By Joseph Tobener
OPINION This week, San Franciscans learned that they will not be able to rely on Sacramento to fix the housing crisis. State lawmakers voted down Senate Bill 1439, which would have stopped speculators from using the Ellis Act to evict and convert buildings to upscale offices and TICs. One Assembly Democrat said that San Franciscans were “exaggerating the problem.” That same day, my office received Ellis Act eviction notices for 21 tenants from an artist building at 16th and Mission streets. The building has a new buyer, and it will soon be a high-end commercial space.
I was a tenant rights attorney during the first dot-com boom, and without question, this new housing crisis is much worse. The gentrification is more widespread and permanent. This time around, the evicted teachers, musicians, and artists are not simply moving down the street to smaller units, they are being priced out of San Francisco altogether.
We need to decide now, as San Franciscans, what we want our city to feel like in a decade. Here are five things I believe we need to do now to address the crisis:
1. Collaborate with tech leaders, rather than vilify them. I have been as guilty as the next person in blaming and berating big tech, ignoring the fact that many of my neighbors, clients, and friends are long-time San Franciscans who work in the tech industry. Enough blaming. We need to somehow bring tech to the table to help create large-scale solutions to the housing crisis. It may not be easy to do.
Earlier this year, Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, criticized tech companies for being “stingy” in giving to their communities, and I have heard nonprofit fundraisers echo this. If true, we need to find out why. On the other side, our healthy anti-corporate, ‘us and them’ mindset, which is deeply rooted in San Francisco’s political tradition, is not serving us in collaboratively addressing the housing crisis.
While there are a handful of high-profile examples of tech workers wrongfully displacing tenants, tech workers are not the real problem. It is true that tech money drives up prices, but the real villains are the predatory speculators who are profiting from our shared crisis. The bottom line is, like it or not, tech is here to stay, and tech leaders have the resources to fund the arts, help our schools, and yes, help us address the housing crisis.
2. Stop illegal mergers of multi-unit buildings into single-family mansions. It is not enough to have regulations in place to prevent mergers. Real estate speculators are merging units surreptitiously, without permits. The Department of Building Inspection needs to actively police projects. And all San Francisco residents need to share in the responsibility of ensuring that speculators are not doing major construction without permits in our neighborhoods.
3. Support legislation to stop landlords from renting their units as hotel rooms. It is estimated that more than a 1,000 units in San Francisco are being rented out full-time for short-term corporate or tourist use. We need a law to get these units back into the permanent housing stock.
4. Donate to the Community Land Trust and the Community Arts Stabilization Trust. Community land trusts are buying property to permanently preserve residential housing and art space. We need to do more to support these organizations. Other cities do a much better job than San Francisco in partnering with corporations to preserve culture.
5. Support an anti-speculation tax. Tenant activists have introduced an anti-speculation tax designed to stop real estate flipping. Our office sees the same LLCs flip properties time and time again.
Ultimately it is up to all San Franciscans to embrace this cause if we hope to preserve the diverse and complex character of our city. One thing is sure: We cannot wait to add our voices, or it will be too late.
Joseph Tobener is a tenant rights attorney.