Tim Redmond

Pot, domestic worker bills win approval


Two bills that we’ve been following, one to regulate medical marijuana and the other to give domestic workers some basic rights, won approval from a key state Assembly committee and are headed for the Assembly floor.

Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s AB 473, which would create a division under the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to write statewide regs for dispensaries, cleared the Appropriations Committee (where many good bills go to die) May 24. It’s a big step: For years, most of official Sacramento was afraid even to talk about the devil weed, much less take action on something that might look like a sign of approval. Now that the biggest problem with medical marijuana is zoning (and federal crackdowns) — and frankly, California is only a couple of years away from following Colorado and legalizing pot anyway — it makes sense to have a framework in place to ensure quality control, register dispensaries … and maybe convince the feds to back down.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, AB 241, would require people to treat household workers with the same respect and the same types of benefits as most other workers. It would mandate work breaks, sleep breaks, overtime … pretty basic stuff. But the guv, for reasons known only to him, vetoed it last time around. Perhaps he’ll come to his senses.

The bills will probably make it to the Assembly floor next week.


Democrats reject 8 Washington


The San Francisco Democratic Party has voted to oppose the 8 Washington project and to endorse the ballot measure that would halt it.

By a 15-4 margin, the Democratic County Central Commitee, which makes policy for the local party, endorsed a No vote on the fall referendum that would negate the height limit increase developer Simon Snellgrove says he needs to build the ultra-luxury condos. The units would be the most expensive in San Francisco history.

The supervisors approved the height limit last fall. The referendum puts the issue directly before the voters, and foes of the project need a “no” vote to reject it.

“This was a huge victory,” Jon Golinger, who is running the campaign against the condos, told me. “The Democratic Party is a huge endorsement in San Francisco.”

That’s particularly true in a low-turnout election — and since there aren’t any high-profile races on this November’s ballot, I would guess only the most serious voters will make it to the polls.

The Sierra Club — another group that carries a lot of clout — has already come out against the project.

Snellgrove’s forces first tried to delay the vote until late summer, arguing that the committee needed more time to get all the facts. But Sup. David Chiu, a DCCC member, noted that this project has been discussed and analyzed and fought over for so long already that there’s nothing new anyone could possibly learn by delaying.

The motion to delay failed. Only Bevan Dufty, Sup. Scott Wiener, Sup. Malia Cohen and Kat Anderson voted in favor of the project. Voting against were Bill Fazio, Trevor McNeil, Kelly Dwyer, Leah Pimentel, Hene Kelly, Alix Rosenthal, Carole Migden, Rafael Mandelman, Matt Dorsey, Petra DeJesus, Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, State Senator Leland Yee, Chiu, Sup. David Campos, and Sup. John Avalos.


PG&E can’t survive solar energy


Years ago, in the middle of the boom in nuclear power plants, we used to say, only half in jest, the private utilities would never accept solar energy because you can’t put a meter on the sun. Turns out that’s pretty close to true.

A new report by The Energy Collective argues that Pacific Gas and Electric Company may be the first utility in the country to go under — because of competition with cheap solar in sunny California. Once solar becomes competitive with PG&E, more and more customers will install panels, forcing PG&E to raise rates on the remaining customers, who will then have even more reason to go solar. The groundwork is already there:

PG&E’s marginal prices cannot compete with solar. Large residential customers pay 31¢-35¢/kWh [kilowatt-hour], the same prices that cause the solar revolutions in Hawaii and Australia. Even worse, according to PG&E, “By 2022, PG&E’s top residential rate could reach 54 cents.” Residential customers represent about 40 percent of PG&E’s retail electric revenue. Commercial customers experience high rates, too. Unlike residential customers, who need a commercial third party to own the solar panels to take advantage of the accelerated depreciation, commercial customers can keep that advantage for themselves, making solar more financially attractive. Commercial customers represent about 46 percent of PG&E’s retail electric revenue.

If it happens soon, it will happen here:

“There is nowhere else in the U.S. with the same confluence of events,” says Short: “High and rising marginal prices, good sunshine, and inability to respond to changed competitive circumstances. If ever an electric utility was set up to fall to solar, it is PG&E.”

This is a great argument for promoting CleanPowerSF (and a good explanation for why PG&E wants to kill it), and shows the need for an eventual municipal takeover of the grid, because even with widespread solar, there’s going to be a need to power to move around between generators and users at different times of the day. And if PG&E is headed for collapse, the city ought to be able to get the infrastructure cheap.


Senate goes after tax-cheating Apple


Glad I’m not the only one who thinks its an outrage that the world’s most valuable company, with vast revenues and huge cash surpluses, is looking for ways to avoid paying federal taxes. A US Senate committee is going after Apple, with the chair, Carl Levin, saying the company created “ghost corporations” in Ireland to hide profits and cheat the US out of $9 billion.

Now, just for the record: What Apple is doing is probably legal. The federal tax code is, to put it mildly, all fucked up, and it allows US companies to get away with all sorts of gimmicks.

But remember: Somebody has to pay for all the debt that GW Bush racked up in his foolish wars, and all the other (much smaller) expenses that the federal government incurs. So if Apple hids $9 billion, then you and me — or, as the late, great Jonathan Kwitny put it, “the millions of lathe operators, clerks, computer programmers, dirt farmers, druggists, and hod carriers who are harnessed collectively as the American taxpayer” — have to make up the difference.

I’m glad Sen. Levin is on this.


Young, creative people who work hard


I almost don’t know what to say, except: Finally, someone admits it.

Rebecca Pederson, writing in The Bold Italic, explains why she actually likes the idea that San Francisco is becoming so expensive that thousands of longtime residents are being forced out; see, if it’s more expensive to live here, then young, creative people will work harder:

People who want to make a living here from their creative work should have to hustle; it makes the successes much more meaningful.

