Interview Transcript: Joaquín Torres

This interview is part of our February 2022 election guide. The Public Press and “Civic” are only publishing highlights from interviews with candidates on our audio platforms, but we are making extended transcripts available to add context. These transcripts have been edited for clarity.  

Sylvie Sturm   

Can you recap for me? How has your experience been in your very first election campaign that you’ve been going through? 

Joaquín Torres   

It’s been it’s been pretty amazing to be a first-time citywide candidate and being able to reconnect with so many communities, so many neighborhoods, so many old friends who I’ve been serving in one role or another throughout my time since I started public service back in December of 2009. 

Sylvie Sturm   

Why are you running for this office in particular? 

Joaquín Torres   

Well, I I’ve been looking for another way to serve. I started my career in public service and neighborhood services and really tried to learn the foundation of local government city service work from that perspective of: What is the front desk like of constituent services? How does that extend out into communities and neighborhoods to understand their needs around policies of different departments or issues? And then being able to focus on neighborhoods and small businesses through an economic development lens, which I did, in addition to leading major reform efforts, such as the San Francisco Housing Authority during a very troubling time, and continuing those efforts. And then finally leading an office in really probably one of the most difficult and profound times for so many of our staff members throughout the pandemic. And now being able to serve in a different way about an office that services the fundamentals of our city, where we’re responsible for nearly 30% of the city’s general fund, and ensuring that someone who’s in that role who can be responsible, understands the city, understands how important access is how important equity is, and also just how important the financial infrastructure is for the ongoing success of San Francisco.  

Sylvie Sturm   

You’ve been in the office for about a year now, what have you learned during that year? 

Joaquín Torres   

Everything, everything. And also, that there’s still so much to learn. I think the biggest component is just how vital our work is to ensuring that we have a safe, secure, stable funding source for San Francisco. And that so much of the work that I’ve done up to this point has been extremely beneficial, and understanding how to work with a team of this size. The Office of Economic and Workforce Development, where I was at before, was a little bit smaller, by about 40 people or so. And understanding how to move within a bureaucracy like this is something that I have some experience with. So that’s been good. But just the nuances of dealing with state law, what we abide by in terms of the constitution and revenue and taxation code, and just understanding the processes and ways in which people can seek service and/or relief and what we are or are not able to do as a assessor recorder’s office. 

Sylvie Sturm   

And what do you foresee being your biggest challenges and during your term? 

Joaquín Torres   

I think one of the biggest challenges right now is an area that we’re excited about as well, which is our modernization project. You know, for many, many years, our office was unable, for example, to close the roll for almost three decades. Which just meant a timely submission to the controller’s office of all the assessed property values in the City and County of San Francisco. My predecessor, Carmen Chu, was able to begin that process of, for the first time in that many decades, being able to make that happen for the city, and providing some clarity for staff about an achievable milestone for an office that really needed to feel that they had some structure and participation in city government in a more, I think, advanced way. And we’ve achieved that. So, I think continuing that process, and continuing to advance it is going to be a big issue for me.  

In addition to just modernizing our tools that we have available to us, we are in the process of finalizing, hopefully at the end of this year, what’s called a huge SMART project, which is a system for managing assessments, records and transactions. And really just moving from an old outdated system into a new one that’ll give us and the public greater transparency into our work. And that’s a big lift. Any technology project, no matter how small or big, always comes with complications. And realizing this is going to be a big deal for us.  

And then I think racial equity is another area that’s extremely important to me and has been throughout my service. And I am very much looking forward to seeing how I can advance racial equity goals within the office, and then also in the public discourse as well. 

Sylvie Sturm   

How do you foresee being able to bring those topics up in the public? 

Joaquín Torres   

So, one of the areas that was a real gift that was signed by the governor, and I reached out to him through a letter asking him to sign this bill, AB 1466, which essentially requires recording divisions up and down the state to create a plan for how to eradicate racist and discriminatory language from covenants in deeds. Why is that important? These are non-legally-standing racially restrictive language that’s in these documents. But I think especially during this time, having an understanding of what our city’s history is and has been like in the past, it’s important to help have that truth and reconciliation conversation that so many of us as communities of color want to have in San Francisco. And being able to work on this project, and highlight the reality of our history, I think is an important part of us being able to heal as a community and move forward. And so I’ll be very excited to partner with community partners, leading educators in this area, about our history of exclusion in certain neighborhoods that impacted communities of color, and talking about that as part of that process. 

