ROBERT TILLMAN'S IDEA of converting a coin-operated laundromat into a new apartment building initially had a lot of things going for it.
Except for his laundromat--one of three within a 100-yard radius in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District--no businesses or tenants were located on his property, meaning no one would be displaced by its redevelopment. The site was already zoned for housing and was close to a major commuter rail stop, big pluses in a highly regulated, transit-obsessed city. Best of all, the new building would bring 75 additional apartment units to a city suffering from a severe housing shortage and some of the highest rents in the country.
But instead of sailing through the permitting process, Tillman has spent five years and over $1 million just trying to get approval to redevelop his own property. Anti-gentrification activists and city politicians have gone to extreme lengths to stop him.
"My site is the easiest site in the city to build," he says, and yet "it's taken me longer to get to this point than it took for the United States to win World War II."
Tillman's troubles started in 2014, when he first sought permission to redevelop his property. Though San Francisco has a well-earned reputation for being a hard place to develop, Tillman says staff at the city's Planning Department were initially very enthusiastic about his project.
The real opposition came from the neighbors. The Mission is a historically working-class district that, less than two decades ago, was still mostly Latino. But that population has been shrinking as wealthier white residents move in, and housing prices are rising even faster there than in the rest of San Francisco.
This situation has sparked a backlash from anti-gentrification activists who oppose almost any new construction in their neighborhood. But the activists' obstruction isn't helping the displaced, says Todd David, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.
"There is displacement in the Mission. Latinos are moving out. Nobody's arguing about that. The reason that the displacement is taking place in the Mission is because we haven't built any housing there in 15 years," says David. "When you have people with resources competing with people with fewer resources for a limited commodity, who's going to end up with that commodity?"
Mission activists have rejected this reasoning, instead choosing to oppose any new development that is not completely reserved for...