are designed to strip power away from Mayor Ed Lee—a mayor that’s been more pro-growth than the progressives might like. At the debate on Monday, Wiener said that out of the so-called anti-Mayor measures, “proposition M is definitely the worst and the most destructive.” Adding that it's “incredibly cynical to say we’re mad at this Mayor so we’re going to permanently debilitate the institution of the Mayor.”

Wiener said the commission proposed in Prop. M would not be democratically accountable, and that in San Francisco, a strong executive office is how things get done.

However, Supervisor Peskin pointed out that the money that’s been raised to defeat the progressives’ ballot measures—those so-called anti-mayor ones—has come almost entirely from realtor associations and individual venture capitalists like tech billionaire Ron Conway who’ve backed Mayor Lee.

“Follow the money,” exhorted Peskin at Monday’s debate. “$2.4 million against a handful of very common sense reforms. For what? For having democracy?”

But, not everyone believes that it’s merely innocent, inclusive democracy that the progressives are after. Some YIMBY’s think Prop. M is an attempt to maintain CCHO’s power over housing policy. Supervisor Mark Farrell said our current policies lead to favoritism toward CCHO.

That’s why Farrell is supporting another measure, Prop. P. That measure aims to change how the city makes deals with nonprofit developers. Farrell says too often, the city is forced to take the first deal CCHO offers up. He wants to give bigger, nonlocal developers who are not members of CCHO a chance.

Prop. P would require the city to get at least three bids from three different developers before making a deal. Farrell says that kind of market competition would be good for the public, and bad for the “special interests that are getting all the current contracts”—referring to CCHO.

But, it’s also true that Prop. P is bankrolled by a different special interest group—the SF Realtor association and the National Realtor Association. The realtors also designed another measure on the ballot, prop. U. Between the two measures, realtors are spending a million dollars campaigning.

Prop. U is about getting affordable housing subsidies to middle income San Franciscans. Farrell supports it because he says, the city has “very much failed in middle income housing and we are losing the middle class in a major way.”

The city currently has -- and is developing more -- programs for middle income housing subsidies: things like home buyer loans and rental assistance for teachers and other workforces. AT Monday's event, CCHO director Peter Cohen, said that the city needs to continue to grow those programs, not just raise the income levels of who qualifies for assistance.


“What the realtors measures does is just take away the units from lower income households and makes them available for middle income folks,” said Cohen. “It doesn’t add a single additional unit of housing -- none. It just takes it away from one and provides it for the other in the name of middle income housing.”

In a separate interview, Cohen explained that Prop. M—the housing commission—is part of a strategy to defeat the realtors' measures. Because if M passes, it automatically overrides the realtors' measures.

“It was very clear the realtors were giving the middle finger to everybody,” said Cohen. “There needed to be some counterbalance to that, so part of Prop. M is a way to go toe to toe with these P and U measures.”

It’s important to note that a bunch of groups of the YIMBY persuasion who tend to disagree with Cohen have not gotten behind Props. P and U. One other housing measure has enjoyed similar across-the-aisle support. That’s Prop. C—a bond the city would use to buy and retrofit old buildings and convert them to affordable housing. Glimmers of solidarity have shone out across the housing advocacy divide around prop. C. But, the measure’s still got it’s opponents. They didn’t address prop. C at Monday’s debate. It’s like Thanksgiving dinner with your family, some things are just too painful to discuss.

CORRECTION: In the audio version of this piece, Supervisor Mark Farrell is quoted saying that every affordable housing project since 2011 has gone to a CCHO member organization. In fact, the city has awarded projects to large regional developers as well. Supervisor Farrell's statement was false. You can find a complete inventory of affordable housing projects here

Crosscurrents Elections