Where landlords, developers, and cars are king

Pub date March 3, 2010

EDITORIAL Are cars more important than people? Is it okay to evict a tenant just to make space for a garage? Should new garages be designed to preserve on-street parking too? Seems like a no-brainer to us. But legislation by Sup. David Chiu that would put some limits on the expansion of garages — an increasing problem in Chinatown and North Beach — has infuriated some real estate interests, and it’s possible that this eminently reasonable bill might fail.

It’s a sad statement on San Francisco politics, and the implications go way beyond this one planning measure.

The problem has its roots in the Ellis Act, the state law that allows landlords to clear all the tenants out of a building, then sell it to wealthier people who want to buy their units as tenants in common (TICs). The Ellis Act has been responsible for thousands of San Franciscans losing their homes — and a new twist has been developing in Chiu’s district.

In the crowded Chinatown-North Beach area, parking is at a premium and people who are buying TICs want a place to put their cars. So landlords and speculators are throwing out tenants not just for new owners, but to make room for garages.

Chiu’s law — which would apply only in parts of District 3 — would deny building owners a permit to construct a new garage if a tenant was evicted under the Ellis Act in the past 10 years. And it would require a conditional use authorization from the City Planning Department for any new garage construction.

Chiu also wants new rules for curb cuts — the openings in sidewalks that allow cars to drive into garages. The cuts would have to be as small as possible and designed to preserve on-street parking.

On a larger level, the bill would make it easier to construct new housing without parking — a significant change in how San Francisco has handled off-street parking for many years. Instead of mandating garages in new apartment buildings, Chiu wants to discourage them. He’s saying, in essence, that space for people is more important than space for cars.

That’s a logical step in a city that is trying to enforce a transit-first policy. It’s a small piece of a larger political battle to transform a city planning system that for too long has been driven by the needs of the private automobile. It should have passed unanimously and Mayor Newsom should sign it into law.

In fact, the bill passed on first reading Feb. 9, with only Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Carmen Chu voting against it. But Sup. Bevan Dufty now says he has concerns about the measure, and Chiu has agreed to postpone the final vote until March 9.

Dufty’s a key vote, because it’s likely at this point that the mayor will veto the measure. And with Elsbernd and Chu opposed and Michela Alioto-Pier still out with health problems, supporters can’t override a veto without Dufty.

We couldn’t reach Dufty, but supporters of the bill say he wants the measure watered down to eliminate the conditional use requirement — which would force city planners to check and make sure the builder or landlord was following the rules — and replace it with a discretionary review requirement, which would allow the garage construction unless someone objected. That puts the burden on the tenants (who in many cases are low income people whose primary language isn’t English) to protect themselves. And it would undermine much of the power of the bill.

It’s insane for Dufty to oppose a reasonable measure that only applies to a small part of one district, protects vulnerable tenants, and pushes the city away from further automobile dependence. It’s insane that the mayor is expected to veto the bill. It’s insane that it’s even an issue. And if the ordinance fails, it will be a sign that even in San Francisco, in 2010, landlords, developers, and cars are still king.