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Forum begins to bridge the housing-transportation divide

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Advocates for sustainable transportation and affordable housing in San Francisco — who have been pitted against each other in this election — discussed their differences and found some common ground for a post-election agenda during a community forum last night [Thu/9] hosted by the Bay Guardian and San Francisco Transit Riders Union.

We intended for the forum, “Bridging the Gaps in Funding Transit and Housing,” to begin to heal the rift that has developed over the last couple years and played out strongly this year in the creation of and campaigns for Propositions A, B, G, K, and L, with each camp not supporting the other’s priorities.

But there was broad agreement that both sides should work together on an affordabilty agenda that combats rising housing and transportation costs, the need to incorporate equity and social justice studies into the solutions this coalition should pursue, and even some specific funding mechanisms to meet both needs, including charging transportation impact fees to residential developers and uniting in a campaign to increase the local vehicle license fee in 2016.

“If you looking at what kind of city this is going to be, it really is about housing and transportation. They are two sides of the same coin,” Sup. Scott Wiener said after he arrived late in the forum, explaining how he has filled a critical void in transportation advocacy at City Hall. “The problem has been that over time, everytime there’s a budget fight, Muni loses.”

But Wiener has been a political lightning rod, particularly with renters and affordable housing activists who blame him for the division and for moving forward with Prop. B, which increases funding for Muni, without building a broader coalition first.

“I think the VLF could have had a chance [this year], but what it was lacking was a solid coalition to pull it off,” Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, said at the forum.

Cohen and his allies were left out of the Mayor’s 2013 Transportation Task Force, and they were critical of it for setting priorities and identifying funding options before undertaking a broad study of equity and social justice considerations, a study that the SFMTA is now working on with support from transportation activists.

Cohen didn’t accept the framing that helping Muni necessarily helps low-income households — 53 percent of Muni riders don’t have access to a car and 51 percent live in low-income households, according to an SFMTA ridership survey presented at the forum by the agency’s Jonathan Rewers — saying many system improvements are aimed at wealthier parts of town.

“The question is what parts of the system are actually being improved,” Cohen said, adding, “When you get down to the fine grain scale, it’s a lot more complicated.”

But Wiener and transit activists didn’t agree, noting that most Muni lines connect rich and poor neighborhoods, and that when you consider that low-income people disproportionately ride public transit, giving money to Muni necessarily helps the poor.

“There are very few [Muni] lines that only serve low-income people or high-income people,” Wiener said, arguing the public transit funding helps the entire city, and disproportionately the low-income people who rely on Muni.

“Helping Muni intrinsically helps low-income folks,” Amandeep Jawa, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said. “Fixing Muni is intrinsically a equity issue.”

That was also how SFTRU’s Thea Selby framed the issue: “We have a customer base that is low income and we have to take that into account.”

But because affordable housing and the transportation system each have funding needs running into the billions of dollars, there is tension.

“It’s a limited pile of funds, so we all feel like we’re fighting in a zero sum game,” Jawa said, blaming elected officials for unnecessarily creating that divisive paradigm and failing to identify new funding sources. “There is a lack of political leadership in this town, and not on the activist side.”

But when Jawa made an exception of Wiener (who hadn’t yet arrived at the forum), praising Wiener’s leadership on transportation issues, Cohen reacted angrily and blamed Wiener for sowing the divisions between transportation and housing activists.

“We see very intentional wedging,” Cohen said, criticizing Wiener for placing Prop. B on the ballot (which Cohen and his group opposes) and for opposing Prop. G, the anti-speculation tax that is a top priority for affordable housing advocates this election. “We have had a very difficult time working together because we have been pitted against each other.”

Yet Jawa criticized how Cohen and affordable housing activists have tried to frame the discussion around Prop. B, which increases General Fund contributions to Muni as the city’s population increases: “I don’t believe the notion that we’re stealing from affordable housing. We’re not.”

Eventually, those tense moments in which the divisions were sharply on display yielded to more civility and pledges to work together after this election.

“From my perspective, we need to not be at each other’s throats, but we have to work at all those priorities,” said Peter Strauss of the SFTRU.

“Talking, we can begin to understand each other’s priorities,” said Chema Hernández Gil of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, pledging to work with Cohen and other affordable housing and social justice activists to strength that coalition.

Hernández Gil cited studies showing that housing is the biggest expenditure for San Franciscans, followed by transportation costs. A worker making minimum wage pay about half of his or her income on housing and a quarter on transportation, leaving very little left for other expenses.

“If you need a car, how much it costs to live here gets so much more expensive,” Jawa said, citing the importance of transit-first policies to an affordability agenda. So he said the pro-car Prop. L would make San Francisco more expensive. “Prop. L is all about transportation affordability in the end,” Jawa said, urging voters to reject the measure.

Cohen noted that he’s supporting the Prop. A general obligation transportation bond and will continue to supporting the creation of a sustainable transportation system as well.

“Right now, residential development doesn’t pay a nickel for transportation infrastructure,” Cohen said, with his call for a residential transportation impact fee winning support from most of the activists in the room.

Cohen asked the transportation activists for their support on housing issues.

“What we have in San Francisco is a dramatic shortage of affordable housing,” Cohen said, calling for a broad coalition to support more public funding to build affordable housing. “It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot you coming back to support funding measures on the ballot.”

Opponents seek changes in Airbnb legislation before big hearing

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The broad and diverse coalition opposing Sup. David Chiu’s legislation to legalize and regulate Airbnb and other short-term housing rental companies — which the Board of Supervisors will consider tomorrow [Tues/7] — have boiled its many concerns down to three particular demands.

The coalition of tenant and landlord groups, affordable housing and neighborhood advocates, hotel workers and homeowners, and asundry other community leaders held another in a series of rallies on the steps of City Hall on Friday, again raising a variety of concerns.

But now, they’re penned a letter that has “three core recommedations.” The first is a call to limit rentals to 90 nights per year. That has been a feature of Chiu’s legislation from the beginning for unhosted rentals, given that it requires hosts to be permanent residents who live in their units at least 275 days per year, but the legislation still allows hosts to rent out a spare bedroom through Airbnb with few limits.

“If this is not done, the current proposal will allow year-round tourist rentals in every residential unit in the City which will drive up housing prices, create further economic incentive to increase evictions, further deplete housing stock for residents, and deteriorate the quality of life in our residential neighborhoods,” the coalition wrote in a letter to Chiu.

The supervisor had been a little cagey about the 90-day limit in the past, but when we pressed him on the issue during his endorsement interview with the Guardian last week, he confirmed that his legislation would allow spare bedrooms to be rented for more than 90 nights per year.

Chiu said his primary concern with the legislation was ensuring entire homes can’t be rented more than 90 nights per year, which he said was the main threat to the city’s rental housing stock, but he was open to amendments that would limit the rental of spare rooms, although that’s a practice he still wants to allow.

“We are grappling with the idea of what that balance is,” he told us.

The coalition is also asking for the legislation to explicitly ban short-term rentals of below-market-rate units and other affordable housing built with public subsidies. The third recommendation seeks to include “expedited private right of action” in the legislation, allowing neighbors and other third parties to file enforcement actions with the courts without waiting for city enforcement processes to slowly play out first.

That’s been a big problem recently as the San Francisco Tenants Union and other groups try to file lawsuits against landlords that have evicted rent-controlled tenants in favor of tourist rentals through Airbnb and other sites, but they’ve been prevented from doing so by foot-dragging in the Planning Department and Department of Building Inspection.

Members of this coalition will also present individual demands tomorrow, but the coalition also conveyed its opposition to supervisors approving this legislation tomorrow:

“We are unanimous in our position that the process being pursued by Supervisor Chiu is rushed. The City will live with the intended (and unintended) consequences of this legislation for many, many years. We implore you to amend the legislation with the recommendations articulated above, and as necessary postpone the Board hearing on this measure. This is one of the most important housing policy issues the City has faced in a decade, and the ‘solution’ by the Board of Supervisors must be done right and not hurried.”

The legislation will dominate the otherwise sparse agenda for tomorrow’s meeting, which starts at 2pm in City Hall. We’ll be live-tweeting the action, so follow along @sfbg or check back here for the full report. 

Now that Willie Brown is a lobbyist, will the SF Chronicle finally cut him loose?

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Years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle handed Willie Brown a megaphone, but now that he’s officially recognized as a paid lobbyist, isn’t it time to yank it back?

Weekly Chronicle columnist and former Mayor Brown’s newest Ethics Commission filings show he’s been paid $125,000 to lobby the city on behalf of Boston Properties, negotiating for the developers who are threatening to sue the city over a tax deal worth up to $1.4 billion to San Francisco. Boston Properties were told going into the deal they’d pay taxes based on property values in the South of Market district, where the high-rise Salesforce Tower (formerly the Transbay Tower) and other developments will soon be built.

The loss of funding in the special tax zone known as a Mello-Roos District (which, in a twist of another sort, was created when Brown presided over the California Assembly) could jeopardize the high-speed rail extension from the Caltrain station at 4th and King streets to the new Transbay Terminal, possibly downgrading it into a very expensive bus station. We left an interview request with Brown’s assistant for this piece, but received no reply.

Brown has long sold his influence to the highest bidders, although he claimed to be their lawyer and not their lobbyist, but now Brown is legally out in the open as an advocate against the city’s interests. He’s now officially a registered lobbyist (finally).

But the Chronicle still publishes Brown’s column, Willie’s World, giving “Da Mayor” a weekly space in its prominent Sunday edition to charmingly joke away his misdeeds (which raised the eyebrows of the Columbia Journalism Review for its maddeningly obvious ethical concerns). In his newest column, Brown kiddingly brags about taking bribes:

“John Madden got off a great line the other night when we were sitting in the St. Regis lobby.

I was reading off my itinerary for the evening when he stopped me, turned to another guy and said, pointing my way, ‘He’s the kind of politician who goes everywhere. As a matter of fact, he’ll show up for the opening [sic] an envelope.’

It all depends on what’s in it.”

In his column the week before, he trumpeted a potential political ally while taking pot-shots at high speed rail, the very same project that Boston Properties seeks to defund by depriving the city of tax dollars for the Salesforce Tower project:

“There is a very impressive star on the horizon. Her name is Ashley Swearengin. She is the mayor of Fresno, and she’s running for controller against Democrat Betty Yee.

She is also a Republican who is being pilloried by other Republicans for her support of Gov. Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail project. Unlike some politicians, Swearengin has a concrete reason for backing what some are calling the ‘train to nowhere.’ It means a ton of construction jobs for Fresno.

Supporting high-speed rail, however, has cost her in the fundraising department because many potential Republican donors hate the project.”

