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It's the Housing, Stupid 

Don't re-elect supervisors who've done nothing -- zero, zip, nada -- to address our housing shortage

Wednesday, Oct 18 2000
How the political system works so San Francisco doesn't, Chapter 12,432:
In May, San Francisco's school district embarked on a plan to build some housing for teachers on the grounds of a new school on the city's west side. This project was to be done in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which really just meant that the financing for the project would get a federal guarantee. There would be 43 apartment units at Vicente and 24th Avenue, on the grounds of the new Dianne Feinstein Elementary School; the district's woefully underpaid teachers -- who start work in the $32,000-a-year range -- could rent the units at subsidized rates.

Of course, our astonishingly incompetent school district, upon having a good idea, screwed it up immediately by approving the project without consulting the neighbors of the school. Apparently, school officials thought the notion of teachers as neighbors was as unthreatening, in prospect, as having teachers as neighbors would be in reality. The neighborhood, being a good San Francisco neighborhood, quickly worked itself into an inconsolable NIMBY frenzy aimed at halting the project.

Among other things, the neighbors complained about parking problems the new teachers would cause. A parking garage was made part of the project; the neighbors didn't like that, either.

Other objections were raised, some ridiculous, none particularly persuasive to me. Among them was the vague fear that because the loans for building the apartments would be guaranteed by HUD, the apartments would inevitably become HUD housing -- HUD as in unemployed tenants, crummy construction, bad maintenance. HUD as in public housing. HUD as in ... poor people!

There was little substance to fears that anyone but teachers would occupy the apartments; there would almost certainly have been a waiting list as long as my leg of teachers ready to pay $700 a month for a one-bedroom place in a city where a bad one-bedroom in a bad part of town now goes for $2,000. And Parkside, with its just-painted rows of lime- and orange-sherbet-colored single-family homes, is anything but a bad part of town.

"This would be exclusively for teachers, but that didn't seem to matter," a school district official close to the project said. "We explained until we were blue in the face."

So the school district agreed that the project would not involve HUD. It is an understatement to say this concession did not suffice to quiet the neighbors.

It did not suffice, at least in part, because the school apartment plan had been grabbed up as an issue in the city supervisor race for District 4, which includes the new Feinstein Elementary. According to press accounts, everyone running for District 4 supervisor has come out in favor of the neighbors, and against the school district, in regard to the apartments. The incumbent, Leland Yee, seems to have clasped the no-teacher-apartments position to his breast with some fervor, even calling for a Board of Supervisors hearing into a project that did not involve city funds.

There is a reason that the horror -- the utter outrage! -- of providing public school teachers with housing became an issue in the supervisorial race. This November's election for the Board of Supervisors is, of course, the first under a new district system, and seven candidates are running in District 4. School board elections are also on the fall ballot. And a few hundred angry people from the lime- and orange-sherbet homes of Parkside mean a lot more to politicians facing election than they mean to you or me.

If you don't already know, you can probably guess what happened to the school apartment plan. Last week the school board withdrew it, saying the district will study the citywide need for teacher housing before embarking on any teacher housing project. The study will be completed before hell freezes over. Teacher apartments will open at Feinstein Elementary as soon as Satan finishes his ice-skating lessons.

There is one potentially persuasive argument against the school district's plan to build apartments at Feinstein Elementary. A person of intellectual honesty could believe that the San Francisco school district has proven itself so utterly incompetent at financial management that allowing it to branch into housing development is an invitation to disaster. I disagree with this view, but I am willing to acknowledge belief in the school district's overarching incompetence as reasonable, if those who so believe will take the next logical step, and do a little research, and vote against every incumbent school board member who could, in even the smallest way, be held responsible for presiding over the incompetent, wasteful mess the school district has become.

Really, though, the Parkside teacher housing brouhaha is not so much an illustration of the school district's problems, or Parkside's blatant, selfish NIMBYism, as it is a reflection of a general political culture that has lost contact with our times.

San Francisco could cut the ribbon on 5,000 low- and moderate-income apartment units tomorrow -- and still be short of housing. There is no imperative more pressing, no subject more talked about at the water cooler and the bus stop, than the need for more affordable housing. The city has enough room for thousands and thousands of units of new housing, and, in our roaring economy, many a developer is ready to pour foundations and raise walls.

Yet San Francisco's political culture continues to slay even the most reasonable and modest housing proposals with an efficiency and arrogance that Harry Callahan would envy. And when a housing plan dodges the death bullet, NIMBY interests of one sort or another have it tied up and thrown in a dumpster somewhere for a couple of years.

