Current Affairs

San Francisco Socialist Dean Preston Debunks “YIMBY” Propaganda

Preston, a DSA member who serves on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, joins us to discuss the Bay Area housing crisis and its solutions, as well as the bizarre developer-backed astroturf movement waging war on him.

Democratic Socialists of America member Dean Preston has worked as a tenant rights activist and attorney for many years. He founded an organization called Tenants Together and helped to lead the successful initiative to preserve rent control in the State of California. He now serves as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where he was the first democratic socialist elected in 40 years. Lately he has been the subject of a critical article in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which he was accused of blocking much-needed affordable housing for the city. He recently joined Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson on the Current Affairs podcast to discuss the housing crisis in his city, the practical means of solving it, and the reason he’s taking so much flak from a group calling itself the “YIMBYs.” 

The interview transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity. 

Robinson

You are—I believe this has been quantitatively measured—the furthest left member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. There’s a chart showing this?

Preston 

There is a chart, and I think when it was published, they thought it was going to be viewed as an insult. And I was thrilled to see documentation of my position.

Robinson  

By a pretty wide margin. People who are not familiar with San Francisco might think, “Well, you’d have to be really far left to be on the left in San Francisco,” but as we’ll discuss, that’s not necessarily the case. 

I want to begin with the housing situation in San Francisco. My picture, as a non-San Franciscan, who has not set foot in the city for many years, is of a place where the rent is too damn high. It’s a gentrifying city, a city where homelessness is out of control. And the class divide of the United States can really be seen in its most brutal form there. Is that a caricatured picture of San Francisco and its housing situation at the moment? How accurate is that?

Preston 

That’s pretty accurate. We have extreme inequity in San Francisco. Obviously, the tech industry has led a big boom in the local economy. The real estate industry has done everything it can to keep fueling the real estate speculation here. And so prices have gone up, up, and away. We have some state laws in California that have stopped us from adopting stronger protections for tenants and stronger protections against runaway rents. Those are the laws I’ve been battling against for the last 20 years at the state level. We’ve got housing that is completely unaffordable to low-income people or working-class people in the city of San Francisco. Any new units that come online at the market price are only affordable to wealthy folks or to real estate investors. We just had a report on the committee that I’m the Vice Chair of—the Land Use Committee. We just had a report on Monday from a broad coalition of affordable housing advocates. Almost the entire labor community and UC Berkeley professors worked for two years looking at our housing situation. What they found was that 7% of workers in the city and county of San Francisco can actually afford the median cost of housing here. So it is not a caricature. But we have extreme inequity, high homelessness numbers, and a lot of people who aren’t reflected in those numbers because they leave. If they’re displaced from their rent control home, there’s no way they’re going to afford another place in San Francisco.

Robinson  

What are the biggest obstacles to changing this? The New York Times just had this report on the hypocrisy of blue states, which I liked, because when you look at some of the bluest cities in America, the most heavily Democratic, they are places where wealth inequality is just out of control. And they pose a very serious question, which is: why do places where a large majority of the people describe themselves as liberal-minded people who believe in affordable housing and don’t like having a homelessness crisis–why is it that these places can’t solve these problems? And what would you attribute that to in San Francisco in particular?

Preston   

It’s an over reliance on a market that thrives on inequality. What certainly has earned me the ire of the local Chronicle and this so-called YIMBY movement—

Robinson

…which we will discuss…

Preston

…is that they’re market fundamentalists. And they believe that simply creating more housing for rich people will ultimately trickle down to people who aren’t rich—maybe in a decade, maybe 50 years. I don’t know when they expect that to happen. For all the talk in this city, even a city that’s more progressive on some issues, for all the talk when it comes down to who our economy caters to—not just in housing, but especially in housing—it caters to the wealthy. It is a struggle to do real progressive taxation. We have growing wealth inequality, and we still have even folks who describe themselves as left, liberal, progressive, whatever label you want to put on it, who are still primarily voting to give more power to the very market that has created the inequality in the first place. I was more of a believer in these markets earlier in my career. I thought, well-regulated capitalism, maybe we could get there. I thought we could control the rents a bit and have some protections in place. Maybe this can work if we just make developers do a handful of affordable units when they build, and maybe we’ll get there somehow. And decades later, you know, it just doesn’t work. And until we actually admit that, and look at non-market solutions—like social housing, and things that can actually reverse these trends—we’re just gonna get more of the same.

