Rent control under attack

Pub date November 7, 2007


San Francisco’s rent-control and affordable-housing laws could be struck down by a statewide initiative that appears to be headed for the June 2008 ballot.

The measure is sponsored by a coalition of conservative property rights advocates under the guise of limiting the government’s ability to seize property by eminent domain.

Cities and progressive organizations are fighting back by trying to qualify a competing ballot measure that would restrict the ability of governments to seize owner-occupied homes but would invalidate the more radical initiative. Groups from the San Francisco Tenants Union to the League of California Cities are actively mobilizing to gather the needed signatures by the Dec. 3 deadline.

SFTU director Ted Gullicksen told the Guardian, “180,000 rental units stand to be affected in San Francisco,” and argued that the invalidation of rent-control laws would rapidly gentrify the city. He noted that environmental groups have lined up against the measure because of ambiguous wording that “could also impact the revamping of the Hetch Hetchy Dam as well as the work on the levees and the delta.”

His group is mobilizing volunteer signature gatherers to qualify the competing measure — which would need more votes than the right-wing measure to quash the latter — and trying to educate the public through the Web site and a Nov. 14 rally planned for noon at the State Building at Van Ness and McAllister.

Eminent domain laws have been a hot-button political issue since 2005, when the US Supreme Court ruled in Kelo vs. City of New London that the Connecticut city could use eminent domain to seize land for a private development project. The furor over that decision triggered last year’s Proposition 90, which would have restricted eminent domain and defined “regulatory takings” so as to cripple local governments’ ability to enforce environmental laws and other restrictions on property use.

Prop. 90 was narrowly defeated (by 47.6 to 52.4 percent of voters statewide, but 29 percent in San Francisco), and advocates for the constitutional amendment titled Government Acquisition, Regulation of Private Property hoped to learn from the experience in crafting this new measure, for which they say they’ve gathered 850,000 signatures and plan to have one million by the Nov. 26 deadline for turning in 694,354 valid signatures of registered voters.

That measure “had a substantial amount of baggage in that it delved into regulatory takings,” Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, told the Guardian. The latest proposal, he said, “is a fairly tightly drafted measure that deals with eminent domain.”

Actually, as the Attorney General’s Office has concluded in its summary of the measure, it would also strike down rent-control laws, a key source of affordable housing in San Francisco, Berkeley, and a couple of other California cities. The measure’s broad prohibition on laws that “transfer an economic benefit to one or more private persons at the expense of the private owner” could also be interpreted as invalidating inclusionary housing laws, which require developers to create a set percentage of below-market-rate units, and other laws that regulate property.

Coupal admitted the measure attacks rent control and told us, “We think that’s part and parcel of complete property rights protection.” But he noted that units are only removed from rent-control protection when existing tenants move out. And he denied that the proposed act would affect inclusionary housing laws, citing a section that reads, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit or impair voluntary agreements between a property owner and a public agency to develop or rehabilitate affordable housing.”

Yet he also admits that it’s an open question whether affordable-housing requirements for developers will always be deemed voluntary. He said, “The issue of what is voluntary is currently being litigated in a number of courts.”