Taxing speculators

Rival housing measures debated in City Hall, previewing high-stakes battles at the ballot

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The proposed anti-speculation tax would create a disincentive to flip properties and evict tenants.

steve@sfbg.com

Political tensions over evictions, displacement, real estate speculation, and rapidly rising housing costs in San Francisco are likely to heat up through the summer and autumn as a trio of November ballot measures are debated and combated by what's expected to be a flood of campaign cash from developers and other real estate interests.

Topping the list is a tax measure to discourage the flipping of properties by real estate speculators. Known generally as the anti-speculation tax — something then-Sup. Harvey Milk was working on at the time of his assassination in 1978 — it was the leading goal to come out of a citywide series of tenant conventions at the beginning of this year (see "Staying power," 2/11/14).

"To be in a position to pass the last thing Harvey Milk worked on is a profound opportunity," AIDS Housing Alliance head Brian Basinger told us, arguing the measure is more important now then ever.

The measure has been placed on the ballot by Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, Jane Kim, and Eric Mar and is scheduled for a public hearing before the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee on July 10 at 2pm.

"It's an absolutely key issue for San Francisco right now. Passing this measure will create a seismic shift in what we're seeing with evictions and displacement in the city," Sara Shortt, director of the Housing Rights Committee, told the Guardian.

The measure creates a supplemental surcharge on top of the city's existing real estate transfer tax, a progressive rate ranging from a 24 percent tax on the sale of a property within one year of its purchase to 14 percent if sold between four and five years later.

In addition to levying the tax, the measure would also give the Board of Supervisors the power to waive that tax "subject to certain affordability-based restrictions on the occupancy of the real property," giving the city leverage to expand and preserve deed-restricted affordable housing.

Meanwhile, there's been a flurry of backroom negotiations surrounding the City Housing Balance Requirement measure sponsored by Sup. Jane Kim, which would require market rate housing projects to get a conditional use permit and be subjected to greater scrutiny when affordable housing falls below 30 percent of total housing construction (with a number exemptions, including projects with fewer than 24 units).

That measure is scheduled for a hearing by the Rules Committee on July 24 and, as an amendment to the City Charter, it needs six votes by the Board of Supervisors to make the ballot (the anti-speculation tax is an initiative that requires only the four supervisorial signatures that it now has).

Mayor Ed Lee and his allies in the development community responded to Kim's measure by quickly cobbling together a rival initiative, Build Housing Now, which restates existing housing goals Lee announced during his State of the City speech in January and includes a poison pill that would invalidate Kim's housing balance measure.

Together, the measures will draw key battle lines in what has become the defining political question in San Francisco these days: Who gets to live here?

 

COMBATING SPECULATORS

In February, Mayor Lee and his allies in the tech world, most notably venture capitalist Ron Conway, finally joined housing and other progressive activists in decrying the role that real estate speculators have played in the city's current eviction and displacement crisis.

"We have some of the best tenant protections in the country, but unchecked real estate speculation threatens too many of our residents," Lee said in a Feb. 24 press release announcing his support for Sen. Mark Leno's Ellis Act reform measure SB 1439. "These speculators are turning a quick profit at the expense of long time tenants and do nothing to add needed housing in our City."

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