Robinson  

So when you say non-market solutions, what would it actually take to make San Francisco a livable city for the working class? What are the main points of change that you think it needs?

Preston   

Well, I think the city and government has to be in the business of actually creating housing for people that is not for profit, right? We have a long history—now, over half a century—of active disinvestment at the federal, state, and local level in affordable housing and public housing. There’s a renewed movement, I think, to look at municipal housing and other forms of government-owned housing. But at the end of the day, there’s lots of different types of social housing: there’s municipal housing, there’s community land trust, there’s limited equity co-ops, there’s below-market rental units in new construction, there’s lots of ways to get there. But all of them are off the speculative market. They are not created, owned, operated, or sold for a profit. And that’s the only kind of housing in an expensive city like San Francisco or a place like New York or Los Angeles—I mean, that’s the only kind of housing that’s actually going to house low-income and working-class folks. And it may not be like that everywhere in the country. You may be able to create a market rate unit in a small city that’s not San Francisco, and maybe a teacher can afford that market rate unit, right? It’s not one-size-fits-all. But I can just tell you—through the lens of the market I know best and where I served the residents of my district—that it is a pipe dream to think that you’re ever going to build market rate housing in San Francisco that a school teacher, a janitor, or any working-class folks are going to be able to afford.

Robinson   

Is that because it would just take such a colossal amount of new housing because a lot of what would be built is just going to be bought up and held as investment property? You know, it’s funny. I live in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which is similar to parts of San Francisco in that it’s a quaint historic district, and I look out my window at night and see no lights in the other windows because so many of the properties are so valuable that they are just held by people as assets. If you built 10% more of them, it would just be 10% more that were being held as assets without ever actually being lived in by the people of New Orleans.

Preston  

I think that’s certainly a factor here. We commissioned a report—and we’re expecting to announce it fairly soon—from the budget, legislative analysts looking at vacancies in San Francisco. And there are a ton of vacancies. A lot of newly constructed places like these luxury condos that sit particularly in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco just sit empty, and it’s exactly as you’re describing. You can see at night what’s lit up and what isn’t. These half-empty buildings are investments. I’ve long been a champion of doing a vacancy tax like Vancouver did. Again, the same critics and industry folks will oppose that, even as they claim to be in favor of housing and homes and so forth. But we have to do that. A lot of investors are just buying multiple properties. They sit on them for a while, and they resell them, and it’s a good investment. And that’s what a lot of the new construction ends up being. It’s two things to answer your question of, why doesn’t it work to just build more market rate housing? Why does that not actually result in greater housing equity in a city like San Francisco? It’s two things. It’s that a lot of these sit vacant, and are investments that aren’t intended for people to live in anyway. And the more vulnerable low-income communities are the ones being targeted for that kind of development. And what’s being developed is not just more units in a vacuum. It’s units that gentrify the neighborhood, drive up the prices in those neighborhoods, and drive people out of those communities. And that’s why you see so many people who are organizing with people of color and vulnerable communities in San Francisco, all in unison, opposing again, and again, the strategy of just building more and more luxury housing. I don’t know any vulnerable groups in the city that subscribe to that approach.

Robinson   

If you have an apartment building with 50 units occupied by working-class tenants, and it’s demolished, and they build something that has 100 units, but it’s 100 people from Palo Alto who come and move in, you have the aggregate number of total units increased—you say we’ve got more housing—but you’ve actually managed to displace more working-class people from the city in the process.

Preston  

That’s right. And we also have these evictions here called Ellis Act. The Ellis Act lets any property owner go out of the rental business. That’s the idea. So what happens is they evict everyone in the entire building and say they’re going out of the rental business. And then they find a loophole where, since they’re going out of the rental business, they can’t turn around and rent it. So what they can do is sell off the interest in these high-end co-ops and condos basically. So you have entire buildings in San Francisco that are emptied out of tenants, many of whom are low-income, long-term rent control tenants to be replaced directly by high-income folks come in who can for one or two million bucks buy a condo or tenancy in common, so that displacement has been happening across the city. Our history in San Francisco is completely shameful—from the redevelopment era, in which huge numbers of African American tenants were driven out of the city, their homes demolished, all the way through to waves of evictions during the different booms of the dot coms and all the way through the present. The constant there is we’ve always allowed greed and real estate speculation to dominate the policies.

