From AngryRenter to SFBARF: Co-opting Tenants for Political Gain
The so-called San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (“SFBARF”) takes money from the real estate industry and mobilizes against renter protection legislation and pro-tenant candidates. The group’s leader has even spoken out against inclusionary housing laws. Despite its name, the group does nothing to assist renters.
Front groups claiming to speak for tenants are nothing new. In 2008, with the housing market falling off a cliff, calls for the government to provide relief to homeowners facing foreclosure were on the rise. Republican Dick Armey sprung to action with a fake renter group called “AngryRenter.com.” Michael Phillips of the Wall Street Journal covered the story: “Though it purports to be a spontaneous uprising, AngryRenter.com is actually a product of an inside-the-Beltway conservative advocacy organization led by Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, and publishing magnate Steve Forbes, a fellow Republican. It’s a fake grass-roots effort — what politicos call an AstroTurf campaign — that provides a window into the sleight-of-hand ways of Washington.”
The idea of AngryRenter.com was to defeat a so-called homeowner bailout by pretending that renters opposed it. Armey even got some renters on board through the grassroots-looking website. But the agenda was not to help renters in any way. It was to kill homeowner relief.
In some ways, SFBARF is worse than AngryRenter.com. At least AngryRenter tapped into a real sentiment among renters that government policy favors homeowners over renters. In contrast, not many renters support SFBARF’s increasingly bizarre anti-renter, anti-affordable housing positions.
SFBARF is best understood by following the money. A political group with the word “renters” in the name, SFBARF provides a vehicle for real estate interests to pose as renter-friendly and fund candidates and legislation that undermine renters. SFBARF’s founder recently stated (as reported in the SF Examiner and in an online forum) that “SFBARF’s goals are simply aligned with those who have money.”
SFBARF received $10,000 from “SF Moderates” and an undisclosed amount from another source SFBARF refused to name, as reported in the San Francisco Business Times. SF Moderates (formerly Plan C) is a PAC funded by real estate interests — including major contributions from the San Francisco Association of Realtors — that regularly oppose pro-tenant candidates and legislation in San Francisco. Since SFBARF formed a PAC ( Bay Area Renters PAC), it must file additional disclosures, but the group has elected to form as a “general purpose PAC” (a legally questionable designation in light of its November 2015 electioneering), so it won’t need to fully disclose its Nov. 2015 election spending any time soon. But even the limited disclosures to date tell the story of real estate industry money funding this group.
Meanwhile, rather than standing up for tenants, SFBARF is busy denouncing SF District 3 Supervisor Candidate Aaron Peskin, one of the strongest tenant allies in San Francisco. Peskin accomplished more for tenants in his 8 years on the board of supervisors than many advocates do in a lifetime. His opponent, Julie Christensen, is endorsed by SFBARF, and by Thomas Coates, the mega-landlord who spent nearly $1 million in a failed effort to abolish rent control in 2008. He dumped over $100K into the D3 supervisor race this week against Peskin. The district at issue is more than three quarters tenants. SFBARF, supposedly a renters’ group, would like to see the district represented by Julie Chistensen, a candidate not supported by a single tenant rights advocate. SFBARF’s candidate recently suggested that tenants are making up their eviction horror stories in San Francisco.
Nobody better than vocal SFBARF leader Donald Dewsnup illustrates the sham that is SFBARF. He is a licensed luxury housing real estate agent who serves on the Government Affairs Committee of the San Francisco Association of Realtors. His LinkedIn page notes that the “world of Luxury Real Estate is a natural fit for me.” He simultaneously sits on the lobbying committee of the SF Association of Realtors — a rabidly anti-tenant organization — and then claims to represent the interests of tenants. Dewsnup was busy in recent weeks urging San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to veto the Eviction Protection 2.0 Ordinance backed by every tenant organization in San Francisco.
As noted above, SFBARF’s leader, Sonja Trauss, even opposes inclusionary housing laws. I was stunned to hear her take this position at a housing panel earlier this year. Inclusionary laws simply require a percentage of below-market rate units in new residential developments, an important way to create affordable housing opportunities. No renter group I’m aware of in the entire state opposes inclusionary laws.
As revealed in a SFBARF powerpoint, SFBARF has a goal to “disrupt the alliance between rent-control advocates and affordable housing advocates.” Apparently, the idea that advocates would simultaneously want to expand the affordable housing supply while protecting tenants from rent hikes and displacement is too much for this self-proclaimed renters’ group to bear.
Tenant groups have shown remarkable restraint in dealing with SFBARF. Perhaps that is because tenant advocates are far too busy fighting for real protections against greedy landlords and speculators in an out of control Bay Area real estate market.
SFBARF was formed in 2014 to support high-density development projects, or so it appeared. The group has strayed from its original pro-development message into attacking tenant legislation, tenant advocates, and affordable housing laws. This is where the mask comes off and we see SFBARF for what it is (or at least what it has become): an industry funded political committee that works to undermine pro-tenant candidates and legislation. Responsible reporters should remove SFBARF from their list of sources, and voters who care about renters’ rights and affordable housing should ignore any SFBARF (or Bay Area Renters PAC) endorsements.