Condo conversion compromise in the works despite Realtors' resistance

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SF Apartment Magazine advertises dozens of apartment buildings for sale and has advice on maximizing returns on the investment.

[UPDATED BELOW] Negotiations between tenant advocates and real estate interests (including the political advocacy group Plan C) over the controversial condo lottery bypass legislation haven't gone well or found common ground. But sources tell the Guardian that Sup. Jane Kim and Board President David Chiu, who has been mediating the dispute, are preparing to introduce compromise amendments that have the support of the San Francisco Tenants Union and other tenant advocates if a deal can't be worked out with real estate interests.

Details are still being hammered out with advocates and the City Attorney's Office, so the hearing scheduled for this Monday at the Land Use and Economic Development Committee will likely be postponed until March 25. But the basic deal is to allow the roughly 2,000 tenancies-in-common now seeking to convert into condos to do so in exchange for a long moratorium on new condo conversions, possibly indexed to construction of new affordable housing for the renters who comprise nearly two-thirds of San Franciscans.

The original legislation by Sups. Mark Farrell and Scott Wiener is being strongly backed by both current TIC owners who want the ability to refinance and Plan C and other real estate interests that want to continue converting ever more rent-controlled apartments into condos, rather than abiding the city's current limit of 200 per year, awarded through a lottery system. The SFTU has strenuously resisted opening up those flood gates, but it's open to clearing out the backlog in exchange to shutting the gates for awhile (see my story in this week's Guardian for more on the political dynamics surrounding this issue).

“We're hopeful that a majority of the board will support amendments which will significantly protect tenants and which will allow a version of the Wiener-Farrell legislation to be approved,” SFTU head Ted Gullicksen told us.

Progressives on the board oppose the legislation as currently written, and the swing votes are thought to be Sups. London Breed (which Plan C supported in the last election in exchange for what it says was her promise to support more condo conversions, an assurance she denies making), Norman Yee (who was brought into the Chiu-mediated negotiations), and Malia Cohen, with just one of them needed to force changes to the legislation.

But the real estate interests – including Plan C, the Association of Realtors (whose government affairs director we left a message for and are waiting to hear back from, and we'll update below if/when we do), San Francisco Apartment Association, and other downtown-based groups – who are pushing for more condo conversions are likely to strongly resist the amendments. They simply want more rent-controlled apartments turned into condos they can sell, period.

Their perspective is reflected in SF Apartment Magazine, put out by the San Francisco Apartment Association, which every month offers advice to real estate investors and apartment building owners on various ways to buy apartment buildings, evict tenants or increase their rents, and convert the buildings to TICs or condos.

It runs a regular column called “TIC Corner” with the latest tricks for financing acquisitions and getting rid of those pesky tenants. In the November 2012 issue, for example, attorney D. Andrew Sirkin wrote excitedly about a new Securities and Exchange Commission rule that will now allow owners to advertise the sale of apartment buildings as TIC/condo investments, which he said “will dramatically ease the regulatory burden for real estate entrepreneurs wishing to raise money for apartment acquisitions and make it much easier to find investors.”

Another feature story in the magazine, “The ABCs of OMIs,” teaches these investors all the tricks for evicting tenants from their buildings, while “Roommate Roulette” offers advice to owners of rent-controlled buildings for keeping new roommates of existing tenants off the lease so they can charge market rate rents as soon as possible.

And, of course, the magazine is filled with ads for San Francisco apartment buildings that are for sale and just waiting to be cleared of tenants and turned into amazing real estate investment opportunities. Gullicksen says it is this mentality, applied to what even Mayor Ed Lee has called the city's “precious few rent-controlled apartments,” that has animated the opposition to the Wiener-Farrell legislation. SFTU had planned a rally for Monday called “Stop Rent Control Attack,” which has now been postponed until March 25.

UPDATE 3/11: Sup. Wiener got back to us and said, "I hope we can move to a compromise and I don't want to prejudge that compromise." Asked about the concept of approving TICs in the pipeline in exchange for halting on all condo conversions for some number of years, he said, "It's definitely something to explore, a pause in the lottery, and I'm open to that. But the devil is in the details."