Politics

Workin' the Pol

Animated Leland Yee Biopic Premiers as Senators are Suspended with Pay

After a 9am meeting this morning in Sacramento where California State Senators asked their colleague Leland Yee to resign, Yee presumably refused, so the senate voted to suspend him and two other possibly corrupt senators, Rod Calderon and Rod Wright, with pay. Just in time for Taiwan’s Tomo News to release an epic summary of the events surrounding Yee’s indictment and alleged criminal activities!

The video takes some liberties with the facts—Paolo Lucchesi’s tour of restaurants named in the indictment doesn’t include a Panda Express, and an exclusive KPIX interview makes it clear that Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow isn’t actually a six-foot crustacean—but we can all agree that a panda and FBI agent making it rain on pole dancing politicians tastefully serves to illustrate the $69,800 in contributions made to Yee campaigns by undercover agents between 2011 and 2014.

Sheeeit

Criminal Complaint Against "Shrimp Boy," State Senator Alleges Drugs, Guns, Fraud, Money Laundering & Murder-for-Hire

News broke this morning that State Senator Leland Yee was arrested along with dozens of other defendants, including Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, and homes and businesses in San Francisco and across the Bay Area raided by federal officials who found, among other things, a marijuana grow operation. This afternoon, Yee, Chow and 17 other defendants appeared before Magistrate Judge Nathaniel Cousins for an initial hearing to determine if they would be detained pending further hearings.

Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow (picture, left) was in the first group of twelve defendants for today’s initial hearing in a criminal complaint brought by U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag’s office. Friends and family of the accused were joined in the courtroom by dozens of journalists and attorneys, eventually requiring an overflow room to accomodate the crowd.  The 133-page complaint was unsealed by Judge Cousins shortly after the hearing began. The charges, in brief, were read aloud in the court room.

Chow stands accused of money laundering and conspiracy to traffic in stolen cigarettes. Charges against the other eleven defendants, including Keith Jackson (pictured, right), a political consultant and longtime ally of State Senator Leland Yee, included gun running, narcotics trafficking and a murder-for-hire conspiracy. Each count of the money laundering charges alone could bring 20 years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

Based on the affidavit in the complaint, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has spent years investigating Chow, whom it claims is the “Dragonhead” of the Chee Kung Tong, having infiltrated the organization with an undercover agent posing as a member of La Cosa Nostra—Mafia members with connections in New Jersey. However, at the hearing, Elizabeth Faulk, Chow’s court-appointed federal public defender, argued for his release citing over a decade without being accused of any crime after Chow spent much of the 80s in 90s in prison on multiple criminal convictions including racketeering.

Five of the first twelve defendants were eventually released, with the rest having their bail hearings pushed ahead to Monday and Tuesday. Shortly thereafter, Leland Yee was among seven more defendants brought before Judge Cousins, and stands accused of gun trafficking and six counts of wire fraud. Yee was somber but alert in a faded windbreaker and only slightly tousled hair, replying only “yes” when eventually asked if he understood and agreed to the terms of his release, which includes a $500,000 unsecured bond and a ban on travel outside of California.

Yee is scheduled to appear for a follow-up detention hearing at the San Francisco Federal Courthouse on Monday, March 31st at 9:30am. Jackson is scheduled for 11am that same morning. Chow will have to wait until Tuesday, April 1st. Yee’s attorney has indicated that Yee will plead “not guilty.”

As for the complaint affidavit, the pretty compelling account was written by FBI Special Agent Emmanuel Pascua. After listing the targets of the complaints and the statutes allegedly violated, Pascua begins to describe the investigation.

At some point in the last five years, an undercover FBI agent (herein “UCE 4527”) was introduced to a high-level member of the [Chee Kung Tong]. As a results of this introduction, in may 2010, another undercover FBI agent (herein “UCE 4599”) was introduced to target subject Raymond CHOW. CHOW then introduced UCE 4599 to many of the target subjects…during a meeting with UCE 4599, while seated in a booth in a karaoke bar, CHOW whispered into UCE 4599’s ear that although CHOW was no longer involved in criminal activity, CHOW knew of and approved all criminal activities within his organization.

In October of 2012, local law enforcement conducted raids on two locations which turned up two marijuana grow operations, a loaded weapon and cocaine in locations connected to multiple defendants. Meanwhile, UCE 4599 was laundering millions of dollars in drug proceeds between 2012 and 2014 along with purchasing weapons and drugs directly. Ultimately, Chow introduced UCE 4599 to Keith Jackson as a consultant for CKT. Jackson and his son Brandon Jackson, along with another suspect, allegedly sold UCE 4599 multiple weapons and bullet proof vests, fake credit cards and agreed to a murder for hire scheme suggested by the undercover agent.

In his role as principle at Jackson Consulting, Keith Jackson was busy raising money for Leland Yee’s mayoral campaign in 2011 and even hit UCE 4599 up for donations in excess of the $500 maximum allowed by law. UCE 4599 declined, but introduced Jackson to another undercover agent posing as a real estate developer, UCE 4733, who did make a $5,000 donation to the campaign. After losing the mayoral race but with $70,000 in debt outstanding, Jackson and Yee again went to UCE 4733 for money and promised to call and write the California Department of Public Health on behalf of a fictional client of the agent’s in exchange for a $10,000 donation. More requests were made by Jackson of more undercover agents, with checks made out to “Leland Yee Secretary of State” in exchange for political favors.

