After thirty years of piecemeal actions, skyrocketing rents and rising speculator evictions have finally forced San Francisco to address the totality of its housing crisis. In the past month alone: Mayor Lee issued a directive prioritizing affordable housing construction and preservation, and backed legislation to increase inclusionary housing; the city, not just tenant groups, is moving forward to reform the Ellis Act; there are tenant conventions being held across the city for the first time since 1992; and public housing is being overhauled. Collectively, these actions and others will make a difference.

When I was moving from Berkeley to San Francisco, every apartment we applied to had a line of competing tenants. We kept falling in love with apartments only to be rejected time and time again. One manager told us that the owner wanted to choose the tenants with the highest incomes. Another said the priority was tenants with great furniture, as the owner was looking to sell. We had a top limit for rent that we quickly had to abandon, and some apartments had rent bidding wars.

The year was 1979.

The Cost of Piecemeal Action

From 1979 until 2014, San Francisco never took concerted action to address the totality of its housing crisis. Activists did implement some critical steps: we had a flurry of vital rent control and housing preservation laws pass from 1979-1981, and tenant ballot measures starting in 1992 greatly reduced annual rent increases and restricted no-fault evictions. Voters passed a $100 million affordable housing bond in 1996 and a $1.3 billion housing trust fund in 2011. Key legislation that would have stopped Ellis evictions passed in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s but was thrown out by the courts.

But when the city was moving on preservation, it was ignoring incentives to increase housing production. And as I wrote last week about the former North Beach Ellis eviction kingpin now in bankruptcy, past waves of high profile Ellis evictions never got San Francisco’s mayor and political leadership to push for the necessary changes at the state level.

San Francisco has paid a terrible price for going decades without concerted action on its housing crisis. And the biggest price in dollars is our inaction on public housing.

If the Board of Supervisors had not allowed itself to be intimidated in 2001 by claims of “racism,” it would have adopted Supervisor Matt Gonzalez’s measure giving it control of the San Francisco Housing Authority. That would have saved the city from now having to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars to revive and maintain our largest low-cost family housing supply.

I worked with the Residential Builders Association to get a measure on the city’s 2008 ballot to increase on-site inclusionary family housing. Just as we were submitting the measure to the County Clerk, a longtime RBA opponent convinced one of the four supervisors who had agreed to put the measure on the ballot to withdraw her name. So the measure did not go forward. It would have enabled hundreds of low-income families to gain affordable units in the current market rate housing boom, but in those days, as throughout much of the past three decades, the forces of “no” typically prevailed on every aspect of addressing the housing crisis.

In 2014, a version of that family friendly proposal is likely to be part of the mayor's legislative package.

2014 Could be Milestone

Mayor Lee unveiled a housing plan on January 17 that includes many of the essential steps that San Francisco should have adopted decades ago. He has the power to implement all of these measures through the Board except for Ellis Act reform, which requires state action.

Many of us see stopping speculator evictions under the Ellis Act as the most important measure of all, as San Francisco cannot move forward with tens of thousands of its residents going to bed each night worrying that they might be speculators’ next target. The campaign also challenges the tech community to use its influence to help tenants, as it will be very difficult to win Ellis reform in Sacramento without tech’s support (some real estate interests claim restricting Ellis is “anti-business,” and tech is positioned to refute this).

I know many who have given up on San Francisco, saying its housing affordability crisis is hopeless. But if the city moves forward on all of the various measures on the table, we will soon see rents on vacant units rising less, increased opportunities for low and middle class inclusionary housing, fewer Ellis Act evictions (if we win in Sacramento) and a public housing system that provides safe, low-cost housing and is also financially viable.

These actions will make a difference. And 2014 is the year it must get done.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.