Are Yee's anti-tenant votes about courting contributions from landlords?

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Sen. Leland Yee hopes to continue his long career in elected office as Secretary of State.
Keeney and Law

Sen. Leland Yee has never been a vote that renters could count on, from his days on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to his representation of San Francisco’s westside in the California Legislature. But now that he’s preparing a statewide campaign for Secretary of State, tenant advocates say he’s more squirrely that ever.

They’ve been rankled by a couple of key Yee votes this year — and by Yee’s apparent unwillingness to engage with them or explain any concerns he might have — particularly Yee’s vote yesterday against legislation that would allow cities and counties to reinstate requirements that developers include some affordable rental units in their housing projects, which the California Supreme Court took away in 2009 with its infamous Palmer v. Los Angeles decision.

That legislation, Assembly Bill 1229, was narrowly approved by the California Senate yesterday despite an aggressive opposition campaign by landlords and developers who initially got overwise supportive Democrats to take a walk and abstain from voting, although tenants groups were finally able to stiffen enough spines to win passage. It now awaits the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown, who hasn’t yet taken a position on the measure.

“It directly overturns [the Supreme Court’s ruling on local inclusionary housing laws] and puts us right back where we were before the Palmer decision. It’s a hugely significant affordable rental housing measure,” Dean Preston, head of the statewide Tenants Together, told the Guardian.

But Yee, who provided the Guardian with a written statement in response to our questions, dismisses the bill’s significance: “SB 1229 is a piecemeal solution, offering a chance at lotteries in housing developments scattered randomly throughout the state. I'm proud to stand by my record of supporting effective legislation to provide affordable housing, supporting inclusionary housing and protecting rent control.”

Preston told us the statement “makes no sense and it doesn’t explain why he supported the same thing two years ago that he now opposes,” referring to Sen. Mark Leno’s SB 184, which died in the Senate two years ago.

But Preston did say that he’s happy to hear Yee explain himself, something that he’s been unwilling to do so far this year, including on his vote against Leno’s SB 603, who would have created sanctions for landlords that illegally withhold security deposits from their renters. It stalled in the Senate back in May.

“SB 603 would have invited lawsuits against landlords throughout the state, honest and otherwise, which would inevitably lead to property owners taking units off the market and driving up prices,” is how Yee now explains that vote to the Guardian.

But Preston said that explanation also doesn’t make sense, noting that Leno’s bill is already law in Alabama. “There’s no disincentive whatsoever for landlords to illegally withhold deposits,” Preston said, noting the he and other activists have fruitlessly tried for months to reach Yee on the issue. “It’s good to finally hear any explanation for his vote, months later.”

“There’s a pattern emerging with him where he won’t even explain his votes,” Preston said, noting that Yee “is running for statewide office and he’s trying to appeal to landlords and developers.”

Indeed, Yee will need to raise buckets of cash to reach a statewide audience, and he certainly understands who has the money these days. But Yee denies that he is carrying water for landlords, citing other pro-tenant votes: “I’ve always been proud to fight for tenants. Earlier this year, I cast the deciding vote for SB 391 which directs an estimated $720 million in state funds annually to the construction, rehabilitation and continued preservation of low and affordable affordable housing for everyone, families, seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, the unemployed, and the homeless. I spent years fighting for redevelopment agencies, one of only three Democrats to do so, which put a billion dollars a year into providing affordable housing throughout the state. These are programs that have been proven to be effective, an example of good results rather than just good intentions.”

UPDATE 3pm: Leno just returned our call from the floor of the Senate, where he said that Yee mischaracterized SB 603. "Those are the talking point of the industry and they're just plain wrong," Leno told us.

Leno said he modified the bill significantly to win support, including removing provisions that would have required landlords to keep deposits in separate accounts and pay interest on them. "All that remained is the penalty for a landlord that is was determined by the courts had illegally kept a deposit," Leno told us. "And it still stalled. It's the power of that lobby."