Yee and Jackson also promised to introduce UCE 4599 to an arms dealer who could arrange to have a specific type of weapon imported through Newark, New Jersey. Yee later explained that he had connections for weapons in the Phillipines, and introduced UCE 4599 to another defendant, Dr. Lim, who could help make a multi-million dollar arms deal, including shoulder-fired rockets, a reality. In exchange, Jackson and Yee repeatedly requested more funds for Yee’s Secretary of State campaign—which they would then break up into smaller donations in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

At one point in 2012, UCE 4599 asked Jackson to call Yee and as the senator to help out Chow because, according to Jackson (in transcripts of what was presumably a warranted wire tap), “somebody, maybe the FBI, had Chow ‘by the balls.’” Yee expressed concern about connecting himself to Chow because of the latter’s puported book and movie deals, and because “[y]ou know, some poeple still think he killed that Allen Leung guy.” Referring to money offered by UCE 4599 in exchange for Yee’s support of Chow, Yee lamented “shit, as much as I want that five thousand, I can’t do that man. Shit. Fuck. Shit.”

In 2013, Yee reportedly took meetings with another undercover agent, UCE 4180, posing as a businessman who wanted to become “the Anheuser-Busch of medical marijuana” and was looking for help changing the law in California to make it easier to do business.  Yee said that only a ballot initiative could get UCE 4180 what he wanted, and that if elected Secretary of State, Yee could help with that. Jackson then met with Yee and later provided his account information so that UCE 4180 could make a “good faith” donation in exchange for “deliverables.” In June of that year, Yee, Jackson, UCE 4180 and another undercover agent and another (unnamed) state senator all met for a coffee at a Starbucks near the state capitol in Sacramento where Yee reportedly explained that “I’m just trying to run for Secretary of State, I hope I don’t get indicted.”

Whoops.

Of course, this is just a summary of the most egregious charges against Yee and the connections between Yee and Chow through Jackson. Dozens of weapons, millions of dollars and kilo after kilo of drugs - all together, it sounds like the plot to some sort of violent video game that Yee wants to protect your children from. Whether or not Yee is found guilty, with Democratic party leaders asking him to resign immediately, it looks like it’s game over.

Busted

Senator Leland Yee, Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow Arrested in Federal Corruption Indictment [Updated]

This morning, the FBI searched the office of San Francisco Democrat and State Senator Leland Yee while Yee was handcuffed and driven to the federal building as part of a corruption indictment.

Search warrants are being served across the Bay Area, including the Gee Ting Kong Free Mason clubhouse in Chinatown. Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, President of the Supreme Lodge of Chinese Free Masons, has also been arrested in connection with the investigation. The infamous Chow has spent decades in prison for his role in violent, organized crime and connections to Hong Kong triads.  Of course, that didn’t prevent Mayor Lee from honoring “Shrimp Boy” for “working ‘in the trenches’ as a Change Agent” in 2012:

No details about the nature of the indictment have been released yet, but the Chronicle claims from “sources” that the raids “stemmed from a shooting about five years ago.”

Former San Francisco Supervisor and Yee campaign volunteer Ed Jew has been in, then out, and now back in jail on federal and state corruption charges since being arrested in 2007, though there’s no indication the cases are connected. Chow has publicly distanced himself from his criminal past since last being released from prison in 2003, while Yee continued serving in the state senate after losing the 2011 mayoral election in San Francisco to Ed Lee.

Yee himself has a history with legal troubles:

In 2000, Yee was arrested in Hawaii on suspicion of boosting an $8.09 bottle of suntan oil by putting it in the front of his shorts.

A year earlier, Lee was pulled over twice by San Francisco police officer who suspected him of cruising the Mission District in search of prostitutes. In both cases, police questioned Yee at the scene of the stops on South Van Ness Avenue and let him go on his way.

Yee is currently a candidate for California Secretary of State.

Update: As the search continues this morning, the SFFD was called in to help crack a safe at the Gee Ting Kong clubhouse. Investigators are also searching the Bay Steel warehouse on Davidson Street in the Bayview according to KGO’s Jenna Lane, who reports “All’s quiet at Leland Yee’s home in the Sunset.”

[Photo: John Martinez Pavliga]

For the Children

San Francisco Declares Victory Against Dark Forces of Four Loko

Just in time for you to have forgotten that Four Loko still existed, especially since any memories of drinking it are probably pretty hazy, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera has made a settlement announcement with the manufacturer following his 2010 campaign to ban the drink. Chicago-based Phusion Products has agreed to stop marketing its fruit-flavored, formerly caffeinated and extra-strength malt liquor alcopops known as Four Loko to minors:

One innovative clause in the agreement obliges Phusion to monitor its social media pages to crack down on and delete posts showing irresponsible behavior. Prior entries from users on Four Loko social media sites include “My baby boy is a result of my drunken Four binge of wonder,” and, in response to the question “What Loko Starts the Perfect Saturday Night?” the answer “The one in the 17 year olds hands [sic].”

