Problem Solvers
SF Supervisors Tackle City Problems
By Stan Sarkisov
Published Mar 2014
San Francisco has hella problems. Toast is $4 (but gosh, that bread is delicious), Muni is late, there are too many hills to climb. You name it; the list is endless. We asked members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the elected leaders of the city’s 11 districts, what they consider the city’s and their district’s biggest problems. Good thing they have solutions coming. PARTICIPATING SUPERVISORS John Avalos | District 11 Norman Yee | District 7 London Breed | District 5 David Chiu | District 3 Scott Weiner | District 8 David Campos | District 9 Malia Cohen | District 10 Katy Tang | District 4 In your perception, what is the biggest problem facing San Francisco as a city, and what is your office doing to address this problem? John Avalos: San Francisco’s lopsided growth-at-all-costs economy has widened economic disparities and created an affordability crisis in the city. Working-class and middle-class tenants have borne the brunt of the crisis. My office has been working on making it more difficult to evict tenants and recently passed legislation making it more difficult to merge, demolish, or convert apartment space if a no-fault eviction has occurred within the space in the last 10 years. We are also working toward creating a municipal bank that in years to come could finance large-scale affordable housing development. Norman Yee: The biggest problem facing San Francisco is the increasing shifts that are pushing families and children out of our city. I was fortunate to be raised in San Francisco and to have the opportunity to raise both of my daughters here, as well. Unfortunately, there is a growing trend of families leaving San Francisco for a variety of reasons: affordability, space, safety, and education. This impact is exponential, and its effects are most prevalent for our low-income and middle-income population. The needs of families and children guide the work in our office. We are working with city departments, community organizations, and the mayor’s office to think more strategically about how we can create policies not only to retain families, but to allow them to thrive. From housing to pedestrian safety to job development—every decision we make will impact whether or not we are keeping San Francisco affordable and accessible for families from every neighborhood. Those decisions shouldn’t be taken lightly. London Breed: Housing is a difficult situation in every district of San Francisco and comes with many layers. One of those layers is preserving the existing stock of affordable housing—like the public housing and low-income developments built in my district 40 years ago. Many of these developments, owned by the [Federal] Department of Housing and Urban Development, do not collect enough revenue to cover maintenance over the long run and could be facing foreclosure by HUD if they are not properly maintained. Preserving these units and protecting hundreds of San Franciscans from homelessness is a priority. My office invests countless hours into preventing foreclosures, in part by getting tenants to trust us to preserve their homes. We work with HUD to temporarily relocate tenants while their units are repaired, saving thousands of dollars that would be required to construct new, affordable units had a foreclosure proceeded. My office is working on legislation that would allow tenants to become gainfully employed and transition within public housing, rather than face evictions because of their own career success. I grew up in public housing, and when I received tuition money for college, my family no longer qualified as eligible tenants. Public housing cannot just focus on poverty. The system needs a creative revamp to make public housing a place to grow and thrive. We are also looking at legislative incentives for small landlords to return vacant properties to the market. Thousands of would-be rent-controlled units remain unoccupied in San Francisco because of negative tenant experiences. We need incentives for small landlords to start renting again, because a flood of rental units could help reduce monthly rental costs. David Chiu: Affordability—housing affordability—is San Francisco’s biggest concern. My office has been focusing on a multiprong response to this crisis over the past year. We have passed legislation that has put a moratorium on rental-to-condominium conversions, we have prioritized tenants evicted under the Ellis Act for affordable housing waitlists, we have made it easier for tenants to apply for hardship waivers when posed with incremental rental increases, and we fought to ensure that 1,000 tenants facing evictions got legal representation. Currently, we are working with state and local officials to reform the Ellis Act to prevent real-estate speculators from evicting tenants. We are continuing work to legalize approximately 40,000 in-law units in the city. Clearing up the murky status of in-law units has been attempted by four prior supervisors, and I believe our legislations targets those most on the fringe and in need of protection: single, elderly immigrants. My office is working to protect vulnerable tenants, preserve affordable rental stock, and build more housing up and down the economic spectrum. Scott Wiener: Housing affordability threatens to change the face of San Francisco. We risk eliminating the economic diversity of our city, making it difficult for people to remain here, to come here, and to raise families here. Housing stock hasn’t kept up with job and population growth, and we need a significant increase in housing production of all types—including affordable housing—or today’s prices will start to look cheap. We are working on structural ways to create policy that increases the production of both affordable and market-rate housing. City-wide, I have pending legislation that incentivizes the creation of more affordable housing on site as part of mixed-income