On Nov. 3, voters in District 3 will elect a supervisor in what has become the most interesting (and contentious) race in town. Incumbent Julie Christensen, who was appointed by Mayor Ed Lee after David Chiu left for Sacramento, and Aaron Peskin, who held the seat for eight years prior to Chiu, were once staunch allies as District 3 community advocates. Now, they’re duking it out for a one-year term (the winner will have to run again next year).
Christensen is seen as a moderate, pro-business candidate who knows the district well and makes sensible decisions. Critics, however, say her appointment by the mayor makes her beholden to his interests and his powerful friends. Meanwhile, critics recall Peskin as a progressive rabble-rouser during his eight years as District 3 supervisor (he was board president for three of those years), earning him the nickname “The Napoleon of Telegraph Hill,” but supporters say he is exactly what the Board of Supervisors needs: an independent voice willing to challenge the mayor and the status quo — and whose voting record as a supervisor was actually quite different from his “crazy left-wing” image.
I sat down with the candidates for in-depth interviews and found each to be capable, knowledgeable, and candid as we discussed the issues facing District 3 — from Ellis Act evictions and Airbnb, to raising height limits on the waterfront and the affordable housing crisis. Voter turnout for the Nov. 3 election is expected to be low, so I encourage everyone in District 3 to get out and make your voices heard in this incredibly important race. Whoever you choose will be a very passionate advocate for you and your neighborhoods, but they have very different ideas about how best to lead District 3, and the city of San Francisco, into the future.
Why do you want to be District 3 [D3] supervisor again?
It’s not something I actually expected to do. San Francisco is changing very, very rapidly, some for the good and some not. I’m watching long-term businesses that are part of the fabric of this special set of neighborhoods getting forced out; the number of evictions has skyrocketed, and the silence from City Hall has been deafening.
I think they’re largely responding to a handful of billionaires they have very cozy relationships with, and I thought it was time to bring experienced leadership back that is really neighborhood based.
Do you think your reputation as a “progressive” hurts your chances?
I was the swing vote to authorize a Home Depot on Bayshore. I was the spearhead at the Board of Supervisors [BOS] for the Hunters Point Shipyard development; I was the person who led the effort to rezone 22 percent of the city to allow more intensive development.
I was fiscally one of the more conservative supervisors. Sean Elsbernd and I used to dissent 9-2 on things that were extremely popular but not fiscally prudent. When I left office, the budget was less than half the size it is today. The city workforce is roughly the same size, and they’re not being paid twice as much. So where did the other $4 billion go? I’m not on the board, so I don’t know — but I’d like to get in there and find out.
What do you bring to the table that Julie Christensen doesn’t?
When you’re appointed by the mayor, you are accountable to your appointing authority, and that undermines the notion of independence and direct accountability to the electorate. Regardless of what people think of me, I was independent of Brown and Newsom. I fundamentally believe in the checks and balances of the American political system, and I feel like that’s missing right now at City Hall.
Where do you stand on the short-term rental initiative on the November ballot that would create a 75-day hosting limit per year and require quarterly data reports from platforms like Airbnb?
I support it. I have no problem if people want to rent their place when they go on vacation. We’ve done it for a hundred years — it was called the classifieds and then it was called Craigslist. But when you create an environment where someone comes in, buys up a five unit building, kicks everyone out, and turns it into an illegal hotel — and City Hall turns a blind eye, in the middle of a housing crisis, no less — I’ve got a problem with that.
Is there a way to regulate this housing crisis?
San Francisco has some choices it can make. Does it want to go the way of London, where international billionaires have pied-à-terres they stay in two weeks a year, or does it want to go the way of Paris, where the government created some sensible regulations?
When there was a huge spate of Ellis Act evictions 10 years ago, the incentive was for speculators to turn the buildings around and sell TICs so the TICs could be converted to condos. I said, “If you’re doing an Ellis eviction, you can’t get a condo lottery ticket for 10 years,” and the number of Ellis evictions plummeted. Harvey Rose, [San Francisco’s] highly respected independent budget analyst of 43 years, says there are 2,000 units of rent-controlled housing stock in the city that are held off the market to be illegal Airbnb rentals. In so far as the city has this ambitious goal of building 30,000 units — well, that’s almost 10 percent of the solution. It’s already there!