Robinson    

I read a study a while back about rent control in San Francisco, and I seem to recall that one of the findings is, while the free market types always say that the problem with rent control is that it’s going to restrict supply, the finding in San Francisco was that rent control worked and the only reason that it restricted supply was because of those condo conversions. So the only reason that it would be that that rent control caused fewer units to be available to people was because you happen to have a loophole that incentivized the owners of buildings to take units off the market. But if you didn’t have that loophole, then rent control wouldn’t have that negative effect.

Preston  

Right. It’s always the loopholes around rent control that are used to attack rent control. There’s just such a disconnect between working-class folks and the pundits on rent control, right? You go to all these economics departments, and you can find lots of professors who are going to tell you how rent controls are bad and distort the market. A few of them will give you some support. But generally, you go and talk to people who are living in rent-controlled apartments, or live in San Francisco, where there would be virtually no working-class left in San Francisco, were it not for rent control. San Francisco has a reputation as a progressive city. Yet this would just be a 98% playground for the rich were it not for rent control. Before I was in office, I ran a statewide tenant rights organization, Tenants Together. We formed at the time when there was a ballot measure to abolish rent control in California. And we crushed it at the polls. The voters of California, not just in the big cities, voted by a 22-point margin, not to abolish rent control. People love rent control because it’s the only thing standing between them and a greedy landlord and displacement from their homes. Even the studies from the economics professors who attack rent control always have to acknowledge, in all those studies, how effective rent control is in stabilizing housing for seniors, disabled folks, and the most vulnerable folks, even as they attack it on theoretical grounds. They still acknowledge that it works to do what it’s supposed to do, which is to stabilize people in their homes.

Robinson 

There’s a great piece of testimony by the economist J.W. Mason, who talks about how rent control is kind of like the minimum wage in that the previous neoclassical consensus that it was definitely bad has been shaken in recent years in economics. But it’s also the case that a study of supply and demand really leaves out the fact that, with non rent-controlled housing, what we are talking about is the ability of a landlord to tell someone who has been in a building for 30 or 40 years—even someone whose whole life has been invested in this place, but who hasn’t actually developed ownership because we don’t give people ownership rights purely by having paid all of their income for decades to live in a place—to all of a sudden leave everything they know and find somewhere else to live. Think about the unquantifiable psychological effect of that on an elderly or disabled person. Not having rent control is just such an act of wanton cruelty. There’s no study in which you can even capture that.

Preston  

It’s true. There’s been this coordinated attack on rent control over the years. But when you actually frame it in terms of its impact, as you just did, people overwhelmingly support it. When I was running our statewide tenant rights organization, Tenants Together, we would go into fairly conservative communities to form new tenant unions, helping folks to go to their city councils and adopt rent control. And it was so interesting. We would meet with these conservative council members in the Central Valley of California—you know, Republican strongholds—and we’d meet with the legislators there, and we’d ask them their opinion on rent control. They’d totally oppose it. Absolutely. It’s terrible; it’s bad for the economy. But then you ask them the questions you just asked. “Do you believe that a landlord should be allowed to double the rent on a tenant who’s lived in their home for a decade?” They’d say, “No, of course not.” People actually think it’s illegal to do these things—to evict someone for no reason or to double their rent. So they actually agree with the entire policy, even the most conservative folks and even the folks who claim to be against rent control.

I’ve been doing this for a while—over 20 years—and when I started, there was more controversy around rent control. In California, people seem to have given up trying to attack and eliminate rent control. People look at cities like San Francisco. And as I said before, without rent control, there’d be virtually no working-class people living in San Francisco. Everyone would be commuting from hours away. So I think the ship has sailed on that. But attacks on rent control are more subtle, because you put that on the ballot in San Francisco, and rent control is going to win every time.

