Board members asked for a modest delay to consider the mayor’s amendments to a complex housing bill. The Chron talks of “Nimbys.”


SEPTEMBER 27, 2023

I should know better than to take seriously any analysis of the city’s housing crisis coming from the Office of State Sen. Scott Wiener and SPUR, and I would rather just ignore this Chronicle oped, which is headlined “Why SF NIMBYs are about to lose all their power to stop housing.”

Fact: SF Nimbys, such as they exist, are not stopping housing right now; the Federal Reserve and the preferences of speculative capital are. The city has approved tens of thousands of housing units that could break ground today, no Nimby opposition, no frivolous lawsuits … they have building permits.

Board President Aaron Peskin said the statements from SPUR’s staffer are factually wrong.

But there’s not enough return on investment to make those units profitable, which is what developers care about.

Back to the point:

Annie Fryman, a former Wiener staffer who now works at SPUR, characterizes a hearing on Mayor London Breed’s recent housing bill as “dry policy” that was “sensationalized.”

Here’s what she said:

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors postured and ultimately stalled a housing ordinance authored by Mayor London Breed to make the city an easier, cheaper, more rational place to build apartments — in a dozen important, but mostly unremarkable ways, such as eliminating planning hearings initiated by neighbors and waiving fees on affordable housing developments. The vote was supposed to be procedural, shepherded with urgency and care by elected leaders capable of refining laws for the public good.

But this is San Francisco.

For four long hours, supervisors sensationalized this dry policy as both unnecessary and evil, despite approving it unanimously in January when they signed off on the city’s housing element, its plan for meeting state-mandated housing goals. Supervisors were bound by state rules to pass it. But when the time came for them to formally do so, they arrived ready to fight.

I watched every minute of the hearing. Her account is just wrong.

The supervisors weren’t “posturing.” They were doing what we elected them to do: Evaluating a piece of legislation that may have sounded “dry” but will actually have a significant impact on the local housing market—and is strongly opposed not by Nimbys (I didn’t see a single person who could be identified by that term at the hearing) but by every single tenant group in town and the broad Race and Equity in All Planning coalition.

The opponents have no problem with density or more housing or any of the things Fryman complains about. What they said was far more important: The mayor’s legislation could lead to the demolition of existing rent-controlled housing, with no protection for the displaced tenants—and if focuses only on market-rate housing.

Bu law, under the Housing Element the supes approved and the state signed off on, the city needs to find a way to finance 42,000 units of affordable housing in the next seven years. The Mayor’s Office has no plans at all to make that happen.

So the supes and community groups asked: Why are we only focusing on for-profit developers? How do we protect existing rent-controlled housing?

Nobody from the Mayor’s Office showed up. A Planning Department staffer had no answers for many of the questions—but he did present a long list of new amendments that the supes hadn’t seen.

So they asked for a short delay to figure out the new amendments and to find ways to deal with the legitimate issues that groups representing thousands of community leaders, tenants, and housing activists (but NO Nimbys) raised.

In fact, I am reliably told, there was significant disagreement among the mayor’s staff and planners about whether any of this was ready for prime time, and some discussions about seeking a continuance while the details were worked out. Breed dismissed those concerns and went forward.

It would have been shocking if the committee members hadn’t done what they did.

Fryman writes that her former boss’s legislation has been “an unambiguous success:

It was an unambiguous success: San Francisco has only 2% of California’s population but has approved nearly 20% of California’s SB35 apartments. The measure cut approval times for affordable housing from eight years to as little as 48 days. Most importantly, this law has mostly kept the Board of Supervisors and litigious residents out of the process, turning unremarkable applications into swift approvals.

So where is all the housing for the middle class that Wiener and the Yimbys say will appear if we just cut these obstacles?

Aaron Starr, the planning staffer, said that there are no real obstacles to approving affordable housing—except financing. Wiener’s legislation contains not a single dollar of affordable housing finance.