Ah, yes. “Hustle.” So all the older people who are, say, not trained in the tech field, or might be disabled and unable to “hustle,” or the single parents who “hustle” all the goddam day just to keep the family together, or all the “creative” people who work for nonprofits or (gasp) are artists — and trust me, they “hustle” as much as any tech worker … they don’t get to live here any more. Because

We can’t afford to walk barefoot around Golden Gate Park and write half-sonnets about trees. This city’s too expensive now.

I don’t know anyone who thinks we still live in the Beat era. I don’t know anyone who has ever written a half-sonnet about trees, and nobody with any sense of public health walks barefoot in Golden Gate Park. Get a clue.

But I do know a whole lot of people, including some who work for websites, who are seeing their lives and their community destroyed by rising prices — which are due primarily to greed in the real-estate industry.

I don’t think all tech workers are anywhere near as dumb as Rebecca Pederson, but I do see a lot of her attitude around: We are young and have money, and you are old and in the way. That’s capitalism.

The “older people are losers” attitude was the worst part of the Sixties ethos (although disdain for labor — often reciprocated by conservative unions — was pretty bad, too.) This is a big city, with a diverse population. Not everyone is healthy and able to “hustle.” Not everyone is young and carefree. Please, my friends: Have respect for the community you recently dropped into.

Yes, I was a San Francisco immigrant, too, in a different era, and I know things will always change, but I don’t remember my young friends believing that they were by nature better and smarter than the people who already lived here. It’s called respect.



Housing for the rootless superrich


When San Francisco looks at building ultra-luxury housing — places like 8 Washington — and some city officials and “experts” say it’s going to help meet the housing needs of the city, we ought to look at what’s happening in Manhattan. There, high-end housing is being flooded with people who don’t live in Manhattan, won’t live in Manhattan, and will at best hang out there a few weeks a year.

Only 10 floors have been completed in what is intended to be the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere — a slender, 84-story tower on Park Avenue at 56th Street in Manhattan. But the top penthouse is already under contract for $95 million. Other buyers have snapped up apartments on lower floors for prices that are almost as breathtaking. While their identities are not known, it is likely that many are the rootless superrich: Russian metals barons, Latin American tycoons, Arab sheiks and Asian billionaires.

Why does that matter? Other than the fact that, according to developers, “Only about a quarter of the units will be occupied at any one time,” which doesn’t make for street life, community or even much in the way of economic benefits? Here’s the problem:

The growth in high-end projects in Manhattan comes as housing for the working and middle class is in increasingly short supply in the city. These buildings are proving so profitable that they are warping the local real-estate market, making it more difficult to put up more-affordable housing.

Developers have long complained that the prices of land, construction materials and labor are high in New York, even if they are somewhat less expensive than in London or Hong Kong.

But builders of ultraluxury apartments have much more latitude on costs because they are securing spectacular prices for their projects.

As a result, the luxury building trend is driving up the overall cost of land in the city. Several developers maintained that they could build moderately priced housing only if they could get significant tax breaks.

Sound familiar? There is, one New York architects say, “only two markets, ultraluxury and subsidized housing.” San Francisco is also an international city, and prices here are even better than New York. So don’t be surprised if, in a city that doesn’t seem a bit concerned about how much new housing costs or who the buildings are designed for, we reach Manhattan-like levels of insanity.



Can’t a guy even smoke crack in peace any more?


Okay: Yes, it’s really funny that the mayor of Toronto, who is an odd guy at best, was apparently caught on a cell-phone video sucking on a crack pipe. Insert jokes here. Go ahead.

It reminds me, since I’m very old, of the last crack-pipe mayor, Marion Barry, who in 1990 fell into an FBI sting when a former girlfriend invited him to her hotel room to have sex. Turns out she was an FBI informant, and when she suggested they get high before getting into bed, the fibbies caught Barry on a secret camera. Didn’t do much to harm his career — he served six months in jail and was soon re-elected mayor.

In Ford’s case, it’s hard to see how he’d even get arrested. I don’t know Canadian law, but a videotape of someone smoking out of a glass pipe isn’t legal evidence of cocaine posession (hey, it could have been medical marijuana). At this point, there really isn’t a crime. But already, there are calls for him to resign, and it’s going to be hard to put this behind him.

The interesting twist, though, is that the person who filmed him wasn’t a cop at all; it was someone else in the room, quite possibly a dealer, who was looking for a big cash score. Which could be coming — Gawker is trying to raise $200,000 to pay for the clip. (Yes, you can chip in and help crowd-fund the further embarassment of a politician!)

Now, it’s pretty likely that the person with the camera wasn’t a good-government crusader or an anti-drug type. What happened here, it appears, is someone who is either selling crack or smoking it with Hizzoner then gets into not-quite extortion or blackmail (though he might have called Ford before putting it out on the open market) but certainly a setup of another kind.

I’m not advocating that the mayor of Toronto (or anyone else) smoke crack. It’s nasty shit. But isn’t it just a tiny bit creepy that you can’t even sit in a crack den without worrying that you’re going to star in a Gawker video?

What if instead of smoking crack he’d been fucking a woman (or a guy) he wasn’t married to? Would Gawker raise $200,000 to see a mayor having consensual sex outside of Holy Matrimony? (Eeew, I don’t want to see Rob Ford having sex, but you get the point.)

I’m sorry, trolls, but I have to admit that (like pretty much everyone I know) I have done things in my life, in the privacy of my own or someone else’s home, that I don’t think should be public (crack smoking, for better or worse, not being one of them). Never hurt anyone, so it’s my fucking business. And it’s kind of creepy to think that anyone in the room could be filming me now, for all of posterity. 

