Rival condo conversion measures finally up for board vote

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Tenants groups and Sup. Chiu, Kim, and Yee announce a condo conversion compromise in April.
Rebecca Bowe

Controversial condominium conversion lottery bypass legislation is finally headed for a vote by the full Board of Supervisors this Tuesday. Befitting legislation that has stirred strong emotions and traveled a twisting political path over the last six months, there are new dramas and uncertainties cropping up at the last minute, including the lingering unknown of where Mayor Ed Lee stands.

Originally co-sponsored by Sups. Mark Farrell and Scott Wiener, the legislation was intended to allow 2,000-plus tenancy-in-common owners to buy their way past the city’s lottery that allows 200 conversions to condominiums each year. But tenant groups and their progressive allies strenuously opposed the idea, and it was amended by Sups. David Chiu, Jane Kim, and Norman Yee working with tenants to couple the bypass with a 10-year moratorium on new conversions, thus clearing the backlog without opening the door to speculators taking more rent-controlled apartments off the market.

The Land Use Committee voted June 3 (2-1, with Chiu and Kim voting yes and Wiener opposed) to send the tenant-supported legislation to the full board and keep a Wiener-backed rival measure stuck in committee. But since then, Wiener invoked a board rule allowing four supervisors to pull the stalled legislation out of committee, getting Farrell and Sups. Katy Teng and London Breed to place that rival measure on Tuesday’s agenda as well.

Tenant groups decried the move and have put out the call for supporters to flood City Hall for the 2pm meeting, but Wiener told us that the differences in the two pieces of legislation are minor. One difference deals with whether transfers of ownership interest will affect an applicant’s spot in the queue and the other involves the so-called poison pill inserted by tenant groups, which would freeze the conversion process if anyone challenges the legislation in court, as real estate interests have threatened to do.

Wiener said the tenant-backed legislation’s changes to condo conversion eligibility, such as a 10-year wait period and banning future conversions of buildings with more than five units, that would remain in place after a successful legal challenge is an unfair overreach. But Chiu said tenant groups have already compromised as much as they can and they need this protection: “This is a carefully constructed compromise, and for the first time tenants groups are supporting thousands of condo conversions.”

Breed’s concerns about the poison pill provision -- which was why she said she went along with Wiener’s play to bring up the rival measure -- go even beyond Wiener’s. While most concerns involved a lawsuit from real estate interests, Breed worries about a pro-tenant litigant who wants to stop all condo conversions.

“If anyone chose to sue, it would help renters by shutting down everything completely. Where is the incentive not to sue?” Breed told us, noting that she still doesn’t have a solution to the problem, but she wanted the leverage of rival measures in order to address the issue. “I’m hoping it’s a win-win for renters and TIC owners,” she said. “Everyone else is not my concern right now.”

But the real estate interests will almost certainly try to preserve an ability for speculators to continue funneling more rent-controlled apartments into the real estate market, and just yesterday, the San Francisco Association of Realtors announced the hiring of an influential new point person on lobbying and housing issues: Mary Jung, a former spokesperson for then-Mayor Gavin Newsom before moving over to represent PG&E, and who was last year elected chair of the Democratic County Central Committee.

That could make a difference when it comes to Mayor Lee, who has resisted efforts by both sides to weigh in on the issue, saying only that he supports both tenants and TIC owners and that he understands the concerns about opening the door to a flood of new conversion requests.

“The one wild card here is no one know where the mayor is,” Wiener told us, noting that neither side is likely to get the eight votes that would be needed to override a veto. “The mayor, if he wanted to, could have significant leverage in crafting a compromise.”
Chiu said that he’s confident that his version of the legislation has the six votes needed to pass, but that it is still unclear what Mayor Lee will support, despite Chiu asking Lee to weigh in publicly in February and privately during a meeting yesterday. As Chiu told us, “We’ll see.”