By Dean Preston
Hundreds of tenants showed up at the Planning Commission last night to speak out against the proposed demolition of over 1500 rent controlled homes in San Francisco's Parkmerced. The hearing began with a contentious exchange between Commission President Ron Miguel and tenants of the property. Residents, many of whom have endured hours of waiting for public comment at prior hearings, demanded that Miguel give the public the opportunity to speak at the beginning of the hearing, rather than after a extensive staff presentation. Miguel ultimately relented, allowing public comment and rescheduling the staff presentation.
Over three hours of public comment followed. Virtually every speaker spoke against the project. The speakers included tenants who had lived at Parkmerced for decades.
Speakers from the Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods spoke near the end. They explained how the developer had presented the plan to their group and had stated that there was not much opposition among Parkmerced residents. They were moved by the public testimony, noting that there was clearly extensive opposition in the community.
Parkmerced is owned by private equity groups that would have the right to sell the complex to the highest bidder once entitlements are obtained. The same ownership group has financed schemes to displace tenants and redevelop rent controlled housing in New York City. These projects ultimately failed due to tenant opposition and financing problems, raising concerns about the financial viability of the massive development project at Parkmerced.
Under the proposal, over 1500 rent controlled "garden apartments" would be demolished. The construction would extend for decades (up to 30 years of construction), creating an environment that would be miserable for the thousands of residents of Parkmerced, many of whom are very long term tenants. The developer claims that tenants would be relocated to new rent controlled units, but serious question exist as to whether such promises are enforceable in light of state law and recent court rulings.
One thing is clear from the hearing. At long last, tenants at Parkmerced are coming together with each other and community allies to stop this project. They are doing so just in time. The Planning Commission will soon decide whether the massive project will proceed.
Details of the Development Agreement, including rent control and relocation issues, will be presented by Planning Department staff at the Planning Commissions meeting next week. For meeting and agenda information, visit www.sfplanning.org.
If the Planning Commission approves the project, residents could appeal to the Board of Supervisors. Commissioner Sugaya spoke after the public testimony, noting that in the end, "it is a political process" and community members should organize and go to their supervisors.
The Planning Commission deserves credit for having this hearing at San Francisco State University, located right next to Parkmerced. This was highly unusual and allowed many tenants -- including seniors and persons with disabilities -- who may not have been able to come to City Hall the opportunity to participate. The Commission should consider hosting future key meetings concerning the project at the same location given that Parkmerced is so far from City Hall.
Notably absent from the meeting were any politicians. The District's supervisor, Sean Elsbernd, was not present and has been largely silent about this massive redevelopment project proposed in his district. Despite the large number of tenants affected and the city wide implications of the proposed project, not a single mayoral candidate attended the hearing. Expect this to change as the rest of the city realizes the importance of this fight. In the meantime, Supervisors should be urged to tune in to SFGTV this evening at 8:15 to watch the powerful testimony against this project.
Tenants Together opposes the demolition of over 1500 rent controlled homes, particularly given the inadequate tenant protections. Until state law changes to guarantee that demolished rent controlled housing can be replaced with new rent controlled housing, it is hard to see how responsible city officials could approve such a project.
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