From now on, folks, hide the crack pipe.



The Ro Khanna party


When Ro Khanna, a young, energetic intellectual property lawyer, ran for Congress against Tom Lantos, he was the candidate of the progressives. I liked Khanna, and appreciated his willingness to take on the almost unheard-of task of challenging a longtime incumbent in a Democratic primary. At that point, in 2004, the big issues were the war and the PATRIOT Act, and Khanna was against both. Lantos, who was always hawkish on defense issues (and a die-hard supporter of Israel, no matter what the Israeli government was doing), was clearly out of touch with his district. But Khanna never got much traction, and he lost pretty badly.

Now he’s back, in a new era of top-two primaries (which has its own problems), and in a different district. He’s taking on Mike Honda, who, like Lantos, has been around a while, and hasn’t faced serious opposition in years.

And this time around, it’s not Matt Gonzalez and the left supporting Khanna — it’s Lite Guv Gavin Newsom, who beat Gonzalez for mayor of SF, along with Ron Conway and the tech industry. And  instead of talking about failed US military policies, he’s talking about bringing the interests of Silicon Valley to Washington:

“The premise of this campaign is quite simple,” Khanna told the crowd. “We’ve had quite brilliant people…use technology to change the world. And it’s time that we actually change politics, that Silicon Valley has the potential to do this.” “It’s not just about having a tech agenda. This is about something much deeper — our values, and our ability to use those values to change Washington and the world,” he told them.

Now: It’s not as if Mike Honda has been horrible to Silicon Valley. He’s been involved in all sorts of tech-related issues. But he’s of a different generation, and however stereotypical it may be to say it, there’s a certain level of ageism in the tech world right now. Honda is old; the wealth in the tech world is overwhelmingly young. Politico notes:

Khanna’s decision to take on Honda also reflects a long-standing frustration among many young California pols who have been patiently waiting for older members to exit the state’s congressional delegation. Last year’s induction of an independent redistricting committee and a jungle primary system in which the top two finishers in an open primary advance to the runoff regardless of party affiliation, helped push many senior members into retirement.

Oh, and Honda is very much a pro-labor guy. And tech firms are almost never unionized, and their owners and workers don’t tend to have the same sympathies for labor unions as young activists did 20 years ago.

Politico doesn’t give Khanna much of a shot; it’s going to be a tough battle. Honda’s been around the district forever, and has no apparent scandals or gaffes (and unlike poor Pete Stark, he doesn’t seem to be losing his marbles).

But money talks, and Khanna’s got a lot of it — and in some ways, this will be a new-money-v.-old-Democratic Party, tech v. labor kind of battle that will say a lot about where Bay Area politics are going as the region’s population, and wealth, are dramatically and rapidly changing.

Why is the SF housing market “positive?”


It’s been a long, long time since anyone said that traffic is terrific. When there are too many cars on the road, it’s considered bad, not healthy — even if the boom in single-occupant auto travel is a sign of a recovering economy and lots of job creation.

So why do newspaper reports still talk about a “positive market trend” when home prices reach levels that no middle-class people can ever afford? Why does the Chronicle run a quote like this …

Steve Berkowitz, CEO of online listing company Move Inc., said the region “is seeing a real stabilization and a really positive market trend. There is a very solid market in all the Bay Area counties.”

… without any indication that soaring housing prices are bad for most people who want to live in the area, bad for businesses, particularly small businesses, that have trouble paying employees enough to afford to live near where they work, bad for the environment (when people have to move further and further from their jobs to find affordable housing) and generally bad for the region?

Yes, it’s good to see that people who were underwater on their homes are getting back into the black. But for the most part, what we’re seeing is the affordability of homes soar way beyond the reach of the vast majority of people who work in San Francisco. That’s not “terrific.” That’s terrifying.

Small Business Awards 2013: Business Alliance for Local Living Economies


The folks at the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies were locavores before the fancy foodies ever created that word. They were talking about a new economy more than a decade ago — and their vision involves networks that are human, not just electronic.

BALLE is the heart of the movement for localism, for building economies based on communities.

Founded in 2001 by Judy Wicks, who owned a restaurant in Philadelphia, and Laury Hammel, who owned a group of sports clubs in Boston, the group has expanded to a national operation with one of its two main offices in Oakland.

BALLE offers resources, training, and connections for businesses that want to build a more sustainable economy.

The main premise of the BALLE model is the notion that businesses are best when they are locally owned, use local suppliers, and operate as part of a local community. The philosophy of the group is ecological: living economies are like all living systems, and they do better when they’re diverse and recycle energy and resources.

Not to mention that BALLE rolled out the concept of crowd-funding long before Kickstarter ever made the scene. Its built businesses that defy the traditional model — and they’ve succeeded. The group’s dedicated to sharing that vision, and the tools they’ve developed, with others.

BALLE conferences, affinity groups, and mentoring programs help individual entrepreneurs and startups — but also play a role in trying to build a more equitable, just, and sustainable economy for everyone. 


Small Business Awards 2013: Universal Martial Arts


Police officers and security guards get trained in the use of firearms and batons; they know how to hurt and sometimes kill people. But most of them don’t get the sort of basic unarmed self-defense training that would allow them to subdue an assailant without dangerous or lethal force.

That’s where Universal Martial Arts Academy comes in. The only martial arts school with a full-time facility in the Bayview, Universal specializes in self-defense classes for security professionals and also offers classes for the general public.