And maybe because he’s digitally disinclined to use Twitter, in July he used the Chronicle as his own personal communications service to contact federally indicted and alleged-gun-running Sen. Leland Yee:

“Where’s Leland Yee? I’ve got everybody in town looking for our indicted and suspended state senator, and no one can find him. Leland, if you read this, call me.”

We reached out to Chronicle Managing Editor Audrey Cooper to ask her if San Francisco’s paper of record would consider retiring Brown’s column now that he’s a registered lobbyist, but didn’t hear back from her before we published. But you know, they could always go the other way: Why stop with Willie? Just give up guys, and give editorial space to BMWL (who are pushing against the Soda Tax), to Sam Singer (the high-powered public relations flak), or Grover Norquist (he could write about the virtues of libertarianism and Burning Man at once!).

But Brown is a special case all on his own. He’s no ordinary lobbyist: He has the ear of the mayor (and helped elect the mayor), and his influence cuts a swath through the city’s biggest power players, from PG&E to Lennar Corporation. He helped many current city politicians and staffers get their jobs in the first place.

The average reader not steeped in wonky political backdoor deals may not understand why giving him a column is such a bad idea. Journalist Matt Smith has long-written on Brown’s SF Chronicle conflict of interest, first for the SF Weekly and then for the now-defunct Bay Citizen. In 2011, an anonymous Chronicle staffer told this to Smith:

“‘Should the newspaper be in the business of helping an influence peddler peddle?’ the journalist asked.

‘If you believe him even 50 percent of the way, Willie Brown has a big say in San Francisco politics, which he reminds us of every week. He has a certain self-deprecating style that makes him even more charming, which kind of hides the fact that what he is really doing is bragging about all the people he knows, and all the influence he peddles. What that does is it has a multiplier effect.'”

That multiplier effect works in a few ways. First, it works almost as information-laundering: When Brown “jokes” about taking bribes, it makes any accusations of impropriety seem quaint. After all, it’s just Willie Brown, we already know he’s a wheeler-and-dealer, right? What harm could he do?

Second, it amplifies his already formidable position as a kingmaker in San Francisco politics, possibly allowing him to charge even more cash to special interests for his influence. Since he registered as a lobbyist, Brown has met five times with Mayor Ed Lee over the Salesforce Tower tax issue. And until the Chronicle’s surprising and incredibly rare editorial stance against Mayor Ed Lee’s deal, Brown almost succeeded in negotiating hundreds of millions of dollars out of city coffers and into the pockets of Boston Properties.

The Chronicle wrote scathingly in their editorial:

“The deal is baffling — and infuriating. The group of developers had already gotten special favors from City Hall.”

Swap the words “the group of developers” with “Willie Brown,” and you could say the exact same thing about Brown’s Chronicle column.

Brown even used his San Francisco Chronicle headshot in his lobbyist registration with the Ethics Commission. If that’s not a “fuck you” to the Chronicle’s sense of journalistic ethics, I don’t know what would be. The Chronicle’s photo editor told us in an email that Brown did not have permission to use the photo.

I don’t think he cares.

BROWN1

BROWN2

Moderate politicians push “affordable housing” definition up to higher income brackets

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San Francisco, its General Plan Housing Element, and various city codes have always had a very specific definition of what they mean by “affordable housing”: homes that are affordable to those making 120 percent of area median income (AMI) and below, the kind that generally require public subsidies to build from scratch in San Francisco. That group is defined annually by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development using the latest data, and this year in San Francisco, it is defined as individuals making $81,550 or less year, or households of four people making $116,500 or less, according the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

But Mayor Ed Lee and other neoliberal and pro-developer politicians and political groups in town have in recent years been trying to redefine what the city means by “affordable housing” to reach up to 150 percent of AMI, definitions that made their way into the Proposition K housing policy statement on the November ballot and into a City Hall hearing yesterday [Thu/25].

The Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee held a public hearing to respond to the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report, “The Mayor’s Office of Housing: Under Pressure and Challenged to Preserve Diversity,” which called on that office to be more transparent and aggressive in addressing the city’s affordable housing crisis, writing “the need for public transparency and fair access to housing opportunities has never been greater.”

MOHCD Director Olson Lee agreed with almost all of the report’s recommendations, pledging to provide more information to the public and complete an overhaul of the department’s website by the end of the year, making it easier for the public to apply for subsidized housing and more easily track where public resources are being spent.

“We agree with the grand jury report globally,” Lee said at the hearing.

But two of the three supervisors on that committee used the occasion to push this redefinition of “affordable housing” in San Francisco, with Chair London Breed pressing Lee and MOHCD on what it’s doing to serve those higher income brackets who want the city’s help with housing.

“Even people at 150 percent AMI can’t afford to buy a median-priced home today,” Lee acknowledged, pledged his office’s resources to help address the problem.

Sup. Katy Tang also pressed the point, telling Lee that “to stretch it to 150 AMI is really important,” clearly defining what she meant when she said, “San Francisco needs to continue building and really accommodate family housing.”

While it may be true that with median home prices in San Francisco now reaching $1 million, an individual making $101,950 per year or family of four making $145,650 — that is, 150 percent of AMI — would be hard pressed to buy real estate in this booming housing market.

But it’s not like this relatively small group of people (refresher: “median” is the middle point, meaning half the citizens make 100 percent of AMI or below) is being forced out of the city, like those truly low-to-middle income people traditionally served by affordable housing.

Peter Cohen and Fernando Marti, co-directors of the Council of Community Housing Organization, tell us they’re concerned about this upward creeping definition of affordable housing, even though they strongly support Prop. K, which calls for 33 percent of housing to be affordable to 120 percent of AMI, but also for half of all housing to be affordable to those at 150 percent AMI and below.

They’re fine with the city doing what it can to encourage more housing affordable to those in the 120-150 AMI range, but they’re adamant that money from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and other public resources don’t subsidize housing for that group.

“It’s going to be a continuing discussion,” Marti told us. “But legally, we can’t talk about city subsidies going into that sector.”

Hopefully, the transparency reforms that MOHCD is pledging will allow the public to make sure that upper-middle-class San Franciscans — the very people whose influx (encouraged by the city’s economic development policies) is driving up the cost of housing for everyone — aren’t also cannibalizing the city’s already inadequate affordable housing resources. 

Ruinous beauty

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esilvers@sfbg.com

LEFT OF THE DIAL Bob Mould seems like a good multi-tasker. The legendary singer-guitarist is just signing out of a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session as he answers the phone in New York for our interview Sept. 9; he’ll play at the Bowery Ballroom the following night.

“Sorry, we went a little over because there were technical difficulties at the beginning,” he says, when I explain that I’ve been watching for the last hour in real time as his superfans — as well as guitar nerds of all stripes, from all over the world — ask him questions.

These queries range in topic from pleas for his explosively influential punk band Hüsker Dü to get back together (“Some things can’t be replicated, and those eight years are best left untarnished”) to interest in his diet and exercise regimens (little to no starches, lots of running staircases when he’s home in SF), wrestling opinions (Mould at one point wrote music for the professional wrestling industry) to “what positions were your guitar pedal knobs at when I saw you play this one particular show?” (generally, 3pm for both).

If the fans seem all over the place, it’s for good reason: Mould’s career is as varied as the people who count him among their heroes. After fronting Hüsker Dü in the early ’80s; he ushered in a higher standard for hard-hitting alt-rock in the ’90s with a new band, Sugar. His solo career has taken him into melancholy singer-songwriter territory, then back to all-consuming wall-of-deafening-sound guitar rock, with forays into the aforementioned wrestling business. In 2011, after decades of being known for his intense love of privacy, he penned an acclaimed memoir about his life thus far, including his tortured early years spent closeted, at times using meth and cocaine to cope.

After that 180, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Mould’s most recent work, Beauty and Ruin (which came out June 3 on Merge), grapples with highly personal territory.

In the first half of 2012, Mould was riding high off the book’s success. He’d just been honored by dozens of younger rock titans who consider him a god — Dave Grohl, Spoon, Ryan Adams — at a tribute performance in LA. He had a new record out, the critically acclaimed, harder-than-he’d-rocked-in-a-while Silver Age, and was celebrating the 20th anniversary of Sugar’s much-loved Copper Blue. And then, in October, Mould’s father died.

“It was not unexpected, but it was still tough nonetheless,” says Mould, who has written candidly about his complicated relationship with his father — an alcoholic who was physically abusive at times, but also introduced him to rock ‘n’ roll, and acted as one of Hüsker Dü’s biggest supporters in the band’s early years.

“[Losing a parent] is something most of us go through, but I don’t think I’d realize how a loss of the size really shifts your perspective…it was an emotional time. And that became the marker for the next 12 months of touring, dealing with my relationship with my family and my work.”

The record takes on four key themes or acts, says Mould: “There’s the loss, and the reflection, and then acceptance. And then there’s moving on to the future, which is how the album closes out. It’s a work about a really confusing experience.”

Backed by Jason Narducy on bass and the tireless Jon Wurster on drums (Mould shares Wurster’s time with Superchunk and the Mountain Goats), Mould channels that confusion into a something like a condensed, theatrical rock ‘n’ roll epic. (His tour for the record brings him to The Fillmore this Fri/26.)

Considering its subject matter, it’s hardly a downer of a record. “I’m sure it confuses some of the longtime fellow miserablists [to hear the bright, upbeat tunes],” says Mould with a laugh. “It’s a heavy record; it’s got its own darkness, but it has an equal amount of light to keep it balanced out.”

Beauty and Ruin also demands to be heard as an album: As a listener, even if you were to shut off the part of your brain that comprehends lyrics, it’s the cathartic, hook-driven guitar thrum throughout these missives — which builds to unrelentingly passionate levels on “The War,” marking the end of side 1 on the record, if it were an LP, before sliding into the naked clarity of “Forgiveness” — that engages your full body, that makes you question whether or not aging affects Bob Mould the way it affects regular humans, because the man honestly sounds like he could sing and play electric guitar and run a marathon at the same time.

Not so, Mould says. On days off when he’s on tour, he tries to talk as little as possible to protect his voice. “I sing really hard, probably too hard for my own good, and naturally it gets a little tougher to recover from that each night.”

When he’s not on tour, of course, he’s home in San Francisco — he’s lived in the Castro for the past five years. And yes, as a guy who made $12 playing Mabuhay Gardens in 1981 with Hüsker Dü, he’s noticed that the scene here has changed in the last few years. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

“I’ll still go to the Independent, Bottom of the Hill, Great American to see shows. I like the Chapel. There are still great clubs. But yeah, historically, when there’s been development — especially these big condo developments — when that’s on the rise in the city, at first, the neighbors are going ‘Oh, we love living next to the nightclub!'” says Mould. “Then they have their first kid, and the nightclub keeps them up at night. And they start fighting the nightclub, and if they get it closed down the neighborhood turns into a really boring place, and they don’t know it until it’s too late. I’ve seen it happen in so many cities around the world.”

