SF Apartment : February 2018
by Pam McElroy
District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang talks about affordable housing, women in the workplace, and growing up in the Sunset.
Pam McElroy: How did you first come to San Francisco?
Supervisor Katy Tang: Actually, I grew up in San Francisco. My parents had been living in Brooklyn, and they decided to move to San Francisco for a better quality of life. They parked themselves in the Sunset District, and that is where I’ve been ever since.
Pam McElroy: What do you love about the Sunset District?
Katy Tang: I feel like I can unplug in the Sunset. I love that San Francisco is the heart of everything; with its 7x7 footprint, there’s a whole lot of city in a small space. But sometimes I just want to decompress from big city life and go home to the Sunset.
I live right across from Ocean Beach, so I really love seeing the water. It’s very calming for me. I love that the Sunset is family friendly, with all of the parks, the animals and pets, and that it’s a relatively safe neighborhood.
Pam McElroy: How did you get your start in San Francisco politics?
Katy Tang: I’ve been at City Hall for about 10 years. I first started in college with an internship at the Assessor-Recorder’s office, and the next summer I interned at the Mayor’s Press office, and then I got a job at the Mayor’s Budget and Policy office. Following that was a five-and-a-half-year career as a legislative aide for my predecessor, Carmen Chu, which really allowed me to get involved in the Sunset community in such a deep way that I never imagined I would have ever been involved.
And then the opportunity arose to become Supervisor, so I figured it was a great chance to take everything I’ve learned about the Sunset—growing up there but also from working for the district—to help improve the neighborhood.
Pam McElroy: How do you see yourself politically involved in future? What are your long-term career goals?
Katy Tang: I can’t say I know what the future holds for me, but at the heart of everything, I want to help people. When I was growing up, I didn’t know how exactly it would manifest itself, this goal of helping people, and never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I’d end up in government. And so, I’m grateful for this opportunity.
As a legislator, there are a lot of things I can do that advocates, businesses or residents can’t do, and so I take the responsibility seriously. I know I have this legislative tool, and that I want to use it for good. This has kept me motivated through the years.
Pam McElroy: What do you think has been your greatest political accomplishment so far?
Katy Tang: In terms of housing, I would say that Home-SF was a great achievement. Home-SF creates incentives to develop middle-income housing in addition to low-income housing. When we first started working on the legislation, no one wanted to talk about middle-income housing, which I found offensive because I know so many people, including myself, who fall in that category, but who are still unable to afford to buy a place to live in San Francisco.
Additionally, I didn’t see enough housing being built for families. If you look at San Francisco’s history, we’ve built exponentially more studios and one-bedrooms than larger units, which is great for couples and single people, but not for families. I think Home-SF was the first legislation in the city to mandate that if you were going to take advantage of the voluntary program, you had to actually produce two- and three-bedroom units on site. I think this is a great accomplishment.
I’ve also worked on a lactation policy for new mothers who want to return to work. My legislative aide, Ashley Summers, inspired this legislation when she returned to work after having her daughter. We saw the challenges that new mothers go through while trying to work. While there’s a lactation room right around the corner from our office, we knew a lot of women didn’t have access to that in their workplaces. And so, our Lactation in the Workplace Ordinance mandates that employers not only have a lactation policy in place, but that they initiate conversations with employees who request parental leave and determine a sufficient lactation space. The space can be “flex space” with other purposes, like a conference room, but there has to be a chair, a clean table or surface free of toxins and chemicals, an electrical outlet, and access to a sink and refrigerator. After this legislation passed, so many moms came to us, grateful.
So those two I would say were some big accomplishments in this last year.
Pam McElroy: Earlier this year, a statistic was published stating that San Francisco is only about 18 percent families. Do you think Home-SF is helping to keep and bring families in the city?
Katy Tang: I think it’s still too early to tell. There are projects in the pipeline, but we haven’t seen one come to full fruition yet.
However, in tandem with Home-SF, there were broader conversations about inclusionary housing requirements, and so the Area Median Income levels and different brackets were looked at. For the first time, we were able to raise income thresholds to accommodate middle-income families, whether through Home-SF or the mandated inclusionary housing requirements.
Pam McElroy: Can you talk about the Home-Match program?
Katy Tang: The Home-Match program is something that I spearheaded. I knew of a similar program [HIP Housing] that had been in existence for 30 years in San Mateo County. The non-profit matches people who have a room to rent in their home [below market rate], but who are hesitant to because of the laws around landlord/tenant relationships, with individuals looking to rent.
And so I thought it was a great program, especially for District 4. In the Sunset, you have a lot of seniors living alone with vacant bedrooms. They might be house rich but cash poor, and maybe needing some sort of caretaker, companionship really. So we did this pilot through the Mayor’s Office of Housing, and we have an organization that serves as a matchmaker for renters and homeowners. I think one of the challenges for us is that a lot of people are very fearful of all the tenant/landlord laws or rent-control laws, and we found that if you actually just take on one person, they’re actually considered a lodger and not a tenant.
Pam McElroy: Speaking of the rent-control ordinance, what do you think has been its greatest accomplishment and what do you see as its greatest failure?
