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By Michael Theriault, Secretary-Treasurer

This month’s Organized Labor reports on two projects financed by our pension money. 299 Fremont, a 32-story, 409-unit residential project, will have funding from the Multi-Employer Property Trust. 1400 Mission, 15 stories and 190 units of affordable housing for the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, will have it from Ullico.

A substantial part of our work in San Francisco now and in the recent past has union pension money in it.

The AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust’s investment in ArcLight at 178 Townsend and in Potrero Launch at 2235 Third Street for Martin Building and then in 333 Harrison for the Emerald Fund helped us through and out of the recession.

(The Board of Supervisors, led by the supervisor in whose District 6 the project would have been built, killed another union pension-funded project, 430 Main, that would also have helped us then. 430 Main fulfilled all Planning Department requirements and the Planning Commission approved it in a 6-1 vote, with the sole dissenter the most conservative commissioner. I sometimes recall this counterexample to those who claim that projects like 8 Washington or 555 Washington would have been approved if they had not sought exemptions to existing requirements.)

In the current boom, union pension-funded projects have multiplied. Ullico is financing the 40-story residential tower at 45 Lansing for Crescent Heights. The Multi-Employer Property Trust has funded Nema, the 749-apartment towers-and-podium project at 10th and Market. The National Electrical Benefit Fund has invested in the 98-unit Marlowe at 1800 Van Ness and in 2558 Mission for Oyster Development and in the complete remodel of the old AAA Building at 100 Van Ness into 399 residential units for the Emerald Fund. Washington Capital is backing the 11-story, 160-unit 1321 Mission/104 9th project for Panoramic Interests.

These are not just all-union projects totaling among them thousands of person-years of Building Trades employment, they provide double support for our pensions, through hourly contributions from our work on the front end, through return on investment on the back. We have every reason to celebrate what our trust funds are accomplishing.

We must worry, though, that in the growing backlash against development in the City, others may not feel so inclined toward celebration, and that just as we in the Trades sometimes suffer politically here because we argue for approval of the projects that feed, clothe, and house our families, so the funds that offer us a dignified retirement may come under attack for financing those projects.

Such an attack may seem all the more tempting at a time when defined-benefit pension plans such as ours have largely vanished elsewhere in the private sector and are under assault in the public sector. That this assault comes from the right and the usual opponents of development here bill themselves “progressive” would not matter; the latter could easily exploit the public mood created by the former while not acknowledging or even while criticizing its source.

In defense of our funds, we can note that much of what they have financed has a strong affordable housing component. The AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust partnered with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to boost affordable housing levels in all three of its projects. Ullico’s 1400 Mission project is all-affordable. The Multi-Employer Property Trust’s 299 Fremont project is partnering with Mercy Housing on 70 units of affordable housing. The list could go on.

We can also note that while our funds were forward-thinking and even courageous in investing in San Francisco before the present recovery took hold, many investors that followed them have not been nearly so responsible. They lurked in the shrubbery until the market began to boom, then pounced while making not only no commitment to pensions for workers, but none to decent wages, to healthcare, to apprenticeship.

We have already seen, though, that the opponents of our work take lines of attack that bypass these defenses; they confound new construction with evictions and foreclosures from existing buildings, and against any economic law they blame an increase in housing supply for an increase in housing costs.

We will have to trust completion of the many units we are now building to address halfway the point on costs, and on a stabilization or downturn in the tech employment boom to do the rest.

But on the point of evictions and foreclosures we must distinguish our work from the predations of speculators and irresponsible investors. Our work does not evict impoverished families from rent-controlled housing or foreclose on underemployed homeowners. To the contrary, we build alternatives to the housing that could otherwise be subject to eviction or foreclosure.

To draw this distinction as sharply as possible, to fight for ourselves and our pensions, we must join efforts to fight evictions and foreclosures.

We are exploring opportunities for such cooperation now and will report on them in the future.

 
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