SF Apartment : October 2016
Delegate for Development
by Pam McElroy & Matthew C. Sheridan
In between representing San Francisco District 8, serving as Chairman of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, and running for State Senate, Supervisor Scott Wiener sat down with SF Apartment Magazine Publisher, Matthew C. Sheridan, and the magazine’s editor, Pam McElroy, to talk about what can be done strengthen San Francisco communities and development.
Pam McElroy: Among your many legislative interests, it appears you have a sincere passion for housing. What drives this component of your thought? What do you see as the real challenges ahead?
Scott Wiener: Housing is the issue facing our city and our region. I’ve lived in San Francisco for almost 20 years—always in the Castro—and there are too many people in my neighborhood, in my community, in my social network, who are either being pushed out of the city or have been pushed out of the city already. They are freaked out that they’re going to have to leave San Francisco, and it is a real crisis. It affects real people on a daily basis and it’s tearing at the fabric of our city. We got ourselves into this mess by not creating enough housing, by putting every conceivable barrier in the way of creating housing, by making it incredibly expensive and time consuming to create housing, or even prohibiting it entirely.
We’re not going to get ourselves out of our housing mess by continuing to do counter productive things, like the Mission housing moratorium, for example. We have to think differently. I’ve worked very hard to make it easier to create housing. I’ve worked hard to let people put in-law units into their buildings; to not increase density around transit corridors; to support major developments, like Park Merced or Treasure Island or Hunter’s Point Shipyard; to streamline the approval process for housing. There’s so much that we can do to make it easier to create housing, and we just need the political will to do it. The status quo isn’t working.
Matthew Sheridan: What’s the latest development on legalizing in-law units?
Scott Wiener: In-laws were one of the “third rails” in San Francisco politics. For decades, the board couldn’t even get it together to allow the legalization of existing units. David Chiu was able to shepherd through that legislation a few years ago. But I decided that we should go beyond legalizing what exists and allow single-family homeowners—and also multi-unit building owners—to add additional units to non-residential space to make the best use of our existing building stock, even if it goes above existing zoning limitations.
I started off with a limited program in the Castro only, just to show that the sky wouldn’t fall after the addition of in-law units. We did a lot of outreach in the neighborhood. A neighborhood association did an online survey that showed overwhelming support, so we passed it in the Castro. What we learned is that people understand the depth of our housing crisis, and they want more housing.
So when the sky, of course, did not fall, I authored follow-up legislation expanding that program to all of District Eight and, at the time, I challenged all my colleagues to send it to their districts as well. The only colleague that took me up on it was Julie Christensen.
Then I authored legislation to allow buildings undergoing seismic retrofit, whether voluntary or mandatory, to add secondary units to their buildings while they were doing the seismic work. I tried to incentivize voluntary retrofits, but also to reward people undergoing mandatory retrofits, and to create new housing at the same time.
All of this laid the stage for what we did this summer, which was to come together and pass citywide secondary-unit legislation that allows people through almost the entire city to add in-law units. We’ve made a lot of progress.
Matthew Sheridan: What are main facets and bullet points of the citywide program?
Scott Wiener: Depending on the size of the building, property owners can add a certain number of units to their building in non-residential space. They can’t subdivide existing units, but they can convert, for example, a partially submerged basement, a garage, a storage space, or under an existing deck. The space has to be within the existing envelope of the building, with some flexibility in the rear area. If the building is a rent-controlled building, then the new units will be rent controlled as well.
We understand that there are some aspects of the 2016 code that would be absolutely impossible to apply to an older, existing building, so we’ve relaxed some of the non life-safety building code to provide some flexibility. If we were to try to apply 2016 code to these older buildings, it would guarantee that no units would be built. So far, the seismic ADU legislation has been very successful; over 100 units so far have been processed, and that’s a good thing.
Pam McElroy: Can you talk about the Code Enforcement Revolving Loan Fund that you established with the Department of Building Inspection?
