Upzoning and rent control: a perfect match

362 units in the new Trinity Plaza are under rent control

Charter amendment secures San Francisco’s rent-controlled future

This November, San Francisco has an opportunity to unite two critical housing policies: zoning and rent control/justified eviction protections. This combination provides the best future for the more than 100,000 new residents moving into new apartments in San Francisco over the next two decades.

It’s a marriage that has detractors on both sides.

Many proponents of production believe that rent control prevents the construction of apartments. Many proponents of rent control believe that zoning without rent controls promotes gentrification.

As I describe in my most recent book, Off-price generationimproving accessibility requires both the legalization of apartments in all neighborhoods and strong tenant protections. I show how more than a dozen “progressive” cities fail to maximize accessibility by pursuing just one of these goals.

San Francisco is failing to protect tenants and preserve rental housing without building enough housing. Its toxic housing policy continues, as shown by the recent quadriplex fiasco and progressive opposition to speeding up the housing approval process.

But state law requires San Francisco to add more than 80,000 new apartments. This requires legalizing apartments in the Westside and across the city. I’m talking Scott Wiener / SB50 type zoning, not simple duplexes or quadruplexes.

Will tenants living in these new apartments be protected by rent control and justified eviction laws? If you care about the city’s future economic diversity, the answer must be yes.

But tenants won’t get those protections unless voters pass a proposed charter amendment in November. The measure challenges a huge lie that I have encountered in my more than forty years of defending tenants’ rights: the idea that tenants benefit from exemption from essential rent and eviction protections. .

San Francisco must support the tenants and reject this lie.

Why cities don’t protect all tenants

The two foundations of tenants’ rights are “just cause” eviction laws and rent control. They uphold the principle that no one should lose their home without a valid reason or because of excessive rent increases. Without these protections, tenants have no security over their living space. They are vulnerable to displacement at every economic advantage.

Unfortunately, cities and states typically abandon these basic tenant protections when it comes to building new apartments. The new units were originally exempt from rent control laws because local building unions required it as a condition of not opposing the measures. This exemption was entirely political. No studies existed on the impact of California’s second-generation rent control laws when these exemptions were granted.

The three cities that pioneered rent control — Berkeley, Santa Monica and San Francisco — saw no apartment building booms after exempting new buildings. Landlords and real estate agents then began to argue that apartment building was blocked by the first two cities imposing rent controls on vacant apartments (i.e. vacancy control) and the third threatening to do so (San Francisco Mayor Feinstein twice vetoed vacancy control and the Agnos measure was defeated in a referendum in 1991; I discuss vacancy control campaigns in San Francisco, who dominated city politics for more than a decade, in The Activist’s Handbook).

Completely overlooked in this debate, zoning restrictions, not vacancy controls, were the primary barrier to building new apartments in these cities. It took the rise of the YIMBY movement for this point to be understood.

Insisting that new rental units depended on vacancy control ending, landlords launched a decade-long campaign to pre-empt local rent control laws. They struck gold in 1995 with the passage of the Costa-Hawkins Act. Costa-Hawkins never delivered on its promised boom in apartment production, but by ending vacancy control, it dramatically boosted profits for landlords and real estate agents.

And made California’s rental housing stock much less affordable.

Tenants paid the price for this increased profit. Not only are tenants paying significantly higher rents than under vacancy control, but the exemption for new construction has given these tenants no control over rent increases. Nor protection against eviction at the discretion of the landlord.

Tenants have paid a huge cost by exempting new construction from tenant protections. And what benefits did they or the public get?

None. All of these exemptions have made housing less affordable and tenants less secure.

“Bankers don’t lend”

We always hear that “bankers won’t lend” if rent control covers new construction. I have no doubt that the bankers say that to the builders. What I take issue with is 1. If progressive cities like San Francisco want bankers to set social policies and 2. If those in the lending business will abandon this business if they have to lend on rental projects control.

San Francisco passed a host of progressive laws without overwhelming the bankers. Why should the city let bankers deny essential tenant protections on new housing?

As for the “lenders don’t lend” argument: We used to hear that evictions from Ellis for joint tenancies would never happen because lenders didn’t feel sufficiently protected. This hesitation did not last long.

There will always be bankers willing to lend to San Francisco. Regardless of rent control.

Lack of confidence

The biggest challenge facing the charter amendment is the lack of trust. He will reach the November ballot, as many pro-production advocates see rent controls as just another ploy by anti-housing politicians to shut down housing.

But tying rent control to upzoning makes it more likely that critical new housing supervisors will support it. The charter amendment eliminates a common argument progressives use to oppose new construction.

Activists must stop personalizing housing policy. Base your views on the merits of the policy, not on the supervisor supporting or opposing it.

San Francisco is better at providing 100,000 new tenants with rent control and eviction protections than creating a bunch of second-class tenants without those protections. San Francisco wants tenants to live in their homes and neighborhoods for the long term. That doesn’t happen if the lack of tenant protection creates revolving door buildings and destabilizes neighborhoods.

The modification of the charter will be heard during a committee of the supervisory board on July 6. She deserves strong support.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the editor of Beyond Chron and director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw’s latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four previous books on activism, including The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.

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