“…I’m not certain how anybody can live in San Francisco, with the cost of living and the rents. It’s just such a massive change,” he continues. “Cities change. And we can fight City Hall, fight the developers…but cities evolve. And people who make art for their living are leaving for other places, which is tough because San Francisco has such an amazing history with music and how it’s affected world cultures. I’ve honestly just learned to deal with it.

“Because you never know what’s going to happen. Things change. Maybe it’ll change back.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNuR5KPCn0M

BOB MOULD

With Cymbals Eat Guitars

Fri/26, 9pm, $25

The Fillmore

1805 Geary, SF

www.thefillmore.com

Money for Muni

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news@sfbg.com

STREET FIGHT San Francisco’s November ballot is crowded. With 12 local measures and seven state measures, sifting through them can be daunting. Three local measures, Propositions A, B, and L, involve transportation and have great bearing on the city’s future.

Not to belittle the other ballot measures, some of which address critical health and housing problems, these three transit-related measures say a lot of how the city is addressing — and failing to address — the need for a sustainable transportation system.

 

TRANSPORTATION BOND

Prop. A is the most important of the three transportation measures on the ballot, but also the most difficult to pass because it requires approval from two-thirds of voters.

It would provide $500 million for Muni, street repaving, and pedestrian and bicycle safety projects. That’s a modest sum compared to the $10 billion the city should really be spending, but it would help make 15 of the city’s busiest transit routes 20 percent faster and more reliable.

Portions of the funds would go to modernizing Muni’s maintenance shops, which need upgraded ventilation, fueling, and washing facilities and to new elevators and passenger platforms to make Muni more accessible to the elderly and disabled. Prop. A’s campaign also touts $142 million going towards pedestrian, bicycle, and motorist safety in corridors where the most death and injury have occurred.

Prop. A should really be thought of as two parts, one good, one not so good. The first part involves up to $55 million in annual revenue coming from property assessments. Since Prop. A simply replaces retiring city debt, it does not raise property taxes, but rather it sustains existing rates.

This links property values to what makes property valuable in the first place — public investment in infrastructure. As long as Prop. A is used for those 15 Muni corridors and safer streets, it is sound public policy.

The second part of Prop. A involves bonds, or borrowing money and paying interest to financiers. This is a long-used method of infrastructure finance, and was in fact how Muni got started in 1909 when voters approved creating public transit. The taxation will pay off the capital debt.

But bonds are a funding scheme that involves interest and fees that go to Wall Street — not the most progressive approach to infrastructure finance. While no one can say for sure, some critics suggest up to $350 million in debt would be incurred over the life of the bond scheme, which means Prop. A is really an $850 million package.

Ultimately, this is a regressive approach to transport finance and needs to be replaced by a more pay-as-you-go approach.

We are stuck between a rock and a hard place on Prop. A. Floating this bond now would bring in money very quickly, improving everyone’s commute, especially lower- and middle-income transit passengers. If approved it will also leverage state and federal matching funds, such as new cap-and-trade funding, hastening shovel-ready projects that many San Franciscans are clamoring to get done.

Getting transportation projects going now is less expensive than waiting while construction costs climb. Prop. A funds vitally important transportation infrastructure projects and it deserves support.

 

GROWTH AND MUNI

While Prop. A deals with streets and capital projects for Muni, it can’t be used to fund acquisition of new vehicles or Muni operations. This is where Prop. B comes in because it specifically involves an annual set-aside of about $22 million from the city’s General Fund to provide new vehicles and operating funds.

Prop. B is a well-intentioned linkage of population growth to transit capacity. The money goes towards Muni capacity expansion, based on population growth over the past decade, would increase with population growth in future years, about $1.5 million per year based on past trends.

There’s no doubt that transportation is failing to keep up with San Francisco’s boom. New housing and offices are coming into neighborhoods where buses are already jam-packed and streets saturated with traffic. But there are a couple of problems with Prop. B.

First, Prop. B is promised as a short-term measure because the mayor can end this general fund set-aside if a local increase in the vehicle license fee is approved by voters in 2016. The VLF, which was gutted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003, would bring in about $75 million to the city annually.

That the mayor would voluntarily (and it is the mayor’s discretion) sunset B in two years is a big “if” and voters are notoriously forgetful.

In the meantime, Prop. B does not come with a revenue source to account for this increasing set-aside for Muni, so something else in the General Fund must give. What that would be, nobody can say, but advocates for social service and affordable housing fear more vulnerable San Franciscans will be hurt in the 2015 city budget.

Given the incredibly slow city response to the gentrification and displacement crisis, their fears may be warranted.

 

GLOOMY REALITY

My hesitation about Prop. B and tepid support for Prop. A stem from a gloomy reality in San Francisco’s politics of mobility. Today, it is easier for politicians to raise transit fares on the working poor, divert funds from social services and housing, or incur massive debt through bonds than it is to raise taxes on downtown commercial real estate and charge wealthier motorists for their detrimental impact to the city and society — both of which would be fairer ways to finance transportation.

Twenty years ago, it was estimated that a modest tax assessment on downtown offices and their impact to the transportation system would bring in $54 million a year. Today, that would likely be well over $100 million annually. But with land-owning elites and tech barons calling the shots in City Hall, there is a de facto gag order on what would be the most progressive approach to Muni finance.

Meanwhile, had Mayor Ed Lee not pandered to wealthier motorists, Sunday metering would be providing millions annually in Muni operating fees. Sup. Scott Wiener, the author of Prop. B, and his colleagues on the board, were shamefully silent about blowing that $10 million hole in Muni’s budget. They were also silent or complicit in stopping expansion of SF Park, which is smart management of our streets and would provide millions more in operations funding for Muni without needing to dip into the city General Fund to plug gaps.

Meanwhile, congestion pricing — or charging drivers to access the most traffic-snarled portions of the city during peak hours — could bring in up to $80 million annually. Together with a reestablished VLF, that would simultaneously erase the need to do Prop. B and reduce our need to incur more wasteful debt.

Instead of bonds, Prop. A’s $55 million could be coupled with an annual downtown property assessment, an annual VLF, a congestion charging zone, and revenue from an expanded SF Park, the city could borrow less, manage traffic wisely, and keep transit capacity at pace with population growth. We could avoid raiding the General Fund to subsidize Muni operations and could reduce debt simultaneously.

Transit advocates are right to cry foul when other revenue sources have been removed from consideration, mostly because of gutless reluctance to challenge wealthy landowners and motorists. This is the crux of why transit advocates, backed into a corner by Mayor Lee’s repeal of Sunday meters and the VLF, are supporting Prop. B. The “B” in Prop. B basically stands for backfilling broken promises.

But ultimately, all of the supervisors, including Wiener, are complicit in the mayor’s mess. Why didn’t the supervisors speak up when Sunday metering was repealed? Why didn’t the supervisors insist on placing the VLF on this year’s ballot? With a two-thirds vote of the board, it would be on the ballot now. And unlike Prop. A, the VLF only needs a simple majority to pass.

And now, because the mayor and supervisors have pandered to motorists to the umpteenth degree, a small group of them feel even more emboldened and entitled to grab more. That takes us to Prop. L.

 

TRANSIT-LAST

Prop. L, which seeks to reorder transportation priorities in San Francisco, is awful. It comes from an angry, spiteful, ill-informed, knee-jerk lack of understanding of the benefits of parking management (which makes parking easier and more sensible for drivers). It is a purely emotional backlash that seeks to tap into anyone angry about getting a parking ticket.

Although a nonbinding policy statement, the basic demand of Prop. L is that the city change transportation priorities to a regressive cars-first orientation. It calls for freezing parking meter rates for five years while also using parking revenue to build more parking garages. The costs of these garages would dwarf parking revenue, and these pro-car zealots don’t say where these garages would be built, or that it would ultimately siphon more money from Muni.

Prop. L demands “smoother flowing streets,” which is a deceitful way of saying that buses, bikes, and pedestrians need to get out of the way of speeding car drivers who believe they are entitled to cross the city fast as they want and park for free. It conjures up a fantasy orgy of cars and freeways long ago rejected as foolish and destructive to cities.

Proponents on this so-called Restore Transportation Balance initiative don’t really care about “transportation balance.” When you consider the origins and backers of Prop L, it’s mainly well-to-do motorists with a conservative ideology about the car. These are the very same people who have opposed bicycle lanes on Polk, Masonic, Oak, and Fell streets, and throughout the city.

These are the very same people who decried expansion of SF Park, thus making it harder, to find parking, not easier. These are the same people who complain about Muni but offer zero ideas about how to make it better. These disparate reactionaries have banded together around their animosity toward cyclists and Muni.

In the 1950s, when the love affair with cars was on the rise, San Francisco had about 5,000 motor vehicles per square mile. To accommodate more cars, planners required all new housing to have parking, made it easy to deface Victorians to insert garages, and proposed a massive freeway system that would have eviscerated much of the city.

Thankfully, neighborhood and environmental activists fended off most of the freeways, but San Franciscans failed to really take on the car. So by 1970, despite the freeway revolts and commitment to BART, automobile density rose to over 6,000 cars per square mile.

By 1990, San Francisco had almost 7,000 motor vehicles per square mile, even as population leveled off.

The current density of cars and trucks — now approaching 10,000 per square mile — is one of the highest in the nation and in the world. To put that into context, Los Angeles has less than 4,000 cars per square mile, and Houston less than 2,000 per square mile, but these are largely unwalkable cities with notorious environmental problems.

Do San Franciscans want to tear apart their beautiful city to be able to drive and park like Houstonians?

If proponents of Prop. L were truthful about “restoring balance” they would instead advocate a return to the car density of the 1950s, when San Francisco had just under 5,000 motor vehicles per square mile, Muni was more stable due to fairer taxes, and many of the streets in the city had yet to be widened, their sidewalks yet to be cut back.

Prop. L is tantamount to hammering square pegs into round holes. Jamming more cars into San Francisco would be a disaster for everyone. Don’t be misled, Prop. L would make the city too dumb to move. It would deepen and confuse already vitriolic political fissures on our streets and it would do nothing to make it easier to drive or park, despite its intention.

Prop. L must not only lose at the ballot, it must lose big, so that maybe our politicians will get the message that we want a sustainable, equitable, and transit-first city.

