Volume 40 [2005–06]

The condo war continues


EDITORIAL The San Francisco Planning Department is having a little trouble dealing with the fact that for the moment no more condo developers can build high-priced units in the eastern neighborhoods. In the wake of a Board of Supervisors decision demanding an extensive environmental review of a condo project at 2660 Harrison St., planners have been ducking and weaving around the reality that the supervisors have effectively put a moratorium on market-rate housing projects and on anything else that could displace blue-<\h>collar jobs (see “A Grinding Halt,” 3/22/06).

The latest installment is a March 31 memo from Paul Maltzer, the department’s chief environmental review officer, who concluded that yes, indeed, all developments in the vast eastern neighborhoods project area that could affect affordable housing or jobs would need detailed environmental review. That’s an admission, of sorts, that no more market-<\h>rate housing can be quickly approved, but it comes with a caveat: The memo states that projects will be evaluated on a "case-by-case basis" and leaves an awful lot of wiggle room. It also suggests that as soon as the city’s official broad-based environmental impact report on the eastern neighborhoods rezoning is completed, the floodgates will be opened again.

That EIR is on the fast track: Maltzer projects that a draft will be completed by late this summer and a final report by March 2007. But there’s a huge problem: An EIR has to evaluate a specific project, and the "project" a rezoning of some 3,800 acres of the city is pretty damn vague at this point. For example, there’s nothing about affordable housing in the scope of work that was put forward for the EIR.

So it’s entirely possible that the Planning Department will produce a report next spring that glosses over the biggest issues surrounding the future of the eastern neighborhoods and that developers will use it as a green light to begin a new building boom that will forever change the city.

We’d like to hold a few facts to be self-<\h>evident: San Francisco doesn’t need more million-<\h>dollar condos for young single people who work in Silicon Valley. The city can’t build the equivalent of another good-size town, with a population of perhaps 100,000 new residents, in eastern San Francisco without massive improvements in infrastructure, particularly transportation. The costs of the new streets, bus lines, train lines, and pedestrian walkways will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars and there’s nothing anywhere in any Planning Department document about who will pay for it.

And there’s nothing in the current proposals for the eastern neighborhoods that’s consistent with the housing element of the city’s own general plan.

The housing element is clear: San Francisco needs a lot of new below-<\h>market housing housing for families with kids, housing for people who work in the city and make moderate wages, housing for people living on fixed (and not gigantic) incomes. Housing for teachers and firefighters. Housing for the people who change the sheets at the hotels and clean the bathrooms at the convention centers that keep the city’s biggest industry thriving. In fact, it says, 40 percent of all new housing needs to be affordable for low- and very-low-<\h>income people, and another 32 percent needs to be affordable for families with moderate incomes. That kind of housing simply won’t be built under the current plans and that means any EIR the planners (or any private developers) prepare will be fundamentally flawed.

There’s a solution here, and if the Planning Commission won’t demand it, then the supervisors must: Any final EIR on the eastern neighborhoods has to consider not only the current rezoning plans but also an alternative that would bring the city into compliance with its own general plan. Asking planners to comply with their own plans shouldn’t be a radical notion. And until the Planning Department can explain how that might happen, this entire process and all new market-<\h>rate housing needs to be on hold, indefinitely.

Make Wal-Mart pay


EDITORIAL According to the University of California’s Labor Center, the state spent $86 million last year paying for heath care and social services for the families of people who work at Wal-Mart. That’s right: Wal-Mart pay is so low, and so few of its workers have decent health insurance, that a lot of employees wind up using public health clinics and the taxpayers foot the bill.

It’s unfair not only to the Wal-Mart employees and the rest of us who have to pay the bills for one of the most successful and lucrative companies in the world, but also to other employers in the state, particularly small businesses that struggle to provide health insurance.

State senator Carole Migden has introduced a bill that would force Wal-Mart to quit demanding millions in public subsidies. SB 1414 would require any business with 10,000 or more employees in California either to put 8 percent of its total payroll into health insurance for workers or pay an equivalent amount of money to the Department of Industrial Relations. That’s still a fairly low payment a lot of companies spend far more than 8 percent on health benefits, and Wal-Mart can well afford to do better. But it’s a good start, and it sends the message that employers who won’t pay a living wage can’t just count on California to make up the difference.

Wal-Mart is under fire from activists around the country for its cutthroat competition and its attempts to keep unions out and wages low. But it’s by no means the only employer that is trying to get out of paying health benefits. Migden’s bill would only hit the biggest of the big, but it’s similar to legislation proposed by Sup. Tom Ammiano that would force San Francisco businesses (including much smaller companies) to provide some sort of health care.

In the end, all of this is the wrong model: Employer-based health insurance is an unstable, inefficient, and hugely expensive way to cover medical bills. At some point, even the Wal-Marts of the world should realize that paying taxes to fund a national single-payer health system is cheaper and better for everyone.

But that’s not happening today, and Wal-Mart’s corporate welfare is. The legislature should pass Migden’s bill posthaste.

San Francisco needs better candidates


The last time we had a major Democratic primary race for state assembly in San Francisco, you didn’t see a lot of head-shaking. In 2002 you were for Mark Leno or you were for Harry Britt, and either way you had very few doubts. Two strong candidates, two people who were eminently qualified to represent San Francisco in Sacramento, two people who had the credentials to be Democratic party leaders.

But I’ve talked to a lot of people about the June 6, 2006, race to fill the spot of Assemblymember Leland Yee, who is trying to move on to the state senate, and what I’m getting is: Gee, well, yeah. Gotta vote for somebody.

The thing is, Sup. Fiona Ma, the front-running candidate, has been absolutely horrible in office, a terrible vote on everything I care about. Her lukewarm supporters say she’d be a good liberal compared to most of the state legislators, and that may be true, but it’s hardly a ringing endorsement. Her opponent, Janet Reilly, is taking some excellent stands on issues, running hard to the left of Ma but she’s never held any elective office before, and, frankly, not that many people in San Francisco even know who she is. If she didn’t have a lot of money, she wouldn’t be much of a factor in this race.

Then you look slightly southward, at the race for state senate. The candidates: Yee, who has done almost nothing to distinguish himself in the state legislature, and Mike Nevin, a former San Francisco cop and San Mateo County supervisor. I don’t know a single person in the progressive San Francisco world who can get a bit excited about either of them.

San Francisco has got to start doing better.

Leno’s term will be up in two more years. I can think of a lot of great Democratic candidates (Tom Ammiano, Chris Daly, Robert Haaland), but we all ought to be thinking about it, now, the same way we need to be thinking about the next mayor of San Francisco and the next member of Congress. Otherwise we’ll have a lot of Fiona Mas and Bevan Duftys in our future.

Now this: Speaking of politicians who need to get out of the way, Leslie Katz, the chair of the local Democratic County Central Committee, recently pulled an act of world-class political sleaze. She opposes Sup. Chris Daly’s Proposition C, a measure that would force the mayor to serve on the Transbay Terminal board, but the committee wasn’t quite ready to take a stand. So March 22, shortly after noon, she filed an official no-on-Prop.C ballot argument on behalf of the San Francisco Democratic Party.

In other words, she decided on her own to file a legal document to appear in the ballot handbook committing the party to a position it hadn’t taken.

In the end the party did vote later to oppose Prop. C. But Katz sent a clear signal that she had the committee wired and wasn’t even going to wait for the formality of an actual vote. Nasty business. It sends the exact wrong signal about the local party. She ought to resign in disgrace.<\!s><z5><h110>SFBG<h$><z$>