SF Apartment : August 2017
by Charley Goss
Politics makes for strange bedfellows, nowhere more than in San Francisco. This is a place where a gay, Jewish State Senator, who introduced legislation for full paid parental leave and tried to institute a soda tax, was lambasted in his last campaign for not being sufficiently progressive. It’s also a place where multi-millionaire homeowners run on the platform of being tenant activists.
San Francisco is a place where business and organized labor have found a way to not only co-exist, but also work together on areas of common interest. A group called the Alliance for Jobs & Sustainable Growth emerged in 2011 following the Great Recession, which consisted of a group of building trades labor unions, and some business groups in the city like the Chamber of Commerce, Committee on Jobs, and Building Owners and Managers.
The “Alliance,” as it came to be known, was led by Executive Director Vince Courtney Sr., a longtime labor leader. It was business, however, that first reached out to Courtney and other labor unions about the potential for common ground.
“A very significant portion of the business community in San Francisco, led by the Chamber of Commerce, sought to establish a pragmatic and cooperative relationship with labor such as existed during the period beginning with the end of World War II. We have been working with them, with considerable success ever since, particularly on growth issues,” said Courtney.
This is in stark contrast to the rest of the country. Six states have passed “right to work” laws since the formation of the Alliance in 2011, rolling back the rights of unions to organize. Many of these campaigns have been led by conservative politicians with the backing of wealthy donors and business interests. So why has this organization persisted and thrived in San Francisco?
The answer, as Courtney points out, lies in the original name: “Jobs and Sustainable Growth.” The Alliance organized around several development projects, including the Sutter/California Pacific Medical Center hospitals, the ParkMerced housing development, and the Central Subway project. These projects offered numerous benefits to both business and labor: new high-paying construction jobs, better transportation for residents, and new housing for workers, to name a few.
The Alliance established itself as a formidable election-year force, organizing and raising money for independent expenditure campaigns to elect Mayor Ed Lee, Assemblymember David Chiu, Supervisors Mark Farrell, Katy Tang, and Malia Cohen, as well as State Senator Scott Wiener. In 2016, the coalition succeeded in helping to elect Ahsha Safaí as Supervisor in District 11, which includes the Excelsior district of San Francisco. Safaí replaced termed-out Supervisor John Avalos, a stalwart of the progressive left in San Francisco, which tilted the balance of power on the Board away from the progressive faction, a significant victory.
A New Era
Another Alliance-backed candidate in 2016 was Marjan Philhour, who ran for Supervisor in District 1, the Richmond District. Philhour, a mother of three and small business owner, ran on a platform that the Richmond and San Francisco must build more market-rate and affordable housing to keep families and working people from being priced out due to the regional housing crisis.
In the Richmond—a largely residential area of the city that has been historically averse to change—this was a bold position. Since the beginning of District elections in 2000, the Richmond had never elected a candidate who shared Philhour’s pro-housing and pro-growth platform.
Philhour would narrowly lose by slightly more than 1,000 votes, closer than any other moderate candidate in District 1 history. After last November’s election, Courtney Sr. retired from the Alliance, stepping down as Executive Director.
Philhour’s message and outreach through-out her campaign for Supervisor positioned her well to transition into the role with citywide reach. She was offered the job and accepted the opportunity with enthusiasm.
“Keeping families and working people in San Francisco doesn’t apply to specific neighborhoods, it applies to all of San Francisco,” said Philhour. “We are in the midst of a housing crisis that is decades in the making. For too long San Francisco has buried its head in the sand about the fact that we need to build housing, and we’ve allowed housing creation to stagnate. This has driven up prices and rent, forced low- and middle-income families and working people to leave, and limited the economic prospects of the next generation,” said Philhour.
Four months into the job, Philhour is working on an overhaul of the organization that includes a rebrand and a new name to reflect the shift the coalition wanted to make: San Francisco Community Alliance for Jobs and Housing.
Why the new name? “We’re expanding our coalition to include neighborhood groups, clubs, and individual memberships so it was important to highlight our community involvement,” said Philhour, “and housing is the one issue in San Francisco that affects everyone. Teachers, police officers, tech workers, union members—everyone is being adversely affected. We thought our name should reflect our priority, which is providing housing for all San Franciscans.”
Expansion is moving quickly. Already, a number of additional partners have come on board, including industries that have historically chosen not to join the Community Alliance, such as property owners and the tech community. The labor partners of the Community Alliance are also in the process of bringing on even more unions to the coalition.
An Early Success
Last month, the Board of Supervisors passed Supervisor Katy Tang’s HOME-SF legislation, which allows developers to exceed zoning rules by up to two stories in exchange for including more affordable housing in the development.
It was a proposal that was years in the making. An earlier version of the legislation, known as the Affordable Housing Bonus Program (AHBP), was amended and watered down to allow “density bonuses” to apply only to projects with 100% affordable units. This essentially defeated the point of the legislation, which was to incentivize market-rate construction to include affordable housing.
This time around, the Community Alliance worked for months with allied housing groups, including the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition and SF YIMBY (a new Community Alliance member), to ensure that HOME-SF would be successful. They organized hundreds of speakers to show up at hearings in City Hall, ran social media ads and videos, held rallies in support of the legislation, and worked on a comprehensive earned media strategy.
“Public comment at the Land Use Committee hearing on HOME-SF was unlike any I have seen for housing legislation,” said Jim Lazarus, Senior Vice President of Public Policy for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, an original Alliance member. “Usually the people who show up want to stop new development. This time around there were everyday San Franciscans who are feeling the effects of the housing crisis, all demanding more housing.”
By the time the legislation reached a vote, it had the unanimous support of the Board—even Supervisors who had previously led the charge to gut the AHBP supported it.
So what is next for the Community Alliance? According to Philhour, engaging neighborhoods to build a network of individual memberships is a top priority. “We want to meet San Franciscans where they are: at farmers’ markets, street fairs and civic events. San Francisco is a place where people should be able to work, raise families and retire. All of that is happening in our neighborhoods.”
The Community Alliance will also begin hosting a series of community forums with elected and neighborhood leaders to discuss the issues affecting the city. While this process is still in the early phases, the discussion on topics of concern is underway.
“One of the things you learn when you run for office is that the issues of different districts, even different neighborhoods, may vary wildly, but the overarching themes and concerns are very similar. In the Richmond, the Geary Bus Rapid Transit was one of the most contentious issues of the campaign, but most San Franciscans hadn’t even heard of the proposal. We want to focus on conversations like these while also focusing on larger issues, such as HOME-SF and how the housing crisis is changing the city,” said Philhour.
She understands the evolution of the Community Alliance will not happen overnight. According to Vince Courtney Sr., creating the original Alliance was a difficult process that required countless meetings and conversations to even form the parameters of the organization.
The Community Alliance is expanding, and with expansion comes more stakeholders and more voices at the table. While some worry that a larger group might make the coalition more difficult to manage, Philhour does not see it that way. “I believe that having more diversity in the voices at the table leads to better decision-making. Our coalition is going to represent all San Franciscans: working people, businesses, neighborhood groups, community activists, families.
“The Community Alliance, like the Alliance before it, is based on consensus and working through our areas of difference to come to workable solutions. We must hear all voices and points of view to ensure that we’re working to make San Francisco a more livable, affordable place for everyone.”
Charley Goss is the Government and Community Affairs Coordinator for the San Francisco Apartment Association.