Now Playing

‘Let’s Stop the Politics of Rich and Powerful Developers Dictating How Everything Works’

Back in the political catbird seat, District 3 supervisor Aaron Peskin talks about retaking the city’s legislative agenda.



This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Name: Aaron Peskin
Job: San Francisco supervisor 
Age: 51  
Residence: North Beach  

On December 8, 2015, Aaron Peskin hustled off a red-eye from Hong Kong, hopped into his legislative aide’s car, drove home, showered, put on a suit, headed to City Hall, took his oath of office, and marshaled his new colleagues to vote down an $80 million sale of city property at 30 Van Ness Avenue. A hell of a morning. 

And a hell of a time to be in San Francisco politics, thanks in large part to the elfin Peskin, who in November overcame an all-out assault by Mayor Ed Lee, investor-activist Ron Conway, and other downtown powers to win back the District 3 supervisorial seat he’d held from 2001 to 2009. With Peskin giving the progressives a one-vote majority on the board, Lee’s just build it mantra has been countered—at least for a while: We’re only nine months from a truly epochal 2016 election that could result in as many as six new city supervisors. Peskin is fully aware that his future, the mayor’s future, and this city’s future are intertwined—and that his slim legislative majority may be achingly temporary.  

One week into Peskin’s new old job, San Francisco visited the supervisor’s still-spartan office. Hanging from the otherwise bare walls were a few paintings, two by city artist John Gutmann on loan from the de Young Museum. One depicts a man gazing out his window at a depressionera North Beach that closely resembles today’s North Beach. That painting hung on Peskin’s office wall during his first stint in office. Now, following a years-long interregnum during which it adorned the office of the city administrator, it hangs there once again (city administrator Naomi Kelly was kind enough to give it back). The return of an artwork depicting timelessness makes for a neat metaphor: This may be a city of transients, but there’s plenty of continuity when it comes to who runs the place. 

So, Aaron Peskin is back. And, like the gazing man in Gutmann’s painting, we’re all watching to see what he will do.   

So, what’s it like being back here in your old job again? 
It’s been like an out-of-body experience—everything is both strangely familiar and very, very different. Some of it is just housekeeping stuff: How do you adjourn a board meeting in honor of somebody who’s passed away? How do you fill out the form? I’ve forgotten a lot of those things. But some of it I still recall: I need to talk to so-and-so, and in the back of my mind I can remember the extension, and I dial it, and that person is on the other end of the phone. 

There really is a sense of permanence in this building. You’re surrounded by a lot of people who’ve been here a long while. 
Yeah, and a lot of them have been very good. But, you know, there’s been a hungering for independent leadership on the board. Not even leadership—just a presence. Somebody watching the store. 

What does it mean to “watch the store”?
[With animation] It started with my first board meeting, this 30 Van Ness thing. The city had received a bid from a developer at $91 million. The Real Estate Division came to the board and told us that 30 Van Ness was worth a minimum of $87 million—and then they came back and said that we’re going to sell it for $80 million. That’s 12 percent less! How did that work? Well, nobody has been asking those questions. 

Questions like why are we negotiating against our own interests?
[Nods] Like at yesterday’s [December 15] meeting. The city is going to buy land for a new sewage treatment plant—which is a good thing! But it is proposing to buy the property without an appraisal! I mean, there are some very smart people here [on the board], but somehow this has all become commonplace. One of the things that I believe in is the legislature’s unlimited power of inquiry. And there are not a lot of questions being asked.

Why aren’t your board colleagues asking those questions? 
My perception is that there has been a school of thinking on this board, regardless of which camp one is in, that if you don’t have a majority, don’t rock the boat by dissenting. I don’t mind dissenting. I hope my presence on the board sends a signal that not only has the vote count changed, but it’s OK to take those risks and lose. 

And to say no. 
Every once in a while, you have to say no. 30 Van Ness is going to be built, but we’re not going to give away $11 million of the people’s money. Everybody knows that deal was not OK; I had developers calling me up afterward, saying, “We’d have bought it for $90 million.” Now they, the big, capital-T “They”—which could mean the Mayor’s Office, or the lobbyists who wired the deal, or political operatives, or the department head who thought that everybody on the board was asleep at the switch—now they know that somebody’s watching and minding the store. 

Was this the kind of thing you were thinking about on the trail in Nepal for 19 days? 
I actually thought about all kinds of things. Here’s my journal from my walk [pulls a small blue Moleskine notebook from his breast pocket]. “November 24, 11 a.m.: Nulbu Village, left Sanwa a few minutes before 8 a.m. Lovely spot. Our hosts had two cats, two chickens, one dog, two cows, one dzo [a yak-cow hybrid] and four pigs…. An hour and 40 minutes brought us to a bridge where we crossed the much larger Mewa Khola [Mewa River]. Another hour brought us here for lunch and hair-washing.” So, you can tell here that I’m not thinking about city hall. But in the back of this book, you’ll see that I have pages of different organizational ideas, ideas for hearings and legislation. [There are, indeed, pages upon pages of single-spaced, handwritten ideas for hearings and legislation.