Changing the climate in SF

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EDITORIAL As hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of New York City and other cities around the world for a Global Climate Convergence on Sept. 21, demanding that our political and business leaders finally get serious about global warming (see “Flooding the streets“), there was no such gathering in San Francisco.

Sure, there were a few thousand Bay Area activists who gathered for the climate change event along Lake Merritt in Oakland, which included many groups and individuals from San Francisco. But we found it telling symbolism that San Francisco, as a city, was absent from this important political moment.

A city that was once a trailblazing leader on environmental issues such as solid waste reduction, transit-first policies, and adopting the precautionary principle — which calls on city officials to avoid policies and purchases that have the potential to cause environmental harm — has instead become a city guided by the logic and imperatives of capitalism, eager to grow and consume at any cost.

Speaker after speaker in New York City, Oakland, and other cities called for humanity to wake up to the realities of global climate change, slow down the wasteful economic churn and rapid depletion of important natural resources, and pursue fundamental changes to the system.

But in San Francisco, we appear to be headed in the opposite direction. The Mayor’s Office unceremoniously killed CleanPowerSF, the city’s only plan for offering more renewable energy to city residents. And it has pandered to motorists in ways that have taken millions of dollars away from public transit (see “Money for Muni“), encouraging more driving in the process even though we know that adds to global warming.

It isn’t just the neoliberals in City Hall, but the entire institutional structure of the city. Even SEIU Local 1021, long a stalwart supporter of progressive causes, has strangely endorsed the pro-automobile Prop. L and is aggressively supporting BART Board member James Fang, a Republican who supports costly extensions of the system rather than projects that promote more intensive transit uses in the urban core.

Finally, there’s this city’s monomaniacal promotion of the energy-intensive technology industry. Americans emit more greenhouse gases per capita than anyone, and recent reports show that reality is compounded by massive increases in China’s greenhouse gas emissions — which is partly because Bay Area companies produce their tech gadgets and other toys in China, which we then consume here.

San Franciscans need to stop being such voracious consumers and strive to be true innovators who accept our responsibilities and work to disrupt the rapid descent into a dangerously warming world.

 

Still not sharing

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news@sfbg.com

As controversial legislation to legalize and regulate Airbnb and other short-term housing rental services operating in San Francisco headed for another contentious City Hall hearing on Sept. 15, the San Francisco Treasurer & Tax Collector’s Office quietly unveiled new policies and mechanisms for hosts to finally start paying long-overdue local taxes on their rentals.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu’s legislation attempts to strike a balance between protecting housing for permanent city residents — including tenants in rent-controlled units who are being displaced in favor of visiting tourists — and allowing San Franciscans to sometimes rent out rooms through companies such as Airbnb. That practice has mushroomed during the Great Recession even though such short-term rentals of residential units have long been illegal in San Francisco (see “Into thin air,” 8/20/13).

Among other provisions, Chiu’s legislation would require hosts to register with the city and live in their units for at least 275 days per year (thus limiting rental nights to 90), create enforcement procedures for city agencies, and protect below-market-rate and single-room occupancy units from being used as short-term rentals.

But Airbnb has also been snubbing the city for more than two years since the Tax Collector’s Office held public hearings and concluded that short-term rental companies and their hosts are required to collect and pay the city’s Transient Occupancy Tax (aka, the hotel tax), a surcharge of about 15 percent on room rentals usually paid by visiting guests (see “Airbnb isn’t sharing,” 3/19/13).

After other media outlets finally joined the Bay Guardian in raising questions about the impact that Airbnb and other companies was having on San Francisco — and with cities New York City, Berlin, and other cities taking steps to ban short-term rentals — Airbnb announced in March that it would begin collecting and paying the TOT in San Francisco sometime this summer.

But that still hasn’t happened, even though Tax Collector Jose Cisneros recently unveiled a new website clarifying that Airbnb hosts must register as businesses and pay taxes and created a streamlined system for doing so. The office is even allowing Airbnb and other companies to register as “qualified website companies” that collect and pay these taxes on behalf of hosts.

“The law does apply to these transactions,” Cisneros told us. “And the set of requirements are the same for the hosts and the website companies.”

Airbnb didn’t respond to Guardian inquiries for this story.

Meanwhile, an unusually diverse coalition of critics continues to raise concerns about Airbnb and the regulatory legislation, including renter and landlord groups, neighborhood and affordable housing activists, labor leaders, and former members of the Board of Supervisors (including Chiu predecessor, Aaron Peskin) and Planning Commission. They penned a Sept. 15 to Chiu calling for him to delay the legislation.

“Individually and collectively, we have advanced nearly two dozen additional amendments that address the issues raised by short-term residential rentals. While we are not of one mind on every issue or every suggested amendment, we are unanimous in our belief that the process you are pursuing is rushed,” they wrote. “The City will live with the intended (and unintended) consequences of your legislation for many, many years.”

Sources in Chiu’s office had already told the Guardian that he planned to keep the legislation in committee for at least one more hearing so the myriad details can be worked out, as Chiu said at the hearing as well.

“We want to have the time to continue to vet and hear all of the perspectives, and at the end of the day what I hope to do is to be able to move forward and build incentives around something that is far better than our current status quo,” Chiu said at the hearing. “This is a very complicated issue, and we all know that we need to get this policy as right as we can.”

Planning Director John Rahaim conveyed concerns from the Planning Commission that the legislation beef up the city’s ability to regulate short-term rentals.

“The commission does believe that the law should be updated to create a legal avenue for those who do want to host,” Rahaim said. “However, currently there are about 5,000 units in the city engaging in short-term rentals. It’s very difficult to know if there are units not being lived in by a full-time resident.”

A long line of speakers wound completely around the packed chamber in City Hall, awaiting their turn to speak publicly to supervisors and city residents, from 20-somethings making a lives renting out their homes to longtime tenants fearing that home-sharing will hurt city’s character.

Airbnb was represented at the hearing by David Owen, a former City Hall staffer who is now director of public policy for the company, and he was publicly confronted by Chiu on the tax issue. Chiu criticized Airbnb for failing to start collecting those taxes as promised.

“As of now, we are extremely close and you will be hearing from us about that in the near future,” Owen said, provoking audible disbelief from many in the crowd. “We have been working diligently alongside the city. This is a complicated set of issues and those involved have all worked in earnest to facilitate this request.”

When Owen was asked about enforcement of the maximum number of nights a tenant has rented out his unit, he said Airbnb’s cooperation is “akin to the city asking Home Depot.com for a list of home care purchases to see if anyone had illegally renovated their bathroom.” But city officials say they need the company’s cooperation to address its impacts. “We don’t want data, just the number of nights per permanent resident so that we can ensure that the bad outcomes of this setup aren’t occurring,” Sup. Jane Kim said. “Airbnb profits from this industry, and therefore [is] accountable to the city.”

Legal aid funding for undocumented youth clears board committee

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Brian, who is 12, came to the United States from Guatemala with his younger brother, Edwin, who is seven. They arrived in a car driven by a coyote, an adult who ferried them across in an arrangement made with their family. But the brothers were quickly detained by Border Patrol agents.

When they were taken into custody, Brian explained through a translator, they heard sirens and went running into a field. The coyote ran in the other direction, leaving them alone. Brian said that when border agents shouted “stop!” he couldn’t understand what they were saying. But when Edwin tripped and fell, they both came to a halt, and were soon apprehended. They spent the next month in a Texas facility, where other Central American youth were also being held.

Brian and Edwin spoke to the Bay Guardian just before a Sept. 10 committee hearing of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, concerning a proposal to provide emergency legal aid for undocumented youth. Just before the interview, the brothers stood on the grand marble staircase in San Francisco City Hall, surveying the stately surroundings with wide eyes. But when asked what life was like in Guatemala, where they had stayed with their grandmother, Brian’s face got very serious. 

“It was bad,” he said. “We couldn’t live in peace. There were too many gang members. They often killed children and young teenage boys.”

 

Brian and Edwin. GUARDIAN PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE

The brothers are relatively lucky – they have legal counsel provided by Dolores Street Community Services, and their parents are here with them in San Francisco – yet they are both in deportation proceedings, and could still end up being sent back to Guatemala.

During the hearing at today’s Budget & Finance Committee meeting, more youth shared stories of their own harrowing journeys to the United States and asked the supervisors to approve funding to provide legal counsel for undocumented kids facing deportation proceedings in San Francisco immigration court.

A girl named Natalie, who is 10, described being held in a detention facility she called the “freezer” because of the uncomfortable temperature. “It was unbearably cold. It was freezing,” she said during testimony. “We had to cover ourselves with aluminum foil.”

Others described horrific violence in their home countries in Central America, and spoke about their journeys to the United States on a dangerous freight train that’s earned the nickname The Beast.

Lawyers and advocates weighed in, too. One speaker read a prepared statement from Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, who wrote that due to violence and instability in Central America, “The cases we deal with are often in effect death penalty cases.”

As the Guardian previously reported, the supplemental funding request was proposed by Sup. David Campos, who noted during the hearing that he felt a personal connection with the kids because he himself was once an undocumented youth arriving to the United States from Central America.

Yet when Campos introduced the budget supplemental proposal at last week’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting, Board President David Chiu – Campos’ opponent in the race to represent District 17 in the California Assembly – noted that he had secured funding during the budget process for the expansion of a legal aid program to ensure immigrant youth would have access to pro bono legal counsel.

“Unless we actually fund nonprofits to provide that support, pro bono counsel cannot help in the way that we need them to,” Campos said during the Sept. 10 hearing.

Chiu suggested at last week’s full board meeting that a grant awarded to the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area, for $100,000, was intended to aid unaccompanied youth and could leverage pro bono legal representation valued at some $8 million. But Oren Sellstrom, legal director at the Lawyer’s Committee, said during the Sept. 10 hearing, “The grant we received is not focused either on unaccompanied youth or on the rocket docket,” referring to expedited immigration court proceedings. Sellstrom said he thought the additional funding proposed by Campos was needed.

In the end, the members of the Budget & Finance Committee – Sups. John Avalos, Eric Mar, and Mark Farrell – voted unanimously to recommend approval of $1.063 million per year for two years, slightly less than the $1.2 million per year Campos had originally sought.

After the hearing, Campos told the Bay Guardian he was “cautiously optimistic” that the full board, which votes on the supplemental on Tue/16, would approve the funding. His office is working with the Mayor’s Office on Housing and Community Development to expedite the process of securing contracts if it wins full approval.

Farrell, the more conservative member of the committee, said he’d had concerns walking into the hearing but was struck by youth’s accounts of their experiences. He said he had previously represented undocumented immigrants as an attorney and was sympathetic to their cases. “I had some concerns about the fact that during our own budget process, every year, we cannot fund enough services,” he told the Bay Guardian.

