SF Apartment : August 2017
Here’s To 100 Years
by Emily Landes, Matthew C. Sheridan & Charley Goss
As SFAA looks back on its 100 years of advocacy, diving into old magazine articles, campaign literature, legislative efforts, and rental listings from years past, one axiom in particular rings true: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
SFAA was started in 1917 as the Owners and Lessees Apartment House Association, when a small group of property owners took to a newly re-built City Hall after the 1906 Earthquake and fires, adamant that the city was passing laws regulating their property without hearing their concerns. Back then, San Francisco was a very different place. Earthquakes, a depression, recessions, war years, beat-niks, hippies, gay rights, punk rock, lofts, dot-coms, and now the Uber era, have impacted and profoundly changed our city.
But surprisingly, along with the quintessential Victorians that line our streets, the issues facing apartment owners have not changed. Yes, water beds have come and gone, but finding the right tenants, fighting City Hall, reducing crime, cleaning up the neighborhood, upgrading your buildings, dealing with Sacramento, raising rents, lowering rents, insurance, in-fighting, higher water rates and higher garbage rates are the same challenges we faced when the SFAA was founded 100 years ago.
In November 1943, the Association changed the name of its publication to Apartment Life. The magazine was sort of a cross between Sunset Magazine, McCall’s, and today’s Association magazine. The publication sought to instill good housekeeping and etiquette among its members and their tenants. Sure, there was a president’s column, but columns also included: The Fashion Scene, Decorating Advice, and Kitchen Etiquette.
In late 1945, the Association debated whether to allow Chinese Americans to become members. Several members spoke at length, arguing in favor of admittance, calling it “a good idea.”
In March of 1948, the Association went on record against communism. Association President Christin called on the membership to “work for the complete opposition to communism.” Beware, current members of the Board of Supervisors.
In February of 1957, William Frank Worthington, president of the San Francisco Apartment House Association, proposed merging with the Owners and Lessees Apartment House Association in a letter to President Christin.
In November 1964, City Assessor Russell Wolden talked about the city’s economy. He felt that luxury apartments were overbuilt in San Francisco. However, he described San Francisco as the healthiest city in the US. “It is solid, stable and is considered very attractive to banks and insurance companies,” he said.
Many political leaders spoke to the association in this period. Supervisorial candidate Diane Feinstein addressed the association in 1969. In October of 1973, supervisorial candidate Harvey Milk spoke before the association, seeking its support.
According to many, rent control was a foregone conclusion when, during the Prop. 13 campaign, promises were made that rents would be rolled back if the proposition passed. When Prop. 13 did pass, and those rents just kept increasing, rent control started popping up all over the state. On June 13, 1979, San Francisco passed rent control legislation and it was signed into law as a 15-month temporary ordinance by acting Mayor Gordon Lau. Thirty-eight years later, it remains in effect and continues to be considered by city councils throughout California.
On February 20, 1980, the association went on “Red Alert” as Supervisor Harry Britt tried to tighten the rent control law. In April of 1982, Mayor Dianne Feinstein vetoed a new vacancy-control ordinance.
Throughout the 1980s, the housing battles focused mainly on vacancy control. Numerous attempts were made to enact it, but over and over, the attempts to change it failed.
In 1991, the Association, along with the Coalition for Better Housing and others, led the fight to defeat vacancy control after the Board of Supervisors and the mayor ignored the will of the people and imposed the controls amid election-year politicking. In 30 days, more than two times the number of required signatures were handed in to City Hall, triggering the Proposition M referendum. Over $1 million was raised and voters overturned vacancy control by a comfortable margin.
Not to be outdone, tenant activists tried a new approach in the battles. Inch by inch, they methodically strengthened the rent ordinance at the ballot box. First came Prop. H, which removed the floor for annual allowable rent increases (formerly at 4%-7%). Then Prop. I, which voters narrowly passed, placing 2-4-unit owner-occupied buildings under the rent ordinance. Then OMI restrictions. And on, and on, and on.
In March of 1993, the Board of Directors selected Janan New, a dynamic, politically connected and passionate San Franciscan, as the new Executive Director. Over the next decade, a monumental push to enact passthrough provisions for bond measures would take place. Now, thanks to her hard work and that of many others, this is necessary for any bond measure to pass in San Francisco.
