The Mission is our neighborhood

October 20, 2015

San Franciscans will go to the polls on November 3 to decide, among other elections and referendums, on whether to approve Proposition I, a ballot initiative that would temporarily halt the construction of luxury, market-rate housing in the Mission District for 18 months—putting on pause the runaway development of this historic working-class Latino neighborhood.

J. Scott Weaver is a longtime tenants' rights attorney and housing activist, affiliated with the San Francisco Tenants Union, the Plaza 16 Coalition and Accion Latina, and the author of Proposition I. He spoke to Jessica Hansen-Weaver and Julien Ball about why voters should support this initiative in the context of a growing affordable housing crisis in the Bay Area.

CAN YOU describe the current housing crisis in San Francisco generally and the Mission District in particular?

GENERALLY SPEAKING, the housing crisis in San Francisco is one of affordability. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $4,200 a month, and the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $3,500. Most people can't afford that. You have to have a household income of $140,000 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and most people don't have that kind of income.

Only about 15 percent of San Franciscans can afford a vacant unit, so when somebody loses their home, they have to leave the city, or they double up often in a single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel room. Currently, 500 families in San Francisco live in SRO hotel rooms because they can't afford any other housing.

Otherwise, these families are forced to move far away from San Francisco--to places like Vallejo or San Leandro--where they have to commute into the city, and this has environmental and economic impacts.

The Mission, a traditionally Latino neighborhood of San Francisco, has experienced the acute impact of gentrification. Since 2000, it has lost 30 percent of its Latino population and one-third of its families, resulting in extreme economic stratification. It has recently been reported that San Francisco has the same level of economic inequality as Rwanda.

Rallying for the affordable housing measure Prop I in San Francisco
Rallying for the affordable housing measure Prop I in San Francisco (Jessica Hansen-Weaver | SW)

Landlords see these rising rents and want a piece of that action. These landlords find ways--legal and illegal--to stretch the law so as to come up with fake reasons to kick tenants out. It is legal bullying.

Most tenants don't have legal knowledge and resources to fight this, forcing them to defer to the authority of the landlords. When these tenants are pushed out, it changes the culture and demographics of the neighborhood. That apartment is then rented to someone who can afford $3,500 a month.

This has been going on in various iterations for more than 30 years. It has gotten to a crisis point now because there are no alternatives for people who face evictions. The Mission neighborhood has seen such dramatic changes that people are starting to become really angry.

WHAT IS Proposition I, what does it do, and why is it necessary?

ONE OF the factors that contributes to higher rents is the influx of luxury housing in the Mission District. Market-rate for new units in the Mission is 20 percent above the average rent, making it de facto luxury housing. These are two-bedroom units that go for $6,000 a month, requiring a household income of over $200,000.

When the plan to develop the Mission was initiated, they were going to build 64 percent of the housing units as affordable housing, but only 12 percent have been affordable. This has put gentrification in the Mission into hyper-drive. When a $6,000 unit is built, it will raise rents overall, as landlords will have a huge incentive to evict working-class tenants in order to cash in on the competitive rental market.

Prop I is putting a temporary halt to the development of luxury/market-rate housing in the Mission for 18 months, during which the city and county of San Francisco will be required to engage with the community in a planning process to help stabilize the neighborhood and provide other means to fund and develop affordable housing.

These include increased inclusionary zoning requirements to raise the percentage of affordable units that developers are required to include in new development, along with alternative funding sources to finance affordable housing.

PROP I stops luxury housing for 18 months in one neighborhood. Why do you think voters in other San Francisco districts, and around the country, should care about this?

THE SUPPLY side strategy that is being applied in San Francisco--the idea that the benefits of developing market rate/luxury housing will trickle down to the 85 percent--is a failed policy. Even the chief economist in San Francisco, Ted Egan, says it will take 100,000 units before there is any impact on affordability.

This policy has been embraced across the country. Other neighborhoods in San Francisco have already started feeling the effects of this new development, while others will soon find themselves in a similar crisis of affordability. Today, the Mission is ground zero for the affordability crisis.