Katy Tang: I think that the best accomplishment with rent control is that you really do get the mix of different income levels of people living together. So creating economic diversity or just diversity in general, that has been hugely successful. Take my building, for example. There are people who have been living there for 20, 30 years, if not more, paying very low rent, but that’s a good thing because then they are able to have stability in the neighborhood. And then there are other people who come through and they pay higher rents, but we’re all coexisting together. I think that’s a beautiful thing.
The downside, of course, is that landlords are hesitant to invest in a building when people are paying far below market rent. Some tenants might be paying $500 a month, while others are paying $3,000, almost subsidizing the people who’ve been living there for a long time.
Rent control allows more people to stay housed. Where would these people go if they can’t afford market-rate rent? They’d be on the streets, or they’d leave San Francisco. So, as challenging as it is, rent control has helped keep people housed in San Francisco, and I appreciate that. I live in a rent-controlled building, and I don’t know what I’d do if I had to move out and find a market-rate apartment . . . it’s a scary thought.
Pam McElroy: What do you think about homelessness in San Francisco? Do you think we could be doing more as a city?
Katy Tang: I think when Mayor Ed Lee created the Department of Homelessness and hired a director with a lot of relevant experience, it was a step in the right direction. Creating the department took all the different services that help the homeless, and made them work more efficiently together. A homeless individual has to navigate a system that’s a tangled web, and the director of the Department of Homelessness has a clear vision of how to package everything, how to make the system less difficult to navigate. I think that when you have the right people in the right departments, and you have the right experience, then you can make some inroads.
And while it may seem like San Francisco’s homeless population is growing—from the data I’ve seen—relative to the city’s population growth overall, the homeless population is actually declining. But we are certainly spending a lot of money, and we’d all love to see more results. It is very challenging. I do have confidence in the new Director of Homelessness and I look forward to him making real progress on this issue collectively with all of us.
Pam McElroy: What do you think is the biggest problem tenants face in San Francisco?
Katy Tang: I think that some landlords—not all—aren’t taking care of their buildings. They let their building fall into disrepair, which is really uncomfortable for a tenant. These tenants then have to constantly badger their landlords about improvements, which can come off as harassing, but really they just want a decent quality of life.
There can also be a lot of tension in landlord-tenant relationships. A tenant will always want to pay less rent, and a landlord will always want to charge more rent. In addition to rent increases, there’s always the uncertainty of an eviction, like an owner move-in eviction.
I’m lucky. If that happened to me, my parents live here, so I know I could go live in their basement. But a lot of people don’t have that option or arrangement.
Pam McElroy: How is your relationship with your landlord?
Katy Tang: I have a really great relationship with my landlord. I’ve had several landlords—the building I live in was sold a few times. The third time it was sold, I found out the buyer and I actually ran in the same circles. We’d become really good friends. In fact, I officiated his wedding! He lives just a few blocks from me. I know not everyone has a great relationship with their landlord though.
Pam McElroy: Do you have advice for San Francisco landlords?
Katy Tang: I would say that landlords should really be in tune with their buildings: visit often, see what needs to be fixed, communicate with tenants and building managers. If there are vandalism issues, safety issues, or structural issues, for example, these need to be addressed. I know this is difficult for landlords who don’t live in the city, but in that case, keep open lines of communication.
Pam McElroy: What are your legislative passions beyond housing?
Katy Tang: I am passionate about animal welfare, which is difficult as a local legislator; the more impactful legislation around animal welfare would be at the state or federal level. I do what I can here, promoting the message of adopting versus buying from breeders or puppy and kitten mills.
I love supporting women in the workplace. I already mentioned my lactation workplace policy. I also introduced what we call the Babies Act of San Francisco, which was modeled off of Obama’s federal law. If an establishment has a baby station in a women’s restroom, they now must have one in the men’s restroom as well. It’s more than just providing men a place to change diapers; it’s also about breaking down the gender stereotypes.
I love helping small businesses, too. We’ve done a lot of work around that. Small businesses make our neighborhoods unique. They do so much to transform our neighborhoods—sometimes I think they do more for our neighborhoods than the government does. Supporting and helping them is a huge priority of mine.
Pam McElroy: If you could change one local law, what would it be?
Katy Tang: It would be great if people could more easily expand their homes, add more square footage, to accommodate growing families and more generations. Like the Accessory Dwelling Unit legislation. I wish the process could be faster, that applicants could get an over-the-counter permit, as long as it conformed to city guidelines. Why drag the approval process out months or years, even?
Something my colleagues are working on right now is universal childcare. I know many families struggle to pay for childcare. If we could provide this, it would be miraculous. Supervisor Yee has been working on this for years; finding funding has been a big challenge. Similarly, I really wish—this wouldn’t just be a local law—that we could get rid of student loans. Whether it’s childcare or college, I wish education wasn’t so expensive on any level. We should prioritize education.
Pam McElroy: What is your favorite way to spend a day off in San Francisco?
Katy Tang: I haven’t had one of those in a long time! I would say that when I do have free time, I really love to explore different neighborhoods. It’s one of the things I love about being a representative of the city, getting to know and understand all of the different communities.
Pam McElroy is the editor of SF Apartment Magazine.