The end of rent control – which will happen if a June state proposition passes – could not come at a worse time. San Francisco rents exploded in 2007, and are now expected to rise even further. While developers are almost exclusively building condos, the City will only add 800 rental units in 2008 – at a time when we’re expected to see 10,000 new jobs (mostly in the tech industry.) That’s why a deal brokered by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi to develop the UC Extension site at 55 Laguna Street – with higher levels of affordability, and an emphasis on LGBT seniors – is such a critical, albeit modest, step. Meanwhile, San Franciscans must get involved in the Campaign to Save Rent Control by attending a Convention tomorrow. Our very survival is at stake.

At a City Hall rally yesterday, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi announced that a deal had been struck with the University of California – with help from State Senator Carole Migden and Assemblyman Mark Leno – to develop the site at 55 Laguna Street with higher levels of affordability. The site was the former UC Berkeley Extension campus, and has been in disrepair for several years.

According to the negotiated deal, a real estate developer will build 326 rental units. Twenty percent of the apartments will be affordable to households making 50% of area median income ($43,000 for a family of four.) Open House – a senior housing non-profit – will manage an additional 85 units of affordable rental units of senior housing, with an emphasis on LGBT seniors.

“We have made critical progress on working with UC,” said Mirkarimi, “which I had called an inflexible juggernaut.” The University of California is a state institution, which means that it’s not covered by local laws. This has made it difficult for municipalities to deal with getting real concessions on their properties, which has made Mirkarimi’s efforts that much more remarkable.

“Our preeminent obligation,” said Senator Migden, “is to make sure the project is affordable.” San Francisco’s inclusionary law requires that new projects have 15% of their rental units affordable for households making 60% of area median income ($52,000 for a family of four) – and the 55 Laguna plan exceeded such baselines. But many speakers at the event argued that it’s only the first step – and deeper levels of affordability will be necessary to truly address the plight of queer seniors.

“I lived across the street from 55 Laguna,” said Brian Basinger of the AIDS Housing Alliance, “and was the 18th person with AIDS to be Ellis Act evicted from my block.” Basinger added that there are 2500 homeless people in San Francisco living with AIDS, and the average income of members in his organization is $790 a month. As the Castro gets further gentrified, and the queer population gets older, there will be a greater need in the coming years to provide affordable housing. “This is the start of the development of the Castro area,” said Basinger. “It sets the tone and baseline for any developer.”

Meanwhile, the Howard Jarvis initiative to abolish rent control qualified for the June 2008 ballot this week. Small victories like the 55 Laguna project would be moot if the right-wing forces who are pushing for a radical alteration of California property law were to prevail in the upcoming election.

While there was much to celebrate about the 55 Laguna Project – Doug Shoemaker of the Mayor’s Office of Housing called yesterday’s rally “one of those rare Kumbaya moments in San Francisco” – we are ultimately talking about (at most) 150 affordable units. That is why San Franciscans must now turn to defeating the anti-rent control initiative, so that it will be possible to replicate the success of 55 Laguna in future projects to make a real dent in the housing market.

Tomorrow at 1:00 p.m., activists from throughout the City will gather at the Centro del Pueblo – 474 Valencia Street – for a Convention to Save Rent Control, as a means of waging a spirited campaign against the Jarvis Initiative. Besides a teach-in to learn about the dangerous measure and efforts to fight it, attendees will break out into groups to work out plans for (a) media outreach, (b) fundraising, (c) voter registration and (d) voter outreach.

Yesterday was the time for activists to celebrate a new housing project at 55 Laguna. Tomorrow is the time to organize for such projects like that to be possible in the future.