Phusion also agrees to stop “promoting the drinks on college campuses, avoiding depictions of underage drinkers in their advertising, and ending marketing practices that promote rapid or excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages.” The company will also abstain from “depicting Santa Claus in its advertisements, depicting anyone driving a motor vehicle while drinking alcohol, and depicting the consumption of their products by persons exhibiting clear signs of intoxication.”

So whichever ad agency creatives already mocked up a campaign for the Vice holiday guide with an animated takeover of Santa slamming a can of Four Loko while stumbling out of his sleigh to deliver cases to children really has their work cut out for them.

[Photo: Dana]

Heated, Moist, Flavored

Hot Air Produced by San Francisco Supervisors is Relatively Harmless, Says E-Cigarette Entrepreneur

On Tuesday, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve an amendment by Supervisor Eric Mar to the city’s health code that will effectively ban e-cigarettes wherever smoking is currently prohibited, which includes most publicly accessible indoor areas, areas around building entrances and windows, and city parks. Mayor Ed Lee has voiced his support for the proposal, meaning the law will likely come into effect within the next few weeks.

Nicotine replacement therapy to treat addiction is an established practice considered very low-risk with ample long-term data. It’s obviously too soon to have any long-term studies on vaporized nicotine yet, but there are plenty of indications that the route of administration offers significantly reduced risks compared to smoking. And that’s not just according to device manufacturers like Mission-based Ploom. This may be a unique opportunity to significantly reduce smoking-related illness, the number one cause of death in the United States. If the goal of amending the Health Code is to reduce the impact of smoking, why is San Francisco actively discouraging alternatives? 

“You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?” So declares Lord Wotton to the titular protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s fable of aesthetic philosophy and hedonism, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. During the Victorian era, the cigarette became a popular marvel of industrial technology, combining mechanized mass production with a global commodities trade in tobacco to create a product that was simple, portable, inexpensive and wildly, wildly addictive.

In the novel, Gray’s friend Basil Hallward paints a flattering portrait which shows the reality of Gray’s decline, allowing Gray to indulge in a fantasy of immortality. An apt metaphor Big Tobacco’s propaganda efforts throughout the 20th century as the health risks of cigarettes became widely known.

In 1964, the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health formally declared in the United States that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer. The next year, Herman Gilbert patented “an object to provide a safe and harmless means for and method of smoking by replacing burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist, flavored air.” But it never made an impact commercially, and tobacco companies largely chose to continue the propaganda campaign.

Some product development did take place, and in 1988 and then again in 1994, RJ Reynolds introduced the Premier and Eclipse, respectively, which were an effort to create a cigarette-like experience without most of the carcinogens and external effects like second-hand smoke. They did surprisingly succeed in achieving those goals with a carbon-heated vaporizer technology, but it also never caught on among smokers.

Finally, in 2003, pharmacist Hon Lik developed an electric vaporizer that emitted a nicotine-laced aerosol for Chinese company Golden Dragon Holdings, which later changed its name to Ruyan. The first commercial models were released in 2004, and exported in 2005 and received international patent protection in 2007.

After over a century, a product with much of the aesthetic experience of smoking a cigarette but without much of the mortal danger actually began to catch on among smokers around the world.

At the time, James Monsees and Adam Bowen were students at Stanford’s Joint Program in Design. There they started what became the company and product Ploom as a masters thesis in 2005, which they presented as a prototype concept. “In 2005, my brother was living in China and he was able to pick one up for me,” Monsees explained in an interview at his office, in a building the company incidentally shares with the Burning Man Project. “I’d heard only because we were heavily researching the market.”

It was this huge box, this entire kit. Because there was nowhere you could buy refills for the thing. E-cig liquid you couldn’t buy aftermarket, either, so you had to buy an insane number of cartridges. I think the kit included like 50 cartridges. And the device was like a big cigar, it was not very good. It was the first generation e-cigarette technology that used a true atomizer, it used a vibrating mesh to create an aerosol. Everything you see know is a resistive heating coil-based technology. And it cost, like, at least $300 use for this giant kit. So we got one, and that was my first exposure to the product.

Monsees and Bowen spent two years on further research and searching for investors before raising seed capital and incorporating in 2007. The first product released by the company, the Model One, was a butane-heated vaporizer that uses disposable pods of leaf tobacco. Their next product, the Pax, dropped the pods and switched to battery power but, to be frank, is probably not used primarily to vaporize tobacco. Today you can pick up a Pax along with your favorite strain of medicine at SPARC.

But as the consumer demand for nicotine vaporizers began to become clear, the business interest from tobacco companies also surged. Japan Tobacco International, which owns Camel among other brands, announced an investment in Ploom and a distribution partnership in 2011, the same year the Model One was released. In 2013, the company introduced the Model Two, a battery-powered device specifically for tobacco.

The rapid growth of the market has produced dozens of competing brands and technological approaches. The blu disposable e-cigarette, which uses the more common nicotine solution technology, has become a leader in the American market and was purchased by Lorillard in 2012.  A wide variety of manufacturers of vaporizer parts and accessories and nicotine solutions now create hundreds of products which are now widely available wherever cigarettes are sold, as well as through speciality shops and online retailers.