Robinson  

I want to ask you about the YIMBY movement, which you mentioned earlier. For members of our audience who are unfamiliar, what is the YIMBY “movement”? I’m gonna use the word “movement” in quotes.

Preston   

Yes, I will definitely put it in quotes. I certainly have seen my share of movements and been part of them. I think there’s certainly a movement on Twitter that the YIMBYs inspire. I haven’t seen much of it out in the real world. It’s essentially the developers and real estate speculators. Within the last seven or eight years there has been this, “yes, in my backyard” effort known as YIMBY. They have cleverly defined anyone who does not accept every proposed housing development with no changes and at the moment it is announced as a NIMBY [“not in my backyard”]. I’ve always thought of NIMBYs as people who actually oppose affordable housing—classist folks, often racist folks who don’t want homeless people or low-income folks or people of color living in their neighborhoods. That was always my understanding of NIMBY. The so-called YIMBY folks have redefined a “NIMBY” to be anyone that doesn’t just jump when the real estate industry says jump, and they’ve become a very toxic force. They have been attacking me for years, attacking pretty much anyone who demands things that actually help a community as part of development—either investments in transit or investments in affordable housing. They have evolved over the years into what is now just a complete disinformation campaign. And that’s what you see.

Robinson   

One thing worth noting is that it’s quite insidious in the way that it presents itself. I wrote an article trying to expose some of this called “The only thing worse than a NIMBY is a YIMBY.” I denounced both NIMBYs and YIMBYs, and one of their supporters said, well, there’s a whole other category called the “left NIMBY,” and that I’m an exemplar of what’s called the “left NIMBY.” They implied that there’s something racist about it. There’s this strange use of rhetoric, which is supposedly pro-affordable housing, pro-public—constantly emphasizing its progressive bona fides. I mean, you’ve said that it’s basically an arm of the developers’ lobby, which may be true. But it certainly takes great pains to try to present itself as something that is not in the pocket of developers. If you accuse this so-called movement of being hardcore free-market people, they will vigorously protest that characterization. So it’s a little clever in the way it presents itself.

Preston 

It is. They dress it up in the language of equity. The truth really comes out when you look at the actual positions. People can tweet all they want about their positions. But when you look at ballot measures—things where you have to take a position—they will 100% side with the money in the real estate industry, and they will ruthlessly attack opponents using disinformation campaigns. They will attack anyone who doesn’t further the interests of big real estate capital. It’s gotten to the point that when I ran for election, these folks were spreading flyers all around my district saying that I was a serial evictor who had evicted hundreds of low-income tenants. I’ve never evicted anyone in my life. I’ve been an eviction defense lawyer for 20 years. So that’s the level of discourse. 

I mean, and it’s really sad, because I think that there are affordable housing advocates who for years have been advocating for some of the positions that YIMBY folks take. For example, they will go into exclusionary rich communities or suburban communities, and argue that there should be apartment buildings instead of single-family homes in new construction. That’s a long standing position that groups like the Western Center on Law and Poverty and folks like myself have been championing for a long time and believe in, and it’s a shame they don’t just stick with this. YIMBYs could be partners in that fight. Instead, what they’ve done is to weaponize that legitimate issue, to use those same arguments to attack communities of color and working-class communities in dense, expensive cities, and to do so at all costs, and to try to use that same language of equity when all they’re doing is trying to maximize real estate profits. It’s sad sometimes to see folks who are in it for good reasons. They actually think they’re taking on exclusionary single family zoning or something like that. Most of those folks, though—if they’re thoughtful—flee the YIMBY movement once they realize what it’s really about.

Robinson   

The precipitating factor behind my wanting to talk to you was that there has been in the last week a new front in the campaign, in particular by the SF YIMBY group, which has put out this report. I use the word report in quotes. They put out a website called “Dean Preston’s Housing Graveyard,” which even features the tombstones of houses that you have personally killed. It was covered in a sympathetic piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s got a heavy presence on Twitter. The argument here is that you have killed a lot of affordable housing. I see: “Preston has denied housing to 12 people a day since he took office. He must resign so that a responsible public servant can take his place.” “Dean Preston is the worst politician in San Francisco. He is single-mindedly focused on making sure the city builds no new housing of any kind.” Can you tell me—trying to be charitable to their argument—what their argument against you is that you are denying housing to people?