Many factors help perpetuate the utter gridlock in housing. Entrenched neighborhood associations and other anti-development groups play a significant role in stopping or slowing residential building here. But I'm not a big fan of rattling on about problems that can't be solved, and I see no possibility that San Francisco's neighborhood associations will soon begin to see the big picture and care about the citywide housing crisis.

So I'll suggest, instead, that some of the city's housing problems can be eliminated because they have been caused by people. People who can be eliminated from our public life. People whose names are listed right on the November ballot.

During the last few years, San Francisco's municipal politics has been ruled by two major groups of officeholders. One faction, led by Mayor Brown, has held the majority on the Board of Supervisors. The other, minority faction has been led by Supervisor Tom Ammiano.

The Brown faction has supported policies that allowed great expansion in office space, and great increases in the number of people who work in the city. But even though it has a solid majority, this faction has done little to balance this increase in workers with corresponding increases in housing. This faction seems to see facilitating the constant churn of business -- particularly, business that has paid enormous sums to certain lobbyists -- as the chief goal of city governance. (A secondary goal appears to involve the suppression of the minority faction on the Board of Supervisors.)

This majority has not just fiddled while San Francisco burns; it has poured gasoline around the edges of the blaze, and then seemed surprised that the people, businesses, and nonprofits being burned out of, say, the Mission District became irate.

When the ruling majority has refused to address a pressing problem, voters ordinarily can look to the minority for solutions. The minority faction on the Board of Supervisors, however, holds to a backward-looking, economically illiterate, "progressive" worldview that can hardly be called ordinary.

While severe housing shortages were causing skyrocketing rents that worked to cleanse the city of everyone who is not remarkably affluent and/or in possession of a rent-controlled apartment, the minority on the Board of Supervisors consistently sided with what are euphemistically called "neighborhood interests," which means the interests of neighborhood organizations organized primarily around the mission of halting any proposed changes to their neighborhoods, including -- especially -- the construction of new housing. (Of course, general harassment of the majority also rides high on the minority's agenda.)

To oversimplify, then: The Brown clique has encouraged the dot-com boom, without working effectively to provide housing to support it. The Ammiano clique has railed against the boom, without working effectively to provide housing needed to soften the boom's side effects. And both cliques seem to view compromise as treachery. At least, they have not come together with a common plan that would manage the dot-com office boom and stimulate the housing construction needed to stabilize residential rents.

I haven't written a column this lengthy and lacking in snappy bons mots to make a simple-minded suggestion that everyone vote against all incumbent supervisors. After all, Gavin Newsom is unopposed for re-election, and probably deserves another term. Mark Leno ain't a half-bad guy. And I supported Ammiano last year in his run for mayor; I'm not going to tell you to vote for Lucrecia, now.

As for the others ....

San Francisco's major problems are problems of plenty, and not nearly so intractable as they seem. They can be addressed, as they say in economics jargon, at the margin. Several thousand new apartment units, built quickly and placed near transit hubs to minimize impacts on traffic and parking, will begin to soften a harsh residential rental market, so long as the development pipeline includes several thousand more units to be started in following years.

But several thousand desperately needed apartments -- apartments that will be fought tooth and toenail by NIMBYists across the town -- won't be built so long as unimaginative cliques of frightened ostriches are running our city government.

San Francisco can address the problem behind its housing problem -- a clueless, fraidy-cat, overpoliticized Board of Supervisors -- without necessarily throwing all the rascals out. Changing the board at the margin -- creating a third faction on the board, composed of people who owe nothing to Mayor Brown or Supervisor Ammiano -- could force the type of coalition-building necessary to begin addressing our housing woes.

And whom should we marginalize?

Well, can any thinking person think that four more years of lap dog, yes-Willie "leadership" from Michael Yaki, Mabel Teng, Alicia Becerril, and Amos Brown will help the city better balance business expansion and housing creation? Is there any reason to believe that, come November, Leland Yee will suddenly change stripes and start telling neighborhood associations that housing will be well-planned and duly reviewed -- but it will be built, because it is good for the city as a whole?

Here in San Francisco, in the year 2000, the issue du jour is not the economy, stupid. It's the housing we don't have, and the incumbent politicians who think we're stupid enough not to notice the massive amount of nothing they accomplished in housing policy during their most recent and -- one can hope -- final terms as San Francisco supervisors.

About The Author

John Mecklin


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