developments. If market-rate housing developers build at least 20 percent of their units as on-site affordable (as opposed to the required 12 percent minimum), the legislation provides that those affordable units do not count against the development’s unit density limits. The legislation will provide developers with an incentive to build more affordable housing and to do it on site, without the disincentive of having to reduce the number of market-rate units produced. Over the last year-and-a-half, I’ve also sponsored legislation easing the ability of universities to build student dorms while precluding them from buying up rental properties that they then convert into student housing, which eliminates housing stock for the general population. I’ve also introduced legislation to legalize small studios, which will provide valuable market-rate and affordable housing opportunities for single people, seniors, formerly homeless people, youth, students, and others. I have legislation pending that will allow for the addition of new in-law units in the Castro; in-law units are the most affordable type of non-subsidized housing. Statewide, we are continuing efforts to reform the Ellis Act. David Campos: There is an affordability crisis in our city. Economic prosperity is changing the character of San Francisco as people are being pushed out. It is getting too expensive to live here—not just for the poor, but for middle-class and working San Franciscans. My office along with Senator Tom Ammiano and Senator Leland Yee are working on several statewide proposals that aim to change housing laws, especially those regarding Ellis Act evictions. State laws need modifications to prevent land-use speculators from buying up rental properties to evict tenants. Locally, we are working to dramatically increase relocation costs provided to tenants evicted under the Ellis Act. The current $5,000 provided by landlords is not enough, and we need to develop a formula that will allow people to stay in San Francisco. Another form of displacement is landlord buyouts. Landlords who don’t evict using the Ellis Act offer a buyout sum for tenants to leave. Right now, there are no buyouts regulations, and many times, people don’t know their full rights and agree on money insufficient to allow them to remain in the city. I want to make sure people have enough money to live in San Francisco, and that is why my office is also working on increasing San Francisco’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. Malia Cohen: The most pressing citywide concern is the overall cost of living. As a native San Franciscan who has survived a foreclosure, I can personally attest to how the rising cost of living has affected my family. We must focus on every San Franciscan, every ethnic community, and every socioeconomic strata as we work to solve the problem. By increasing the number of housing units, we begin to release the pressure on the housing demand. But solving our housing situation is not just about adding numbers. When I review developments as part of the Land Use Committee, I want to know how many three-bedroom units will be built for families, how much open space will be preserved or created, and how many affordable units are going to be built on site. My office is also looking at ways to streamline the conversion of illegal in-law units without relaxing the health and safety standards, as well as reforms to the state’s Ellis Act. We are also working on ways to eliminate barriers to housing and employment. The Fair Chance Act, cosponsored with Supervisor Kim’s office, reintegrate San Franciscans back into society after time behind bars. By removing the felon identification check box on employment applications, people are first reviewed on their ability to do the job and then their criminal background. Katy Tang: From what I have seen over the years, and from what I see today, I believe that providing affordable housing to people of the low-income and middle-income communities continues to be a challenge in San Francisco. Our city continues to be a popular place for people of all different generations and backgrounds, but we simply have not been able to meet the demand through housing. I believe that our city should respond to the housing challenge by prioritizing the creation of more housing in San Francisco to meet the high demand, particularly for those who do not qualify for subsidized housing but are still struggling to live in the city. Our office recently partnered with the San Francisco Planning Department to conduct a soft-site analysis of District 4 to see where there are opportunities for enhancement. There is much potential in the Sunset District, especially along our transit corridors, and much can be achieved without changing any of the existing zoning controls in our neighborhoods. We have an opportunity to tackle our city’s housing challenge with focused attention and smart long-term planning. I am hosting a series of community meetings to have our residents participate in this dialogue and share with them our district’s land use potential. In your perception, what is the biggest problem facing your district, and what is your office doing to address this problem? John Avalos: My district does not get its fair share of attention and resources from the city. My office has been working for the past six years to strengthen the voice of District 11 residents through community development activities. These activities have encouraged residents to play an active role in improving the commercial corridor; organizing against foreclosures; creating opportunities for urban agriculture; enhancing services for children, youth, and families; expanding workforce opportunities; investing in our parks and schools; and planning for housing in infill development. By strengthening greater community participation, we have been able to make the district and its neighborhoods more livable and safer. But there is still so much more to do! Norman Yee: I think one of the