Preston  

I’m not sure I’m in a charitable mood with these folks right now, because this hit piece is so out there and just wrong on the facts. There are things we could actually debate around, such as the role of market rate housing in San Francisco. When is it good? When is it not? This thing is just wild. I published my response called “Alice in YIMBY Land” because, you know, this stuff is just made up. You can go item by item—it’s a complete disinformation campaign.

Now, to be charitable—and to set aside the fact that most of it is just complete garbage and made-up—there is this concept that I think drives the YIMBYs and Heather Knight who’s a YIMBY reporter for The Chronicle who amplified their work of fiction as if it was fact. And I think the idea is that anything you do to require anything of a developer is itself a sin. And means that you oppose everything the developers are doing. So I’ll give you an example. One of the things in their housing report, or whatever you want to call it, I put that in quotes, is that I opposed a project that was being built on Geary Boulevard, just outside my district. I was the lone dissenting vote. When the developer, who had already gotten permission to build years ago, came back to the board of supervisors, they said, we actually don’t want to build the affordable units that we promised to build and that your whole rezoning was based on, we don’t want to build those in the project. So my vote there didn’t stop a single unit of housing, same number before with or without my vote, if I had one makes no difference. But the fact is that I’m saying to a developer: you can’t just do what you want here. And in fact, you have to do what you promised, which is build affordable units on site. It shows up in their silly report as like, however many units that building was, that I opposed all those units. This is the level of—I hate to insult elementary school kids—but this is like an elementary school level report at best. We can talk about the tremendous body of work that my office has been doing to tax the rich and generate hundreds of millions of dollars for social housing in San Francisco. None of that shows up in this absurd, absurd report. So I think I’m being charitable when I just call it absurd.

Robinson   

I do want to stop calling it a report. This is one of the tactics that right-wing fake think tanks use. They put out things that they call “reports,” so that then they can say, oh, a report or a study was done. And it says this or that. And they build a website that claims that a lot of people who would have houses in San Francisco do not have houses because of your actions. 

Personally, I think one of the key points underlying what you’re saying is that people need to understand-and correct me if this is an incorrect characterization—that in the process of some building being proposed for development, you have these levers, given your position on the Board of Supervisors, and what you are able to do is use the threat of blocking to try and exact concessions from developers. And that is actually quite important. If we use pure free market theory, a developer’s interest is in putting no affordable units in any building ever. Why would they ever want to do that unless they had to? So part of what you are doing—and what is being then spun against you as blocking housing—is trying to find ways to use the power that you possess to exact concessions that are actually going to help people from developers.

Preston  

That’s exactly right. It’s not only what I’ve done in office. It’s what I’ve done for years. I was among the folks leading the effort to pass a ballot measure that required a minimum percentage of affordable units when developers build private housing. That whole concept is opposed by YIMBYs. Their founder in San Francisco is on record saying that she opposes any inclusionary housing requirement. In other words, when developers build luxury housing, they should not have to pay a single cent or build a single unit that is not at that market, luxury rate. So that’s her position, and I’m on the opposite extreme. My view is, I’m happy to have the project built, and I want to make sure we don’t leave anything off the table. I want to get as much affordable housing as I can. My consistent record is always pushing for that highest level of affordability. 

The irony here is that the YIMBYs are even worse than the developers. I work with the developers and deal with them all the time. They’re trying to get projects through. And they know when they come to my office—we approved a big one down at 98 Franklin. That was totally omitted from the report, which says that I approved zero units of housing when I approved this major residential tower in my district. The developers knew if they wanted my support, they ended up promising—and they’re going to deliver—25% of the units at affordable levels for working-class folks in the city or for low-income folks, as well as millions of dollars additionally in funds for affordable housing. Is that perfect? No. I see my role as advocating on the behalf of the community, to get as much as possible from developers in the private market. Even then, when I can do it, it’s not the most satisfying stuff. I’d rather be building 100% affordable housing, I’d rather be doing social housing, all the things that we won at the ballot, you know? But we still have the private market stuff that is part of the ecosystem here, and we’ve got to deal with it. And we’ve got to make sure we’re getting as much as possible from the developers as we can.

