Photo by Mimi Chakarova

On Tuesday, San Francisco County Health Director Dr. Tomás Aragón and six of his regional colleagues extended the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order to May — and issued sweeping new restrictions on public activities.  

Notably, the new order calls for the curtailment of most construction, including market-rate residential construction. 

Exceptions are provided for healthcare projects directly related to the pandemic, construction for the homeless, affordable housing construction and mixed-use developments with 10 percent or more of income-restricted units. 

Today’s order also prohibits the use of playgrounds, public picnic areas, barbecue pits and similar recreation areas. 

It shutters shared recreational facilities like golf courses, tennis courts and basketball courts. Sports in which people share a ball or equipment must be limited to members of the same household. 

The crackdown on construction  comes just one day after Mayor London Breed, when questioned why “luxury housing development” was deemed “essential,” responded “all housing is essential and we don’t need to pick one over the other.” 

A deserted Mission playground, with only a team of soccer players playing the background.

City officials tell Mission Local that the limitations on construction were driven “in large part” by actions taken by massive San Francisco landlord Veritas.

Sheltering tenants outraged by what they categorized as loud, invasive — and non-essential — construction in some of Veritas’ many buildings complained over the weekend to their elected officials. 

Veritas is the city’s largest landlord, with about 5,000 units under its control. And not only has it been compelled to cease jobs such as installing washer-dryers in vacant units or transforming studios into one-bedroom flats — now everyone else will be, too. 

2020.03.31 FINAL Signed Health Officer Order C19-07b – Shelter in Place by Joe Eskenazi on Scribd

On Friday, Veritas tenants were informed via email that there would be construction work in their buildings on Monday. More than a dozen reached out to Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s office. After he, the Department of Building Inspection, and the mayor’s office got involved — including Peskin purportedly speaking with CEO Yat-Pang Au — the massive landlord changed its tune. 

“Once again, the idiots at Veritas have overplayed their hand and were too cute by half and screwed it up for everybody who keeps their proverbial shit together,” Peskin said. 

Andrew Silverman, Veritas’ senior vice president of operations, on Monday said his company “felt we were in full accordance with the city guidelines that housing is essential and minor work can continue. We thought we’d restart but, based on conversations with the city, we’ve continued to pause and wait until better direction from the city of San Francisco.” 

That’s not exactly what tenants were told. In a Sunday night e-mail, Veritas informed them that there was “a date mix-up” and no work would be done on Monday.  

Prior to today’s order, the city allowed a broad swath of construction to continue during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Essential” construction was defined asConstruction of housing (in particular affordable housing or housing for individuals experiencing homelessness as well as other housing).” 

While some semantic bonus points were, in particular, bestowed upon affordable housing, market-rate housing construction was clearly permitted, as was “work to make an existing vacant housing unit available for habitation.” 

Peskin and others complained that Veritas and others took advantage of these provisions. San Francisco’s new COVID-19 construction prohibitions now more closely resemble less permissive orders issued in the states of Washington and New York. 

Remodeling jobs and cosmetic jobs that are underway do not need to cease immediately, but do need to stop once the site is deemed “safe and sanitary.”

Veritas tenants contacted by Mission Local were relieved for the respite while they shelter-in-place. 

“They were adding washers and dryers so they can increase the monthly rent,” said Ray Sullivan, a tenant in a Veritas building on Geary with around 40 units. “Fine particulate plaster dust is coming into my unit, and I suffer from bronchial asthma. I am locked in. It’s a worst-case scenario.” 

During recent construction, Sullivan says both water and electricity have been intermittently cut during loud and disruptive construction work. 

“We need electric. We need water. We don’t need this noise,” he said. He’d be sympathetic to work meant to put sick or needy people into the building. But, he says, that’s not what was going on here. 

“Adding a washer and dryer so they can rent the unit for more? That’s just being greedy.”

Today’s restrictions were frustrating for elements of the development and construction industries that, as Peskin might put it, are keeping their proverbial shit together. “Thanks a lot, Veritas,” grumbled one longtime development professional. 

Sullivan, however, welcomed the citywide stipulations. 

“You cannot just ask these people to do the right thing,” he said. “We’re at a point now where something had to be done officially.” 

 Keep our coverage coming. Chip in today. Thank you and stay safe. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. What I don’t understand is why DBI had to stop working / reviewing PLANS for non-essential construction? If they can work from home on plans for low income housing why can’t they continue to review plans for other projects?

    What are we paying them for if they’ve suddenly cut 90% of projects from their to-do list?

    There is going to be a massive backlog added to the already huge backlog, once work starts up again.

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  2. Thanks Veritas, Aaron Perkins, Mayors Office and tenants of Veritas you just ruined development in Sf and a whole industry of construction & development which has been providing people and businesses some income and breathing some financial life into SF during this trying time! Good luck SF recovering from this disaster! The greedy own, reckless, sel-serving CEO of Veritas & executive management their made a stupid error to continue construction that was noise for people shelling in place! Hats just pure stupidity! I hope he doesn’t live in SF or California or USA for that matter…. when you piss people off I’d really not want to piss off trades-people especially Union one’s! Where is Waldo…aka CEO & executive management of Veritas…you have some explaining to do! This was a really poor discussion in my opinion of City of SF’s part. Especially when COVID-19 numbers are not warranting this action… waiting for more lawsuits to happen against the State and SF due to this action!

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    1. Veritas was complying with the law, but in San Francisco that is not sufficient. You also have to kiss some ass — they should take some lessons from Benioff.

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  3. So subsidized construction can keep on exposing workers to disease, but fair market rate housing must stop. I flabbergasted that these ideological pin heads have not yet passed a resolution banning Covid- 19 from San Francisco. Isn’t that their usual modus operandi?

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  4. “A deserted Mission playground, with only a team of soccer players playing the background.”

    A team? It’s deserted except for an entire team?

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  5. Glad San Francisco has not let a crisis stop its tradition of letting every neighborly complaint delay development.

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  6. It is as if Bay Area county governments have agreed that while essential, individual construction workers are expendable. I know a contractor in another Bay Area county. He is double high risk. The rich people whose 2 million dollar house is being remodeled into a 4 million dollar one insist he keep working. They emailed him that essential includes ….but is not limited to….language, telling him they can’t afford to stay in their air bnb any longer, so he must push on. Tiny violins.
    I hope his county follows SF’s lead in clarifying what is essential.
    Two other thoughts- if only one trade at a time worked inside or outside a building, keeping 6′ apart might be more possible. And a quick youtube safety training (in Construction workers should not risk their lives to turn a 1600 square foot home into a 3500 square foot one.

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