Come 4 p.m. today, you’ll probably find Joel Engardio and Supervisor Gordon Mar hitting refresh on the Election Department webpage. That race is still up in the air, though it would take a statistical anomaly, at this point, for Mar to hold onto his job. But the dust has settled on a number of local election races, including two involving housing.
So, where do we stand, and what awaits this magical, maddening city in terms of housing policy? Let’s look.
The mayor loses (a little) power in homelessness decisions, starting in 2023
There’s no doubt Mayor London Breed cleaned up nicely, cementing her appointees for the hot contests of District Attorney, District 6 supervisor, and at least two-thirds of the school board slots. But when it comes to matters of the home, Breed reports a poorer record.
One overlooked loss to Madam Mayor was Prop. C, which adds oversight to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, and was put on the ballot by Supervisor Ahsha Safaí following a San Francisco Chronicle investigation into horrid conditions within Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units. Breed, who is the bottom line of the department and its decisions, opposed the measure, arguing it added needless bureaucracy. Voters disagreed. Prop. C comfortably passed, with 66 percent of voters approving it, so far.
So, what now?
Well, a Homelessness Oversight Commission should be up and running by May, 2023. The commission can question the department’s decisions, demand data or audits, and approve the budget and certain homelessness policies. The mayor will select four seats, and the Board of Supervisors will pick three.
In other words, by creating this commission, Prop. C’s passage establishes an opportunity, though perhaps a small one, to check one aspect of the executive branch’s significant power over housing. As it stands, the mayor, any mayor, has significant control over the agencies tasked with providing housing to low-income San Franciscans.
For homelessness, this is by design. The Homelessness and Supportive Housing Department was created by Mayor Ed Lee in 2016, and the mayor has picked the department’s head. Now, Prop. C allows the commission to recommend candidates for the role, and to remove the department head.
But don’t get carried away. If the Homelessness Oversight Commission runs like the other 30-plus commissions in the city, removal would result from a majority commission vote, and the mayor still gets to pick four out of seven commissioners. For this reason, some critics alleged the measure provides little accountability. Still, the new ability may prove impactful. As the Police Commission showed this year, even strong political ties between the mayor and commissions can be broken by a willing member.
Is police accountability working in San Francisco? (Part II)
And, regardless of power to act, a new commission definitely has power to question. Some issues they might ask the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing about? Earlier this year, the San Francisco Public Press and ProPublica published an investigation that found some 800 units of permanent housing supportive units had lain vacant, despite more than double the amount of unhoused folks approved to move into them. And, as recently as last week, the Chronicle reported, one of San Francisco’s family navigation centers faces a closure that could cut the city’s total family shelter capacity by a quarter. The department stated it needs to find the funds. In the not-too-distant future, a commission will be able to question these decisions.
Meanwhile, the mayor retains considerable powers over San Francisco’s affordable housing. The mayor heads the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, which, of late, has helped usher in hundreds of units of affordable housing in the Mission. Last year, the mayor also stalled tens of millions of dollars in funding earmarked to bolster the Small Sites program and social housing measures. Vacancies in the Small Sites and the city’s below-market-rate program abounded under the department’s watch, too.
Does Prop. C provide oversight for all agencies tasked with housing low-income San Franciscans? Nope. Yet it could provide insight into one key department, if the commission is up to it. Keep your eyes peeled for appointments next spring.
Empty Homes Tax begins in 2024
Meanwhile, Prop. M secured a win with a 53 percent approval rate, three percentage points more than necessary. If you’re a landlord who owns a building with at least three units, and such a structure has been vacant for roughly half a year, you need to get someone moved in, or pay up by Jan. 1, 2024. No point in waiting it out; the Empty Homes tax lasts until Dec. 31, 2053. Yeah, you read that right.
How does it work? Depending on the square footage of the unit, the baseline annual tax on a vacant home would cost between $2,500 and $5,000. The fine jumps each year that unit remains empty until 2026, and then the tax rate adjusts, based on the Consumer Price Index. The unit doesn’t need to be vacant for 182 consecutive days to trigger the tax. The city tax collector will enforce it.
Still, as noted by the legislative text, there are exemptions. (So, no, 40,000 homes will not be taxed.) After all, the measure was, in part, designed to target corporate landlords and speculators who purposely keep homes empty, according to past interviews with the measure’s author, Supervisor Dean Preston.
Now that it has passed, the city may swim in tens of millions of dollars slated for rent subsidies and affordable housing, two dire needs. According to the analysis provided by the controller for this year’s voter pamphlets, the city could rake in $20 million in the tax’s first year, $30 million in 2025 and $37 million in 2026. This could be a huge help given that federal housing dollars are drying up. Or, if the monetary disincentive works as Preston planned to fill vacancies, expect U-Haul trucks and new neighbors.