Transfer of power

Pub date January 31, 2012
WriterYael Chanoff

Feb. 1 marks the first day that San Francisco and other California cities no longer have redevelopment as a tool for building affordable housing or dealing with urban blight, but questions remain about how the power and functions of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA) will now be used.

On Dec. 29, the California Supreme Court upheld the validity of Assembly Bill 26, which dissolved all redevelopment agencies throughout the state and redirected the property tax revenue they accumulated to prevent deep cuts to public schools.

Redevelopment agencies, established in California in 1948, were charged with revitalizing “blighted” areas of cities. There were 400 such agencies throughout California, funded by incremental increases in property taxes within a redevelopment zone. Agencies could borrow against that revenue source to subsidize development projects.

AB 26 mandated that all cities dissolve their redevelopment agencies by Feb. 1 and transfer assets to successor agencies meant to “expeditiously wind down the affairs of the dissolved redevelopment agencies,” according the bill’s text.

A resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 24 authorized the transfer of SFRA affordable housing assets to the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH) and its non-housing assets to the city’s Department of Administrative Services. It also created a board to oversee the implementation of the SFRA’s ongoing projects.

Now, San Francisco is faced with the task of continuing to fund affordable housing projects and other development without the SFRA, and the board’s resolution laid out some of the terms for how the city will do that, although much remains to be determined.

Mayor Ed Lee appointed all members of the oversight board, which includes Planning Director John Rahaim; MOH Director Olson Lee; Nadia Sesay, director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Finance; and Bob Muscat, director of International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, Local 21.

In recent weeks, some groups have raised concerns that these appointees are not representative of the communities impacted by the ongoing redevelopment projects that they will be entrusted with overseeing, and that too much power is concentrated in the Mayor’s Office.

“One of our biggest concerns is that the oversight body could be made much more accountable and democratic,” said Jeron Browne of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER)-Bayview. Much of Bayview-Hunters Point is no longer under the authority of the Planning Commission or any regular zoning laws since it was declared a redevelopment project site in 2000.

Sup. Malia Cohen, who represents the area, added an amendment to the board’s resolution that would impose term limits on oversight board positions. “I understand that there are a number of concerns that have been raised about the composition of the board. However, given the short time frame and the technical nature of the board and its obligations, I’m very comfortable with these appointees that they will be able to make decisions necessary to make the projects move forward. Additionally, with the inclusion of staggering terms we will be able to ensure that there is ample opportunity to include representation from affected communities,” Cohen said at the meeting.

The board also passed an amendment to “clarify that the land use controls granted by the oversight board are consistent with previous land use authority granted by the Board of Supervisors and the redevelopment commission,” as a response to concerns that the oversight board will have too much power over land use in project areas.

Tiffany Bohee, interim director of the SFRA, said that the court’s ruling was the “least desirable possible outcome.” Bohee said the SFRA has spent recent weeks analyzing all enforceable obligations outlined by the ruling to make sure that the transition complies with the law and is as fair as possible to SFRA employees.

The positions that these 101 workers filled at the SFRA will no longer exist as of Feb. 1, and layoffs are underway. However, most will remain employed throughout a transition period that ends March 31, and Bohee said that many will find work in city agencies that will be charged with continuing the work of the SFRA, such as MOH and the Planning Department.

MOH was historically responsible for allocating federal housing grants to city agencies. In past decades, federal budget cuts have severely limited the grants to build affordable housing. Now, although MOH has some power over city housing policy and allocation of funds to build housing, many of those responsibilities had been transferred to the Planning Department — or, until recently, the Redevelopment Agency.

The Planning Department is governed by the Planning Commission with four mayor-appointed members and three members appointed by the Board of Supervisors. The Planning Department implements planning standards and signs off on structural changes to the city, ranging from homeowner requests to alter houses to developer requests to build high-rises.

In many ways, the Redevelopment Agency was redundant, shadowing work done by the Planning Department. When an area was designated an SFRA project area, the planning code and zoning restrictions no longer applied, and developers working in partnership with the city had the power to define new land-use regulations.

Many critics of the SFRA said that private developers were able to use this lack of regulation to take advantage of the significant amount of money reserved for the agency. Deepening this concern was the fact that the Redevelopment Commission, which oversaw the SFRA, was composed entirely of mayoral appointees, which some felt were less accountable to the public interest than the Planning Commission.

Some feel that the oversight board, composed entirely of mayoral appointees, will repeat the same lack of accountability to neighborhoods.

“The city is setting up a planning commission for the 1 percent. And the Planning Commission that we have is the for the 99 percent,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, which works on land use issues. He said that with the dissolution of the SFRA, the city has an opportunity to facilitate the construction of affordable housing in a more democratic fashion. His organization expressed concerns to the Board of Supervisors, cautioning that the Oversight Board should not have undue power over land-use in development project areas and that the new structure in city government for facilitating development projects should be created with the input of communities. The Board of Supervisors made clear Jan. 24 that the Oversight Board and its appointees are a temporary measure to comply with AB26 by the Feb. 1 deadline. As Sup. Christina Olague said, “I just want to assure the public that this isn’t the end-all, be-all of this discussion, that it will be ongoing, and we welcome any of your concerns at any time.”