Jim Hundon, the founder and head instructor, is an expert in small-circle jujitsu and holds multiple black belts in other disciplines. He’s been in martial arts since high school, and trained with two instructors of Chinese kenpo who were students of Bruce Lee. He’s worked with the legendary Grandmaster Wally Jay, and has since developed his own style, ju trap boxing. He’s in the US Martial Arts Hall of Fame.

In other words, he’s a total badass.

In person, though, Hundon is soft-spoken, polite, and humble. His modest-sized studio on Third Street, built from a trashed empty storefront, is clean and well-designed with immaculate hardwood floors. He has regular students as well as contracts with companies like California Pacific Medical Center and Paramount Studios, where he teaches security guards how to keep themselves — and others — safe.

“The piece always missing in law-enforcement training is the empty hand,” Hundon tells me. “You’re in a verbal confrontation and a person takes a swing at you; what are you going to do, shoot him?”

Hundon notes that most cops spend far more time on the shooting range than they do with unarmed self-defense. “Everyone has a right to defend themselves,” he says. “But you don’t always have to strike back. You can protect yourself so everyone goes home alive.”

In 2010, Hundon (who is 64 but looks about 35) received the Bayview Hunters Point Community Leadership Award for his work with at-risk youth. “I love giving back to the community,” he says. “We’re so proud to be the first martial arts school in the neighborhood.”

4348 Third St., SF. (415) 671-2055, www.umaacademy.info

Editor’s notes



EDITORS NOTES Jaron Lanier is not a Luddite. He’s one of the most brilliant technologists in the world, the virtual inventor of virtual reality and one of the first people calling for information (and music) to be free. He was a tech giant when most of today’s tech titans were in their disposable diapers. So when he starts talking about how the Internet is destroying the middle class, everybody ought to listen.

And that’s exactly what he saying in his new book, Who Owns the Future?

Lanier is 53; he’s been around long enough to see some of the best promises our modern industrial era turn out to be failures or lies. He’s got a little perspective on things — and he’s not happy with what he’s seeing.

We all know American capitalism is a force for disruption and destruction as well as creativity and creation. We all know that industries are born and die. The automobile replaced the horse and buggy. And in a lot of today’s conventional thinking, the tech revolution is just another step in the same direction.

Lanier has another perspective. The current light-speed, youth-driven tech economy has undermined the social contract that has been part of the United States political and economic systems since the Great Depression: People ought to have the right to job security, a decent wage, and the chance to have a family and grow old.

In an interview with Salon, Lanier notes:

“We don’t realize that our society and our democracy ultimately rest on the stability of middle-class jobs. When I talk to libertarians and socialists, they have this weird belief that everybody’s this abstract robot that won’t ever get sick or have kids or get old. It’s like everybody’s this eternal freelancer who can afford downtime and can self-fund until they find their magic moment or something.

“The way society actually works is there’s some mechanism of basic stability so that the majority of people can outspend the elite so we can have a democracy. That’s the thing we’re destroying, and that’s really the thing I’m hoping to preserve. So we can look at musicians and artists and journalists as the canaries in the coal mine, and is this the precedent that we want to follow for our doctors and lawyers and nurses and everybody else? Because technology will get to everybody eventually.”

Hey Googlers and Twitterati and Facebookians: You should listen, sometimes, to your elders.

Randy Shaw just loves Capitalism


Well: We all know that Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and editor of BeyondChron, is a loyal, devoted fan of Mayor Ed Lee. We know that he pretty much sees no wrong in the Lee Administration. But his attack on the Chron’s John King for daring to say that there’s a lack of planning on the waterfront is remarkable not only because there IS a lack of planning on the waterfront but because Shaw’s position is essentially that King is (gasp) anti-Captialist.


Ultimately, King’s critique is more directed at the U.S. capitalist system than to Mayor Lee, his predecessors, or other urban mayors. Private developers have long called the shots in urban America because the government does not go into the lucrative business of building and operating office buildings, luxury housing or tourist hotels. In the absence of government development, private interests determine what gets built. And when planners decide, under King’s favored approach, to dictate land use policies for a certain area, success is dependent on attracting private investment.

 Randy: The whole concept of city planning is “dictating land use policies for a certain area.” That’s not just King’s favored approach; it’s the essence of how progressive cities operate. Yes, you (sadly) have to attract private investment, but you don’t have to let the private developers lead the way. You can say: This is the kind of city we want; if you want to build here, build to our terms.

If you don’t do that, you become the wild west.

I’m surprised how far Randy Shaw has moved to the right on development issues in the past year; this piece could have been written by the folks at SPUR. Everything is about serving the needs of the private sector.

So BeyondChron is now the voice of the developers, and the Chronicle is the one raising the critical issues. What an odd world this has become.



Tech guru says Internet destroying middle class


Jaron Lanier isn’t a Luddite. He can’t be dismissed as a crackpot, whiner critic who is jealous of the success of others. He virtually invented virtual reality; he was a tech guru when most of today’s tech titans were still in diapers. So when he says that the Internet is destroying the middle class, maybe everyone ought to stop for a second and listen.

Okay, as I’ve said before: The Internet didn’t destroy San Francisco. Technology is a tool; it can be used in good ways and bad ways, and its impacts on society, particularly on the poor, can be mitigated by government action (or greatly worsened by inaction).

But Lanier is concerned that the business boom that has been created by high tech has made social inequality worse and is wiping out the middle class that is so essential to a stable country. He talks about how Kodak had 140,000 workers, many of them middle class, and Instagram has 13:

You have this intense concentration of the formal benefits, and that winner-take-all feeling is not just for the people who are on the computers but also from the people who are using them. So there’s this tiny token number of people who will get by from using YouTube or Kickstarter, and everybody else lives on hope. There’s not a middle-class hump. It’s an all-or-nothing society.