Robinson  

This website implies at various points that you represent a rich district, and that you’re trying to do the bidding of landlords, essentially rich NIMBYs who don’t want any housing built. 

So what your constituents should know is that when you come out against, or conditionally against, some kind of project, what you’re really trying to do is to set terms and conditions that developers are going to have to meet if they want to move forward. In the chess match between you and developers, what developers are going to come back and do, and what this YIMBY astroturf movement is going to come back and do, is say, “Aha, your Board of Supervisors member is in the pocket of landlords. He doesn’t want to build any housing.” But what’s actually going on is a fight over the conditions under which something will move forward.

Preston   

I think that’s accurate. I will just say that it is always amusing when someone says I’m in the pockets of landlords or the wealthy real estate industry because those folks have put millions of dollars into fighting to keep me out of office. I do take some comfort in knowing that the level of disinformation and attacks on me are very much signs of how we have been able to move the needle in terms of taxing the very wealthy and in terms of trying to get the focus on affordable housing and social housing. I have sparred with landlords and the California Association of Realtors. These folks did hit piece after hit piece. They’ve backed my opponent in every election. They’ve backed the opposition to every ballot measure that I’ve worked on. The reality is that they agree 100% with these YIMBYs. There’s no daylight between the developers, landlords, billionaires, and YIMBYs in San Francisco. When you look at my district, and people make comments about my district, it is one of the most dense districts in the city, and nationally, it’s a very dense district. It’s a very diverse district with more well-off areas, as well as some of the most low-income areas of the city. And folks knew what they were getting with me. They knew they were getting a democratic socialist who was not going to be out there fighting to maximize luxury housing. And so I am doing what I said I would do. Frankly, this is off political opponents and certainly, it has been fueling the attacks that, as I say, have been ratcheted up because we keep winning, because the people of San Francisco are down with what we’ve done—we doubled the transfer tax. We charge 6%—one of the highest in the nation—when someone sells a $10 million property. These real estate investors are paying huge amounts of money because I wrote a ballot measure and we won it despite the efforts to outspend us twenty to one, and we are raising 150 to $200 million a year for affordable social housing, the first social housing money generated in San Francisco in generations. It’s like that’s what they and the YIMBYs opposed. They opposed or stayed silent every step of the way. And that’s what they’re trying to stop. So it’s less about me than that movement that is demanding more from the rich and demanding affordable housing.

Robinson   

Can I give you a chance to respond to these pieces of legislation they say that you oppose that would have helped make housing affordable? They cite SB 35, the streamlined Affordable Housing Act, which they say made it harder for San Francisco to say no to proposed housing that’s at least 50% affordable and led San Francisco to build thousands of affordable homes of the kind Preston says he supports. They say “opposing Home SF, the affordable housing density program,” which “allows for additional housing to be built if it contains affordable homes.” And they cite SB 50, which allows new dense housing near transit. I assume the story is far more complicated. I don’t understand California very well. So could you tell me what is being massaged here?

Preston  

Sure. Yeah. Those bills are complex, but the story is very, very simple. When I worked at Tenants Together, we worked on state legislation. I stood with a coalition of every tenant group in the state, local grassroots, POC-led groups, transit equity groups and others demanding amendments to these state laws, some of which were incorporated, and some of which were not. We told Senator Wiener, who was the champion of these, that we love this streamlining. But can we apply it to just affordable housing? Why are we doing this giveaway to the market rate housing? We urged higher requirements of affordable housing, stronger protections against displacement and demolitions. So pieces of that advocacy ended up in the bill. And what they’re saying, again, is the YIMBY test. Did I accept the developer’s written bill, the moment it was introduced? Anything short of that is blocking the housing, right? So this is just totally make-believe. It’s absolutely absurd that standing shoulder to shoulder with vulnerable communities who are trying to prevent gentrification and displacement and demolition of their homes and fight for more affordable housing, that standing with those folks, and seeking to improve state legislation, is somehow an act of anti-housing or whatever they want to call it. Each bill you can pick apart and go through, but that’s the bottom line. All these things are things I sought amendments and improvements to.

Robinson 

What’s the thing with the hospital? They say: “Did you know that Preston identifies as socialist, but opposed the expansion of a public hospital during a pandemic?”