Scott Wiener: We’ve been working to improve code enforcement, and I authored legislation to improve the code enforcement process. I also recognize that there are landlords who want to fix their code violations but who lack the resources to do so. To address this problem, I authored legislation creating a revolving loan fund so that owners can access low-interest loans to bring their buildings into compliance. As the loans are repaid, they can be loaned out again. We want to help people make their buildings safe.
Pam McElroy: Is there any other thing that we could do in San Francisco to provide more home ownership opportunities to the middle class?
Scott Wiener: Some people believe that our entire housing crisis could be solved through subsidized, below market rate, affordable housing and, while I’m a big supporter of a below market rate subsidized housing program, that by itself will never solve the crisis. We need subsidized housing for our lower income residents, but we will never subsidize our way out of the middle class housing problem.
We have fifty thousand units in the pipeline. If we just stay the course and keep creating housing—not just in San Francisco but on the peninsula and Oakland and elsewhere—we can make housing more accessible for our middle class.
Matthew Sheridan: Did you back Governor Brown’s “by right” housing proposal?
Scott Wiener: The governor’s plan has defects in it. For example, making it too easy to demolish rent-controlled housing stock. But we should work with the governor to fix the problems in his legislation rather than have knee-jerk opposition to it. This is no longer a problem afflicting only the San Franciscos and Santa Monicas of the world. This housing crisis is spreading like a virus around the state, and more and more communities are being harmed by the cost of housing. The governor is taking leadership and trying to address this statewide problem. I have enormous respect for Governor Brown because he has waded into this very difficult area.
We had a contentious fight at the board where Supervisor Peskin offered a resolution with that knee-jerk opposition to the Governor’s plan. I offered an alternative resolution saying that we should work with the Governor to fix the legislation rather than simply opposing him. Unfortunately, Supervisor Peskin won in a six to five vote, but the mayor, to his credit, vetoed that resolution so the city is not on record in opposition to the legislation.
Pam McElroy: What can be done to bridge the differences within the board, to create a more productive and respective legislative process?
Scott Wiener: We just have to put the personalities aside. There was a time when it looked like the board majority might try to kill all the ballot measures of those of us who were not in the majority—even if they agreed with those measures. The street tree measure that I authored and worked with the San Francisco Apartment Association on was in jeopardy. Our sales tax for transportation and homeless housing was in jeopardy. Supervisor Cohen’s police accountability measure was in jeopardy. In the end, I worked closely with Supervisor Avalos, Supervisor Peskin, Supervisor Mar, and Supervisor Kim—whom I’m running against—to try to pull some of this back. We were able to save the measures and send them to ballot.
It’s a very contentious time in City Hall. I have colleagues on the other side who just want to destroy the mayor; they’ll do anything they can to oppose whatever the mayor is doing. We are able to come together to move important policy forward. In particular, I have a very good working relationship with Supervisor Peskin and with Supervisor Avalos and Supervisor Mar, and we’ve been able to move forward some significant legislation together.
Matthew Sheridan: What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment as a supervisor?
Scott Wiener: I’m very proud of having authored and passed Proposition B a few years ago, which ties traffic funding to population growth and ensures that, as we grow as a city, we’re increasing our investment in transit. We were also able to pass the nation’s first legislation to expand parental leave. New parents now get six weeks of fully paid parental leave so they don’t have to choose between paying the rent or bonding with their new child. We made San Francisco the first city in the country to require water recycling in new buildings. I’m proud of the work we were able to do around in-law units to actually break through this barrier that was holding us back from making the most use of our existing building stock in creating new units.
Matthew Sheridan: How do you see yourself in the legislature? Beyond housing, what’s your mission and what’s your passion going to be?
Scott Wiener: What happens at the state level is important for San Francisco. The decisions made in Sacramento have profound impacts on our ability to do what we need to do locally.
I’m very passionate about investing more in public transportation. We need more subways in San Francisco. We need a second Transbay tube so BART can run 24 hours; so we can connect Capital Corridor to CalTrain and create true, regional rail. We need to get high-speed rail and CalTrain to the Transbay terminal. We have a lot of work to do, and as much as we do locally and regionally, we’re not going to be able to do all those things without strong financial support from the state. The state doesn’t do enough for transportation, and it will be a high priority for me to get the state to do much more.