That was less than ten years ago we first really saw these products at all, in any way, and now they’re so commoditized all of the sudden. That is at the heart of why these regulations are so difficult right now, and really why your seeing them at all. I think in time, in another ten years—or less, hopefully, fingers crossed—there will be a heightened understanding of the substantially improved benefits for public health in particular based on that technology.

The Food and Drug Administration first attempted to regulate e-cigarettes as medical device for drug delivery under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, but that effort was challenged in court and struck down in a decision which held up under appeal. However, the FDA now plans to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products under the provisions of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, passed in 2009, and “intends to issue a proposed rule extending FDA’s tobacco product authorities beyond the above products to include other products like e-cigarettes.”  The European Parliament is waiting for final approval from member states for its proposed rules, which ban advertising, require health warnings and limit nicotine levels.

Also in 2009, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (a cigar enthusiast) vetoed Assembly Bill 400, which would have declared nicotine vaporizers a federally regulated drug and effectively banned them, but leaving the state free to regulate them as tobacco products in order to bar sales to minors. Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, introduced a bill this year to ban all online sales of tobacco products in California, including e-cigarettes, while municipal governments in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have put bans into place since the end of 2013, when long-time anti-smoking crusader and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed that city’s ban into law on his last day in office.

At public comment during the Rules Committee hearing on San Francisco’s ban, supporters argued that e-cigarettes are being marketed to children, who might try the devices and start smoking real cigarettes as a result. However, the evidence of this risk was not particularly compelling, no evidence at all was presented of secondary risks to non-users, and the amendment won’t affect marketing or advertising to children or anyone else. But it will shut the window on the opportunity to vaporize nicotine indoors, a liberty that has significantly increases the appeal of e-cigarettes to existing smokers.

Maybe the most significant data point is that only 12.5 percent of San Franciscans smoke regularly according to Doctor Tomas Aragon at the Department of Public Health, and fewer still likely use e-cigarettes, making their concerns as a constituency easy to marginalize.  Anti-smoking activists, who could once count on scientific evidence to support their arguments, seem to be leaving science behind in favor of pious zealotry just as technology may have actually come around to address many, if not most, of the negative consequences typically associated with nicotine addiction.

“I think that’s why this is particularly sad that it’s happening here. We’re smarter than this,” Monsees lamented. In his opinion of San Francisco legislators, “They’re moving quickly to adopt something that has just become a trend across major metropolitan areas.” He feels that the city could be leading the way by sponsoring research independent of federal regulators rather than following the crowd.  “I don’t think that action like these at the government level in San Francisco are reflective of the generally mentality of San Franciscans — or would be, if people were properly informed.”

He believes there will be a review of any decisions as more scientific research becomes available, and that the government bears a role in conducting that research if it’s going to make policy proactively. “Is there the financial incentive for companies like us, or major tobacco companies, to do that kind of research if it means an open opportunity to sell those products on the market? Absolutely! But are those products needed today? Are they already on the market? Yes. That’s the reality we live in. There’s been a pent up demand for these products for decades.”

Director of the FDA Center for Tobacco Products Mitch Zeller was cited by Monsees as a pragmatist in this regard. Before being appointed in 2013, Zeller was employed at Pinney Associates, which describes itself as a pharmaceutical risk management group. There, in 2012, Zellar wrote an assesment of strategies for continued tobacco control efforts.  “Anyone who would ponder the endgame must acknowledge that the continuum of risk exists and pursue strategies that are designed to drive consumers from the most deadly and dangerous to the least harmful forms of nicotine delivery.”

When asked if he feels that Ploom’s products will be target for enforcement as something which “simulates smoking,” Monsees didn’t seem troubled in any case.

I don’t think that it will have a major impact on our business. I think that our products are really attractive to consumers, in particular because, in our view, internally, they don’t simulate smoking. We’re kind of an oddball in the tobacco industry. In that we’re not interested in simulating smoking. What we’re really interested in doing is understanding, from a consumer level, what people like about smoking and giving them a totally new experience that builds on the good stuff and eliminates the bad stuff. In a totally new way, totally different.

In my view, we don’t simulate smoking. But I don’t think that view has much of anything to do with if it will hurt business or not. The reality is, I don’t think it will hurt business because I don’t think people care about this law. I don’t think it’s going to discourage people from doing what they think is reasonable. It does give law enforcement a tool to enforce offensive behavior by an individual when it’s not appropriate.

Wilde describes how Gray’s wealth and incorruptible beauty—the wages of his sins accruing only on the canvas—bought him access both to the base delights of London’s streets and access to the exclusivity of polite society. On the one hand, supporters of the ban worry e-cigarettes will become as fashionable as cigarettes once were if regulations are too lax, turning back the clock on smoking eradication efforts. Whereas opponents hope smokers, who are more likely to live below the poverty line than non-smokers, might be encouraged to switch if offered less social marginalization, legal complication and regressive taxation.