Preston 

Same story. So UCSF is doing a major hospital expansion. I’ve certainly never opposed the expansion. When I came into office, I actually urged the city to do an MOU between the hospital, which is like a state agency, and the city to guarantee affordable housing levels. A deal was worked out that wasn’t good enough. I worked with the hospital workers who couldn’t afford any of the housing that was going to be built with this hospital, to argue that there should be more affordable housing as part of this plan. And what we did–this is their whole act, this is the absurdity here–this is a multi-year prop or project. UC was going to the state regents which actually controls UCSF. We said—we did a resolution at the board that I authored—that it should wait till their next meeting, because we needed stronger affordable housing commitment, transit investments in public transit, to support this project. And the agreement had no enforceability. Those were the three issues I raised. As a result of my advocacy, within a week, UCSF actually agreed to improve the affordability and provide more housing for the workers of the hospital. And we also confirmed on the record with UCSF that the short delay in presenting this to the regents would have zero impact on the construction timeline for the hospital or the housing. Zero impact. So literally, that’s their example that I blocked all those housing units by seeking to have the regents wait until their next meeting so that we could nail down the enforceability, transit investments, and affordable housing. It’s the same story. It really is a story. 

Robinson   

I appreciate your diving into the details, because I want our readers and our listeners to understand: in every city, there are going to be these kinds of disinformation campaigns. And it’s really important because the arguments they make—if you don’t know the actual facts—can be superficially persuasive. All of this is very well put together. We can say that they are “transparently” absurd, but they’re not, in fact, transparently absurd if you don’t know the truth, and if the truth isn’t available—I mean, this appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. I was mentioning to you before the recording that this is now all over your Wikipedia entry, because they seem to have very diligent Wikipedia editors, the YIMBYs. I do think it’s really important to learn how to dissect this stuff. 

Finally, are there any lessons from your long fight as a tenant rights advocate that you had, advice you’d have for people fighting this same fight in other cities around the country that have some of the same problems?

Preston  

You have to be organized with people directly and not assume that what occurs on social media is actually the dominant views of communities. And there’s a ton of people who really aren’t following the back and forth on Twitter, the libertarian-YIMBY-Twitter stuff. What we’ve seen in San Francisco, is that at the polls, when it comes to actual voters, and people in our city, people get it, people don’t buy the idea that luxury multimillion dollar investment home housing is the answer to our problems. In San Francisco, the YIMBYs have lost every candidate that they’ve run and back. Everyone loses. Their ballot measures get crushed at the polls. And the only power that they have, politically, is when they get appointed to things by one of the only politicians that sides with them nowadays, which is the mayor of San Francisco, which has its own story. So they’ll get an occasional appointment there. So it’s about meeting folks and dealing with their real world issues. Going to meetings in person or Zoom and engaging on these issues. People aren’t fooled so easily. And so some of these cute, sleight-of-hand tricks that do work in communities nationally. I mean, hell–Fox News and Tucker Carlson make a living off this stuff, right? But, at least in progressive cities, I don’t think people are fooled that easily. And I would just urge folks to keep doing the work and meeting folks in the real world, not necessarily on housing Twitter.

Robinson   

If you haven’t been the subject of a Fox News profile yet, I would give it five minutes, I’m sure they’re—

Preston

I’m sure it’s coming. There’s always going to be folks who are organizing to preserve the status quo and preserve profits. I think what’s sad about this whole report this last week, was seeing the Chronicle not just publish this report, but from a journalistic integrity point of view, to not do an ounce of actual fact-checking and investigation and analysis, and simply publish this thing as if it’s something—and again, while ignoring a report that came out days later from housing advocates, the labor community and UC Berkeley researchers, which just tells the exact opposite story and talks about the actual housing needs. It’s sad to see a major paper do this, and that we’re in the state of our discourse on these things where a major paper would just regurgitate this stuff.

Robinson  

Yeah. That really alarmed me. I saw some people I moderately respect parroting these claims as if they were the result of a real economic study, and then I opened that web page and it’s just the cheapest kind of political propaganda. 

Dean Preston of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, thank you so much for talking to me today.

Preston 

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

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