But at the end of the day, Farrell said, “This is a situation we cannot turn our back on in San Francisco.”

Defend the deal

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EDITORIAL Creating a functional and equitable San Francisco for tomorrow requires political will and foresight today. Do our current political leaders have the requisite courage and commitment to the broad public interest, or are they too willing to give away the farm to powerful private interests wielding promises or threats?

This week at City Hall, there was a fascinating test case for these questions, one that we laid out on Sept. 8 on the SFBG.com Politics blog (“Developers lobby hard to slash payments promised to Transbay Terminal and high-speed rail”). In a nutshell, it involves developers of the biggest office towers proposed for San Francisco reneging on promises to pay for vital public infrastructure, which they made in exchange for lucrative upzoning of their properties.

With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, they hired top political fixer Willie Brown to make their case to politicians, including those he helped bring to power, giving him a cut of whatever money this shakedown can shake loose. The Board of Supervisors was set to consider the issue after the Guardian press time for this issue, so check our Politics blog for what happened, but there a few observations we can make without even knowing what the outcome was.

This power play would never happen unless these developers and their allies — including Salesforce, which has leased most of the Transbay Tower, what would be the tallest building on the West Coast — thought they had a reasonable chance of success. And given how the Mayor’s Office seems willing to give developers and business leaders whatever they want, it seems likely that this lobbying effort will more than pay for itself, to the detriment of the public.

Mayor Ed Lee isn’t a political leader, he’s really just the city’s chief administrator, a role he’s been playing since Brown was mayor and that he continues playing since Brown helped put him into Room 200. Chief-of-Staff Steve Kawa, another loyalist to Brown and downtown, dishes out discipline to supervisors who don’t toe the line.

City leaders should be willing to play hardball, stick to the original deal, and call the bluff of these developers, even if that means risking that these towers might not get built in their proposed form and timeline. Yes, that strategy might involve some legal liability, but these massive towers were always proposed as a means to an end.

San Francisco doesn’t need a 1,000-foot office building. But given its commitment to rebuild the Transbay Terminal, it does need to ensure that expensive project includes 21st century rail service connecting to the rest of the state, as well as the open space and neighborhood amenities that these developers should fund.

Equally important, San Francisco needs to show that it’s not for sale, that it won’t be bullied, and that its leaders are looking out for more than their own political interests.

Developers lobby hard to slash payments promised to Transbay Terminal and high-speed rail

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Will the San Francisco Board of Supervisors let developers of the biggest office towers proposed for San Francisco renege on promises to help pay for the Transbay Terminal reconstruction, extension of rail service to that site, and other public amenities? Or will Willie Brown successfully use politicians that he helped get into office — most notably Mayor Ed Lee and Sup. Jane Kim — to let the developers keep hundreds of millions of dollars in excess profits?

The answers to those questions will become clearer tomorrow [Tues/9] as the board considers a complex yet crucially important agenda item. It involves creation of a special tax district around the Transbay Terminal, where office tower developers have been awarded huge upzonings — including the Transbay Tower, which would be the tallest building on West Coast at more than 1,000 feet — in exchange for paying for public works projects to serve the area.

But those developers, including Hines, Boston Properties, TMG, and others (it’s not clear whether all six upzoned parcels are participating in the current lobbying effort and threatened lawsuit), are now objecting to paying about $1 billion in special taxes and seeking to get that amount lowered to about $400 million. And to do so, they’ve already paid Brown at least $100,000 just this quarter, kicking off a lobbying effort so intense that Brown has finally registered as a lobbyist after questionably resisting it for many years.

Leading the charge against that effort is Sup. Scott Wiener, who said the promised payments are crucial to paying for about $200 million in work on the Transbay Terminal and paying for the first $450 million of the $2.5 billion project of bringing high-speed rail and electrified Caltrain trains into the facility, as well as a promised public park on top of the terminal.

“The downtown extension is one of the most important transportation projects we will deliver in the foreseeable future. It’s a legacy project with huge benefits for San Francisco and the entire state,” Wiener told us. “We have to go to the mat to get it built, and a reduction in this assessment will significantly undermine our ability to deliver the project and get the train downtown. The last thing we need is a very expensive bus station with no train service.”

The developers and their spokespeople (including the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier & Ross, who announced Brown’s involvement in the project this summer) argue that their fees have gone up substantially since the plan was first hatched in 2007 and fleshed out in the 2012 Implementation Document (which relied on 2007 land values).

That’s true, but that’s mostly because the value of the properties have shot up in recent years (incidentally, so have the costs of bringing the trains downtown), which also makes the projects far more lucrative for the developers. And Adam Alberti, who represents the Transbay Joint Powers Agency, notes that the tax rate hasn’t changed: it’s still the same 0.55 percent of assessed value that it’s always been.

“The rate is exactly the same, 0.55 percent, but the difference is the land valuations,” Alberti told us.

When the rates were formally set this year by the Rate and Method of Appointment (RMA) document, based on detailed studies of the properties and the district, it did charge the tallest buildings a little more than the shorter ones, under the logic that penthouses are more profitable (for example, the Saleforce lease of most of the Transbay Tower is rumored to be the largest commercial office deal in city history).

But the paper trail of documents and conditions for the four projects that have so far been awarded their entitlements always indicated such details would be hashed out by RMA. Indeed, when the city responded to the developers’ legal threats with a 14-page letter on July 14, it meticulously dismantled the convoluted claims by the developers that there’s been some kind of bait-and-switch here.

Still, the developers have been aggressively working the corridors of power in City Hall trying to get their fees reduced.

“Having not received any of the relief that the the Land Owner sought, the Land Owner is now forced to formally protest the formation of the CFD [Community Financing District], the levying of special taxes pursuant to the RMA, and the incurrence of bonded indebtedness in the CFD,” Boston Properties (which has not returned our calls for comment) wrote in a Sept. 2 letter to the city, which prompted Kim, the district supervisor, to continue the item for one week.

The decision to employ Brown upped the ante on this power struggle, given that Brown (who also didn’t return our calls) helped engineer Mayor Lee’s appointment to office in 2011 and worked behind-the-scenes to help Jane Kim beat progressive challenger Debra Walker the year before. Since then, Kim (who didn’t return our calls for comment) has helped do Brown’s bidding a couple of times and made misleading statements about their relationship.

Kim will be a central figure in this unfolding drama, given that it’s taking place in her supervisorial district. Her predecessor, Chris Daly — who says that he’s already been burned once by Hines (which also wouldn’t comment), which he said broke a promise for another $100 million in fees to the TJPA — said the current lobbying effort is essentially a raid on the public coffers that endangers an important project.

“The last redeeming thing about Willie Brown was his unwavering support for Transbay Terminal,” Daly told us, “and now that’s gone too.”

Unfortunately, the complexities of this deal might make it difficult for the general public to digest just how it changes, particularly as they are engineered by Brown, a legendary political dealmaker who spent decades as speaker of the California Assembly before becoming mayor of San Francisco.

But Daly said this project is crucially important for Kim’s district, and it’ll be intriguing to see what happens: “I don’t think she can make a bad vote, but behind the scenes, I’m not sure how much she can stand up to Willie Brown.”  

If the board approves the special tax district and the RMA tomorrow, then the affected property owners will vote on whether to create this Mello-Roos District in December, with a two-thirds vote required for passage. The projects can’t proceed with their current entitlements unless such a district is created, so the effort now is to slash the payments that such a district would require.

“Smart development means, among other things, making sure that development pays for supporting infrastructure,” Wiener told us. “The creation and upzoning of this district were explicitly linked to to funding the transit center and the downtown train extension. By upzoning these properties, we provided the developers with massive additional value and, in fact, the properties have exploded in value. The transit assessment needs to reflect those current property values, not values from the bottom of the recession.” 

[UPDATE: Sup. Kim returned our calls this evening and said this was a difficult issue, but that she wants to defend the city’s stance. “At this point we’re in a legal dispute, an impasse,” Kim told us, noting that she supports the fee structure from the RMA rather than earlier estimates. “The city was very clear those rates were illustrative.”

She said this isn’t simply about getting more money for the Transbay Terminal projects, but holding developers accountable for the upzoning they received. “The question isn’t what is the most money we can extract from the developer,” she said. “The question is: What did we agree to?”

Kim said she has met with Willie Brown about the issue, but she isn’t feeled pressured by him or the developers he’s representing. “Are they making threats? No,” she said. “I didn’t feel pressure at the meeting.”

But she did say she’d always be willing to hear out Brown’s side of the story. “He can just pick up the phone and call me,” she said.

Tomorrow’s meeting will include a closed session discussion of the issue, given its potential for legal actions. As for whether she and other supervisors may be swayed by the legal threat to settle on a lower fee amount, she told us, “That’s what the closed session is for.”

Kim indicated she intends to support the fees the parties originally agreed to. “I think the rates were set clearly,” she said. 

But we may have to take that promise with a grain of salt. Kim has sometimes talked tough, only to compromise later on, as she did with her Housing Balance legislation. After tomorrow’s closed session, we’ll see if her vote is as fiery as her rhetoric. ]

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report. 

The sound of America

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER As recently as last month, Berry Gordy Jr., the 84-year-old music mogul, founder, and creator of Motown Records, was hailed as an American icon and an African American hero. Those were Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s words Aug. 18 when it was declared “Berry Gordy Day in the East Bay.”

Impeccably dressed, Gordy made a rare public appearance to speak and receive his accolades on the steps of Oakland’s City Hall. He briefly reminisced about his life’s achievements, particularly building Detroit’s Hitsville USA, not only in a physical sense, but also creating “The Sound of Young America,” as his label would come to be known to the world. Live cast performances from Motown the Musical, the theatrical show based on his autobiography from nearly 20 years ago — To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories Of Motown — were interspersed throughout the event.

The Kevin McCollum production (Avenue Q), directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, is running through Sept. 28 at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. But how does one fit all that the Motown-Gordy life story encompasses in a matter of just a few hours?

One sure way to please the audience is through music, which the production certainly does. Here we get a condensed version of a story that deals with America’s recent racist history, with scenes set at the Motortown Revue (which allowed segregated audiences in the South), to the full-on love story where Gordy’s muse, Diana Ross (convincingly played by Allison Semmes), serves as the impetus for his own business savvy and crossover to success with white audiences.

In the early ’60s, the industry still referred to Gordy’s output as “Negro” or “colored” music, or worse. African Americans weren’t seen as entrepreneurs — and owning an independent, predominantly black label was a revolutionary statement to say the least. Gordy’s personal history of being a boxer who idolized Joe Louis in the 1940s, and later borrowing $800 from his family to launch a recording studio, is chaotically interwoven with glazed-over details of complex business deals and lawsuits.