Our products enable more broad use without offending people. There’s no doubt about that. Smoking, it lingers, it leaves walls and floors and desks and carpets smelling like smoke for a really long time afterwards. It’s really easy to offend people when it survives your presence for such a long period of time. And our products don’t really do that, so it’s much easier to be courteous.  And that’s what we suggest people do.

While Monsees supports consumer protection regulations, like product quality control and marketing towards children. But his belief is that the market may have already trumped any political fait accomplis. A familiar laissez fair sentiment, but then some good always does survive gilded ages, and it’s not clear which view is the more “progressive” in this particular case. Preemptively legislating etiquette with punitive measures in the absence of facts and possibly at the expense of positive community health results seems at least as, if not more, irrationally exuberant.

Hopefully the next time the issue comes up, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors can put on a science show instead of a morality play.

Laugh to Keep from Crying

San Francisco Comedians Stand Up Against Ellis Act Evictions

The usually sombre proceedings of the SF Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Economic Development Committee meeting were livened up today by some of our favorite local comedians, who came to support a proposal requiring landlords to subsidize rents of evicted tenants for two years.

In the packed meeting room, The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s Erin McElroy presented some frightening numbers, including that of a survey of 171 people displaced by Ellis evictions, finding only 40 had managed to remain in the city. Later, the legendary humorist Marga Gomez spoke on behalf of the proposal. “I have been a renter since 1982. It’s my longest relationship.”

As for the headline set, Nato Green spoke on behalf of fellow small-time landlords, along with comedian renters Kate Willet, Matt Lieb, Nicole Calasich, Juan Medina and Sean Keane. “I can’t believe I have to follow that,” laughed the Tenants Union’s Ted Gullicksen, who took the microphone after Keane to reiterate the impact of evict-and-flip speculators.

Supervisor Jane Kim expressed her desire to see more comedians at meetings, since public comment offers everyone the opportunity to “wait a long time to speak for two minutes. And of course you won’t get paid.” Zing!

The committee will vote to send the bill to the full Board next week.

You can watch all the comments from the comedians below (be sure to catch Matt Lieb’s at 5:40 and Sean Keane’s at 10:00):

[Photo: Nato Green]

Not in My Back Alley

Parklet Scourge: Won't Somebody Think of the Children?

ABC7’s I-Team released the results of their investigation into Tutubi Plaza, a “parklet” in SOMA that has become popular with neighbors, if not people with homes nearby. Located on what used to be Russ Street between Minna and Natoma, the small, art-adorned plaza has come to provide a relatively calm oasis for the unique, colorful street life that’s centered on 6th Street. The ribbon was cut on the project back in 2011 as part of the Planning Department’s Pavement to Parks program*, with the Department of Public Works helping install work by artist Jovi Schnell who was selected by the Arts Commission.  Google Street View has images from before the plaza’s installation.

Now concerned citizens, some of whom initially supported the project, want the plaza torn out because one of the few public spaces in the area has become popular with people looking for a place to sit or lie, including drug users and sex workers. Sort of like every other public space for blocks around! Nevermind that the housing affordability crisis might be increasing the number of homeless people throughout the region (and traumatizing them in the process), or that that an influx of policing concentrated on Mid-Market is pushing criminalized populations into residential neighborhoods, or that if you want to “clean up” a corner you’re supposed to propose a high-rise development and hire an infamous political consultant.

To be fair, the parklet clearly hasn’t worked out as well as intended, but there are ways to discourage abusive and illegal behavior that would have less impact than tearing out $100,000 worth of work. Besides, having lived at the corner of 9th and Tehama, you can be assured that the presence or absence of street furniture like concrete benches matters little to someone desperate looking for a quiet alley in which to take refuge. Beat cops, on the other hand? Well, the ones stationed at 16th and Mission seem to have done a good job of redirecting that corner’s problems towards Capp and Shotwell!

Update: Gina Simi, Communications Director at the Planning Department, writes in to correct the record, noting that the agency had no role in the Tutubi Plaza project and to clarify the definition of “parklet.”

The Planning Department, in particular the Pavement to Parks program, does not have a role in this issue or this project. Tutubi Plaza is part of the South of Market Alleyways Improvements Project through the Department of Public Works, along with the SF Arts Commission and Redevelopment Agency. 

Pavement to Parks is a collaborative effort led by the Planning Department in collaboration with DPW, the MTA and the Mayor’s Office that looks to make better use of underutilized space by the installation of temporary interventions on SF streets. These temporary projects allow the City to test new ideas in the public realm and to create partnerships with local communities and help them shape their own environment.

Specifically, “parklets” are exclusively platforms in the parking lane and are funded and maintained by sponsor businesses, residents, and community organizations. Materials and designs are meant to be easily removable should design changes be desired during the timeframe of the installation.

While I can see how the connection could be made, I wanted to clarify that this is not a project through our department or programs and respectfully request that you correct the information in the article and remove the web link to our program to avoid any further confusion or misinformation.

Semiotics

11 Things Mayor Ed Lee Also Doesn't Understand

At the Commonwealth Club on Thursday evening, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee spent an hour discussing the challenges facing San Francisco. Lee admitted that he’s confused as to why anyone would be critical of the private transit system set up by Google and other companies exclusively to shuttle their employees to Silicon Valley.