More important, the youth-driven culture of the current economic boom ignores that fact that some people are old, and have families, and get sick and disabled, and need a kind of stability that our current march of “disruptive” capitalism is destroying:

We don’t realize that our society and our democracy ultimately rest on the stability of middle-class jobs. When I talk to libertarians and socialists, they have this weird belief that everybody’s this abstract robot that won’t ever get sick or have kids or get old. It’s like everybody’s this eternal freelancer who can afford downtime and can self-fund until they find their magic moment or something.

And Lanier IS a guy who can afford downtime and self-fund. But he’s also 53, and has a little more perspective on life. He recognizes that the middle class has always had, and needs, some sort of public-sector support, whether it’s through tax policy or education or job creation, particularly in unstable economic times. It’s fine for capitalism to be disruptive — as long as there’s a safety net to make sure that all the people disrupted out of their livelihoods aren’t disrupted out of their homes.

Young people, Googlers, Facebookians, Twitterati: Maybe you should listen to your elders.

Why rent control works


I shouldn’t even bother to talk about this, because all it will do is stir up the trolls, but I’m getting sick of all the talk about rent control being a source of San Francisco’s housing problem. The latest is an editorial in the Business Times, which I buy to read J.K. Dineen’s stories about commercial real-estate, among other things. I should treat it like the Wall Street Journal; nobody takes the Journal’s editorial page seriously.

But the BT is just putting in print the argument that I’m hearing from the neo-libertarians who seem to be more and more populous in this town. And it goes like this:

Rent control distorts the market, which should be controlled by supply and demand. When you have rent control, evil tenants can stay in one place a really long time, thus “reducing urban vitality by discouraging mobility.” They can save their money for something other than rent. And it’s deeply unfair to landlords, because, as the BT notes:

By artificially limiting the return a building’s owner can generate on his investment, it discourages him from spending to maintain or upgrade the city’s housing stock. Rent increases are ordained not by supply and demand but by the city’s rent board. Legally, controlled rents can only go up each year by a fraction of the inflation rate. The ability to recoup costs of improvement or maintenance are also tightly curtailed. Costs are subject to no such limitations, so generally as a rent-controlled landlord, the longer you do it, the further behind you get.

Actually, rents go up by the percentage of the inflation rate that’s due to housing. The ability to recoup maintenance costs are not “tightly curtailed.” But more important, this notion that landlords “get further behind” because they can’t raise the rent assumes that most landlords — and their bankers — are idiots.

When you buy a piece of rental property, you typically have to prove to the bank that the rental income from the place is adequate to cover the mortgage, the taxes, the insurance, and upkeep, the same way a person buying a home has to prove that he or she has adequate income to pay the costs. When banks make loans the borrowers can’t repay, you get the mortgage crisis we’ve seen — but most of those units were single-family homes.

If I buy a rental property, the rent that’s coming in TODAY is matched with the price I’m paying TODAY. If the rents are too low to cover the cost, I have no business buying the place. And the bank has no business loaning me the money.

In San Francisco, unless you’re a complete moron, you buy rental property knowing, as the banker does, exactly what the current tenants are paying, and understanding, as the banker does, that the law won’t let me raise those rents by more than a modest amount each year. You’re making a profit at those rent levels; if not, you shouldn’t buy the place.

Now: Under Prop. 13, your property taxes can’t go up by much more than the rent goes up each year. And if you aren’t a speculative gambler (if you are, you have no rights anyway), you almost certainly have a fixed-rate mortgage. So your biggest “costs” are just as constrained as the rents you get. Meanwhile, your property continues to appreciate in value as the tenants pay your mortgage and taxes.

I know a lot of landlords in San Francisco, and the honest ones all say that owning rental property is a great deal — for the owner. There are probably some poor landlords who either (a) made bad business decisions or (b) were subject to some awful disaster and now find themselves unable to make ends meet. But they are not common.

Here’s the bottom line: Rent control prevents landlords from making speculative profits when the housing market booms. It also allows non-wealthy people to live here, for long periods of time, and become part of the San Francisco community. Housing stability INCREASES “urban vitality.” That’s the point.

Real, effective rent control would include limits on rent increases when a property becomes vacant. Berkeley had that in the 1980s. It didn’t cause urban blight or landlords abandoning buildings; instead, it helped create the Gourmet Ghetto and a thriving local business scene because tenants had more money to spend. It was a great success, until the state outlawed it.

Oh, and don’t tell me it discourages new construction: All new construction, since 1979, is exempt from rent control in San Francisco.

Rent control is, I will admit, bad for people who see housing as a speculative commodity, to be traded with little regard for its function as a basic human right. But I see housing more as a regulated utility — private owners have the right to a regular, acceptable return on investment, but not to excessive profits. Tenants have the right to live in the same place their entire lives, as long as they pay the (stable) rent and don’t become a nuisance.

These are good things for a city. The only problem with San Francisco rent control is that it isn’t strong enough.

Attack me, trolls. Or better, make a civil counter-argument that doesn’t start with “The problem with Tim is ….” Cuz we all know about my problems.



The Chron discovers the lack of waterfront planning


So the Chronicle’s John King (who’s generally not a bad architecture critic and really seems to understand city planning) finally discovered something that some of us have been talking about for months: There’s no comprehensive planning on the waterfront. Instead, it’s all developer-driven projects that make little sense as part of a well-thought-out future for the area.

Once again, we are hampered by the Chron’s paywall, so unless you subscribe you can’t read the whole story. But here’s the gist of it:

Instead of mapping out how the next frontiers of growth should be filled in, Mayor Ed Lee’s administration is letting developers frame the debate. They select a site, cook up a proposal and then see what will fly.

