Politics roundtable: Housing and Mirkarimi’s future

This November, San Francisco voters will have a say in whether the online short-term rental service Airbnb and similar companies face greater restrictions in the city.

This November, San Francisco voters will vote on a long list of offices and ballot propositions (see voter guide below). The Commonwealth Club’s Week to Week political roundtable tapped some Bay Area political observers and analysts to discuss a couple high-level issues before the voters: short-term rentals and Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi’s future.

The panelists were Carson Bruno, a Hoover Institution research fellow; San Jose Mercury News editorial pages editor Barbara Marshman; San Jose State University political science professor Dr. Larry Gerston; San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius; and KCBS News political and investigative reporter Doug Sovern.

JOHN ZIPPERER: San Fran-cisco is going to be voting on a ballot measure that we are going to see more of in other cities and towns that are dealing with this. Carson Bruno, tell us about Proposition F?

CARSON BRUNO: If you live in San Francisco, you’ve already seen the ads for it, because it is already very heated. Proposition F is an anti-short-term rental proposition. The provisions will make it extraordinarily difficult for an everyday sort of person to be able to rent out their bedroom, their apartment, their in-law suite, their house or condo or whatever for a short-term basis. So it’s really an attack on Airbnb, VRBO, any of the housing sharing platforms. As a result, as you can imagine, Airbnb is quite livid about it and has been putting a lot of money into the “No on Prop F” campaign.

It’s an issue that San Francisco is dealing with, but also the entire Bay Area is dealing with: the housing affordability issue. The “Yes on Prop F” side is saying, Look, all of these units, all of these apartments, bedrooms, whatever, are being taken off the market and being put into this short-term rental market, and that is constricting the market even more so, and that’s leading to the increase in rental prices across the city.

I pulled some statistics that Airbnb is [using], and granted, these are Airbnb statistics, so they obviously are going to favor Airbnb. But the magnitude is probably fairly decent. They claim that 80 percent of their hosts share only the home in which they live, so it’s not like it’s a person who has a rental home or apartment that they don’t personally live in that they’re renting out on a short-term basis. They say that three-fourths of the hosts use the income from the short-term rental to pay their home-related bills — that’s rent, electricity, home mortgages, whatever. They claim that nearly half of their hosts are low-income households. So their counter-claim is, “Look, if it weren’t for the short-term rental market, these people wouldn’t be able to live in the city and would be having to move or sell their home at market prices, which no one can afford to begin with — unless you are extraordinarily wealthy to begin with.”

So they’re battling back and forth about who’s at fault. Is Airbnb causing the San Francisco housing crisis? No, they’re not. But they’re fighting over the symptoms and not over the cause. So it’s going to be a logjam from now until November on this issue.

BARBARA MARSHMAN: Is it mostly a matter of affordable housing, or is it a zoning issue, people turning houses that were in single-family neighborhoods into [short-term] room rentals?

BRUNO: Affordability is the flash point, that spark. But the proponents are really pushing the idea that these people aren’t paying their fair share, the taxes issue. We saw the Airbnb tax battle last year; you see the disruption in the neighborhood, these transient people coming in and out of their communities. There’s a lot of NIMBYism going on. There’s a lot of, particularly in San Francisco, a [feeling that] “Our city has been taken away from us; we have to do everything we can to preserve it.” This mentality of what San Francisco is and ought to be. So it’s transcended purely economic [concerns] in many ways, and it’s become extraordinarily personal for a lot and lot of people.

LARRY GERSTON: I think the most important statement you made is that this is a symptom and they’re not really looking at the disease. The tragedy in San Francisco — throughout the Bay Area, but San Francisco is the epicenter — is the way in which the city has made it so easy, giving all kinds of great deals, to these high-tech companies to move in, pay no rent for like 500 years, and “Bring your businesses, we’ll come up with great big buildings for you to have your people work in,” and where are they going to live? And then if they do live in the city with their $200,000-a-year jobs, what about the guy who is living there on a $60,000 job, who now finds his rent jacked up three, four times? This is not hyperbole; this is what is happening. So the entire complexion of the city is changing right before our eyes, as those people who are middle class or less literally are chased out to Oakland and beyond, and the ripple effect goes on from there.

I’m sorry, I think this is just terrible leadership. It just is. Penny-wise, pound-foolish. Bringing new revenue, that’s just wonderful. Oh, they throw a bone here or there for an education program. I’m sorry, that doesn’t do it. This is bad planning, and I think we’re all going to pay for it.

BRUNO: A lot of the peninsula neighborhoods are taking it even a step further, where a lot of these companies are offering as they build their new office parks to include housing units in the development, subsidized for their own employees but at least it puts their employees somewhere. And a lot of these communities and city councils say, “No, thanks.” They want the offices, but not the people and the traffic, and that sort of stuff. But what they’re doing is making the problem even worse.

Or you go Palo Alto’s route, where they’re now putting essentially a moratorium on office space development as a way to stop people from moving in. You’re thinking, “What?” Again, that’s a symptom of a problem; the problem is that we do not have enough development in the entire Bay Area, not just one community, to handle the amount of economic growth that Silicon Valley and the Bay Area is producing.

ZIPPERER: Is it game-over for Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi [because of the sanctuary city controversy]?

C.W. NEVIUS: People [used to] come up and say, “Do you think Ross will be reelected?” And now people are saying, “Do you think he will make it to November?”

This is the law of unintended consequences. By standing up like this [and pushing the sanctuary city law] and making what he thinks is going to be a big play for San Francisco, when something like this [Kathryn Steinle’s killing] happens, now we snap back. I just watched the Bill O’Reilly show, and the Steinle parents were on. They’re on the bandwagon; Bill O’Reilly’s thing is that they’re going to start Kate’s Law, which would be in memorial to this woman who died. Her parents, who are extremely sympathetic characters, are in favor of this, they think it’s a good idea. The idea is that you would get a mandatory five-year prison sentence if you return to the United States after you have been deported and if you were a felon.

It’s rife with the potential for overuse, abuse. One of the reasons we had sanctuary cities was that women would report domestic violence, and then they would be deported. It’s just a real concern.

But by standing up and making such a show of how we’re not going to cooperate at all [with federal immigration authorities], this government agency is not to be trusted, you’ve opened the door to this.

DOUG SOVERN, KCBS News: You think of the previous sheriff we had, Mike Hennessy, who for 20, 24 years, was a sleepy backwater, nothing ever happened, he just ran the ship of state. Mirkarimi comes in and it’s like four major scandals in the four years since he’s been sheriff. It’s incredible.

NEVIUS: We were mentioning “the underwear guy.” The [prisoner] sent out to take out the trash and just took off his suit and took off. He turns out to be an international drug dealer who was facing federal charges. Now he’s just gone. And that was the second guy in nine months. I mean, all you have to do is run the jail. That’s really your job here. Just do that.

ZIPPERER: Did Mayor Lee throw Mirkarimi under the bus when he criticized the lack of a phone call [from the sheriff to ICE]?

NEVIOUS: He’s tried it many times. The bus has not hit Mirkarimi yet, but it’s due in a few minutes.

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