Activists’ False Anti-Housing Narratives

by on May 16, 2017

Highrise office of LA AIDS Healthcare Foundation
Highrise office of LA AIDS Healthcare Foundation

As people increasingly realize that cities must build more housing to address the affordability crisis, opponents are doubling down on fake housing narratives to combat this trend. A recent attack on pro-housing activists as the “‘Alt Right’ Darlings of the Real Estate Industry” actually performs a public service by exposing the mistaken and outright false assumptions that underlie the anti- housing position.

Los Angeles’ Prop S

Let’s start with the article’s bizarre account of a March election initiative in Los Angeles (Prop S) that strictly limited new development. According to the description of Prop S in the above story,   “AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) head Michael Weinstein led a campaign for a moratorium on luxury condos in quickly gentrifying downtown LA. He was attacked by YIMBYs who characterized Weinstein as a zillionaire who ‘didn’t like another building blocking the view from his office.’ Weinstein wrote in response: ‘We have witnessed how San Francisco, where AHF has clinics for testing and treatment, has become a rich ghetto. Low-income people by the tens of thousands have been displaced, and diversity is harder and harder to find. The same thing is unfolding in Los Angeles.’”

The article wants readers to believe that Prop S was designed to stop gentrification and was defeated by “YIMBY’s” and their real estate allies. This fake narrative is a colossal lie.

Nearly every major tenant, homeless and labor group in Los Angeles opposed Prop S.

Opponents included Larry Gross, Executive Director of the Coalition for Economic Survival (CES). For over forty years Gross and CES have been the city’s leading opponents of gentrification and advocates for strong rent controls, eviction protections, and affordable housing.

Prop S was also opposed by the Inner City Law Center, Weingart Center for the Homeless, Eve Williams, Director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing Los Angeles, the head of the Skid Row Housing Trust, UNITE HERE Local 11, progressive County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, the United Farmworkers of America.

Simply put, Prop S was opposed by a who’s who of progressive Los Angeles. Yet if you only read this false account you would think those opposing gentrification supported the measure.

I have no idea why writers attacking housing from the left would promote an initiative that people with decades of progressive credentials in Los Angeles strongly opposed.  Weinstein misspent millions of dollars in AIDS funding so that his personal highrise view would not be blocked by nearby buildings the city had recently approved—yet left anti-housing critics are falsely identifying him as a hero in the fight against gentrification.

The False Housing-Eviction Connection

Anti-housing advocates routinely claim that new market rate housing displaces low-income people of color. Comparing the YIMBY’s agenda to the “negro removal” policies of the Fillmore’s urban renewal, these same authors argue, “Under the YIMBY flag, the same is happening today with low-income Black, Latinx and transgender people of color being the core targets of displacement. The YIMBY movement’s developer allies and tech-employed urbanites stand to profit off this disruption of communities.”

Let’s examine this thesis in regard to San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

North Beach was originally ground zero for Ellis Act evictions in the city. Its housing prices have regularly skyrocketed since the 1980’s despite almost no new housing being built in the neighborhood. North Beach, like other upscale San Francisco neighborhoods, is super-expensive due to housing demand far exceeding its fixed supply. New “luxury” housing in the community was never built, so cannot be blamed for increasing unaffordability.

Who chiefly profits from the housing crisis? It’s not “the YIMBY movement’s developer allies and tech-employed urbanites” making money from North Beach’s unaffordability; rather, as with other neighborhoods, it is the longtime homeowners and landlords who are making huge profits as home prices and rents rise.

Why do some people on the left castigate the mortgage interest deduction as a taxpayer giveaway to the affluent while ignoring that many housing opponents are homeowners and landlords profiting from scarcity? For all the attacks on “rich newcomers” buying new units,  some on the left ignore that every single existing house put up for sale in Noe Valley, Bernal Heights, the Inner Sunset, Haight Asbury, Inner Richmond and other neighborhoods will be sold to a buyer who has to be rich to afford the high price tag.

Good economic times spell increased evictions in San Francisco. This has been true since the late 1970’s. Evictions began sharply rising in the 1980’s when little market rate housing was built in any neighborhood.

The city’s biggest eviction crisis occurred during the dot com boom of the late 1990’s. This was also a period when very little housing was being built.

The tech boom that began in 2011 also spawned a new round of increased evictions. The difference this time was that an economic boom was accompanied by a push to build more housing, leading some to still falsely link the evictions caused by the boom to new construction.

But two events occurring at the same time does not establish a causal connection.

Tenant advocates should understand this best of all, as people have long argued  that rent control causes rising rents and evictions because the cities with the highest rents and most no-fault evictions also have rent control and just cause eviction laws. The folly of their argument is that it wrongly assumes that rents and evictions would not go through the stratosphere without such laws, when the huge gap between rent controlled tenancies and market rate rents proves otherwise.

I realized in the early 1990’s that building housing actually reduced owner move in evictions by giving people who want to be owners an alternative to owner move in evictions. New housing also helps kill the Tenancy in Common (TIC) market that drives Ellis Act evictions (speculators use the Ellis Act to evict tenants and then sell off their units as TICs.  By giving buyers a preferred option,  new condos reduce the financial incentive for tenant displacement via the Ellis Act).

That’s why I’ve long felt that new housing in San Francisco serves tenants interests.

Unified Approach Needed

Clearly, building new housing cannot alone solve the crisis. Pro-housing advocates’ who fail to back strong rent control and just cause eviction laws, as well as funding for new affordable housing and other rental housing preservation measures, are as misdirected as their opponents.

But new inclusionary housing must be part of the mix. In my story about San Francisco being “in denial” about housing and homelessness, I noted that inclusionary housing offered the only chance for middle or working class to own a home in Noe Valley, Bernal Heights, the Castro and most other neighborhoods. Without the market rate housing that anti-housing activists oppose, these communities completely price out all but the affluent.

Critics of housing seem not to understand this point.

The above writers argue, for example, that “high-income earners, like the tech workers who can afford market-rate housing, are effectively displacing communities and small businesses that depend on lower-income inclusionary housing…” But it is the opponents of market rate housing who deny opportunities for inclusionary housing. Stopping new housing does nothing to make already affluent neighborhoods more affordable.

San Francisco’s housing crisis requires strong rent and eviction protections, rental housing preservation, new 100% affordable housing construction and the building of thousands of new units. This unified approach is the city’s only path to slowing and even halting rising inequality.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses how the Tenderloin avoided gentrification in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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