To me, the most exciting feature of Prop I is that there is a community development plan element to it. Each neighborhood/community has their own identity and that should be what directs development, not supply-side economics.

The Mission is really the canary in the coal mine. And the Mission has a lot of symbolism--it's a famous community. This is where Carlos Santana was born, and there is a wealth of Latino culture. It's a special place; people come from all over the world to see the murals in Balmy Alley. It's probably the last enclave of artists in San Francisco, and they are being threatened as well. It used to be 60 percent Latino, and now it is about 40 percent Latino.

WHAT DO you hope comes out of this campaign, especially if Prop I wins?

IF PROP I wins, it will be a clear repudiation of supply-side economic policies. We are up against millions of dollars, and we have a very tough fight. But win or lose, the community planning process has already begun. If we win, we will hold a stronger hand.

The planning process in the Mission has started, and we have won some concessions already--there was a building that was going to be developed as luxury apartments that is now dedicated to affordable housing.

We have been able to put a lot of pressure on City Hall to make concessions, making the Prop I campaign a success already.

OPPONENTS OF Prop I, including Mayor Ed Lee, frame this issue in terms of supply and demand. According to them, if we stop building, prices will only go up even more. What do you say about that?

FIRST OF all, we are not stopping building, we are just pausing construction for 18 months. Ed Lee's own supply-and-demand guru, [Chief Economist] Ted Egan has said that the increase in prices will be 0.3 percent over the 18-month period. We disagree with this analysis, and instead assert that putting $2.5 million condos in the middle of the Mission is going to drive prices up significantly. Mayor Ed Lee doesn't believe that--he is ideologically opposed to that belief.

OPPONENTS OF Prop I also say that market-rate housing pays for affordable housing--through developer fees. Has that approach worked? Why not?

THEY HAVE paid for some affordable housing through developer fees. But it isn't even close to enough. And there has been a real bottleneck in the mayor's office in terms of building that housing.

If the goal is to build housing for the 85 percent in San Francisco, the current policy is not accomplishing this goal. It is building 15 percent of new housing for the 85 percent, and 85 percent of new housing for 15 percent.

WHY DO you think power players like Mayor Ed Lee and Sen. Dianne Feinstein have aligned themselves with property developers to oppose Prop I?

SENATOR FEINSTEIN is married to developer Richard Blum. The developers are basically Mayor Lee's base. He wields his power from money from developers, so of course he's going to go to bat for them. He also has a personal stake in the supply-side strategy that he will not part from. He is committed to defending it.

YOU HAVE worked as a tenants' rights advocate for decades in San Francisco. Can you talk about the political trajectory that has brought us to this current situation.

IN THE 1980s and 1990s, we had the opportunity to fight around vacancy control. Vacancy control puts a limit on how much a landlord can increase the rent when a tenant moves out. Vacancy control is now controlled by state law, preventing cities from controlling their own vacancy control policies. State law also exempts condos from rent control.

The Ellis Act, adopted by the California Legislature in 1985, allows a landlord to evict tenants to "go out of business," remodel the building and start renting units as tenancy in common or condominiums. We have lost thousands of units to Ellis Act evictions.

San Francisco has been a desirable place to live for a long time, and there are strong market forces that we are up against. These market forces encourage evictions, encourage gentrification, and tenants' rights legislation is limited in its ability to challenge these market forces. These market forces are on steroids in San Francisco.

It comes down to a development issue of making sure enough housing is built so that the 85 percent of San Francisco can still afford to live here. We have to get luxury housing out of the equation. For every luxury unit built, we lose the opportunity to build affordable housing.

It seems so unjust to me that the people who have lived here for decades and generations are being pushed out. When people are pushed out of their housing, they have to worry about higher rents, longer commutes and being cut off from important community support systems, resulting in a tremendous amount of suffering.

There have been longitudinal studies that have shown that displacement causes a negative health outcomes, especially among people over 65 years old.

The core of the question is who has a right to live in our cities and neighborhoods.

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