“I understand why those protests were [directed] at Google buses, but they didn’t make sense to me because all people were doing was trying to get to work.”

Yeah, why would working class people facing displacement from their homes and communities use the ubiquitous, largely unmarked and unregulated buses as a symbol of the transformation of San Francisco into a bedroom community run by politicians focused on serving corporate interests when it might make a handful of people a few minutes late to work? Who knows!

We’ve compiled a list of other brain teasers that Lee can contemplate when his driver is stuck in traffic between meetings with venture capitalists, technology lobbyists and real estate developers:

[Photo Commonwealth Club]

Calling Bullshit

Housing Affordability Has Been Getting Worse for Decades (And the Problem Isn't Unique to San Francisco)

There are three arguments floating around as to why the rent is too damn high in San Francisco, all of which just happen to serve the interests of local real estate developers:

  • San Franciscans make it hard to build!
  • Rent control actually causes rents to go up!
  • This has been happening since the Gold Rush!

All of these arguments hinge on the assumption that what’s happening right now in the Bay Area generally is somehow unique to San Francisco specifically. This morning, an article about the “yuppification” of San Francisco from the L.A. Times, published in 1985, was making the rounds on Twitter, and plenty of people making these arguments have cited it as proof of one, or all, of the above. It certainly does sound familiar!

Whatever its name, its result is spiraling housing costs, clogged traffic, an exodus of middle-class and poor families and declining black and Latino populations. And the trend seems certain to continue despite a new effort by the city to limit growth, restrain housing costs and preserve neighborhoods.

But it doesn’t just sound familiar to San Franciscans, because it’s happening all over the country.

It’s true that by 1985, the impact of the de-industrialization of American cities and increasing income inequality was first starting to reshape the streets and skyline, helped in no small part locally by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein (who’s husband, incidentally, is investment banker Richard Blum, chairman of the board of commercial real estate developer CB Richard Ellis). Not to mention the economic policies of the Reagan administration, neo-liberalism’s legendary benefactor and hero. Economic policies which have thrived through the following Republican and Democrat administrations, including the current one.

What is new is that it’s accelerating. And as the divide between the haves and have-nots grows larger, the haves are concentrating their wealth and the have-nots are either clinging to ever-more-precarious perches on the one hand and following the money in a desperate search for economic opportunity on the other.

Earlier this week, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, a blog which documents the passing of that city’s urban institutions, populations and traditions, published a lengthy article on, frankly, Manhattanization, partly in response to Spike Lee’s recent remarks on what’s happened to the Fort Greene, Brooklyn neighborhood of his youth. It’s as colorful an illustration on the impacts of real wage decline since the 1970s as the above graphs.

Many New Yorkers today, across racial and class lines, do wish for old-fashioned gentrification, that slow, sporadic process with both positive and negative effects—making depressed and dangerous neighborhoods safer and more liveable, while displacing a portion of the working-class and poor residents. At its best, gentrification blended neighborhoods, creating a cultural mix. It put fresh fruits and vegetables in the corner grocer’s crates. It gave people jobs and exposed them to different cultures. At its worst, gentrification destroyed networks of communities, tore families apart, and uprooted lives. Still, that was nothing compared to what we have today.

I want to make one thing clear: Gentrification is over. It’s gone. And it’s been gone since the dawn of the twenty-first century. Gentrification itself has been gentrified, pushed out of the city and vanished. I don’t even like to call it gentrification, a word that obscures the truth of our current reality. I call it hyper-gentrification.

If you want a window into what that earlier era of gentrification looked like, Mission Local also reached back to their archives for an interview with author Michelle Tea about her experience moving to San Francisco in the early 90s (shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake momentarily relieved pressure on the San Andreas fault, population in-migration, and real estate prices).

Mission Local: Why did you move to the Mission?

Michelle Tea: It’s not that it was a particularly cool neighborhood, although I later found out that it was. This is just where the cheap rents were. I moved here in 1993, and when the bus let me off on Valencia, I remember the street felt deserted — like almost all of the storefronts were closed.

But somewhat tragically, wherever artists and activists go, real estate developers tend to follow, often because they lead the artists and activists there in the first place. Before moving to the Bay Area, my apartment in Brooklyn was at Underhill and Washington Avenue in a community largely composed of immigrants from the Carribean—“because that’s where the cheap rents were.” The year was 1998, and my girlfriend had found the place through a broker, who told her straight out, “We’re trying to move white people here.” Less than ten years later, a Richard Meier-designed condominium had sprouted up on the site of an old synagogue at Grand Army Plaza. A few more years after that, “New York’s first steampunk bar” opened a few blocks from my old place.

The units in the Meier building were sold from a realty office in SoHo, which had itself been transforming from a former light-industrial neighborhood with a heroin problem into a chic retreat for couture boutiques by the time that L.A. Times article was published in 1985. The denizens of the downtown art scene who survived and succeeded kept their pied-à-terres well after moving their families to the North Fork. One couple had me score some cocaine to save them the trip to Washington Heights, which now is actually being called WaHi by apartment brokers presumably looking to move white people in.