We have to keep moving toward 100 percent renewable energy in California. The state plays a huge role in our water policy; it controls the water system. We have to modernize our approach to water in California to address our long-term structural water shortage. We need more water recycling. The state plays a critical role in expanding renewable energy and solar energy.
The state controls public education. The state decides whether all children are going to get high-quality public education, which I’m passionate about, as a product of public education and as the son of a public school teacher. The state also controls who gets access to healthcare—whether it’s the one in three Californians who rely on Medi-Cal, or people who can’t afford life-saving medications after insurance companies jack up drug copays.
And so for all these issues that we struggle with in San Francisco, the state plays a huge role, and I’m very passionate about working at the state level to get more transit funding, to expand access to healthcare, to increase water recycling and renewable energy in California, and to make sure that every single child in our state has access to a great public education.
Pam McElroy: If you could change one law in San Francisco, what would it be?
Scott Wiener: If I could force our city departments to enforce one law, it would be the prohibition on double parking. I am deeply frustrated that our MTA and police department basically refuse to enforce double parking, which causes traffic jams, blocks Muni, blocks bike lanes, and forces cyclists out into traffic. We basically have the Wild West out there where people driving delivery trucks and private vehicles and taxi cabs, including Lyft and Uber—even if they have a legit place to pull over—feel liberated to just stop their car in the middle of the street and cause traffic chaos. The city is basically not doing anything about it. It’s disgraceful.
A police department came to one of the hearings and said that if they see someone double parking, they’ll ask the driver to move. If the worst that’s going to happen to someone who double parks is that a cop will tell them to move, why would anyone ever not double park? There’s no real risk of penalty.
Pam McElroy: Do you have one piece of advice for San Francisco landlords?
Scott Wiener: To really continue to push for more housing in San Francisco. Even though I know there are landlords who are very concerned with all the new housing coming on line. They are worried about not being able to charge the rents that they wanted to charge. Even though I do respect that position, personally, I want the rents to come down.
If we all work together and continue the momentum to make more housing, it’s going to take pressure off everyone. It benefits tenants to have more housing, but it also benefits landlords. There are so many tenants in San Francisco who maybe want to move to a different neighborhood, maybe closer to work, or they want to move into a bigger unit because they’re getting married or they’re having a kid, but there’s no way they’re ever going to be able to afford that. People are hanging on for dear life to their units. With more housing, people will be able to do what people normally do: move around throughout life when life brings change. Yes, there are always going to be long-term tenants, and that’s terrific, but right now a number of people who are long-term tenants do not want to be. The number of people who are living with their exes, for example, because they just can’t afford to move. It’s an extreme situation, and we need to push for more housing.
Matthew Sheridan: What brought you to San Francisco? What attracted you to the city? And what do you love about it now?
Scott Wiener: I’d always assumed I’d go back to Philadelphia, which is where I’m from. But during law school, I decided I should check out one more city. I think I was drawn to San Francisco as a gay man. I spent a summer here and fell in love with it. What I love about San Francisco is that it embraces diversity in all of its forms and allows people to be who they are and to be a little—or a lot—quirky. It’s a city that really has a live and let live attitude.
San Francisco has always been a city where tons of new people come from around the country, from around the world, to build lives for themselves. From gold miners in the 1800s to the Irish, Mexicans, hippies, and LGBT people. Now a lot of technology workers have been coming here. As much as newcomers change the city, the newcomers are also changed by the city, and we’re all absorbed into the San Francisco culture and mentality. Some people believe certain stereotypes of technology workers. When I talk to technology workers in their twenties who moved here a year or two ago, they are just as leftie as any hippie who moved here in the sixties. And people come to San Francisco because of what San Francisco is, and so the heart of the city beats strong and will stay strong. We just have to get past some of the challenges we have—particularly around housing.
Matthew C. Sheridan is the publisher of SF Apartment Magazine and a realtor with ARA Newmark, where he helps clients with the acquisition and disposition of apartment buildings in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pam McElroy is the editor of SF Apartment Magazine and can be reached at email@example.com.