And clearing obstacles to for-profit housing hasn’t, and never will, produce the type of housing that much of the San Francisco workforce needs. That’s not profitable.

There are good reasons for communities to be involved in planning decisions. Here’s Mission Local explaining why the city needs to be tough on a landlord whose building burned down and now wants to make a huge profit. Even arch-Yimby Sam Moss agrees:

“I hate to say this. I die a little bit inside when I say this. But the city should use its discretion and deny him his permits every step of the way,” says Sam Moss, the executive director of Mission Housing and a vociferous YIMBY. “Not only is the planning permit discretionary, so is every other permit. I really do hope, for the first time since I got into the development world 15 years ago, that San Francisco exercises its discretion on every single turn: Public Works, the fire department, everything.”

“The only lever San Francisco has right now is its discretion,” says Moss. City intransigence has spurred him to work hard to weaken this lever. But, this time, he’s hoping the lever is as strong as Archimedes’.

“Every city faction will agree that Lou should not build this. You’re going to see a unique world where pro-housing advocates and pro-tenant advocates and straight-up NIMBYs all agree that discretion should be pulled at every level.”

Fryman told me the following:

Sup. Preston and Chair Melgar were given briefings on the committee amendments the week before, and Sup. Peskin had been offered a briefing as well but never replied. In addition, the actual text of the amendments (that each Supervisor had the opportunity for a briefing) were sent to all committee members in advance of the hearing, as soon as they were available from the City Attorney’s Office.

Last, your critique of the Mayor not sending a representative to the Board Chambers is an especially odd accusation: Mayoral staff is not permitted in most cases to present at the Board of Supervisors, while Department staff presenting legislation is. In fact, there was an item earlier in that same Land Use hearing that had a PUC representative present for the Mayor’s office on a resolution she authored (file # 230934). Department staff presenting Mayoral legislation in front of the Board of Supervisors is and was (1) the normal protocol, as it has been for years, and (2) the PUC example is about as recent a precedent as the Supervisors could have gotten. It was not “unprecedented” as Sup. Peskin, you, and others have accused; that is both dishonest to the public, and a distraction from the vote and debate in front of them.

So I asked Peskin if that had happened. He was very clear: “I was not offered a briefing. I don’t know where she heard that but it is untrue. Her statements also show a fundamental lack of understanding about how local government works. The mayor and members of her staff, including at times her chief of staff, regularly appear before the Board of Supervisors and our committees.”

He said he, like the other committee members, had not seen the mayor’s amendments until they were presented at the committee hearing.

He said he searched his emails and found no invitation from the Mayor’s Office until after the hearing:  “I checked and confirmed that nobody from the Mayor’s office or planning sent me any proposed amendments prior to the committee meeting on 9/18.”

I don’t know how long Fryman has been around, but Peskin has been on the Board of Supes for 14 years, and has been president three times. I think it’s fair to say he knows how the rules and the precedents work

Melgar told me that the committee was just doing its normal diligence, that she was still working through the amendments, and that some of them are not a problem. But she said that idea that the supervisors were obstructing this legislation was utterly incorrect.

Preston showed me emails demonstrating that his office had requested someone from the Mayor’s Office to appear at the hearing. The amendments, which were extensive, were only circulated shortly before the hearing.

The reason I bother with this is because it’s important. As I predicted, the entirely reasonable response of the supes to this legislation is going to be a tool of the right-wing folks like Elon Musk and Michael Moritz who want to destroy progressive power in San Francisco.

They are using classic political strategies developed by the right over the years: Pick on one politician (it used to be Chesa Boudin, now it’s Dean Preston), and find one or two complex issues (crime, housing), simplify them to slogans (“public safety, Nimby”) and use that as a wedge to get people who are friendly to the billionaires into power.

There’s a reason that the neoliberal policies that have created the worse economic inequality in US history have succeeded. The people who profit from those policies have worked the Big Lies, and the news media has gone along.

And now, here we go again.

Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.