Two proposals may radically shift San Francisco’s approach to housing

Plans from Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Dean Preston share a common thread

San Francisco Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Dean Preston have proposed two different solutions to the housing and homelessness crisis that may force The City to get more involved in its thorniest policy question.

Preston is working to put an initiative on the November ballot that would penalize property owners who keep residential units vacant for six months or more. The goal of the proposed bill would be to disincentivize real estate speculation, push landlords to rent vacant units and, through penalties on unrented vacant units, raise money for homeless services. Naturally, Preston’s proposal is supported by many on The City’s progressive left.

Mandelman’s proposal focuses on a different aspect of the housing problem by requiring The City to provide shelter to homeless people — a policy known as “right to shelter.” New York City and Washington, D.C., already have similar policies that in some cases are stronger than what Mandelman has proposed. Right to shelter may seem like a radical idea, as it would force The City to commit to housing the homeless. But the law would only require San Francisco to provide shelter, not housing. Shelter includes residential hotels, homeless shelters, organized tent cities and tiny homes, but does not require The City to build more permanent housing.

Neither of these solutions are perfect and both have been criticized. Preston’s vacancy tax would not cover single family homes or duplexes, even though these types of buildings constitute a significant proportion of the vacant units in San Francisco. A broader vacancy tax would have a greater impact on the housing market, but would also run into opposition from smaller landlords and homeowners.

Mandelman’s policy of forcing The City to provide shelter to homeless people would also empower San Francisco to make it unlawful to sleep on the streets — and could be construed as criminalizing homelessness. If Mandelman’s proposal passes, it is likely there would be more incidents of police arresting or otherwise targeting homeless people. Some San Franciscans would probably see this as necessary, even good, while others would see it as a violation of the rights of homeless people and a form of harassment.

Yet based on what we have seen in other cities, obliging San Francisco to provide shelter could also further empower homeless people and their advocates because they would be able to sue The City if sufficient shelter is not provided. During the pandemic, New York City was sued because of inadequate WiFi in homeless shelters. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, supporting some homeless young people to continue their studies and expanding the notion of shelter.

Mandelman and Preston are coming at the same problem from different angles, but together they may make The City rethink its big picture approach to housing and homelessness.

Both of these proposals probe the relationship between housing and capital in San Francisco. Preston’s idea makes it tougher for wealthy investors to use residential buildings speculatively. Taxing vacant units does not make it illegal for landlords to profit off their investments, but forces them to lease empty units rather than waiting for property values and rents to go up.

Housing in San Francisco is hardly unregulated. Rent control, limits on what can be built and other policies influence the housing market. But these policies keep the private sector at the center of housing. Both Preston and Mandelman’s proposals call for both regulating the market and bringing The City into housing policy in a bigger way.

An unquestioned assumption about housing — not just in San Francisco but throughout the U.S. — is that creating and providing housing, except for the very poor, is the work of the private sector. This is not the case in most countries and perhaps San Francisco is now beginning to question this as well.

The problem with linking housing almost exclusively to the private sector is that market factors define the housing market — and in different ways, Preston and Mandelman are trying to address that.

Mandelman’s solution asks nothing of property owners, but forces The City to do more to find shelter for approximately 8,000 homeless people. His proposal implicitly recognizes the failure of the market to create housing for homeless and compels The City to provide some support for those living on the streets.

A peculiar pathology in American policy making is that we continue to be bedeviled by problems most of the world has solved. Gun violence and health care fall into this category, and so does housing. U.S. policy does not dictate that housing is a right, or even a direct government issue, but rather the domain of markets and profits with some regulations and incentives.

Given the extent of homelessness in San Francisco and many American cities, it is not a bad idea to start questioning that approach.

Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell

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