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Common Cause 

Because she owns an apartment via tenancy in common, Sue Hestor is the perfect spokeswoman for homeownership

Wednesday, Jul 11 2001
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Darryl Cox will always remember the date he signed his life away: Dec. 22, 1986. Darryl was hanging out with two friends, David and Sue, at Sue's place. Sue handed Darryl a small, rectangular box.

"I opened it and said, "What's this?'" Darryl recalls. "And she said, "It has closed.'"

"Closed," as in, "The deal has closed." The box contained keys to a three-unit apartment building on Highland Avenue adjacent to Holly Park in San Francisco's Bernal Heights. Darryl, Sue, and David had become friends during San Francisco's post-1960s progressive political battles, including the 1977 struggle to preserve district elections in San Francisco and the 1970s and '80s fights for Proposition M, which restricted the amount of office construction that could be undertaken each year in the city. Now they were partners in homeownership.

As Darryl recalls it, Sue had been looking to establish herself, to buy a building with some other people. "I was in grad school at Harvard. I came back, and she approached me, and I said, "I just got out of graduate school, I'm not sure I could do this,'" Darryl recalls. "But David's ex-wife made it possible for him and me to provide the down payment."

It was a heady time: Three young, progressive political activists were going to make mortgage payments, rather than pay rent. The money would go toward building equity. Though they weren't rich, they would build grubstakes. They would each establish an economic patrimony, putting themselves on more equal footing with the privileged.

Over the years, though, the friendships faded. Darryl got a job back east, as director of strategic planning and policy for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, and rented out his San Francisco unit. David became a sometime political consultant and anti-growth activist. Sue gained renown as an anti-development attorney.

As they each found their own way in the world, the partners drifted apart ideologically. Darryl, for example, became increasingly irritated by the new focus of Sue's anti-development civic activism. In 1998 Sue was the sole individual signer of a paid ballot advertisement that blamed tenancies in common (TICs) for forcing S.F. residents from their homes: "In 1983, when condominium conversions became epidemic, the city passed a condo conversion law. Now speculators have found a way around the condo law -- tenancy-in-common condos," said the paid argument, written in support of a ballot measure aimed at limiting owners' ability to purchase and then to occupy TICs. "Exempt from the condo law for technical reasons, this new form of condo conversion relies on [owner move-in] evictions to bypass the condo law." (1)

Darryl saw Sue's stance as hypocritical. "She lives in a TIC, and why in the world she thinks other people shouldn't be entitled to that is beyond me," he says.

The one-time friends' business relationship became strained. Living across the country meant conducting business long distance, and Darryl found Sue's telephone manner bossy.

"She takes a very imperious tone," Darryl says. "I would be talking with her, long distance over the phone, and the way she would talk to me was as if I was dumb. And I said to her, "We're talking about my building. I can't tolerate this anymore. I'm not talking with you.' I sent her a letter that said, "Tell David what I need to know, and I'll talk with David.' I just couldn't stand that tone anymore. We're supposed to be colleagues. And colleagues don't talk to each other that way."

Things soured between Darryl and David, too. David tried to acquire Darryl's portion of the building. Darryl rebuffed him through an attorney. Most divisive, however, was the issue of the building's rotting steps. Nobody wanted to fix them, Darryl says.

"Last year I had to go to the city and get the inspectors to come out and declare that the rear steps were a hazard and had to be replaced," Darryl says. "They gave me one song and dance after another. I said, "These steps have to be fixed.' Finally, the mortgage holder, California Savings, sent all three of us a letter saying, "You're violating the terms of the contract. Replace the steps, or we have to foreclose.'"

Workers are now building new steps, but nothing, Darryl says, will repair the old friendships. "These relationships, as far as my involvement, are null," he laments. "There is no way to rebuild those relationships in any way, shape, or form."

Regular readers of this column may suspect that I'm recounting the saga of these troubled tenants in common because I take exception to the politics some of them profess. After all, I devoted last week's column to branding anti-growth attorney Sue Hestor -- part owner, along with Darryl Cox, of the building at 325-329 Highland Ave. -- as a political self-dealer. And it's also true that last year I dedicated more ink to criticizing the awful anti-growth Proposition L than any other subject, and Prop. L's intellectual author and campaign treasurer was David Looman, the third tenant-owner of 325-329 Highland Ave.