He notes that there are good touches in the new Warriors proposal, although:

[N]obody envisioned an 18,000-seat arena on a pier until the Warriors called City Hall. The team loved the glamour of the camera-friendly location. The Lee administration saw a chance to fill a void left open when the America’s Cup organizers shifted gears. …. the whole effort is aimed at soothing objections to what the team owners want. It isn’t connected to a pre-existing vision of what this part of the city could be.

There have been successful community-based planning efforts in other parts of town. But the waterfront — which is unique and immensely valuable — is nothing but a collection of projects that developers want. And Lee is going along:

Today, instead, we have a mayor’s office that wants to make things happen. Progress is measured in terms of construction jobs, housing units and new buildings that might lure the likes of Google up north. Planners on the city and state payrolls are put in the reaction mode, massaging the details the best they can.If this continues, some of what gets built could be terrific.Some of it could also be an alien presence in the city around it. And that’s not a legacy that any mayor should want.

It’s all too reminiscent of Dot-Com Boom I, when Willie Brown was in charge and city planning was driven entirely by campaign money. Highrise office buidlings in the residential Mission? No problem — just wave the dollars in front of the mayor. Not saying Lee is that corrupt — but he’s so excited about building stuff that he can’t bother to take a step back and ask: Is this the city we really want?


Supes worry about 8 Wash shit show


The Chronicle seems to have entirely missed the latest installation in the 8 Washington shit show, but the Ex has the story, and, even if it doesn’t mean the project is in the toilet, it’s given opponents another reason to flush it.

Could I possibly use any worse metaphors?

Sups. David Campos and David Chiu are unhappy that city agencies — possibly fast-tracking a project that the mayor’s pal Rose Pak really loves — may not have been fully forthcoming about the fact that there’s a chance the construction (or the shifting of ground after the project is complete) could crack a sewage line that serves about a quarter of the city.

Here’s what makes me nervous:

During construction, liability to pay for damage after a pipe rupture would be on the developer. Simon Snellgrove of the Pacific Waterfront Partners has long fought to build the 134-unit condo development, even hitting the streets himself to try to hamper the signature-gathering effort by the development’s opponents to place the referendum on the November ballot.
Once all the units are sold, damage liability would shift to the homeowners.

What does that mean? It means if there’s a catastrophic sewage rupture after construction is complete, there will be lawsuits aplenty over who is at fault and who pays — and in the meantime, the taxpayers will fork over the money to keep the effluvium out of the streets. Which could be (I’m sorry, can’t help it) a shitload of money.

That, and the fact that the city is willing to let some very serious concerns slide in the name of building condos for the richest of the rich who won’t even really live here most of the time.

A boost for Ammiano’s pot bill


Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s bill to create state regulations for pot clubs just got a boost: Although I disagree with the Supreme Court decision allowing towns to ban the dispensaries, it’s kicked local governments into gear. Now mayors from around the state are asking the Legislature to weigh in and craft “sensible marijuana policies.”

It’s tricky: The Department of Consumer Affairs, which might be the logical place for the regs, doesn’t want anything to do with pot, and Gov. Jerry Brown thinks we’re all too stoned to compete with China, so Ammiano’s looking to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to create a new marijuana division. Logically, that makes sense, and it’s what Colorado is doing. Practically, a lot of people don’t like the ABC, but that’s a factor of bad agency leadership and poor priorities. It’s not a structural problem. If we’re ultimately going to legalize pot altogether, and we are at some point soon, then it makes sense to have regs in place — or at least a system for regs in place — that can give cities and counties direction.

And it might help a little with the Reigning Asshole of Prohibition, Melinda Haag.

I suspect this will make it to the governor’s desk. I hope he comprehends that we aren’t going to compete with China if we can’t even solve a simple regulatory problem.

Also: Ammiano’s bill to protect transgender students made it off the Assembly floor.

Those overpaid, underworked public employees


Before you start griping about ovepaid Muni drivers and public employee unions, you might want to take a look at this neat-o map that shows who the highest-paid public employees are in every one of the 50 states. Hint: It’s not a bus driver. Or even a cop or firefighter:

You may have heard that the highest-paid employee in each state is usually the football coach at the largest state school. This is actually a gross mischaracterization: Sometimes it is the basketball coach.

In fact in 40 of the 50 states, the highest-paid person runs a collegiate sports operation. The other ten are doctors running medical centers or, in a couple of places, college presidents.

Oh, but aren’t those people earning their money by bringing in the big bucks? Maybe; maybe not:

In 2011-2012, Mack Brown was paid $5 million to lead a mediocre 8-5 Texas team to the Holiday Bowl. The team still generated $103.8 million in revenue, the most in college football. You don’t have to pay someone $5 million to make college football profitable in Texas.

Just sayin.

(Oh, and what’s up with New Hampshire, where the guy making the most money coaches hockey?)

Nice to know our tech friends aren’t paying taxes


Since Mayor Ed Lee has decided that tech companies are the future of San Francisco, it’s nice to note that these outfits are often no better than the cheating robber barons of old — or the modern Leona Helmsleys. The Campaign for America’s Future notes that Apple dodged a $9.2 billion tax bill that would have been enough to cover most of the sequester cuts this spring. Notes Isaiah Poole:

Apple makes great products, but the obscenity of its use of the tax code to avoid paying its fair share for the functions of government that make its success possible is only exceeded by the tax code itself and the nexus of ideology and corporate greed that created it.

Only the little people pay taxes.