In August of 1995, the California Apartment Association, led by SFAA members, successfully fought for the passage of the Costa-Hawkins bill, mandated the gradual phasing-out of certain rent-control restrictions for single-family homes and condominiums, and phased out vacancy control in rent-controlled communities
And as we look to the modern-day SFAA, the adage remains true: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Much of the housing debate today has revolved around core issues that predecessors at the SFAA and at the Board of Supervisors and the state level have already fought and negotiated over. SF Apartment Magazine headlines of years past are alarmingly relevant to SFAA’s political and legislative efforts today. January 2002’s cover article noted “The Ellis Bluff Legislation.” The May 2002 cover featured an article authored by then-and-current District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin on “Secondary Dwelling Units: Workable Housing for San Francisco.” The August 1996 edition featured a study and profile on Owner Move-In Evictions.
In 2015, 2016 and 2017, the Ellis Act remains in effect, and efforts to reform the law have died in the California Senate in each of those years. On the local level, members of the Board of Supervisors have also continued to seek restrictions to the law in a number of different ways. In 2015, the Board unanimously passed legislation to increase Ellis Act relocation payments, seeking to tie them to the difference between a tenant’s rent-controlled rental rate and the market rate for a similar apartment. SFAA’s legal fund sued, and successfully overturned the ordinance. Just this March, the First District Court of Appeal ruled that the “adverse impact” on evicted San Francisco tenants was caused by the city’s “policy decision to impose residential rent control” and not by their landlords. Three months later, in June of 2017, the California Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals ruling, and the City and County of San Francisco settled with the SFAA in an agreement to pay its attorney’s fees.
In 2016, the city finally passed the “secondary units” law contemplated in the May issue from 14 years earlier, unanimously approving the Accessory Dwelling Unit law, which allows for building owners to construct new apartment units in existing buildings citywide. In 2017, the Board of Supervisors approved tweaks to the law to improve it, and just this June, the SFAA hosted an Accessory Dwelling Unit fair in collaboration with the city to help educate the public on the ordinance’s vast potential to address the housing crisis and to provide a new revenue stream for building owners.
Also in 2017, the debate and controversy over owner move-in evictions raged on. Restrictions approved by voters in 1999 were refined 18 years later, as the Board of Supervisors debated two competing OMI laws, and the ways in which it could ensure that the law was being used legitimately by owners and relatives to occupy their properties. The new OMI law has just passed its first reading at the Board in late June, and should be in effect in January of 2018.
And of particular interest to SFAA members, the Costa-Hawkins bill, which was passed in Sacramento with SFAA and CAA support in August of 1995, came under attack during the legislative session of 2017. State Assembly members out of Santa Monica, San Francisco, and Oakland sought a full repeal of the law, which is the underpinning of rent-control in California and does three main things: it allows for rents to be set at market value when an apartment becomes vacant; it partially exempts single-family homes and condominiums from rent-control laws, and it prohibits rent-control on buildings built after the law’s effective date in 1996.
Today in 2017, SFAA, CAA and partner organizations fought off the repeal of the bill, a legislative effort that recalled the Association’s work in the 1980s before then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein vetoed a similar citywide ordinance in 1982. Due to SFAA and CAA’s opposition, the Costa-Hawkins repeal bill never actually was scheduled for a hearing, but instead turned into a two-year bill which will be heard in 2018 and perhaps considered by voters on the statewide ballot in 2019.
And so, while wars have ended, the hippies have come and gone, earthquakes have shaken us to our core, the Niners have left, the Warriors are returning, rents have gone up and down and up and up, and the city has recessed and boomed, many of the core issues the SFAA has represented residential-property owners on throughout its 100 years have remained the same, and our advocacy on your behalf will remain steadfast for as long as the SFAA exists.
Here’s to another 100 years.
Charley Goss is the Government and Community Affairs Coordinator for the San Francisco Apartment Association. Emily Landes is the former editor of SF Apartment Magazine. Matthew C. Sheridan is the publisher of SF Apartment Magazine.