Affordable housing group’s shady, “shameless” endorsements

Pub date May 26, 2010
WriterGabriel Roth

Editors note: This article orginally ran in October, 2000.T

he Brown machine’s soft money operation is churning out some very
duplicitous propaganda. While we haven’t seen many mailers attacking
independent candidates yet (they’re usually deployed in the final days
of the campaign, when the targets don’t have a chance to respond), we’ve
come across flyers that aim to portray business-friendly machine
candidates as champions of progressive causes.

Perhaps the most egregious comes from an organization called the
Affordable Housing Alliance.

Once a legitimate tenant advocacy group, the AHA does little these days
except endorse candidates and send out mailers during election season.
Numerous well-known tenant activists say the AHA reflexively promotes
the candidates of the Willie Brown machine — no matter where they
stand on tenant issues.

And from what we’ve learned about the group’s endorsement process, AHA
director Mitchell Omerberg isn’t even trying to give the group the
appearance of legitimacy.

Omerberg, who works as a deputy city attorney for San Francisco, was
active in the 1979 fight for rent control. We called him several times
and left messages at the AHA, at his home, and at his city office. He
never called us back or faxed us a copy of the group’s endorsements.
The shenanigans began when Omerberg invited candidates to speak at the
AHA’s endorsement meeting. Chris Daly, the District Six hopeful who has
inspired more enthusiasm from tenant activists than any other candidate
in the city, wasn’t even invited. Daly told us his campaign called
Omerberg to ask when the meeting was scheduled, and Omerberg never
called back.

At the Sept. 28 meeting, the candidates whom Omerberg did invite made
their speeches. Then the group’s supposed members voted on the club’s
endorsements. But it’s not clear who most of those members are or where
they came from.

Progressive activist Richard Ow, who probably attends more political
meetings than anyone in San Francisco, told us he didn’t recognize a
single other tenant activist among the voting members. Ow sits on the
boards of the San Francisco Tenants Union, the Housing Rights Committee,
and the Senior Action Network and is active in dozens of other tenant

The most egregious maneuver came at the end of the meeting. According
to District One supervisorial candidate Jake McGoldrick (one of the few
people who stayed until the end) Omerberg refused to open the ballot box
and tally up the votes there and then.

Instead, he insisted on taking the ballot box home with him.
Apparently Omerberg prefers to count the ballots alone: one former AHA
member, who asked to remain anonymous, told us he did the same thing
after at least two endorsement meetings in years past.

Alex Wong, chair of the Democratic County Central Committee, helped
Omerberg run the meeting, introducing the candidates and watching the
clock as they spoke. Wong, a Brown ally, told us he didn’t know if Omerberg had taken the ballots home with him; he says he, too, had left the meeting by that point. Then he got off the phone, saying he’d call
us back. He never did.

With Omerberg and Wong keeping mum, we couldn’t track down a copy of
the group’s endorsement list. (McGoldrick campaign manager Jerry Threet
says he asked Omerberg for a copy and Omerberg flat out refused.) But an
AHA mailer sent to tenant voters in the Richmond provides a clue.
“Renters have two choices in the November election,” the flyer
proclaims. “Michael Yaki will preserve rent control. Rose Tsai wants to
repeal it.”

Of course, Richmond renters have more than two choices. There are five
candidates on the District One ballot, including McGoldrick. McGoldrick
has been active on tenant issues for decades, including a term as a San
Francisco Rent Board commissioner from 1988 to 1992 and another as
cochair of the now defunct Housing and Tenants Council, an umbrella
coalition for the movement.

“Jake has a long history of being pro-tenant, from his days on the Rent
Board to doing grassroots work on every tenant campaign and every piece
of tenant legislation,” said Ted Gullicksen of the Tenants Union. The
city’s preeminent renters’ advocacy group, the Tenants Union gave
McGoldrick its enthusiastic endorsement. If you believe the AHA’s
mailer, he’s not even in the race.

On the other hand, Gullicksen said, “Yaki initiated legislation to stop
owner move-in evictions — but then, under pressure from landlords,
killed it himself. Since then he has consistently been against tenants
and with the real estate industry.”

That’s the candidate of the Affordable Housing Alliance. Yaki has a
strong claim on AHA support: he is backed by Willie Brown, of whom he
has been a stalwart ally, and Omerberg worked on Yaki’s 1998 campaign
for the board.

“As a tenant who went through an owner-move-in eviction, I strongly
believe in protecting our rent-control laws and stringently enforcing
protections for seniors and the disabled,” Yaki told us through his
consultant Ellie Schafer. “I am proud to have supported all the measures
which passed the Board of Supervisors expanding OMI and Ellis Act
protections.” (Note Yaki’s careful phrasing: he supported the measures
that passed, and opposed the measures that failed. The same can be said
for most of Willie Brown’s other appointees; that’s why those measures
passed and the others failed.)

The AHA also endorsed Meagan Levitan in District Three, according to a
Levitan mailer. Her opponent Aaron Peskin, who spoke at the endorsement
meeting, has the support of the Tenants Union and just about every other
legitimate tenant activist. Yaki and Levitan are both endorsed by the
Small Property Owners Association and the San Francisco Apartment
Association, which lobby for landlords.

The AHA’s endorsements of Yaki and Levitan were no surprise to longtime
members of the tenant movement. “Historically, the Affordable Housing
Alliance hasn’t endorsed credible pro-tenant supervisors,” Robert
Haaland of the Housing Rights Committee told us. “It’s a group that’s
used to perpetuate machine candidates. It’s another shameless example of
how the machine stays in power.”