But I'm describing their travails for reasons unrelated to my political leanings. I'm telling the story of Darryl Cox, Sue Hestor, and David Looman because I feel their pain.

Anybody who's suffered a fizzled friendship, a decayed family relationship, or an abandoned romance knows how anguishing it is when people who were once close grow apart spiritually. And anyone who's had a roommate, a spouse, or a business partner knows that the collapse of a relationship is all the more miserable when you are forced to remain joined to your partner, even after the good times are long gone.

It is therefore with great sadness -- for Sue, for David, for Darryl -- that I've watched tenancies in common become the subject of San Francisco's most prominent current political debate.

Monday the Board of Supervisors handed Mayor Willie Brown his first veto override, voting 8-3 to sustain legislation that essentially outlaws tenancies in common by capping them under the city's condominium conversion limit. Last week Brown had vetoed the legislation, which raises the limit from the current trivial level of 200 per year to the similarly token level of 400 per year. The measure is similar to one rejected by voters last November.

While it's lamentable that the Board of Supervisors would see fit to outlaw the only form of property ownership available to people who aren't wealthy, I think it's sadder still that such a miserable institution would make it to the forefront of San Francisco's housing debate.

In an ideal world, tenancies in common would be an insignificant, yet entirely legal, option for San Francisco homeowners. Far more attractive -- and humane -- options such as condominium or house ownership would be affordable and widely available. Low- to mid-income people could own their own homes. These people would make mortgage payments, rather than pay rent. This money would go toward building equity. In this way, relatively poor people would be allowed to build up grubstakes. They'd be put on more even economic footing with the privileged rich. Letter carriers and bureaucrats, waiters and nurses, would possess economic patrimony. A new form of economic egalitarianism would reign in San Francisco.

San Francisco is no ideal world, though. As Sue Hestor noted in her 1998 ballot argument condemning tenancies in common, San Francisco essentially outlawed condominium conversions in 1983 by limiting them to 200 per year. Although virtually all newly built apartment buildings are now classified as condominiums on their city permits, anti-growth agitators such as Hestor and Looman have made new housing construction difficult enough to be all but illegal. So for people of little means wishing to own their own homes, tenancies in common have become the only path to follow. With this in mind, voters rejected a tenancy-in-common limit last year. Last month the Board of Supervisors told those voters to lump it. Clearly San Francisco is ripe for a new popular uprising, one committed to granting homeownership to the masses, sans the nasty, enemy-making side effects of tenancies in common.

A flawed, but reparable, version of this movement has been quietly afoot in San Francisco for several months now; an S.F. property owner named Sarosh Kumana has been floating the notion of a ballot initiative that would allow renters to buy their apartments. He calls the plan Home Ownership for Tenants -- HOT for short. It would allow tenants in a building to vote on whether to allow condo conversions on a building-by-building basis. Under this plan, tenants not wishing to buy their units would get lifetime leases.

I've interviewed Kumana, and I like his idea. Five weeks ago I watched him debate Tenderloin anti-development activist Randy Shaw at the Commonwealth Club. Shaw didn't seem to understand what the debate was about. (Next Thursday Kumana and Shaw will go at it again at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association on Sutter Street.) As rewarding as it is to see Shaw made a fool of, I think it's too bad that it's Kumana, a landlord type, who is pushing the homeownership-for-tenants cause. As we can see from the experiences of Cox, Hestor, and Looman, people of modest means are willing to go to painful lengths to become San Francisco apartment owners. It's in the interest of the entire city -- not just property owners like Kumana -- for homeownership to be easier for ordinary folk.

The HOT movement needs a leader with a populist base, somebody who's adroit in using the language of the little guy. It needs somebody with experience in writing and backing ballot initiatives. The movement to legalize a greatly broadened system of condominium conversion in San Francisco needs somebody who knows firsthand how desperately people of this city need such a measure.

San Francisco needs Sue Hestor, tenant in common.


About The Author

Matt Smith


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