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South to the Future 

Developer Proposes Controversial Way to Lower S.F. Housing Costs: "Haven't you people ever heard of apartment buildings?" New York émigré asks.

Wednesday, Feb 2 2000
February 2, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO -- Donald Raflek is a man on a revolutionary mission. The 32-year-old expatriate New Yorker and real estate developer spends his days and nights speculating excitedly about his visions for the future, which include late-night restaurants, magazine stands outside downtown, and an expansion of the public transportation system serving his adopted home. But what has landed Raflek in hot water with some San Franciscans is his latest proclamations of oh-so-urban dreaming, put in the form of a question: "Haven't you people ever heard of apartment buildings?"

Raflek is convinced that the first step toward making San Francisco a viable 21st-century city is, quite simply, the construction of several large apartment complexes. As people move to the city to take jobs in Internet-related industry, the city has found itself in a severe housing crunch that has sparked conflict between longtime residents and tech-savvy newcomers.

To date, the only supply-side attempts to deal with the housing shortage have involved the construction of a few hundred upscale "live-work" loft condominiums. The lofts have inspired a feisty grass-roots opposition that indicts all new residential development as gentrification. Ironically, it is precisely this blanket opposition to residential construction that has led to the great disparity between housing demand and supply, and huge recent increases in property prices and rental rates.

Raflek hopes to transform both the city's entrenched anti-development attitudes and its supply-demand housing imbalance by building apartment towers with a social conscience.

"The young people who are moving here to work at Internet companies don't want to take Victorians out of the hands of poor families; they just want a place to live," asserts Raflek. "I say give them a big apartment building with a doorman, and they'll leave the low-income neighborhoods alone."

The scrappy developer has persuaded Rob Howland, a longtime San Francisco tenants' rights activist, to join the apartment-building cause. Howland was recently evicted from his Victorian flat under the Ellis Act, a state law that allows property owners to remove their real estate from the rental market. Howland's position on apartment towers took a 180-degree turn after the eviction, when he personally confronted the scarcity of affordable housing in San Francisco. Now, he believes that had he not opposed large-scale residential construction in San Francisco's mid- and upper-Market areas three years ago, he might have been able to find a new place to live without months of searching.

And today, Howland advocates Raflek's apartment tower plans before the very community-based organizations that used to be his allies, and that would most likely attempt to block the projects at City Hall.

"At the time, I thought it was so grim; how could a large, impersonal building be allowed to replace a quaint one- or two-family house?" confesses Howland. "But now, I could see living there -- the people close together, pooling their resources, supporting the independent businesses on the block with their foot traffic."

Raflek's first proposed apartment complex is a two-building, 15-story development that he plans for the blighted mid-Market Street neighborhood. The development will feature 120 rental units; one-third will be allocated to families with children or other shared households, one-third to couples, and one-third to singles seeking studio-style accommodations. On the ground level, small commercial spaces will be leased to independent businesses such as copy shops and cafes.

Even though his proposal is overtly inclusive, local housing activists (who openly refer to Raflek as "Le Freak") decry the would-be developer as just another greedy landlord whose interest is profit, rather than community development. At a city planner's meeting last month, a group of protesters (dressed, inexplicably, in surgical gowns) taunted Raflek with jeers that included "Carpetbagger go home" and "One house, one people, one city."

In an effort to curry community support, Raflek and Howland have agreed to place the new units under rent control laws that strictly limit rent increases, even though new developments are not legally subject to rent control. "Don is putting his money where his mouth is," Howland says. "Instead of building low-income housing, we just have to build enough housing. The market will stabilize, and it won't make any difference whether a new unit is under rent control or not."

Despite what promises to be stiff opposition, the man who would Manhattanize San Francisco is convinced he can win over the city -- if people will just hear him out. "Protesting new construction isn't going to save the character of San Francisco, because that character is people," Raflek sputters. "And people need two things: They need food, and they need housing."

South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments?

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