Department denies burying a report claiming new construction doesn’t lead to evictions


A controversial study — until now largely unseen — has sparked discord between the San Francisco Planning Department and Mission District anti-gentrification activists.  

The report, completed in early June by a UC Berkeley Ph.D graduate student in economics named Kate Pennington, asserts that the probability of being legally evicted does not increase for tenants residing within a kilometer of new construction in San Francisco. In some cases, the study concludes, new construction might actually decrease the chances that a legal eviction notice is served in its close proximity.

The study’s conclusion is anathema to the deeply held beliefs of Mission anti-gentrification advocates, whose everyday work is based on the notion — which they say is supported by a preponderance of anecdotal evidence — that new market-rate development is a driver of displacement.

So it is not surprising that Mission District activists have come out swinging.  And, coincidentally or not, the report has yet to be widely released or publicized by the city. Planning Department spokeswoman Gina Simi, however, denied that the city has buried the report. Rather, “the department does not have a practice of making intern projects publicly available.” To obtain a copy of the report, one would have to know of its existence and request a copy, as Mission Local did. 

The study’s critics have complained that it is “incomplete,” only a “draft” and does not differentiate the racial and economic status of evicted tenants.

“What they’re studying is legally noticed Rent Board evictions, and that’s a very narrow slice of the displacement pie,” said Peter Papadopoulos, a policy analyst with the Mission Economic Development Agency, a nonprofit that works with residents and small businesses, and also acts as a housing developer in the Mission.

The Planning Department, however, is standing by the study. Nobody denies that the report focuses exclusively on legal evictions — which, while only one measure of displacement, is often used in studies such as the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and various others.

“Ms. Pennington’s work is important and high-caliber,” AnMarie Rodgers, the director of citywide planning, wrote Mission Local in an email.

‘There is no evidence that legal eviction became more likely … ’

Pennington’s analysis is narrowly focused on whether new construction increases the likelihood of receiving an eviction notice. She drew data from eviction notices submitted to the San Francisco Rent Board as well as those filed with San Francisco Superior Court from 2003 to 2017, and then matched them up with projects constructed in the same period.

She tested for three variables: whether evictions are influenced by proximity to the project, neighborhood characteristics, and whether the project is market-rate or affordable — all over the five years before and after a project is built. 

Ultimately, she concludes: “I find that new construction does not increase the likelihood of legal eviction. This is true not only for market-rate housing, but also for affordable housing and building replacements. It is true in all neighborhoods, from the Mission to the Outer Richmond.”

Furthermore, Pennington found that a unit located within a quarter-kilometer of a new project is a quarter of a percentage point less likely to receive an eviction notice three years after the project was built.

“This offers evidence of a mild supply effect, with building more housing helping to reduce the likelihood of legal eviction over time,” Pennington writes.

Kryptonite

Anti-gentrification activists are not happy with the study’s conclusions. 

Market-rate development “contributes to direct displacement because landlords cannot resist the lure of higher rents and therefore employ various means to get tenants out … ” Scott Weaver, a lawyer for the merchants association Calle 24 wrote in a May 16 letter to Planning Department Director John Rahaim. The letter essentially warns that the city department might humiliate itself by focusing on such a narrow set of data.

“Reliance on Rent Board Notices in making any conclusions will cast serious doubts on this study,” Weaver wrote.

Alternately, Pennington’s report could serve as a cudgel for the city’s YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) faction, which fervently advocates for a glut of new construction at all levels of affordability.  

Papadopoulos, the MEDA policy analyst, said the danger of the report — which he insists is incomplete without culturally sensitive data, such as the income levels and demographics of the displaced parties, is “that we end up with unsound policies that have unintended displacement impacts on the same very vulnerable residents who are not captured in the study.”   

This is not the first time the Planning Department has heard this complaint. The department, in fact, consulted with these very activists about the study as it was being conducted. Their concerns, throughout the process, were the same: The study is too narrowly focused and leaves out those who might be disproportionately affected by evictions.

Latest contentious chapter

Pennington’s report, titled “The Impact of housing Production on Legal Eviction in San Francisco,” is a contribution to an ongoing — and extremely heated — debate over whether the construction of market-rate housing contributes to displacement amid an ongoing housing and affordability crisis throughout the Bay Area.

It builds on previous studies that assert new construction does not contribute to gentrification and displacement — in particular, a 2016 study by the UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project that, in part, concluded that market-rate development had an “insignificant effect on displacement,” as well as a study by the California Legislative Budget Analyst that the construction of market-rate development is the best solution easing displacement pressure on low-income households.

Although these studies concluded that new residential development does not contribute to displacement — and actually eases housing prices at the regional level — neither one measured the so-called “spillover” effects of new development at the neighborhood level — meaning whether the neighborhoods are distinctly impacted by new construction.

That’s where this most recent Planning Department study comes in, measuring the probability of legal eviction notices near new development at the block-to-block level.

In addition to their complaint that the study potentially negates disproportionate hardships heaped upon poor minorities, activists also say the study is based on incomplete data.

Weaver, the Calle 24 lawyer, noted that the study does not measure the “nonpayment” evictions that are not submitted to the Rent Board. “These non-payments (evictions) constitute anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of all just-cause evictions and more likely disproportionately impact poorer communities,” he said in an email.

Pennington says Weaver is correct that not all nonpayment evictions were measured in the study, since many of them are not documented. However, she says some 5,000 of them were included, as they were either filed with the Rent Board or included in court filings.

And Pennington stressed that the study does not claim to capture all forms of displacement. The paper, she said, focuses on just one thing: the effect of new construction on legal evictions.

“The study acknowledges and discusses ways in which these data do not capture the full universe of eviction events in San Francisco,” she said in an email. “And [it] suggests that, for this reason, the results here should be thought of as [just one indicator of] the impact of new market-rate construction on eviction.”

She said she intends to expand on the study by tracking the effects of new development on neighborhood-level rental prices — one of the indicators her critics felt was missing from this first study. That research, she said, is already underway.