01/31/2013 09:26 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2013

San Francisco Affordable Housing Called Into Question Under Proposed Legislation

SAN FRANCISCO -– "I've lived in this town long enough," Brian Basinger said to The Huffington Post. "I know what political corruption looks like."

Basinger is the founder of San Francisco's AIDS Housing Alliance, an organization that prevents homelessness for people with HIV and AIDS--a struggle he knows about personally.

Basinger, who has AIDS, was evicted from his longtime home in 2004. His landlord invoked the Ellis Act, a provision in California law that allows a building owner to evict its tenants, and converted the apartments into expensive condos.

Too sick to work and scraping by on disability, Basinger found that securing an affordable home as a low-income tenant with AIDS was a challenge.

"I started the AIDS Housing Alliance because of what happened to me, so that this would never happen to other people," he said.

But according to Basinger, the Board of Supervisors is currently considering legislation that could allow these evictions to happen all over San Francisco.

On Monday, the board met to discuss the Condo Lottery Bypass Legislation, a controversial piece of real estate legislation introduced by Supervisors Scott Wiener and Mark Farrell that would allow about 2,000 buildings to convert from rental units into condos. The properties are all tenancy-in-common (TIC) buildings and are part of San Francisco's condo conversion lottery.

Creating a TIC is one way to convert a rental building into condos, and it’s a system widely utilized in San Francisco. When a building is sold, a group of individuals go in on a loan together, and after a waiting period, the units can be converted into condos and the mortgages split up individually. Because buildings must be bought and sold as a whole, creating a TIC allows people who wouldn't be able to afford an entire building to group together and invest in future condos.

"It's an entry-level form ownership that I've always supported," explained Farrell to The Huffington Post.

But part the process of converting a building into condos includes evicting current tenants under the Ellis Act, after which members of the TIC move into the property. Finally, after a long waiting period, the building can be converted into individual units that can be owned or sold.

Because of this process, some affordable housing advocates, including the Tenants Union of San Francisco and the Housing Rights Committee, oppose TICs. They argue TICs take rental units off the market and could hypothetically tempt landlords to evict rent-controlled tenants. If converting buildings from rentals to condos--which could potentially fetch a building owner millions--was made easier, landlords would have a serious incentive to evict existing tenants under the Ellis Act and create a TIC.

The authors of the Condo Lottery Bypass Legislation insist that their measure wouldn't lead to similar situations. “Our legislation has strict guidelines to prevent just that,” explained Wiener to HuffPost.

Indeed, if tenants are evicted from a building, San Francisco law states that the owners must wait at least ten years to convert to condos, and if any of the evicted tenants is a senior or a disabled person, the building would be deemed ineligible. The legislation specifically upholds those regulations.

But as Basinger has witnessed firsthand, such guidelines are not always followed.

Though his former building should have been forever banned from becoming condos because he was evicted as a disabled man, he recently learned it was converted last year, just seven years after he was kicked out.

"It's interesting to me that they went ahead and did that anyway," he told HuffPost. "Now we know that at least one building didn't follow the rules and got away with it. What's to stop others?"

Supervisor Farrell didn't deny the incident.

"What happened to Mr. Basinger was an illegal eviction that never should have happened," he said. "The owners should be prosecuted for what happened. But that is not at all what our legislation is supporting."

The Condo Lottery Bypass Legislation would be a one-time exception for about 2,000 units currently stuck in the city's condo conversion lottery, a system that caps that number of conversions per year to in order to discourage landlords from evicting rent-controlled tenants in favor of pricier units.

However, the backlogged lottery has resulted in a 20-year waiting list for condo conversions. Enter the financial meltdown of 2008, and TIC owners have a serious crisis on their hands.

"These people purchased TICs with the understanding that they would be able to convert their TICs to condos and have their own individual mortgages in five to seven years," said Wiener. "Now they are looking at 15-20 years of a shared mortgage and high interest rates as they wait to win the lottery. This isn't what they signed up for."

Housing advocates, however, worry about the long-term effects of exceptions like this.

"Our concern is that this legislation will open the door to speculation from real estate investors," Tommi Avicolli Mecca, Director of Counseling Programs for Housing Rights Committee, told HuffPost. He argued that it isn't the 2,000 buildings at hand (all of which are already TICs and thus could never be rented again), but rather the message such legislation sends to future investors.

"Supervisors Farrell and Wiener might be good intentioned, but the reality is this doesn't work," he said. "Investors see the city relaxing its policies on condo conversion and it's too tempting. Suddenly you see a wave of Ellis Act evictions all over town to make room for expensive condos."

According to Avicolli Mecca, news has already started a wave of such evictions.

"Wiener and Farrell don't see what I see," he said. "I'm here in the Mission, and we've identified 17 buildings that are being evicted under the Ellis Act right now that are being converted into TICs. These are working class Latino families. The people who will move in after the condo conversions are not going to be working class Latino families. This is gentrification on a large scale."

Basinger agrees.

"I know what happens when we do this. Believe me, I've lived through it, and if we pass this, it will happen again,” he said. "This legislation is just part of the ongoing campaign to dilute and eventually do away with rent control. And it's ruining the city I love so much."