How SF politics (and journalism) really works


The internal report on SF Housing Authority management berates ousted director Henry Alvarez as a jerk and a bully, somone who made racist and homophobic comments and intimidated staff. But the report also shows exactly how the corrupt politics of San Francisco contracting works. You can’t read the whole Chronicle story because of the paywall, but I’ll excerpt the part that matters:

In another instance, Larsen said Alvarez had him resolicit bids three times for a contract to provide security at public housing projects. Alvarez later called Larsen into his office and said he had just returned from lunch with Chronicle columnist and former Mayor Willie Brown where he met Stan Teets, who runs the private security firm Personal Protective Services, which was not poised to win the contract, the report said.

“Larsen said that Alvarez told him, ‘You need to figure this out; you need to figure out a way to get PPS the work,’ ” according to the report. “Larsen said that his belief is that Alvarez saw Brown as an influential person, and that he (Alvarez) therefore needed to get Teets a contract or risk losing his job.”

After PPS failed to win the contract, Larsen said Alvarez told him to start the process over a fourth time, the report said.

Alvarez denied to investigators that ever happened.

Brown, when reached on his cell phone, said: “I can’t talk to you. I’m at a luncheon.”

Check that out: Brown — who works for the Chronicle as a columnist — said he can’t talk to a Chronicle reporter because he’s at a luncheon. BTW, he’s used the exact same excuse with me a bunch of times, including once at 4pm. He has a lot of luncheons. And they seem to last most of the day.

And let’s remember: in his columns, Brown has consistently made excuses for Alvarez and gone out of the way to tell his side of the story.

PPS has had serious problems with its work at the Housing Authority in the past, when Teets was hired by Brown’s hand-picked authority director, Ronnie Davis. Now Brown meets with Alvarez — who he defends in his column — and tries to get a contract for a firm with a shaky history that wasn’t the low bidder.

Is PPS one of Brown’s private law clients? We don’t know — the Chron doesn’t require him to disclose that information.

But we know this is fucking sleazy shit, and it’s exactly how the city worked every day when Brown was mayor — and apparently, it’s how things are working again, now that Brown’s pal Ed Lee is mayor. I give Lee credit for ousting Alvarez and shaking up the Housing Authority Commission, but by the time he did that, he really had no choice — the evidence and the mounting media pressure was overwhelming. And Willie clearly still has his hands in the operations of the city.

All this is happening at the same time that the Columbia Journalism Review has taken up the issue of Brown’s column and the truly shady ethics involved.

I had a lot of gripes with Mayor Gavin Newsom, as all of you know, but when he was mayor, this kind of pay-to-play overwhelming sleaze wasn’t the order of the day at City Hall. Now it’s back.

That’s how it works in San Francisco in 2013. How lovely.




The zero-sum future



It’s going to take longer, sometimes, to get from here to there. Acres of urban space are going to have to change form. Grocery shopping will be different. Streets may have to be torn up and redirected. The rules for the development of as many as 100,000 new housing units in San Francisco will have to be rewritten.

That’s the only way this city — and cities across the country — can meet the climate-change goals that just about everyone agrees are necessary.

Jason Henderson, a geography professor at San Francisco State University, lays out that case in a new book. He argues, persuasively, that the era of easy “automobility” — a time when people could just assume the ease and convenience of owning and using a private car as a primary means of transportation — has come to an end.

Henderson isn’t suggesting that all private vehicles go away; there are places where cars and trucks will remain the only way to move people and supplies around. But in the urban and suburban areas where most Americans live, the automobile as the default option simply has to end.

“In 10 years, there will be less automobility,” he told me in a recent interview. “It’s a simple limit to resources.”

And the sooner San Francisco starts preparing for that, the better off the city and its residents are going to be.



Henderson’s book, Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco, focuses largely on the Bay Area. But as he points out, the lessons apply all over. The numbers are daunting: Cities, Henderson reports, “use 75 percent of the world’s energy and produce 78 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.” He adds: “Transportation is the fastest growing sector of energy use and [greenhouse gas] emissions, and this fact is in great measure owing to the expansion of automobility.”

And the United States is the biggest culprit. This nation has 4 percent of the world’s population — and 21 percent of the world’s cars.

To turn around the devastating impacts of climate change, “America will need not only to provide leadership, but also to decrease its appetite for excessive, on demand, high-speed automobility.”

And buying a lot of Priuses, or even electric cars, isn’t going to do the job. “Americans must undertake a considerable restructuring of how they organize cities, and that must include the rethinking of mobility and the allocation of street space.”

The Bay Area is about to enter into a long-term planning cycle that, according to groups like the Association of Bay Area Governments, will involve increased urban density. ABAG, according to its most recent projections, would like to see some 90,000 new housing units in San Francisco.

That’s got plenty of problems — particularly the likelihood of the displacement of existing residents. Henderson agrees that more density is going to be needed in the Bay Area — but he’s surprisingly bullish on the much-denigrated suburb.

“It’s actually quick and easy to retrofit suburbia,” he told me.

And like so much of what he discusses in his book, the primary solution is the old, venerable, human-powered contraption known as the bicycle.

“Existing communities like Walnut Creek are eminently bikeable,” Henderson told me. He suggests expanding development in three-mile circles around BART stations — after getting rid of all the parking. “We could easily get 20 to 30 percent of the trips by bike,” he noted.

In fact, he argues, it’s easier to put bicycle lanes and paths in the suburbs than in San Francisco. The streets tend to be wider, there’s more room in general — and it’s fairly simple to provide barriers from cars that make biking safe for everyone.

In fact, a lot of European cities are less dense than San Francisco — and have far fewer drivers. Even in California, the city of Davis is famous for its bike culture; “In Davis,” Henderson said, “There are all these children riding their bikes to school.”



