Newsom sides with landlords. Again.

By C. Nellie Nelson
San Francisco Bay Guardian

In the late afternoon on Friday, Mayor Gavin Newsom stood by his earlier threat and vetoed pro-tenant legislation known as the Renter Relief Package. In June, the Guardian reported that the package, introduced by Sup. Chris Daly, had majority support on the Board of Supervisors. But the legislation was one vote short of the eight votes need to override a veto.

Daly told the Guardian that he was disappointed with the lack of any alternative or counter-proposal in the mayor’s veto message. “If you’re a renter in San Francisco in a recession, too bad,” he interprets the mayor’s actions.

Advocates of the Renter Relief Package had made several concessions, hoping to reach a compromise with Newsom. According to Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenant’s Union, one of the four ordinances in the package would have originally legislated that rent could be no more than a maximum of one-third of any renter’s income. But the final version would have only applied to those most at risk for homelessness, with the one-third cap affecting people who lost jobs, lost more than 20 percent of their income, or are on benefits such as SSI and SDI and did not get a cost-of-living increase in the last 12 months.

The Tenant’s Union, Housing Rights Committee, St. Peter’s Housing Committee and other pro-tenant groups had also hoped that Newsom would at least sign the ordinance that limited banked increases in rent. As it stands now, if a landlord hasn’t increased the rent in several years, he or she can accumulate the allowable increases of all those missed years and charge tenants a drastically higher amount. The legislation would have limited those kinds of increases to 8 percent of the current rent. Eight percent is still not small – if you’re paying $1500 in rent, it would jump to $1620, and who can afford to pay over a hundred extra dollars every month right now?

The Tenant’s Union had hoped that since even Sup. Bevan Dufty supported the 8 percent limit, Newsom would approve at least that one provision. No dice, though: “He’s more concerned about getting contributions from the real estate industry for his run for governor than he is about the people of San Francisco being hit by recession,” continues Gullicksen. “He has vetoed almost every piece of pro-tenant legislation as a mayor, and opposed every piece when he was a supervisor.”

What’s the next plan, while renters try to get through these difficult times? So far, Sup. Sophie Maxwell has declined to vote on tenant legislation because she owns rental units. But the city attorney is asking the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission to decide on the matter. If the legislation was something that affected only Maxwell’s district, and not the whole city, then it might be a conflict of interest. It’s likely that she won’t be barred, however, from voting on citywide legislation. The Commission’s decision is anticipated at any moment. Maxwell typically votes with tenants, and could override the mayor’s veto of the banked increases.

And of course, there is always the November ballot. The ordinance that limits rental increases to stay below a third of a tenant’s income may go before voters, though Gullicksen anticipates relatively few tenants going to the polls in an off-year election. But the 2007 census shows that renters are a significant majority at 61.6% in San Francisco, so even a reduced number could still see victory.

“Anyone could lose a job, it doesn’t even make sense,” Daly said of the mayor’s opposition of the ordinance, where Newsom paradoxically claims that lower income renters would face discrimination in finding housing.

“The purpose of the existing Rent Ordinance is to limit rent increases; this legislation converts the existing rent control program into an income-based private rental subsidy program. If rent control were to be amended in this way, the logical step for landlords would be to choose not to rent to lower-income households in the future,” Newsom wrote in his veto letter.

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