By then, the only “art” actually still happening in SoHo was sometimes even funded by venture capital like Josh Harris’s legendarily profligate failure Pseudo.com on Broadway. Which is to say, the process of reshaping neighborhood demographics and urban industry was no longer an ad-hoc effort led by a handful of privileged but tolerant middle class white people fleeing the cultural homogeneity of the suburbs. Now it’s funded by institutional investment in startup businesses and real estate development and enabled by local governments interested in attracting the middle class refugees from the rust belt who can afford to relocate and learn professional skills (which all sounded harmless enough when it was called “brain drain” in the old dead tree media).

We moved to Oakland’s Temescal in 2000 largely because it was pretty clear that we weren’t going to make much progress toward any kind of financial security on artist incomes in New York. Here, there was well-paid, if very temporary, web development work for me and a job at a non-profit with low wages but good health insurance for her. We did our part for displacement, certainly, but like the many techies in Silicon Valley’s lower contractor caste who sometimes get to ride the private shuttles, we might have had more stylish lifejackets than most, but we were just trying to keep our heads above water by swimming along with the currents of global capital like everyone but a few.

•••

Let’s go back to that article from 1985, and the plight of the Brandolino family’s experience having to move from their rent-controlled apartment North Beach after “a group of lawyers bought the 17-unit Victorian building in which they had been living to convert it into offices.” They couldn’t afford units in their old neighborhood at the going rate of “$900 or $1,000 a month” on their combined income of $30,000 a year, so they moved to Brisbane—which has no rent control, and could hardly be characterized as “anti-development”—where they found a place for $500 a month.

In today’s numbers, according to the inflation calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, their income would now be near San Francisco’s median around $65,200, presuming it rose in step with inflation (which they haven’t). That would also put the apartments in North Beach out of their reach around $1,950 to $2,150 and the place they found in Brisbane at more like $1,100. But what are rents in North Beach and Brisbane right now? Based on an average of listings, one bedroom units are $2,995 and $1,839, respectively. And that’s assuming the Brandolinos were living in and looking for a one bedroom.

Granted, the average of units in Brisbane is from a very small sample, but again, if the reason real estate developers won’t build is because “the system is intentionally designed to make it as difficult as possible to build new housing,” according to Supervisor Scott Weiner, then why haven’t they been capitalizing on the massive demand by building units in Brisbane? Back in 2006, the suburb was the last stop on Google’s shuttle bus route, and a wave of Googlers were moving in.

But these were people who’d presumably already paid off their school loans and saved a down payment, if not cashed in on the 2004 IPO. The latest generation haven’t had time to make that progress for themselves, and the only they have of doing it is by working themselves to exhaustion at some fly-by-night mobile app startup, so necessarily they’re flocking to the region looking for places to rent. So why weren’t thousands built in Brisbane built during the last boom?

We can look back to that old L.A. Times article for some ideas. The second section leads off with, “a few years ago, there were no vacant offices here. Now, there is a 10% vacancy rate.” What happened was, as the vacancy rate increased, the value of the commercial real estate that companies like CB Richard Ellis were building began to drop. But it was still more expensive per square foot than building in San Mateo County, and because municipalities in California have more to gain for their tax base from commercial development because of Prop 13 restrictions on property taxes, among other reasons, the next twenty years did see a building boom. It’s just that it was corporate campuses and office space sprawling along the peninsula, not apartments.

What housing was built pushed further and further into the exurbs as people chased the home ownership dream, even as transportation costs rose and infrastructure spending dropped. And we all know how well that worked out.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, real estate developers actually turned coat and allied with planned growth advocates because, by limiting new construction, they could bolster the value of what they’d already built, as detailed in Richard Deleon’s San Francisco political history “Left Coast City.” So the optimism in the following paragraph from our archived article, it turned out, was misplaced — much of these buildings never happened:

The first glass and concrete downtown high-rise sprouted in 1960, [California historian Kevin Starr] said. Now, there are 120 buildings of more than 10 stories in the 470-acre downtown area, with 60 to 70 more expected by the year 2000, the Planning Department says.

Keep that in mind when you read articles from the likes of New York Times technology reporter Nick Bilton, who wandered off the reservation to chime in on local real estate development and parroted pro-development advocates like Wiener’s quote above. Bilton reported that Redfin’s numbers showed homes selling for, on average, 60 to 80 percent above asking. Hard to believe? That’s because it isn’t true, as Priceonomics pointed out. The New York Times had to issue a correction, because in fact over the last two months it’s true that 60 to 80 percent of homes are selling for above asking, but the average premium is only six percent.

Which isn’t necessarily reassuring if your housing is insecure, but it’s useful for illustrating sensationalist bias. Incidentally, Bilton’s characterization of a Tech Workers Against Displacement Happy Hour at Virgil’s Sea Room last week as “an expletive-fueled yelling match between tech workers and people running nonprofits” has been challenged by multiple local reporters who were also there. So when the casual reader at home reads a Gizmodo piece blogsplaining to San Franciscans that we have to build our way out of this mess, keep in mind that you’re basically reading real estate propaganda filtered through two levels of reporters with no expertise on the issue and a pro-development ideological agenda.