So, Julie, are you going to stand up to that? But you see it doesn’t matter what she thinks [about short-term rental regulations] because she’s accountable to her appointing authority … you can see it in issues of this whole Airbnb phenomenon. The vote [to impose a hard cap on the use of short-term rentals] was 6-5, and Julie sided with the Ron Conways and Airbnbs of the world.
So how should the city develop to accommodate growth?
The policy decisions made when I was in office were to put growth in the most appropriate places, like SoMa, which was low density. Even there we had to be thoughtful to make sure you could still get your car repaired in San Francisco. Had we listened just to the developers, there would be no body shops.
I recently helped the folks at the Flower Mart for free for over a year. They shouldn’t have needed some volunteer former supervisor to come to their rescue — City Hall should have come to their rescue! There are over 330 jobs onsite and hundreds more on farms from Half Moon Bay all the way to Shasta County; there are 14,000 regional florists. It’s the second largest wholesale flower market in the United States. And City Hall said, “Oh, yeah, we’ll have tech offices there, and of course we’ll allow you to increase the height limit from 40 feet to 270.”
My response was, “If you’re going to do that, you must also ensure that this institution and all its jobs survive. If you’re asking City Hall to change height limits, you’re asking for a gift.”
That was my beef with 8 Washington. If you want to do rezoning, you do planning. You say, “Our city is at a crossroads, and it’s time to change height limits in this area of town in order to build the kind of housing or office or retail that we need,” and you do it comprehensively. You don’t do it site-specific because you’re connected so you get your particular piece of land changed. That’s not planning, that’s politics.
You want to have a public conversation about whether we should change waterfront height limits? OK, let’s have that conversation.
The developer for 8 Washington had the votes on the BOS, 8-3. Julie was for it. Then we did something that hadn’t happened here in a generation: We collected 33,000 signatures in 29 days and took it directly to the people. Even though they spent $2.7 million and we spent about a half a million, we won. What did that say? City Hall was out of touch.
What would you like to change about the development process?
Right now it’s kind of a one-size-fits-all-anything-goes, particularly if it’s juiced by Ron Conway and his ilk. They go to the BOS and say, “We want this project at this location and we want you to change the zoning from X to Y.” If they get six votes on the BOS, it’s done, so developers get 100 percent of what they want.
The BOS could say, “You guys are making a fortune off these developments — instead of 12 percent affordable housing, I think you guys can do 30 percent.”
Why do I think that? Because after “No Wall on the Waterfront,” which said raising height limits on port-owned land could only be done with a vote of the people, along came Forest City at Pier 70 and they said, “It’s zoned for 40 feet, we’d like to raise it to 90 — if you vote for that we’ll do 30 percent affordable housing. The voters voted for it, they’re building it, and what did that prove? There was enough money in the deal for them to do 30 percent.
Now the Giants want to build on Seawall Lot 337 [at Mission Bay] and they’re going to the voters in November saying, “We can do 40 percent affordable housing for Mission Rock!” so 40 is the new 30. I’m for that project.
The notion that we’re going to build our way out of this housing crisis doesn’t work if all the units are $5 million.
Why not run for mayor?
Nobody can accuse me of being politically ambitious. I was never interested in running for state senator. My interest is in this incredible city, and particularly in the northeast corner of it, which has this fantastic set of neighborhoods. That doesn’t mean it can’t develop or change, but when those 8 Washingtons come along you have to stand up, sometimes against incredible pressure from lobbyists who have given big campaign contributions.
I don’t refuse donations from lobbyists. I’ve gotten two of them, each for $500, as compared to my opponent who’s gotten over $30,000. When you take their money, you end up dancing with them, whether you like it or not. You can say that money doesn’t influence you — I’m sorry, it does, and it influenced me, too. I’ve been through it. I’ve lived it. I’ve learned.
Rose Pak is supporting you. If you’re elected, will you be beholden to her?
