The Muni vs. housing clash

Two recent meetings illustrate the difference between legislating based on people's needs and agency politics

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OPINION Two votes at the Board of Supervisors and the Municipal Transportation Agency Dec. 4 laid out a stark contrast between two different approaches to transportation advocacy — one based on a sense of justice and the idea that public transit is an issue of equity, and another based on the self interest and transactional politics of a cash-strapped transportation agency and its dedicated allies.

After years of work, organizing transit riders and talking to policy makers from the local to the regional levels, a scrappy group of transit justice advocates, many of them young, most of them people of color, got the Municipal Transportation Agency board to approve a $1.6 million plan to fund free Muni passes for low-income youth. It sent a strong message that a new kind of transportation advocacy has arrived, one that puts race, class, and environment at the center.

Meanwhile, a separate vote was taking place at the Board of Supervisors that seemed to pit community organizations, nonprofit service providers, and affordable housing developers on opposite sides of the fence from what has become a mainstream transportation and bicycle advocacy community.

We should have been on the same side. But a last-minute maneuver by Sup. Scott Wiener to add to the MTA's strained budget (a worthy goal) by expanding the 30-year Transportation Impact Development Fee (TIDF) to include nonprofits that provide critical services in our neighborhoods backfired and sent his amendments out the door in a 9-2 vote.

Many transportation and bicycle advocates seemed incredulous that the rest of the world did not accept their arguments.

I consider many of these transportation advocates friends and acquaintances whom I have known and worked with for years. But rather than seeing themselves as part of a greater social justice movement rooted in the communities who are most affected, some of these advocates have become increasingly narrow in their scope, single-minded in their pursuit of funding for bike lanes and bulbouts, as well as rapid transit projects serving downtown commuters.

Real-world politics requires that activists, organizers, and policy advocates be flexible and willing to figure out how to work with others very unlike themselves. Recently an organization I work for was able to work in a broad coalition, convened by the mayor, to develop and campaign for a Housing Trust Fund to create a permanent source of funding for affordable housing, as a direct response to the State of California taking away the city's housing budget when it dissolved the redevelopment agencies. We walked into the room knowing that we would have to make tough decisions, and have to take those back to our allies in the progressive movement.

But we also walked in with non-negotiables. We were not going to entertain any attempt at weakening rent control by tying the Housing Trust Fund to lifting the condo conversion lottery. We would not support a set-aside without increasing city revenue to support not just our housing trust fund but also critical health and social services. We do not screw over our broader movement for pure self-interest.

We stand at a crossroads, and we could very well end up with two different transportation advocacy communities, both talking about the same thing, but with very little to say to each other. As the old mineworker's song used to say, it's time to decide: "Which side are you on?"

Fernando Martí works at the San Francisco Information Clearinghouse

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