One of the most profound changes San Francisco is going to have to make involves coming to terms with the immense amount of scarce space that’s devoted to cars. Parking spaces may not seem that big — but when you combine the 300-square-foot typical space (larger than many bedrooms and offices) with the space needed for getting into and out of that space, it adds up.

“Parking for 130 cars amounts to about an acre, and the aggregate of all non-residential off-street parking is estimated to be equal in area to several New England states.”

Cars need more than a home parking space — they need someplace to park when they’re used. So in a city like San Francisco that has more than 350,000 cars, a vast amount of urban land must be devoted to parking. In fact, Henderson estimates that parking space in San Francisco amounts to about 79.4 million square feet — or about 79,400 two-bedroom apartments. Off-street parking alone takes up space that could house 67,000 two-bedroom units.

And it’s hella expensive. Building parking adds as much as 20 percent to the cost of a housing unit. He cites studies showing that 20 percent more San Franciscans could afford to buy a condo unit if it didn’t include parking.

But the city still mandates off-street parking for all new residential construction — and while activists have managed to get the amount reduced from a minimum of one parking space per unit to a maximum of around eight spaces per 10 units, that’s still a whole lot of parking.

And if San Francisco is expected to absorb 90,000 more housing units, under current rules that’s 72,000 more cars — which means a demand for 72,000 more parking spaces near offices, shopping districts, and parks. Crazy.

So how do you get Americans, even San Franciscans, to give up what Henderson calls the “sense of entitlement that we can speed across town in a private car?” Some of it requires the classic planning measures of discouraging or banning parking in new development (AT&T Park works quite well as a facility that is primarily accessed by foot and transit). Some of it means putting in the resources to improve public transit.

And a lot of it involves shifting transportation modes to walking and bicycles.

San Francisco has had significant success increasing the use of bikes in the past few years. But there are limits to what you can do by tinkering around the edges, with a few more bike lanes here and there.

There are, for example, the hills. And there’s grocery shopping for a family. Those things need bigger shifts in the use of urban space.

San Francisco’s street grid, for example, sends travelers straight up some nearly impossible inclines. Young, healthy people in great physical condition can ride bikes up those hills, but children and older people simply can’t.

Henderson suggests that the city could install lifts in some areas, but there’s another, more radical (but less energy-intensive) solution: Reroute the grid.

If city streets wound around the sides of hills, instead of heading straight up, walking and biking would be far easier. That would involve major changes, particularly since there’s housing in the way of any real route changes — but in the long term, that sort of concept should, at least, be on the table.

Bikes with cargo trailers make a lot of sense for shopping, Henderson told me — and once big supermarkets get rid of all that parking, the price of food will come down.



The biggest challenge, though — and the heart of Henderson’s book — is political. Transportation, he argues, is inherently ideological: “It matters how you get from here to there.” And he notes that progressives, who are willing to think about social responsibility, not just individual rights, see the choices very differently than the neo-liberals, who in this city are often called “moderates.” If the neo-libs have their way, he says, the changes will be too little, too late, and mostly ineffective.

Because Americans are facing a series of choices — and there are no solutions that preserve the old way of life without sacrificing the future of the planet. It’s entirely a zero-sum game: We can slow global climate change, or we can keep driving cars. (Oh, and electric cars — which still require large amounts of power, mostly from fossil-fuel plants — aren’t going to solve the problem any time soon.)

We can shift to bicycles and transit as our primary ways to get around, or we can leave our kids an ecological disaster of unprecedented scope. We can overhaul the entire way we think about urban planning — to make streets friendly to bikes and buses — or we can go down a deadly path of no return.

We can accept the fact that moving around cities may be a little slower, particularly while we adapt. Or we can join the climate-change deniers. “There are a lot of neo-liberals out there who say we can’t start controlling automobility until we have a gold-plated transit system,” Henderson told me. “But this is not a chicken and egg problem. First you have to create the urban space. Then you can build a better system.”

Editor’s notes


EDITORS NOTES It’s a good thing the Giants were at home Friday night, or I might have tried to drive across the Bay Bridge. Always a bad idea after work, always a worse idea on a Friday, when the backup starts somewhere around SF General Hospital. I spent almost two hours getting past Berkeley one Friday when I thought we could leave at 3:30 and beat the traffic. When the Giants are in town, it’s impossible.

It’s so crowded nobody drives there any more. Or something like that. I didn’t.

Instead, I got on my bike and rode to BART, took the Richmond train to North Berkeley, and rode a few blocks to a birthday party on University Avenue. Cost $7.70, I think, for the round trip. Took less than an hour each way, including biking home up Bernal Hill. The late train back was party central, with the bridge and tunnel crowd all decked out in club finery and a woman singing full-volume along with her phone.

“How was I?” she asked me. “Ready for American Idol,” I said.

I could have been stuck in traffic.

This is how life is going to have to be in the future, and it’s not a bad picture. One of the main reasons I like riding my bike in San Francisco, and I hate driving, is that I know exactly how long it’s going to take me to get somewhere on two wheels. On four, it could be 15 minutes, or it could be an hour.

The thing is, we’re so used to the idea that cars are the fastest way to get around — and in some places, sometimes they are. If we fixed up the city the way we should (which would mean changing not only the lane patterns but the directions of some streets) cars would almost always be the worst and slowest way to go most places.

Either way, in this Bike to Work Day issue, were explore the idea that speeding around town at 30 miles an hour in your personal can isn’t a natural right of all people. In fact, Jason Henderson, a professor at San Francisco state who I interviewed argues that the most environmentally sound thing we can do in urban areas might be to … slow down.

Hard to imagine, that. This city runs on speed: Tech speed, work speed, party speed, frenetic speed … I can’t imagine not being in a serious rush for a large part of my day. It’s nice, sometimes, to think about the alternative.