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Local unions lock horns over competing housing measures

The NorCal Carpenters Union attends the Affordable Homes Now Rally in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday, June 16, 2022. | Eloïse Kelsey for The Standard

Unions squared up for a political fight during a discussion of two competing housing measures at a meeting on Wednesday, with opposing sides taking issue over how construction labor is sourced in one proposal versus the other.

The two measures, one of which has already qualified to go before voters in November, would each amend the city charter to streamline the approval process for building some new housing in San Francisco. But the details of each are very different, and some of the city’s prominent unions are picking sides.

At a meeting of the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee, members of local unions weighed in on the competing housing proposals in an extended public comment session that occasionally veered into insults.

A measure backed by Mayor London Breed and pro-development groups also has the support of Carpenters Local Union 22, which represents workers in several construction trades including carpentry and drywalling. Breed’s measure, dubbed Affordable Homes Now, would exempt housing projects with more affordable units than is mandated by the city from discretionary review with the goal of speeding up the building process. It has already qualified for the November ballot, with supporters gathering more than 52,000 signatures.

A competing amendment, introduced by District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan and bound for a full board vote to qualify, is also described as a streamlining proposal but tacks on additional space and affordability requirements. Chan’s proposal, dubbed the Affordable Housing Production Act, also contains language calling for a “skilled workforce” to build eligible housing that the Affordable Homes Now does not have. At Wednesday’s meeting, members of UA Local 38 Plumbers and Pipefitters Union spoke in favor of Chan’s proposal.

“We agree housing is needed and this amendment will support our workers, specifically by a local trades-specific workforce, providing quality green building installations, energy-efficient and water conservation code-compliant systems for our buildings,” said Dave Fahy, a business representative for Local 38 Plumbers.

Meanwhile, supporters of the mayor’s measure took issue with language in Chan’s version, saying that the required use of skilled labor is too onerous and will restrict the available labor pool, driving up costs to the point that few developers would choose to build affordable housing. One union backer pointed to the large number of signatures gathered for Affordable Homes Now, called Chan’s version “disrespectful” and said it would create “zero” new housing.

Ron Rowlett, Director of Public Relations and Governmental Affairs for the Nor Cal Carpenters Union, said that the union supports Affordable Homes Now specifically because it does not require “skilled and trained” labor, meaning trade workers on the project must have all completed apprenticeship programs.

“We know there’s a poison pill out there, and it’s 'skilled and trained,'” Rowlett said. “You add an extra five to 10 years to a development, the home price goes up.”

A majority of the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee voted to advance Chan’s charter amendment to the full board, with District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman casting a dissenting vote and echoing concerns that Chan’s measure would yield little housing, though he also took issue with some details of the mayor’s proposal.

“The reason I can't sign on [to Chan’s proposal] is that there is that fundamental notion in the mayor's measure that we do actually need to see some streamlining of some types of market rate housing. And that's a view that I share,” Mandelman said.

The proposal is set for a vote at the full Board of Supervisors at an upcoming meeting. If it is approved by a majority at the board, it will join the mayor-backed measure on the November 8 ballot.

Editor's Note: This article has been amended to reflect that Ron Rowlett made his comments to The Standard in his capacity representing Nor Cal Carpenters Union, not in his role as president of Carpenters Local 180.

Garrett Leahy can be reached at