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Farrell in a condo conundrum

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One year ago, Supervisor Mark Farrell predicted success for his proposal to let the owners of tenancy-in-common units convert their properties to condominiums in exchange for paying a city fee. This Tuesday, Farrell's peers are expected to approve his legislation.

But in an odd political twist, Farrell no longer supports his own legislation, which tenant advocates are instead celebrating as a pro-renter reform.

Condo conversion has long been the electric third rail of San Francisco politics. Farrell's proposal was conceived as relief for the owners of some 2,200 tenancy-in-common units within about 700 buildings stuck in the annual lottery system that allows 200 dwellings a year to become condominiums.

Introduced by Farrell in June 2012, the proposal ignited one of the most polarizing political policy debates in recent years.

Condo-conversion advocates sought to put a human face on tenancy-in-common residents, driving home the point that these are teachers, families and other professionals struggling to pay off mortgages with higher-than-normal interest rates and become bona fide first-time homebuyers. Farrell proposed allowing such property owners to pay up to $20,000 per unit to convert their units into condos, bypassing the current lottery system.

But tenant advocates quickly painted the effort as an attack on rent control, a gift to real estate speculators and a green light to start evicting tenants en masse.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who is said to be eyeing a run for the seat in the renter-rich 17th Assembly District held by Tom Ammiano, worked with tenant advocates to add numerous provisions to Farrell's proposal. Chiu has said his proposals address the concerns of TIC owners while protecting tenants and preventing real estate speculation. In the process, Chiu secured the key support of Supervisor Norman Yee.

But people who supported Farrell's initial proposal oppose Chiu's addition of a 10-year moratorium on the condo lottery and changes to conversion eligibility rules when the lottery does resume that would prohibit conversions of five- and six-unit buildings while making it more difficult for others.

Mike Sullivan, chairman of Plan C, an advocacy group behind the initial proposal, called the amended legislation "terrible," saying he can only hope now that Mayor Ed Lee vetoes it. Lee could veto the proposal if it's approved with fewer than eight votes on the board.

Debate continues heading into Tuesday's meeting. A number of proposed amendments are expected to be offered by supervisors. Adding to the intrigue, in a rarely used legislative move last week supervisors Farrell, Scott Wiener, Katy Tang and London Breed pulled a dueling version of the legislation from where it was stuck in a board committee for consideration at the board Tuesday as well.

"For 10 years we had not been able to count past four," Sullivan said of votes on the board. "We thought we had six votes for this." But in the end, Sullivan said, there remains a "reluctance to buck the tenant advocates." On Friday, Sullivan said he could possibly count five votes for Farrell's original proposal.

But Yee, the hoped-for sixth vote, has remained steadfastly supportive of Chiu's proposal.

There also is a strong objection to a so-called "poison pill" embedded in the legislation, in which all conversions cease — both under the bypass fee and the lottery — until any legal challenge filed over the moratorium is resolved, which could be years.