The fact is, even if you remove the permitting costs from the process, it’s not profitable to build anything but luxury housing. So no capitalist in their right mind would start building any if they weren’t lured by subsidies, probably in the form of cheap city land or favorable lending rates. The reason no one was building housing during 2009 is because, as you might remember, the entire real estate market collapsed. In fact, the second residential tower on Rincon Hill which is now being finished was already approved years ago but the developer didn’t feel like bothering until market conditions improved (for the developer, not for tenants).

So to review, when it’s profitable to build, San Francisco’s city government has been more than happy help, and right now developers are doing everything in their power to relax building restrictions they themselves supported when the were trying to protect the value of their earlier investments.  We can not build our way out of this problem. Besides, even if we tried, the same people will be back to crying for height limits if over-supply or another economic downturn starts to negatively affect prices per square foot.

When it isn’t, rent control can help people stay in their homes, but thanks to vacancy decontrol and the fact that the Rent Ordinance only covers buildings from before 1979, there’s no reason landlords can’t keep up with the market by cashing in on empty units or be discouraged from new residential construction. And almost more importantly than controlling increases, what the Rent Ordinance does and eviction restrictions do is preserve rental stock—something even the market-oriented urbanists at SPUR say is critical right now.

As for the last point, yes, San Francisco has been a witness and participant in the perpetual boom-and-bust cycle of industrial capitalism since 1849. As economies worldwide are forcibly liberalized to a 19th century laissez faire model, wealth has once again concentrated in cities as it did during the robber baron era. In fact, it’s even worse now!  And it’s not just happening here.

To review:

  • Real wages for the middle class have been declining for forty years.
  • The class that has captured that wealth is concentrating in cities.
  • The process is accelerating faster than anyone can build.

So yes, this has all been going on forever, and it’s more terrible than ever before. Both!

[Photo: klwang]

Majority Report

Oakland's Panopticon Effort Scaled Back, Mayor Vows to Move it Forward

All eyes from civil liberties watchdogs across the Bay Area were on Oakland’s City Council meeting last night for the discussion of and vote on agenda item number 14, Domain Awareness Center (DAC) Phase 2 Contract Award. And there would be much discussion, with opponents that included the National Lawyers GuildACLU of Northern California and Electronic Frontier Foundation heeding Oakland Privacy Watch’s call to “flood the hall.” Collectively, the audience submitted 149 cards to weigh in with public comments, now being fanned perpetually above.

Five hours later, the Council voted 5-4 to significantly curtail the effort, restricting it to only the Port of Oakland and Oakland Airport facilities owned by the city (at least until the city can come up with a privacy policy). The decision was welcomed with a mix of applause and jeers, as many had hoped for the project to be scrapped entirely. Mayor Jean Quan broke the tie with a “yes” vote on the more limited implementation after showing up around 10pm and reportedly killing time going through her mail and checking out catalogs.

Those watching at home and playing bingo couldn’t see some of the more theatrical moments beyond reach of the cameras, like “One man in a balaclava [who] used his smartphone…to take close-up pictures of city staffers and interim Police Chief Sean Whent as they waited to speak” according to Chronicle reporter Will Kane. He reports another masked man using his public comment time to read Michel Foucault out loud, while Oakland North shared pictures of protestors with LED signs reading “SINK THE DAC.” Councilmembers buried their head in their hands and plugged their ears as the boisterous meeting dragged on.

Quan, who backed the full program but was forced to settle for the more limited proposal, was surprised by the vehement opposition but vowed to move forward. “It didn’t occur to us … that a system that would just help the existing cameras coordinate better in an emergency would become so controversial.” Similar systems, implemented with the help of federal money, exist in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Overtly intended to help first responders in emergency situations, the program and the technology behind it raised concerns that it was a stalking horse for the continuation of a “Total Information Awareness” approach to counterterrorism that would grow beyond emergency response to include surveilling local activists and policing everyday citizens. In the context of the Oakland Police Department’s ongoing struggles, the NSA’s widespread domestic surveillance, behavior prediction algorithms leveraging “big data” and mobile tracking and recording technology like smartphones and wearable technologies such as Google Glass, the audience’s fears don’t seem entirely unreasonable.

“You could say that we won on some level,” vocal opponent Dustin Craun told the Oakland Tribune’s Matthew Artz. “But I think they put their foot in the door for expanding it later.” Which? Pretty much!

“The most important thing is that at least the port security system will be there … and it will give us time to talk about privacy,” Quan assured fellow supporters. Once those rules are in place, the City Council will likely reconsider features, including the centralized video monitoring system and connections with ShotSpotter microphones for notifying and locating gunshots. “We’ll bring them back one at a time,” Quan promised.

Opponents were just as committed, and the issue could have implications for the upcoming mayor’s race, where Quan has been sliding in the polls. Popular Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who voted against the DAC, was the most popular choice for mayor in a December poll, with Quan in third.  Officially Kaplan isn’t planning to run until 2018, but in the meantime Occupy Oakland veteran Jason “Shake” Anderson recently announced his candidacy with the Green Party, offering guaranteed opposition from the left to the increasingly moderate Quan.

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