It comes down to the exact same thing we’re talking about, which is, do I have the wherewithal to say, “No”? Yes, I do. Have I stood up to Rose Pak before? Hell, yeah. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned there are ways to stand up to people that are nice, and ways to stand up to people that are not nice, and it’s much better to do it with honey than with vinegar.
Spouse: Nancy Shanahan
Key issues: “Affordability Agenda,” including building new low- and middle-income housing and preserving existing affordable housing; retaining artists, nonprofits, and other small businesses; and promoting public access to the city.
Career: Environmental activist; community activist; member of the San Francisco Board of Supservisors from 2001–09; president of the Board of Supervisors from 2005–09; head of the San Francisco Democratic Party Central Committee from 2008–12.
What do you bring as District 3 supervisor that Aaron Peskin doesn’t?
Aaron got into District 3 politics because I planted a tree in front of his house. He says his political career started with planting trees. My career started with that! I planted 355 trees under the Telegraph Hill Dwellers auspices. I got involved in 1994 when the grant we got for the trees was about to expire. I had just moved back to San Francisco after a failed relationship and it took me 355 trees to get it out of my system.
When Aaron ran for supervisor I supported him, but I think Aaron left a lot undone. He had this seat for eight years. I’ve had 20 years as an advocate for the area and I had no appointment. While Aaron was in office, I was working to build a new North Beach Library, which Aaron opposed. I spearheaded the drive to extend the Central Subway to North Beach and the Wharf. Aaron opposed the Central Subway and tried to torpedo funding for it. I worked to pass the 2012 Parks Improvement measure, which Aaron opposed. We redesigned Helen Wills Park on Russian Hill; we restored and expanded the North Beach Pool and Clubhouse; we did fundraising and a redesign for Joe DiMaggio Playground.
I also worked on Coit Tower and Pioneer Park when Rec and Park wanted to put a fence around Coit Tower because it wasn’t ADA compliant. We created wheelchair access and helped improve pedestrian safety; we spent six years with Coit Tower to preserve the murals, which would have been destroyed. I can point to 20 years of common sense, quintessential projects.
What’s Aaron’s legacy? Rite Aid isn’t in the Pagoda Theater and 8 Washington isn’t housing.
What do you think of Peskin’s campaign slogan, “Leading the fight for a more affordable city”?
What’s private citizen Aaron Peskin been doing the last six years? Stopping 8 Washington; preventing housing on Treasure Island … Aaron blames City Hall for the affordability crisis he helped to create with decisions he and his colleagues made.
Look at David Campos — he’s railing away about the housing crisis in the Mission, but he’s had seven years as their supervisor, and before that Tom Ammiano had eight. That’s 15 years of their ideology. How did that go? How much can you fight against a tsunami of social change?
Where did you stand on Campos’s proposed moratorium on market-rate building in the Mission?
This was a very hard vote for me, because I am critical of the way development is going in the Mission. There are hundreds of people hurting — artists, small businesses, scores of renters leaving the city. But if someone moving here can’t move into a new building, they’re going to be gunning for that [existing] flat in the Mission.
I voted against it, but with a heavy heart. I wanted to vote “yes” to let those people know that their voices were heard, but when I came into office I promised not to support political theater over problem solving, and this took a problem years in the making and did nothing to stop what’s going on.
The Mission has no plan. Campos has been asleep at the wheel. He allowed mitigation money to be used to restore the old Mission Theater. He let dollars for affordable housing leak out of his area into SoMa and the Tenderloin. He, among all people, is responsible for that. All of those [anti-development] people are trying to stick it to the man … they should have spent that time trying to get things done.
What are you doing to make District 3 more affordable?
I introduced legislation for accessory dwelling units [ADUs]; we have 30- to 40-unit apartment buildings that can add more rent-controlled housing in existing unused areas like boiler rooms or oversized storage. The character of the neighborhood won’t change, but it adds ground-level units for disabled and senior access.