It’s not surprising, considering this is a musical, that an overreliance on a hefty catalog of sentimental songs that resonate throughout generations is a recurring theme. A combination of well-executed choreography and the hits we’ve come to know by the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the rest of the roster probably make for a more entertaining evening than going into detail, say, about top songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland defecting to create their own label, Invictus. Or the way top artists like the Jackson 5 and Ross would jump ship to other labels like RCA and Epic for more creative control or financial reasons. And any tales of Gaye’s in-studio drug use (documented in writings as being annoying to Ross while they recorded together during her solo years) are excluded, because this story is told from Gordy’s perspective.

And there are other exclusions. While it’s great to see the early acts from Gordy’s early Motown-Tamla Records days — such as Jackie Wilson, the Contours, Barrett Strong, and Mary Wells — getting recognition, Gaye’s frequent duet partner, Tammi Terrell, gets the shaft with nary a mention. It could be seen as added insult, but is more likely a gross oversight, when cast members depicting Gordy and Ross sing the Ashford and Simpson-penned soul ballad, “You’re All I Need to Get By,” one of Terrell’s signature hits with Gaye.

After the intermission, the latter half of Act Two seems especially rushed, though the costumes, sets, and décor during the Black Panther-Vietnam protest-Detroit riot eras, and the company’s relocation to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, are particularly vibrant.

As soon as we emerge from the tumult of the ’60s and the somewhat understated effects of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, the Jackson 5 are introduced (Reed Shannon plays the young versions of Gordy and Wonder, as well as Michael Jackson), and Ross’ solo career advances when she leaves the Supremes. Gordy’s master plan to have her sing standards in order to assimilate has often been a point of criticism, not only in this case, but also for his other acts, who have been accused of not being “black enough.” Eventually, though, it pays off when she plays grandiose venues that allow for elaborate stage productions. Her subsequent entrance into movie stardom seemed to be something he was grooming her for all along.

Motown revolutionized the world’s perceptions of music. Gordy’s story is one of success through persistence. Most (if not all) of his label’s artists share the same narrative of overcoming obstacles and having to struggle. After all, these were performers who literally had to dodge bullets on stage when they toured the South.

Audience members would be out of touch or ignorant if they couldn’t see the modern-day parallels in racial divisions — unrest and outrage over Mike Brown’s shooting death by police in Ferguson, Mo., had been going on for about a week at the time of Motown‘s press night. Viewers may have to ask themselves how much has changed in the last 50 years. That alone could merit this production’s cultural relevance, if not some harsh realizations. But I have a feeling most people crave those feel-good hit-factory songs, which do make seeing Motown the Musical worthwhile. *

MOTOWN THE MUSICAL

Through Sept. 28

Tue-Sat, 8pm (also Wed and Sat, 2pm); Sun, 2pm, $45-$210

Orpheum Theatre

1192 Market, SF

www.shnsf.com

 

Tom’s legacy

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steve@sfbg.com

At a moment when San Francisco politics has slid toward the slippery center — when one-time progressives align with business elites, the political rhetoric seems hollow, and the vaunted value of “civility” in City Hall increasingly looks more like a deceptive power grab by the Mayor’s Office — it feels so refreshing to talk with Tom Ammiano.

For one thing, he’s hilarious, always quick with quips that are not only funny, but often funny in insightful ways that distill complex issues down to their essence, delivered with his distinctive nasally honk and lightning timing. Ammiano developed as a stand-up comedian and political leader simultaneously, and the two professional sides feed off each other, alternatively manifesting in disarming mirth or penetrating bite.

But his humor isn’t the main reason why Ammiano — a 72-year-old state legislator, two-time mayoral candidate, and former supervisor and school board member — has become such a beloved figure on the left of state and local politics, or why so many progressives are sad to see him leaving the California Assembly and elected office this year for the first time since 1990.

No, perhaps the biggest reason why public esteem for Ammiano has been strong and rising — particularly among progressives, but also among those of all ideological stripes who decry the closed-door dealmaking that dominates City Hall and the State Capitol these days — is his political integrity and courage. Everyone knows where Tom Ammiano will stand on almost any issue: with the powerless over the powerful.

“Don’t make it about yourself, make it about what you believe in,” Ammiano told us, describing his approach to politics and his advice to up-and-coming politicians.

Ammiano’s positions derive from his progressive political values, which were informed by his working class upbringing, first-hand observations of the limits of American militarism, publicly coming out as a gay teacher at time when that was a risky decision, standing with immigrants and women at important political moments, and steadily enduring well-funded attacks as he created some of San Francisco’s most defining and enduring political reforms, from domestic partner benefits and key political reforms to universal health care.

“He has been able to remain true to his values and principles of the progressive movement while making significant legislative accomplishments happen on a number of fronts,” Sup. David Campos, who replaced Ammiano on the Board of Supervisors and is now his chosen successor in the California Assembly, told the Guardian. “I don’t know that we’ve fully understood the scope of his influence. He has influenced the city more than most San Francisco mayors have.”

So, as we enter the traditional start of fall election season — with its strangely uncontested supervisorial races and only a few significant ballot measures, thanks to insider political manipulations — the Guardian spent some time with Ammiano in San Francisco and in Sacramento, talking about his life and legacy and what can be done to revive the city’s progressive spirit.

 

 

LIFE OF THE CAPITOL

Aug. 20 was a pretty typical day in the State Capitol, perhaps a bit more relaxed than usual given that most of the agenda was concurrence votes by the full Senate and Assembly on bills they had already approved once before being amended by the other house.

Still, lobbyists packed the hall outside the Assembly Chambers, hoping to exert some last minute influence before the legislative session ended (most don’t bother with Ammiano, whose name is on a short list, posted in the hall by the Assembly Sergeant-at-Arms, of legislators who don’t accept business cards from lobbyists).

One of the bills up for approval that day was Ammiano’s Assembly Bill 2344, the Modern Family Act, which in many ways signals how far California has come since the mid-’70s, when Ammiano was an openly gay schoolteacher and progressive political activist working with then-Sup. Harvey Milk to defeat the homophobic Briggs Initiative.

The Modern Family Act updates and clarifies the laws governing same-sex married couples and domestic partners who adopt children or use surrogates, standardizing the rights and responsibilities of all parties involved. “With a few simple changes, we can help families thrive without needless legal battles or expensive court actions,” Ammiano said in a press statement publicizing the bill.

Ammiano arrived in his office around 10am, an hour before the session began, carrying a large plaque commending him for his legislative service, given to outgoing legislators during a breakfast program. “Something else I don’t need,” Ammiano said, setting the plaque down on a table in his wood-paneled office. “I wonder if there’s a black market for this shit.”

Before going over the day’s legislative agenda, Ammiano chatted with his Press Secretary Carlos Alcala about an editorial in that morning’s San Francisco Chronicle, “Abuse of disabled-parking program demands legislators act,” which criticized Ammiano for seeking minor changes in a city plan to start charging for disabled placards before he would sponsor legislation to implement it. The editorial even snidely linked Ammiano to disgraced Sen. Leland Yee, who is suspended and has nothing to do with the issue.

“I’ve had these tussles with the Chronicle from day one. They just want people to be angry with me,” Ammiano told us. “You stand up for anything progressive and they treat you like a piñata.”

He thought the criticism was ridiculous — telling Alcala, “If we do a response letter, using the words puerile and immature would be good” — and that it has as much to do with denigrating Ammiano, and thus Campos and other progressives, as the issue at hand.

“Anything that gets people mad at me hurts him,” Ammiano told us.

But it’s awfully hard to be mad at Tom Ammiano. Even those on the opposite side of the political fence from him and who clash with him on the issues or who have been subjected to his caustic barbs grudgingly admit a respect and admiration for Ammiano, even Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who told the Guardian as much when we ran into him on the streets of Sacramento later that day.

Ammiano says he rarely gets rattled by his critics, or even the handful of death threats that he’s received over the years, including the one that led the San Francisco Police Department to place a protective detail on him during the 1999 mayor’s race.

“You are buoyed by what you do, and that compensates for other feelings you have,” Ammiano said of safety concerns.

Finally ready to prepare for the day’s business, he shouts for his aides in the other room (“the New York intercom,” he quips). The first question is whether he’s going to support a bill sponsored by PG&E’s union to increase incentives for geothermal projects in the state, a jobs bill that most environmental groups opposed.

“That is a terrible bill, it’s total shit, and I’m not going to support it,” Ammiano tells his aide. “It’s a scam.”

As Ammiano continued to prepare for the day’s session, we headed down to the Assembly floor to get ready to cover the action, escorted by Alcala. We asked what he planned to do after Ammiano leaves Sacramento, and Alcala told us that he’ll look at working for another legislator, “but there would probably be a lot more compromises.”

 

 

SPARKING CHANGE

Compromises are part of politics, but Ammiano has shown that the best legislative deals come without compromising one’s political principles. Indeed, some of his most significant accomplishments have involved sticking to his guns and quietly waiting out his critics.

For all the brassy charm of this big personality — who else could publicly confront then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at a Democratic Party fundraiser in 2009 and tell him to “kiss my gay ass!” — Ammiano has usually done the work in a way that wasn’t showy or self-centered.

By championing the reinstatement of district supervisorial elections and waging an improbable but electrifying write-in campaign for mayor in 1999 (finishing second before losing to incumbent Willie Brown in the runoff election), Ammiano set the stage for progressives to finally win control of the Board of Supervisors in 2000 and keep it for the next eight years, forming an effective counterbalance to Gavin Newsom’s pro-business mayoralty.

“I just did it through intuition,” Ammiano said of his 1999 mayoral run, when he jumped into the race just two weeks before election day. “There was a lot of electricity.”

After he made the runoff, Brown and his allies worked aggressively to keep power, leaning on potential Ammiano supporters, calling on then-President Bill Clinton to campaign for Brown, and even having Jesse Jackson call Ammiano late one night asking him to drop out.

“That’s when we realized Willie really felt threatened by us,” Ammiano said, a fear that was well-founded given that Ammiano’s loss in the runoff election led directly into a slate of progressives elected to the Board of Supervisors the next year. “It was a pyrrhic victory for him because then the board changed.”

But Ammiano didn’t seize the spotlight in those heady years that followed, which often shone on the younger political upstarts in the progressive movement — particularly Chris Daly, Matt Gonzalez, and Aaron Peskin — who were more willing to aggressively wage rhetorical war against Newsom and his downtown constituents.

