The Progressive Parable – San Francisco Bay Occasions

By Derek Barnes

Like so many, I often wonder if we are truly moving forward and making progress in ways that lift our humanity. It’s hard to affirmatively answer a question like this in these difficult times where gun violence, serious crimes, mental illness, poverty, and homelessness are rising. Are progressive policies and programs doing good things for our communities, and what does it mean to be progressive?

In a recent Oakland City Council meeting, Councilmember Carroll Fife proposed a permanent policy change to alter the 22-year formula for determining the allowable rent increase in Oakland—which does nothing to address the real problem of a severe housing shortage and inadequate production. Pro-tenant groups branded it as a bold, progressive move.

Fife’s intention aimed at protecting more vulnerable renters at risk of displacement or being homeless. However, Fife and supporters of the ordinance never attempted to get the input and perspective from small, community-based independent rental property owners/operators. An opportunity to discuss and create a more comprehensive policy was missed. Ultimately, the move also forged a greater wedge between renters and rental property owners.

It’s time to deliver some hard truth. There’s rarely a one size fits all solution in the matters of policy creation. It takes empathy, careful thought to identify and examine core problems, and bringing different or opposing stakeholders together to build durable solutions. All seems logical and pragmatic, but sadly this method isn’t applied often, as evidenced by Oakland City Council’s rushed decision to pass the recent housing ordinance.

Using Oakland’s recent housing decision as an example, there are some vital points to make about the unintended consequences of seemingly progressive policies that provide protections to one stakeholder group over another:

  • Small rental property owners will continue getting pushed out of the business entirely or choose to exit the local rental housing business and invest in geographies that make it easier to do business. This is a disturbing and continuing trend, and the data is irrefutable. The most vulnerable owners are under-resourced—primarily women, BIPOC, immigrants, retirees, and our elderly.
  • More rent-controlled units that are older properties will be owned and managed by faceless investors, absentee owners, and large investment companies with no roots or interest in the community where they own housing assets.
  • Housing will become less safe and maintained as owners will have no choice but to minimize other expenses to offset rising operating costs due to high inflation. Owners will defer maintenance, security, and improvement projects that increase the quality of habitability, security, and safety for residents.

So, while Oakland City Council might think a progressive, pro-tenant agenda gets political wins and votes in the short term, the bottom line is that they’re not focusing on strategic priorities that affect long-term change, innovation, and transformation in housing. They’re shifting the burden of inadequate living wage policies, public safety, departmental accountability, and housing programs for increased production onto small property owners, who have already been struggling due to a two-year pandemic.

There’s a lot of talk these days about equity and social justice. The truth is that after decades of “progressive policies,” the Black and African American populations in San Francisco and Oakland have decreased by 50% and 40%, respectively, since the 1980s. Many of these residents were property owners who typically rented to other BIPOC and immigrant residents who really needed affordable and below-market-rate housing options. These things are connected. There are many more examples of bad policy and legislation creating unfavorable outcomes and contributing to today’s societal problems—cause and effect.

Good policy matters. Progressive housing policies without impact studies, deep analysis, and varied stakeholder input create conditions that drive unintended consequences. Moreover, there may be little political accountability if policy and program success metrics aren’t well defined. This must change. We’re losing generations of San Franciscans and Oaklanders who are being replaced by more affluent renters and owners who are not deeply attached to these cities’ rich history and cultural vibrance.

Derek Barnes is the CEO of the East Bay Rental Housing Association ( ). He currently serves on the boards of Horizons Foundation and Homebridge CA. Follow him on Twitter @DerekBarnesSF or on Instagram at DerekBarnes.SF

Published on June 9, 2022

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