So you were thinking about boosting affordability requirements and expanding rent control to post-1979 buildings while traipsing through the Himalayas. Let’s start with rent control: How will this happen? 
The easy answer, but the toughest political lift, would be a state amendment to the Costa-Hawkins Act, allowing statewide rent control—or at least allowing the City and County of San Francisco to apply rent control to post-1979 buildings. 

But to bring about a revision of Costa- Hawkins—even just pertaining to San Francisco—you would need buy-in from so many parties… 
The real estate industry, certain parts of the development industry, and the landlord industry. And I want to work with them. I mean, it’s no secret that I was endorsed by the Apartment Association— 

But not because you want to expand rent control! My understanding is that your mutual cause with landlords was passing restrictions on Airbnb. 
I think it was because even though I have been abundantly clear that I am focused on addressing San Francisco’s affordability crisis—and you can’t do that without bumping up against powerful interests—they realize that, my reputation notwithstanding, I am reasonable and willing to work with those interests to get things done. 

“Reputation notwithstanding” may be an understatement. You made some enemies during your prior stint on the board. 
Oh, I think there is a mythology of a kind of high-handedness…of being cavalier. But in reality, I didn’t pass over 200 pieces of legislation in the eight years that I previously served by running over people. I was mostly able to reach some level of consensus. 

You also had a reputation for late-night phone calls. Will you put an end to those? 
I’ve taken to calling people early in the mornings now. And waking them up [laughs]. I’m serious! 

Speaking of rude awakenings, I’m still unclear how you feel that a revised rent control law is a possibility in this state. How might such a new law work? 
We saw in my day on the board, in the case of Trinity Properties’ development at Eighth and Market, that there are ways to have rent control on buildings constructed after 1979. Or consider the case of Parkmerced, which, as a subject of negotiation, agreed to a rent control–type regulation as part of its entitlement package. We also saw it in Supervisor Scott Wiener’s accessory dwelling-unit legislation. If it’s a matter of a contract, there’s an exemption in Costa-Hawkins. The city is adopting new area plans, all of which envision increases in height—we’re conferring a benefit on property owners. In exchange for that, we can impose rent control or a rent control–like scheme. 

That figures to start a hell of a conversation in the city. As does the charter amendment that you and Supervisor Jane Kim have proposed, requiring development projects to provide at least 25 percent of their units at below-market rates. That plan seems to be pulling the rug out from under the mayor, who hopes to introduce his own affordability legislation this November. Are you hoping that your plan trumps his? 
Certain interests have had the run of city hall for the last number of years. In conversations with the real estate industry, they get extremely agitated when they’re only going to make $50 million rather than $100 million. Quite frankly, they’ve had the majority of votes on the Board of Supervisors and unparalleled access to the chief executive. Jane has pioneered agreements with developers on a case-by-case basis that require as high as 40 percent affordability—meanwhile, you’ve got thousands of units being built at 12 percent onsite affordability. In my day it was higher! In 2012, it went from 15 percent to 12 percent at exactly the moment when it should have been going up! And the bigger thing is, the development industry, with a majority of the board and this mayor, put that 12 percent requirement in the charter. It had never been in the charter—it had been an ordinance that legislators could alter when the cost of construction went up or the price of housing went down. Once you’ve put it in the charter, it cannot be changed except by a vote of the people. 

And your proposal is polling well? 
It is. As is extending rent control. 

Was it politic to steal the mayor’s thunder here? 
We hit the buzzer first. Which transfers the conversation from the executive branch to the legislative branch. The board is the right place to have this conversation. Let’s stop the politics of the really, really rich and powerful developers dictating how everything works. I sincerely want to hear what the developers have to say—they may have good ideas. But they have to understand that now they need to be part of the solution. 

For all the talk of a progressive majority on the board, what is a progressive in this $4,500-a-month city? 
Fifteen years ago, I did not run, nor did I self-identify, as a “progressive.” In those days, when Mayor Willie Brown was at the zenith of his powers, there was a widespread sense among voters that they had been shut out of city hall. I ran to give neighbors and neighborhoods a voice at city hall. Along the way, for any number of reasons, I both gravitated toward and was pushed into the progressive camp. I entered office with the belief that reasonable, engaged, smart people could figure things out and arrive at the right answer. And I slowly came to realize that it wasn’t necessarily about coming to the right answer and doing the best thing for society. It was about various interests that would zealously and at all costs vociferously fight to make as much money as possible. So all that started to push me into the progressive camp. And the other part is, quite frankly, that the “progressives” are just more fun to hang out with.

Originally published in the February issue of
San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at
Email Joe Eskenazi at
Follow us on Twitter
Follow Joe Eskenazi at