Before I came on board, the Port transferred the parcel at 88 Broadway to the Mayor’s Office of Housing [MOH]. Neighbors worried about this important parcel near the Embarcadero, so I asked the MOH to hold off on the RFP [request for proposal] so we can hear and address the neighborhood’s concerns. I am working closely with the mayor’s office to provide new affordable family and senior housing at the site. It could fail, but it’s an approach to planning that I hope to replicate.
How have you been dealing with the rise in District 3 evictions?
I have knocked on over 1,400 doors in the past months, learning my district building by building. I have canvassed the SRO’s [single room occupancies] in Chinatown, North Beach, and on Polk Street.
I have talked with hundreds of tenants; nearly all are worried about what would happen if they were forced to leave their homes. The landlord who bought the SRO at 2 Emery Lane in 2013 was harassing tenants, so I called the landlord and told him this won’t fly. He’s backed off. I was able to help protect a tenant from eviction a few weeks ago by making it clear to her landlord that he could not convert her unit to short-term rental after her departure.
We brought Planning and DBI [Department of Building Inspection] to a residential hotel that had illegally transferred permanent units to short-term use. I am working now to have notices served to a number of buildings in D3 that have been illegally converted to hotels. I have stopped 25 evictions and three lockouts since I became supervisor, [and am] advocating for additional funding for tenant protection and counseling.
A seemingly disproportionate number of property owners in D3 are older. Their life changes are shaking the district just as the disparity between the rents of long-time tenants and market-rate rents have reached new levels. The boom has made this a perfect storm.
Where do you stand on the short-term rental initiative on the November ballot that would create a 75-day hosting limit per year and require quarterly data reports from platforms like Airbnb?
We need to stop the hoteling of buildings, and the legislation that [David] Chiu passed makes the most egregious things illegal. If we could enforce it, then I could take care of the vast majority of these situations. The mayor has set money aside to hire six people solely to deal with enforcing short-term rentals.
The current efforts are focused on sticking it to Airbnb. We have to get people registered and we need to enforce — I don’t care whose platform you’re on. Airbnb controls about half the market, but my bad actors are speculators who have their own platforms.
This has been a campaign against Airbnb, but they don’t control all the listings, so if we design a law for Airbnb and their platform, we only take care of half the problem. I won’t argue that Airbnb made this more popular, but it’s also on Craigslist and in classified ads in the backs of magazines. I ran a consulting business for 33 years where my clients demanded results; I’m used to cause and effect. What I see with my City Hall colleagues, especially on the left, is this feeling that if you just pass a punitive law it’s going to fix everything.
What mistakes were made between the last tech bust and the new boom?
When Mayor Lee took office, he focused on jobs, but no plans for housing or infrastructure. We were too successful. This is pent-up growth.
When Aaron was in power we had the dotcom bust — the fiscal Loma Prieta. This was a precursor to what can happen when the big one happens. We stopped funding the pensions and spending on infrastructure; we didn’t revamp Muni; evictions increased; and income inequality became greater. We didn’t legislate out of that one, because the boom busted. But as Steve Jobs said, a downturn is the perfect opportunity to prepare for an upturn. We didn’t do that. And Aaron and his colleagues had restrained growth for so long that once the economy picked up there was no hope of catching up.
How are San Francisco’s height limits affecting the current housing crisis?
No one came to San Francisco to live in Manhattan, but somehow we have ended up building projects and not neighborhoods. There isn’t an appetite in the city to block out our waterfront, but the height limits placed on Mission Bay didn’t have the desired effect, either — we created very focused restrictive legislation that resulted in very squat buildings.
In D3, we have a density of 76,000 people per square mile in Chinatown and a 40-foot height limit. If you look at Vancouver, they said, “We will put a 16-story building on a quarter of the lot.” They went vertical in a selective way, preserving key view towers and made developers pay for public space, and you can still see breathtaking views at their waterfront. Pier 70 [the historic shipyard at Potrero Point] is a great example of a more organic and integrated approach.
Spouse: Greg Smith
Key issues: Affordability; reforming regulations to adapt to current needs; Central Subway; expanding housing at all levels.
Career: Community activist, member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors since January 2015; started her own firm, Surface Work, in 1981; worked at design firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and has served on the advisory board for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.