By the time the 2003 mayor’s race came, Ammiano’s mayoral campaign became eclipsed by Gonzalez jumping into the race at the last minute, a Green Party candidate whose outsider credentials contrasted sharply with Newsom’s insider inevitability, coming within 5 percentage points of winning.

“I just bounced back and we did a lot of good shit after that,” Ammiano said, noting how district elections were conducive to his approach to politics. “It helped the way I wanted to govern, with the focus on the neighborhoods instead of the boys downtown.”

Perhaps Ammiano’s greatest legislative victory as a supervisor was his Health Care Security Ordinance, which required employers in San Francisco to provide health coverage for their employees and created the Healthy San Francisco program to help deliver affordable care to all San Franciscans.

The business community went ballistic when Ammiano proposed the measure in 2006, waging an aggressive lobbying and legal campaign to thwart the ordinance. But Ammiano just quietly took the heat, refused to compromise, and steadily lined up support from labor, public health officials, and other groups that were key to its passage.

“Maybe the early days of being a pinata inured me,” Ammiano said of his ability to withstand the onslaught from the business community for so long, recalling that in his 1999 school board race, “I really became a pinata. I got it in the morning from the Chronicle and in the afternoon from the Examiner.”

Ammiano kept Newsom apprised of his intentions and resolve, resisting entreaties to water down the legislation. “I kept talking to him and I told him I was going to do it,” Ammiano said. “Eventually, we got a 11 to zip vote and Newsom couldn’t do anything about it. That was a great journey.”

In the end, Newsom not only supported the measure, but he tried to claim Ammiano’s victory as his own, citing the vague promise he had made in his 2007 State of the City speech to try to provide universal health care in the city and his willingness to fund the program in his 2007-08 budget.

But Ammiano was happy with the policy victory and didn’t quibble publicly with Newsom about credit. “I picked my battles,” Ammiano said, contrasting his approach to Newsom with that of his more fiery progressive colleagues. “I tried to go after him on policy, not personality.”

Ammiano isn’t happy with the political turn that San Francisco has taken since he headed to Sacramento, with the pro-business, fiscally conservative faction of the city controlling the Mayor’s Office and exerting a big influence on the Board of Supervisors. But San Francisco’s elder statesman takes the long view. “Today, the board has a moderate trajectory that can be annoying, but I think it’s temporary,” Ammiano said. “These things are cyclical.”

He acknowledges that things can seem to a little bleak to progressives right now: “They’re feeling somewhat marginalized, but I don’t think it’s going to stay that way.”

 

FLOOR SHOW

Back on the Assembly floor, Ammiano was working the room, hamming it up with legislative colleagues and being the first of many legislators to rub elbows and get photos taken with visiting celebrities Carl Weathers, Daniel Stern, and Ron Perlman, who were there to support film-credit legislation

“Ron Perlman, wow, Sons of Anarchy,” Ammiano told us afterward, relating his conversation with Perlman. “I said, ‘They killed you, but you live on Netflix.’ I told him I was big fan. Even the progressives come here for the tax breaks.”

When Little Hoover Commission Chair Pedro Nava, who used to represent Santa Barbara in the Assembly, stopped to pose with Ammiano for the Guardian’s photographer, the famously liberal Ammiano quipped, “You’ll get him in trouble in Santa Barbara. Drill, baby, drill!”

Ammiano chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee, where he has successfully pushed prison reform legislation and helped derail the worst tough-on-crime bills pushed by conservatives. “We have a lot of fun, and we get a chance to talk about all these bills that come before us,” Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, told the Guardian when asked about Ammiano. “You can see how these bad bills get less bad.”

Ammiano gave a short speech when his Modern Family Act came up for a vote, noting that it “simplifies the law around these procedures,” before the Assembly voted 57-2 to send it to the governor’s desk, where he has until Sept. 30 to act on it. “I think he’ll sign it,” Ammiano told the Guardian, “even though it’s about reproduction and naughty bits.”

“He’s a hoot,” Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) said of Ammiano, whose desk is right behind his own. Jones-Sawyer said that he’d love to see Ammiano run for mayor of San Francisco, “but he’s waiting for a groundswell of support. Hopefully the progressives come together.”

Jones-Sawyer said Ammiano plays an important role as the conscience of a Legislature that too often caters to established interests.

“There’s liberal, progressive, socialist, communist, and then there’s Tom,” Jones said. “As far left as you can go, there’s Tom, and that’s what we’re going to miss.”

Yet despite that strong progressive reputation, Ammiano has also been an amazingly effective legislator (something that might surprise those supporting the campaign of David Chiu, which has repeatedly claimed that ideological progressives like Ammiano and Campos can’t “get things done” in Sacramento).

Last year, Ammiano got 13 bills through the Legislature — including three hugely controversial ones: the TRUST Act, which curbs local cooperation with federal immigration holds; the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights; and a bill protecting transgender student rights in schools, which was savaged by conservative religious groups — all of which were signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.

“A lot of it is personal relationships, some is timing, and some is just sticking to it,” Ammiano said of effectiveness.

Some of his legislative accomplishments have required multiyear efforts, such as the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which was vetoed in 2012 before being signed into law last year with only a few significant changes (see “Do we care?” 3/26/13).

“Tom Ammiano was so incredible to work with,” Katie Joaquin, campaign coordinator for the California Domestic Workers Coalition, for whom the bill had long been a top priority, told the Guardian.

The large grassroots coalition backing the bill insisted on being a part of the decision-making as it evolved, which is not always easy to do in the fast-paced Capitol. But Joaquin said Ammiano’s history of working with grassroots activists made him the perfect fit for the consensus-based coalition.

“That’s difficult to do in the legislative process, and working with Tom and his office made that possible,” Joaquin told us. “He wanted to make sure we had active participation in the field from a variety of people who were affected by this.”

When the bill was vetoed by Gov. Brown, who cited paternalistic concerns that better pay and working conditions could translate into fewer jobs for immigrant women who serve as domestic workers, Joaquin said Ammiano was as disappointed as the activists, but he didn’t give up.

“It was really hard. I genuinely felt Tom’s frustration. He was going through the same emotions we were, and it was great that he wanted to go through that with us again,” Joaquin told us. “Sometimes, your allies can get fatigued with the long struggles, but Tom maintained his resolve and kept us going.”

And after it was over, Ammiano even organized the victory party for the coalition and celebrated the key role that activists and their organizing played in making California only the second state in the nation (after New York) to extend basic wage, hour, and working condition protections to nannies, maids, and other domestic workers excluded under federal law.

“He has a great sense of style,” Joaquin said of Ammiano, “and that emanates in how he carries himself.”

 

 

COMING OUT

Ammiano came to San Francisco in 1964, obtaining a master’s degree in special education from San Francisco State University and then going on to teach at Hawthorne Elementary (now known as Cesar Chavez Elementary). He quickly gained an appreciation for the complex array of issues facing the city, which would inform the evolution of his progressive worldview.

“In teaching itself, there were a lot of social justice issues,” Ammiano said. For example, most native Spanish-speakers at the time were simply dumped into special education classes because there wasn’t yet bilingual education in San Francisco schools. “So I turned to the community for help.”

The relationships that he developed in the immigrant community would later help as he worked on declaring San Francisco a sanctuary city as waves of Central American immigrants fled to California to escape US-sponsored proxy wars.

Growing up a Catholic working class kid in New Jersey, Ammiano was no hippie. But he was struck by the brewing war in Vietnam strongly enough that he volunteered to teach there through a Quaker program, International Volunteer Service, working in Saigon from 1966-68 and coming back with a strong aversion to US militarism.

“I came back from Vietnam a whole new person,” he told us. “I had a lot of political awakenings.”

He then worked with veterans injured during the war and began to gravitate toward leftist political groups in San Francisco, but he found that many still weren’t comfortable with his open homosexuality, an identity that he never sought to cover up or apologize for.

“I knew I was gay in utero,” Ammiano said. “I said you have to be comfortable with me being a gay, and it wasn’t easy for some. The left wasn’t that accepting.”

But that began to change in the early ’70s as labor and progressives started to find common cause with the LGBT community, mostly through organizations such as Bay Area Gay Liberation and the Gay Teachers Coalition, a group that Ammiano formed with Hank Wilson and Ron Lanza after Ammiano publicly came out as a gay teacher in 1975.

“He was the first public school teacher to acknowledge that he was a gay man, which was not as easy as it sounds in those days,” former Mayor Art Agnos told us, crediting Ammiano with helping make support for gay rights the default political position that it became in San Francisco.

San Francisco Unified School District still wasn’t supportive of gay teachers, Ammiano said, “So I ran for school board right after the assassinations [of Mayor George Moscone and Sup. Harvey Milk in 1978] and got my ass kicked.”

Shortly thereafter, Ammiano decided to get into stand-up comedy, encouraged by friends and allies who loved his sense of humor. Meanwhile, Ammiano was pushing for SFUSD to name a school after Milk, as it immediately did for Moscone, a quest that dragged on for seven years and which was a central plank in his unsuccessful 1988 run for the school board.

But Ammiano was developing as a public figure, buoyed by his stand-up performances (which he said Chronicle reporters would sometimes attend to gather off-color quotes to use against him in elections) and increased support from the maturing progressive and queer communities.

So when he ran again for school board in 1990, he finished in first place as part of the so-called “lavender sweep,” with LGBT candidates elected to judgeships and lesbians Carole Migden and Roberta Achtenberg elected to the Board of Supervisors.

On the school board, Ammiano helped bring SFUSD into the modern age, including spearheading programs dealing with AIDS education, support for gay students, distribution of condoms in the schools, and limiting recruiting in schools by the homophobic Boy Scouts of America.

“I found out we were paying them to recruit in the schools, but I can’t recruit?” Ammiano said, referencing the oft-raised concern at the time that gay teachers would recruit impressionable young people into homosexuality.

As his first term on the school board ended, a growing community of supporters urged Ammiano to run for the Board of Supervisors, then still a citywide election, and he was elected despite dealing with a devastating personal loss at the time.

“My partner died five days before the election,” Ammiano said as we talked at the bar in Soluna, tearing up at the memory and raising a toast with his gin-and-tonic to his late partner, Tim Curbo, who succumbed to a long struggle with AIDS.

Ammiano poured himself into his work as a supervisor, allied on the left at various points in the mid-late ’90s with Sups. Sue Bierman, Terrence Hallinan, Leland Yee, Mabel Teng, Angelo Alioto, and Carole Migden against the wily and all-powerful then-Mayor Brown, who Ammiano said “manipulated everything.”

But Ammiano gradually began to chip away at that power, often by turning directly to the people and using ballot measures to accomplish reforms such as laws regulating political consultants and campaign contributions and the reinstatement of district supervisorial elections, which decentralized power in the city.

