By C.R. Mills Dean Preston’s victory represents an important one in the fight to transform housing into a basic human right in California. An advocate for both tenant protections and social housing, the work Preston accomplished alongside hundreds of organizers provides a template for winning local victories on housing issues and using an electoral campaign to build a housing movement.
A number of self-identifying socialists won local races throughout the state this November, including Dean Preston, an active member of the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America. Preston’s victory represents an important one in the fight to transform housing into a basic human right in California. An advocate for both tenant protections and social housing, the work Preston has accomplished alongside hundreds of organizers provides a template for using an electoral campaign to build a housing movement and win more victories on housing issues locally.
Building a Movement for Social Housing
California has recently seen a growing push to build more social housing. Simply put, social housing means housing developments are built and owned by local governments and offered to local residents at affordable rents. People of all incomes are allowed to live in these units, with wealthier residents charged higher rents to subsidize the rents of lower-income residents. Much like Medicare for All would eliminate the profit-seeking private health insurance industry, social housing would work to eliminate landlords’ and private developers’ role in providing shelter.
While running for re-election this year, Preston used his campaign to build the movement for social housing, authoring two successful local ballot initiatives in San Francisco.
Proposition I, the Real Estate Transfer Tax, significantly increased the tax on real estate transactions of over $10 million, unless owners sell the properties to the city or a non-profit. In either case, the city sees a positive outcome – it either increases its tax revenue to fund affordable housing, or moves a property out of the private market.
The new tax will rake in almost $200 million a year. At first, revenues will be split between rental relief for tenants and social housing, but beginning in 2022 the funds will be solely devoted to social housing. The measure passed with more than 57 percent of the vote.
Preston also introduced Proposition K, also known as the Social Housing Initiative, which authorized the City and County of San Francisco to acquire, build, or rehabilitate up to 10,000 units of subsidized affordable housing. The state required the city to hold the vote due to Article 34 of the California Constitution, a piece of state law originally created as a way to ensure wealthier white communities would have a chance to vote down affordable public housing projects to prevent their construction. The initiative passed with more than 75 percent of San Franciscans voting yes.
Tenants face stiff opposition in California due to the outsize influence of Big Real Estate – a coalition of landlords, developers, and real estate agents that often pool their significant resources to beat back campaigns for tenant rights.Big Real Estate exercises their greatest influence at the local level, flooding contentious races for local offices and ballot measures with money from organizations like the California Apartment Association and the California Realtors Association.
In this November’s ballot measure fight over rent control in Sacramento, for example, local developers and property owners dumped nearly a million dollars into the race to defeat it. Two recent state initiatives, including Proposition 10 last year and Proposition 21 this year, sought simply to allow jurisdictions to expand rent control locally if they wanted to. Both went down in flames after massing spending by Big Real Estate to defeat them.
Preston has fought Big Real Estate on two major fronts – tenant protections and rent control. In terms of protection tenants, Preston began his career as an attorney for the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, representing tenants against landlords seeking evictions. More recently, in 2018 Preston, along with a coalition of community groups, wrote and helped pass Proposition F.
Also known as No Eviction Without Representation, Prop. F provided guaranteed legal representation to every tenant facing eviction in the city. San Francisco DSA campaigned hard for the measure, arguing that 90 percent of landlords in the city enter an eviction hearing with a lawyer, yet as many as 90 percent of tenants don’t. This creates a massive disparity in power in favor of landlords, robbing people of their right to successfully defend themselves from unfair evictions. In addition to Prop. F., Preston also introduced legislation to strengthen eviction protections for tenants impacted by the pandemic.
In terms of rent control, Preston founded Tenants Together, a statewide housing advocacy group that provides tenant counseling and supports tenant organizing, including fights for local rent control measures. Tenants Together’s network of staff and volunteer organizers pushed rent control measures in cities throughout the state in recent years, including successful campaigns in Mountain View, Inglewood, and Alameda. Rent control ensures landlords can’t increase rents beyond a small percentage each year, preventing renters from being forced from their homes due to large rent hikes they can’t afford. It stabilizes communities and puts limits on a landlord’s ability to profit off residents simply seeking a roof over their head.
Campaigns for rent control and protecting tenants from eviction represent two essential avenues to building a housing movement in California. Both provide material benefits to struggling renters, take power back from landlords, and provide tangible reasons for renters to organize.
Naming the Enemy
Big Real Estate invested heavily in defeating Preston’s campaign and the local tenant and social housing initiatives associated with it. Several independent expenditure groups, including a PAC named “Neighbors for a Better San Francisco,” raised over $5 million to defeat Preston and Proposition I. The donor list for the “Neighbors for a Better San Francisco” alone reveals the power of the opposition, a harrowing coalition of the nation’s billionaire class that included Hyatt Hotel family scions and Big Real Estate CEOs.
The tactics used against Proposition I and Preston weren’t pretty, including inaccurate mailers, bashing homeless people, and even falsely claiming Preston evicted tenants, when his job in fact was protecting them. The actions made it crystal clear that Big Real Estate and the nation’s billionaires will continue to fight tooth and nail against candidates and policies that seek to pull housing out of the private market and provide Californians desperately-needed affordable places to live.
Preston didn’t just focus on reelection this year. Instead, he and his allies built on past victories and continued to grow a movement for tenants and social housing in a city known for being only affordable to the rich. But he didn’t just sink more money into existing programs – he and his comrades proposed a transformative way of providing that housing that keeps it in public hands, and used his campaign to gain more support for this strategy.
The state’s housing crisis is not going away any time soon. Policy tweaks and small, incremental increases in affordable housing will not solve the problem, and provide little more than band-aids on a gaping wound.
Instead, we need leaders like Preston and movements like those built by Tenants Together and San Francisco DSA that seek real transformative change instead. The housing crisis directly and negatively impacts the quality of life for millions, and we don’t need Much like a Green New Deal will be necessary to address climate change, we need the kind of strategies for housing that will address the crisis in the systemic way and at the scale necessary to solve the problem. Strategies like rent control, a guaranteed right to legal counsel for tenants, and social housing are up to the task.