Sylvie Sturm   

And how did those old covenants affect property tax assessments over the generations? 

Joaquín Torres   

It really is about, where am I able to or not able to live? And when there were industries and individuals and homeowner associations, and homeowners who made explicit decisions to include language on how Blacks could be excluded from a neighborhood, you are making a clear decision about where people are allowed to achieve financial success and wealth building. And we know, especially during this time, that our communities have been excluded from wealth-generating opportunities. And this is one of the ways in which that was carried out all in the name of protecting a person’s personal property value, but at the expense of other communities being able to achieve that for themselves. 

Sylvie Sturm   

How can your office play a role in carving out a housing market that’s affordable to working-class San Franciscans? 

Joaquín Torres   

Well, one of the things that I’ve done since I started was I made use of some of the limitations we had during the pandemic. And that really was about bringing our educational tools out to the public online, through our family wealth series, where we talked about changes to state law that was going to impact people’s homes, and impact the ability for them to transfer properties to their family members, in ways that were not going to be possible before a measure called Proposition 19 was passed in November of 2020, which would limit the ability of people to transfer their properties from grandparents to grandchildren or parents to children. And so, people need to understand how that law is affecting them.  

One component of the law was also about providing flexibility for those who were 55 years or older, who had been impacted by natural disasters and who were disabled, to help them achieve some flexibility that they didn’t have before, which I think is why many of us voted for the measure in the first place. But what was in that measure as well was a way that would restrict people’s ability to transfer affordability to their heirs. So, for example, a home that was a property that was ahead of base year value in the past at a very low level would now be reassessed at market value if it wasn’t a principal residence moving on to that grandparent or grandchild. Making sure people were aware during the time before the law took effect in February of last year was an important part of my predecessor, and making sure people were still aware of what those limitations were moving forward so they could plan for their futures was an essential part, I believe, of ensuring that people could continue to afford to live in San Francisco. Those changes in assessed value for properties, without those protections, and those restrictions and limitations, can have a huge impact on what a person is paying on an annual basis in terms of their property taxes. 

Sylvie Sturm   

How will you ensure that the city maximizes property tax revenue? 

Joaquín Torres   

Well, I mean, first, we have to make sure— it’s coming in and making sure that we’re on time, as I was mentioning before, right, that we do our work, our team is working [on] it. Even in this remote environment, we’ve been able to continue that success of making sure that those revenues continue to come into the office. But then also at the same time when there are mistakes that are made, ensuring that that accessibility is in place for the public, so they know who to come to, and how to get a resolution to their issue, and make sure that they’re aware of all of the methods that are available to them, whether it’s through direct conversation with our office, or through independent bodies, like the assessment appeals board, which sits outside of the assessor recorder’s office, so that those valuations, should they be formally appealed, can be heard by that body and our values will be defended. So, making sure that we’re just very keen about ensuring that people are paying their fair share. And that means that it’s a fair and accurate process through both lenses. 

Sylvie Sturm   

Have you found there to be a problem of under-reported property? 

Joaquín Torres   

No, one of the one of the items that we found is that there’s always a constant back and forth at times, especially with large property owners, in terms of challenges to valuation that people want to present to the office. We provide fair and accurate assessment as provided by state law. It’s all informed by the information that we have at our fingertips. So, there may be times when we make a determination about a property that could be overvalued. But the reason we do that is because based on what the market is telling us, based on the information that we have, that’s the number that we come up with. And then because an entity or an individual might not be satisfied by that number, they challenge that. They either challenge that formally or through litigation — and through a discovery process, we learn more — and sometimes in those cases, we see legal reasons why we need to reduce the value that we came to around those properties.  

In a different matter, there are other entities that at times we don’t always catch in our office, which is why partnerships, like the one we have with the Board of Equalization, are so important, that provide us with a list around properties that may have transferred that we might not catch. And ensuring that once we get those lists from the Board of Equalization, that we “work those lists” as we say, we just work the lists to make sure that we’re capturing all of that value and sending out those notices that those transfer taxes for the reasons of the transaction need to be paid. And that’s part of the diligent work that we’ve been doing as well, we’ve been able to recover, I want to say nearly $70 million since the program started back in 2015. And we’re definitely continuing that work. 

