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Overheated rhetoric won’t win the housing debate

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Audience members raise their hands in a show of support for Senate Bill 827 during a Land Use and Transportation Committee hearing on a resolution opposing the bill on March 12. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)


Housing density is a big deal in San Francisco. Emotions run high on the issue. Seniors who bought years ago want to hang onto their homes and neighborhood character. Millennials can’t buy a home or afford rent and want more housing built.

There is actually the possibility of some compromise on housing density, but it will never happen if the current level of angry rhetoric continues.

At public meetings in recent months, young supporters of more housing have verbally harangued seniors who oppose higher density. In particular, they have gone after seniors who oppose Senate Bill 827, state Sen. Scott Wiener’s legislation that would overrule local zoning laws and allow large buildings on nearly every street in San Francisco. Other groups, including tenant advocates and people concerned with gentrification, also oppose SB 827. But it seems the seniors have drawn the bulk of the young supporters’ wrath.

SEE RELATED: A picture worth a thousand bad words

During the recent Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee hearing on a resolution to oppose SB 827, supporters of increased density repeatedly called out the seniors who spoke against the state legislation. The final speaker (a young woman) decried the “ageist” remarks made against seniors during public comment.

We’ve been called racists for supporting local zoning controls. We’re told that we should move to small apartments or nursing homes so young people can move into the houses we leave behind … or demolish them for larger apartment buildings.

At a community meeting in February, one man thanked Wiener on behalf of “those of us who are actually going to be alive in the next decade or two.”

To many seniors, it feels like these advocates are wishing we would just hurry up and die.

But setting that aside, the attacks show a tone-deaf lack of understanding of why seniors resist downsizing. For many, our homes are full of memories we don’t want to lose. The prospect of having to sort through a lifetime’s accumulation of papers and mementos is incredibly daunting for many. Isolation is a major problem for seniors, and moving to a new, unfamiliar place can make it worse.

Hundreds of companies have sprung up in recent years to help seniors “age in place” and stay in their homes while battling illness and old age. Apparently, some think this national trend shouldn’t apply in San Francisco.

But there can be problems even for those seniors who want to downsize. Because property taxes are lower for people who’ve lived in their home for decades, moving to a smaller condo can sometimes mean paying higher property taxes. That may not be possible for those on fixed retirement incomes.

SEE RELATED: SB 827 rallies end with YIMBYs shouting down protesters of color

The California Association of Realtors is sponsoring a ballot initiative that it claims would remove some of these tax issues for seniors who move. But allowing seniors to keep their low property taxes — or even pay less than they’re currently paying — to encourage them to downsize could have a significant negative impact on schools, firefighting and other services that rely on property taxes for support.

I can understand the frustration of millennials who feel they are being denied access to the dream of home ownership that we seniors have enjoyed for decades. I know I might not be able to afford my house if I had to buy it at today’s prices.

But overheated rhetoric is not the way to win the housing debate.

After a recent neighborhood association meeting about SB 827, a young male supporter of increased housing density cornered a senior woman and harangued her about her opposition. He was so strident he scared her. She told me later she was terrified he would follow her home.

Did he really think he would change her opinion by getting in her face? If anything, he may well have hardened her position against increased housing density.

I do think all sides in the housing debate can find some common ground — especially on transit lines, although not blocks away. But that will never happen if we don’t tone down the angry rhetoric and start listening to the very real concerns of those on the other side.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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