biggest problems facing my district is pedestrian safety. While this is a citywide issue, a number of the most dangerous intersections in the city are in District 7. Out of the first eight pedestrian fatalities in San Francisco before March 2013, four of those occurred in District 7. It is a startling problem, especially for the most vulnerable in our community: children, seniors, and the disabled. Last year, our office called for a hearing on pedestrian safety issues in District 7. This was the first time that city departments were invited to work with the constituents of District 7 on how to make our streets safer. As a result of the hearing, a Pedestrian Safety Improvement Project report was released with findings and recommendations for street improvements. I am also working on a participatory budget process to allow District 7 community members to propose and to select street projects they would like to see funded. To address the issue on the citywide level, I joined Supervisors Kim and Avalos in introducing a resolution to adapt the Vision Zero Initiative to bring pedestrian fatalities to zero by the year 2024. We also called on the Transportation Authority to form a working group to roll out a plan for Pedestrian Safety Public Awareness. We are continuing to work with city departments to ensure that resources are being allocated for street improvements, traffic enforcement, and pedestrian safety education. London Breed: Housing, unemployment, and crime go hand in hand. My district has been able to preserve existing affordable housing stock—such as the[Martin Luther King Marcus Garvey Square Company-Op]—and we will continue to not only focus on addressing the abuse of speculators, work to add rent-controlled units, and amending the Ellis Act, but also on preserving our current affordable units. Unemployment is a barrier to success and housing in my district. We need aggressive support to help people get trained and gainfully employed. This means investing in workforce preparation that also assist with barrier removal, like the Western Addition Neighborhood Access Point, and pushing for money that supports internships, training programs, and stipends. Public safety will improve as more people are employed. People should not have to commit crimes in order to live and eat, and we need to continue investing in Neighborhood Access Points that give people an opportunity to be responsible. David Chiu: The housing challenges residents deal with in every part of the city include my own district. Prioritizing victims of Ellis Act evictions came out of the challenges faced by the Lee family when they were evicted from their Chinatown apartment late last year. As a city—the City of Saint Francis—we must help our most vulnerable. Scott Wiener: My district is facing the same housing affordability crisis as the city as a whole, compounded by a high proportion of aging single people, often times LGBT, in and around the Castro neighborhood. These renters are at a high risk of losing housing in our current situation. We are also working to accelerate housing production in my district, especially for seniors. David Campos: My district is ground zero for evictions and displacement, and affordability is our biggest concern. We believe that by doing the legislative work we have proposed that we are addressing the needs of the city and our district. Malia Cohen: San Francisco cannot only build homes; we must rebuild public housing. With four of the largest public housing units in District 10, displacement of San Franciscans is a problem. You want to live here—I will do anything to allow you to live here. With programs like HOPE SF, we have seen great success and zero displacement as we work to renovate the Hunters View low-income housing development. My office is also engaging regional directors at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to modify low-income and Section 8 housing rules, so people and District 10 residents can remain in San Francisco. Public safety is also a concern in my district. My office has been coordinating with law enforcement and community partners to reduce the crime rate, regulate high-capacity ammunition guns citywide, increase penalties on illegal dumping in industrial areas, and inspect properties to successfully locate homeless people and get them a roof. Katy Tang: Given that the Sunset District is located far from the center of the city, residents from our district have always struggled with public transportation issues. Though our district is less dense than many other parts of the city, it is still important to have adequate transportation service if we are to encourage more people to first consider public transportation as a main mode of transportation. We frequently hear residents complain of the lack of adherence to a regular schedule, the “switchbacks” (where a train will turn back early and not proceed to the end of a line to address service gaps in other parts of the system), and general unreliability. Our office is supportive of the SFMTA’s renewed focus on addressing the capital needs of their system, as well as the need to replenish their fleet with new and additional buses and trains. Many of the problems that riders experience are symptoms of larger unmet infrastructure needs of the SFMTA system as a whole. We realize that addressing bottlenecks in other parts of the city will also help improve reliability for passengers from the Sunset District. Recently, we worked with SFMTA to address the ongoing issue of switchbacks, and they have put a new internal procedure in place to ensure that they happen less frequently and only when absolutely necessary during off-peak hours. Additionally, we have been working with SFMTA to request enhanced taxi service for Sunset District residents. Currently, we are working with SFMTA on securing a taxi dispatch site in the west side of the city to improve taxi service and availability for our residents and visitors traveling to and from our district.