Sylvie Sturm   

Can you take me through your roles and duties as the president of the S.F. Housing Authority Board? 

Joaquín Torres   

Sure. So, it’s a high-level policy position. The beginning of the process, for me, it was back in 2013, when there were allegations being made about ethical conduct by a previous executive director. Also, the associated shortfalls that we were facing at the housing authority due to both a lack of funding and also lack of management that was taking place at the housing authority. The role that we played was not only in negotiations. As we pursued conversations with HUD, as part of that process, to ensure that we could benefit to the most maximum extent what was called the RAD program, the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, that was a key initiative of the Obama administration that would help us fund rehabilitation of these projects. And we did it in a different way in San Francisco. We ensure that there were culturally competent community-based providers that would essentially be managing the properties and providing services for the communities that they were already working in, and that they understood and knew. Whether you talk about organizations in Chinatown, or in the Tenderloin, or in various neighborhoods across the city, in the Bayview, in Hunters Point, following through on those policy items, it was a big, big deal for us, ensuring that there was transparency about those conversations that there was deep interagency coordination on this work so that residents knew that we were going to be there for them through this process. And frankly, being present with them throughout that process, making our meetings more accessible for people in their neighborhoods at their sites in ways that hadn’t happened in the past, and setting those policy decisions.  

Now, after RAD closed — you know, $2 billion deal, $750 million in improvements for those properties across the city — it’s been a matter of management and also ensuring that the fiscal stability of the housing authority was continuing, and that there was a structure in place for the housing authority to continue for the benefit of residents in its successful management. Tonia Lediju is the executive director that we were lucky enough to bring on to lead the organization, and ensuring that she knows that we’re making policy decisions that we want her to consider as a body, resident commissioners, former police, police leadership that’s been part of the of the commission, in addition to community members that have an understanding about what residents need and making sure that they have the space and a forum in which to speak their minds on behalf of themselves, but also their peers in public housing as well. 

Sylvie Sturm   

Is there any overlap between your role as assessor and the president of the board, and any potential items that you might have to recuse yourself from? 

Joaquín Torres   

Not right now. That’s something that I work on closely both with my counsel at the housing authority, as well as the city attorney, so that whenever there would be an issue like that, that would come up, I would absolutely be recusing myself from a decision. 

Sylvie Sturm   

Can you give me an example of what an issue like that might be? 

Joaquín Torres   

Well, there, there might be a development agreement, perhaps, that would come across the seat, that there might be some connection to the office, in terms of an assessment that would be taking place or evaluation of the office would be providing. I would need to look at it specifically to be sure that when that was going to be the case, I would be recusing myself from a decision like that around an agreement and a development agreement per se. And that’d be noted on the record so people were aware of that. 

Sylvie Sturm   

Why would you want to do both jobs? 

Joaquín Torres   

Oh, I am, I’ve been very happy with the service that I’ve had. But I’m also excited to see who eventually will take over my position because I would like to focus very much on the assessor-recorder position at first. But I wanted to follow our process through that we started. It’s not very often that you get to do that in terms of reform effort, and leading through transitions at an organization. But I’m going to be very excited and very proud of the work that I’ve done and eventually handing it over to someone else. 

Sylvie Sturm   

Your second term now is listed through to 2024. Is it possible that your term doesn’t last until 2024 on the board? 

Joaquín Torres   

Well, we’ll have to wait and see. I haven’t made any final decisions just yet. But I’m very excited about the work I do in both places. 

Sylvie Sturm   

Okay. And so, speaking of your terms, on Granicus, your first term with the board was listed from 2013 to 2017. And then after that it was 2020 to 24. But you did sit on the board from 2017 to 2019, correct? 

Joaquín Torres   

Yes. I’m not quite certain why there would be that gap. But thanks for bringing that up. 

Sylvie Sturm   

Okay. Finally, is there anything else you’d like to conclude with? 

Joaquín Torres   

I just want to be sure that the public is aware of how accessible our office is, and creating that access for you as a homeowner, or you, as a member of the public that wants to understand or needs the services of our office, they are available at our website. You can always come in to City Hall and check us out. It is a great place for so many of us to work and we want to be of service to you. So, I hope that you as a public take advantage of that opportunity. I look forward to serving you after this election and in the future. 

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