The Sierra Club has long opposed habitat-destroying, greenhouse gas-generating sprawl. To fight sprawl, the Club supports policies to raise the minimum wage and make housing more affordable; when people can afford to live near where they work—particularly in transit-rich, walkable, urban areas like San Francisco—there is an aggregate reduction of sprawl and greenhouse-gas emissions. In the past year and a half, the Bay Chapter’s San Francisco Group has embraced legislation to preserve affordable, rent-controlled housing in San Francisco and to slow evictions that force average- to low-income people out of the city and into auto-centric suburbs.
There is good news: Mayor Ed Lee chose not to veto the latest piece of legislation to protect tenants and fight sprawl. The legislation, which was sponsored by Supervisor David Campos, passed by the Board of Supervisors this fall.
That legislation will regulate tenant buyout agreements — transactions in which property owners offer money to tenants in order to induce them to leave. Many buyout offers are preceded by threats to evict tenants using the Ellis Act, a state law that permits landlords to empty buildings and get out of the rental business. Once those buildings are emptied, they are often sold quickly and converted into tenancies-in-common, agreements in which the occupants of the units share the entire mortgage for the building. Property owners prefer not to use the Ellis Act because future conversion of the units into lucrative condominiums is restricted, and because of the public disclosure requirements.
Buyouts have usually involved paying tenants more to leave, but until now there have been no restrictions on their future conversion of property into condominiums; nor have landlords and tenants been required to publicly disclose the transactions. The recently-passed legislation will restrict the condominium conversion of units that have been emptied through buyout agreements and require public disclosure of buyout transactions.
In 2013, the Bay Chapter’s San Francisco Group supported legislation that suspends the condominium conversion lottery for tenancies-in-common for ten years and places further restrictions on those conversions. That legislation passed and is now law. The buyout legislation is yet one more measure to put a damper on speculation in residential real estate that leads to tenant evictions and ultimately sprawl.
The S.F. Group also took a position this year against the demolition of rent-controlled housing in San Francisco for the same environmental reasons it supported the buyout and tenancy-in-common condo conversion legislation. Days before Thanksgiving, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors heard an appeal of conditional use permit to demolish a small, Richmond District house with two rent-controlled units. The supervisors unanimously upheld that appeal and saved the two units. A San Francisco city planner later said that their decision was precedent setting. The S.F. Group did not take a position on the particular appeal in question, but we are very pleased with the supervisors for protecting two sound units of rent-controlled housing.
Because of state law, no residences built after 1978 can be subjected to rent control. According to official San Francisco performance measure reports, between the 2007-2008 and 2012-2013 fiscal years, San Francisco lost 4,032 rent-controlled units to condominium conversion or demolition — dropping from 175,337 to 171,305 rent-controlled units. Only 2,507 units of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income San Franciscans were constructed during those years. These troubling figures demonstrate why the Club’s support for affordable housing and tenant rights is critical.