“People frequently say about politicians, when they want to say something favorable, that they never forgot where they came from,” Agnos told us. “With Tom, he never forgot where he came from, and more importantly, he never forgot who he was…He was an authentic and a proud gay man, as proud as Harvey Milk ever was.”

And from that strong foundation of knowing himself, where he came from, and what he believed, Ammiano maintained the courage to stand on his convictions.

“It’s not just political integrity, it’s a reflection of the man himself,” Agnos said, praising Ammiano’s ability to always remain true to himself and let his politics flow from that. “A lot of politicians don’t have the courage, personal or political, to do that.”

 

 

WHAT’S NEXT

Ammiano’s legacy has been clearly established, even if it’s not always appreciated in a city enamored of the shiny and new, from recent arrivals who seem incurious about the city’s political history to the wave of neoliberal politicians who now hold sway in City Hall.

“Tom has carried on the legacy of Harvey Milk of being the movement progressive standard bearer. He has, more than anyone else, moved forward progressive politics in San Francisco in a way that goes beyond him as an individual,” Campos said, citing the return of district elections and his mentoring of young activists as examples. “He brought a number of people into politics that have been impactful in their own right.”

Campos is one of those individuals, endorsed by Ammiano to fill his District 9 seat on the Board of Supervisors from among a competitive field of established progressive candidates. Ammiano says he made the right choice.

“I have been supportive of him as a legislator and I think he’s doing the right things,” Ammiano said of Campos, adding an appreciation for the facts that he’s gay, an immigrant, and a solid progressive. “He’s a three-fer.”

Ammiano said that Campos has been a standout on the Board of Supervisors in recent years, diligently working to protect workers, tenants, and immigrants with successful efforts to increase tenant relocation fees after an eviction and an attempt to close the loophole that allows restaurants to pocket money they’re required to spend on employee health care, which was sabotaged by Chiu and Mayor Lee.

“I like his work ethic. He comes across as mild-mannered, but he’s a tiger,” Ammiano said of Campos. “If you like me, vote for David.”

But what about Ammiano’s own political future?

Ammiano said he’s been too busy lately to really think about what’s next for him (except romantically: Ammiano recently announced his wedding engagement to Carolis Deal, a longtime friend and lover). Ammiano is talking with universities and speakers bureaus about future gigs and he’s thinking about writing a book or doing a one-man show.

“Once I get that settled, I’ll look at the mayor’s race and [Sen. Mark] Leno’s seat,” Ammiano said, holding out hope that his political career will continue.

Ammiano said the city is desperately in need of some strong political leadership right now, something that he isn’t seeing from Mayor Lee, who has mostly been carrying out the agenda of the business leaders, developers, and power brokers who engineered his mayoral appointment in 2011.

“Basically, he’s an administrator and I don’t think he’ll ever be anything but that,” Ammiano said. “We are so fucking ready for a progressive mayor.”

If Ammiano were to become mayor — which seems like a longshot at this point — he says that he would use that position to decentralize power in San Francisco, letting the people and their representatives on the Board of Supervisors have a greater say in the direction of the city and making governance decisions more transparent.

“I don’t believe in a strong mayor [form of government],” Ammiano said. “If I was mayor, all the commission appointments would be shared.”

But before he would decide to run for mayor, Ammiano says that he would need to see a strong groundswell of public support for the values and ideals that he’s represented over nearly a half-century of public life in San Francisco.

“I don’t want to run to be a challenger,” Ammiano said. “I’d want to run to be mayor.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shahum leaving SF Bike Coalition to study Vision Zero

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San Francisco cyclists are losing a key advocate — but this and other US cities may next year gain a knowledgable new leader for Vision Zero, the ambitious program for eliminating all pedestrian deaths — with today’s announcement by Leah Shahum that she is stepping down as executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition at the end of the year.

Shahum has been accepted into the German Marshall Fund Fellowship, a four-month program where she will study European success stories in the Vision Zero concept, focusing on cities in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany, before returning to the US to work on programs that reduce traffic-related fatalities.

“They’ve made huge progress after they started with Vision Zero in the late ‘90s,” Shahum told the Guardian. “I’m really passionate about the potential of Vision Zero in San Francisco and other US cities.”

At the SFBC, Shahum worked her way up from a volunteer to becoming executive director 12 years ago, presiding over the organization becoming the city’s largest grassroots, member-based advocacy organization, one that has a strong influence at City Hall.

Shahum has also sought to broaden the SFBC’s mission, working closely with organizations such as Livable City and Walk San Francisco to challenge paradigms and funding models that heavily favor the automobile on the streets of San Francisco.

“The work we’ve been doing at the Bike Coalition has long been broader than just biking,” Shahum said. “The work we’re doing benefits all road users and I think it’s important to bring everyone into this discussion.”

Walk SF Director Nicole Schneider said Shahum’s departure is bittersweet news.

“It’s really sad to see her go and we’ll dearly miss her tenacity and leadership in San Francisco,” Schneider told the Guardian. “But I’m thrilled that she’s working on Vision Zero and she’ll be a huge asset in this country.”

While the Board of Supervisors adopted the goals of Vision Zero earlier this year, that program has yet to be fully defined or funded, particularly after Mayor Ed Lee ditched a fall ballot measure that would have increased the local vehicle license fee, which would have dedicated some funding to pedestrian safety improvements.

“We need to really figure out what Vision Zero means for a US city, so we can learn a lot from European cities,” Schneider said. “In order to implement Vision Zero, we’re going to need funding to replace our obsolent traffic infrastructure that valued speed over safety.”

Shahum said it was a good time to make the transition and focus on Vision Zero, which will be the subject of an international conference she’ll attend this November in New York City, which has been leading the way on the concept among major US cities.    

“It’s at the valuable crossroads of injury prevention and sustainable transportation,” Shahum said. “I’m excited to take Vision Zero to the next level, not just in San Francisco, but around the nation.”

SFBC put out a statement commending Shahum for her 17 years of work with the SFBC and announcing it will be conducting a nationwide search for a new director.

“We thank Leah immensely for leading our community’s efforts to make San Francisco a safer, more inviting place to bike and a better place for all of us to live,” SFBC Board of Director President Lawrence Li said in the statement. “Leah leaves behind a legacy of one of the most bike-friendly big cities in America and one of the most well-organized and effective membership groups in the country.”

Shahum said she’s not sure exactly what form her post-fellowship work will take, but that she’s excited about the possibilities of this opportunity.

“I think it’s time for some new adventures,” Shahum told us. “As much as I love what we’re doing in San Francisco, things have to move faster to be meaningful.”

Airbnb must work with SF

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EDITORIAL

Airbnb and other companies that facilitate illegal short-term apartment rentals to tourists visiting San Francisco need to engage in a more honest and direct dialogue with this city’s political leaders and stakeholders, something that became clear during last week’s Planning Commission hearing on legislation that would legalize and regulate short-term sublets.

This is a complicated, vexing issue that defies simple solutions, as Board of Supervisors President David Chiu learned as he and his aides spent more than year developing the legislation. They did a pretty good job at striking a balance between letting people occasionally rent out their homes and preventing Airbnb from being used to remove apartments from the already strained local housing market.

A key provision for striking that balance was to limit rentals to no more than 90 nights per year, but the Planning Commission — dominated by appointees from Mayor Ed Lee, who has long coddled Airbnb’s scofflaw approach to the city (see “Into thin air,” 8/6/13) — removed that provision, which the Board of Supervisors should reinstate.

The commission also seemed to side with landlords who want to prevent their tenants from renting out rooms, calling for landlords to be notified when their tenants seek to become Airbnb hosts, another provision the board should reject. Landlords using Airbnb to get around rent control laws is at least as bad as tenants who violate their leases by subletting rooms, and this legislation shouldn’t favor one group over the other.

If the city decides to end its decades-old ban on short-term apartment rentals, it should have a compelling reason to do so. Maybe we want to allow struggling city residents to make some extra money while they’re out of town, or to have some flexibility in renting out rooms without taking on permanent tenants, which are legitimate if difficult policy questions.

But it seems like much of the discussion is about how to rein in the widespread violation of city housing and tax laws caused by Airbnb, which has refused requests to share more of its occupancy data, dodged its obligation to collect the city’s transient occupancy tax, and failed to even send a high-level representative to last week’s hearing. Yet the legislation would require the company’s cooperation to help enforce the regulations.

If Airbnb and its hosts want the city to legalize lucrative short-term rentals in San Francisco, then the company should be willing to engage in high-level public discussions with city leaders to shape this important legislation, rather than simply whipping its hosts into a libertarian frenzy with deceptive public relations campaigns.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has gotten rich with a business model that is illegal in its home city, so the very least he can do is show up at City Hall next month to make a good faith effort to help solve the divisive problems that his company is creating.

 

Chinese youth rally for a brighter future

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High school students with Youth Movement of Justice Organizing (Youth MOJO), a teen leadership program affiliated with the Chinese Progressive Association, rallied at San Francisco City Hall Aug. 7 in a show of support for two citywide measures slated to appear on the November ballot.

The first would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018. The second, known as the anti-speculation tax, would impose a steep financial penalty on real estate investors who sell apartment buildings within five years of purchase, an effort to reverse the rising trend of Ellis Act evictions and limit skyrocketing rental prices.

High school student Alice Kuang, who has been active with Youth MOJO since last year, said she felt the effort to preserve affordability was critical for Chinese families who typically earn low wages. “I lived in an SRO in Chinatown for 13 years,” she explained, referring to a single-room occupancy hotel, a dormitory-style housing complex. Throughout the city, thousands of low-income tenants rely on SROs for affordable housing, but these units have been subjected to price increases and have started to become lost as affordable housing stock when they’re listed as short-term rentals on Airbnb.

“In the SRO, it was like one big community,” Kuang said. “Everyone supported each other. Like my mom knew exactly who was boiling water and then, to make sure the water didn’t spill over, she would run up to knock on people’s doors and be like, hey, your food’s done. It was a really strong community. I remember living there since I was born. It was a very small room. The four of us lived in it — we had a bunk bed, and another bunk bed, basically.”

Jessica Ng, a recent high school graduate and Youth MOJO member, said she was focused on advocating for the minimum wage proposal. “One of my parents became unemployed last year so it really took a toll on me, and made me realize that I have to also help,” she said, “like paying my part of the bill, or paying for groceries even.”

She said an internship with Young Asian Women Against Violence helped her earn some supplementary household income. “When I started getting a paycheck every three weeks or so, I started to pay my part of the bill,” she said. “With an increase in the minimum wage, it would really help with people who are my age who are going to college and want to help their families.”