San Francisco Deserves Better than Champions of the Status Quo
And that means we deserve better than London Breed.
By Curtis Steckel
San Francisco changed dramatically during Ed Lee’s time as Mayor. While his death last month was an unexpected end to a lifetime of devoted public service, many had been looking forward to the elections of 2019 as a way to wipe the political slate clean.
Frustration with Lee’s actions as Mayor was not isolated to his current term. His approval rating dropped below 50% during his first term and continued to drop in his second. This dissatisfaction even prompted a semi-popular “Vote 1–2–3 to Replace Ed Lee!” campaign, where a small coalition asked San Francisco to vote for any of the coalition’s three candidates in lieu of a mainstream recognized challenger. Even with campaign contributions of over $150,000 from venture capitalist Ron Conway, Lee was only able to secure 55% of the vote.
Chief among complaints of Lee had been his coziness to the tech industry and their corporate backers. Under Lee, San Francisco gave huge tax breaks to Twitter and other companies to encourage new development in and around Mid-Market. These tax breaks, which amount to millions in lost revenue for the city, were touted as ways to keep companies here in San Francisco and to secure employment opportunities for the city’s residents. Those goals make sense, but, just like every other trickle-down economics fairy tale, the tech-centric tax breaks only contributed to an ever-widening income gap between blue collar residents, white collar tech workers, and the venture capitalists who fund them. Sure, tech jobs were created in San Francisco under Ed Lee, but many of those jobs went to “highly-skilled workers,” many of whom were not previously residents of San Francisco. Lee’s naive stewardship of the city’s economy created a fertile environment for this kind of domestic, economic colonization, where poorer existing residents were displaced from city, replaced by higher-income newcomers.
Of course, Lee’s legacy wasn’t limited to tech sector tax breaks and city economics. He oversaw multiple scandals within the SFPD including racist and violent SMS exchanges between officers, fatal police shootings and a recent push to spend $8 million on arming the police force with Tasers. Lee’s mayoral terms also coincided with rapid gentrification and rising costs of living in the city, a period during which residents, particularly in low-income communities, saw an enormous increase in eviction, displacement and homelessness. The housing situation in San Francisco also veered into crisis under Lee. There are a number of causes for the current crisis, but no matter the angle, it was under Lee’s stewardship that San Francisco became an obscenely expensive place to afford housing. With Lee, despite his background as a tenant’s rights attorney, there was a lack of will in the Mayor’s office to prioritize affordable housing and displacement protection.
Mayor London Breed
Though Ed Lee is now gone, his political legacy echoes loudly in City Hall, and there is no shortage of candidates eager to assume the mantle of his moderate, corporate-friendly politics. Few embody a desire to maintain this status quo more than our new acting mayor, former (and, apparently, current) Board of Supervisors President, London Breed.
To someone unfamiliar with Breed, she may seem like a breath of fresh air. After all, Breed is a San Francisco native who had grown up in the often-ignored public housing in the Western Addition. A brief glance at her Wikipedia page details a compelling narrative: a woman who grew up in San Francisco public housing is now Mayor of a city often vilified for abandoning its locals.
However, to many San Franciscans, Breed is not a champion of the idea of building a fair and equitable San Francisco. She is a threat. As District 5 supervisor, Breed has a pro-corporate, pro-landlord record on development, and a poor record of holding SFPD accountable, even as they terrorize San Francisco’s most vulnerable communities, some of which are located in D5. And Breed herself is not free from the whiff of scandal, having been named in an FBI corruption and bid-fixing investigation, where a source claimed he “pays Supervisor Breed with untraceable debit cards for clothing and trips in exchange for advantages on contracts in San Francisco.” While Breed has denied these claims, her record on one of San Francisco’s most controversial issues, housing, does not inspire confidence.
Amid San Francisco’s housing displacement and affordability crisis, Breed’s recent campaign for her second term as Supervisor claimed she had been “creating more affordable housing.” And yet her record on housing tells a different story. In D5, affordability has been steadily declining and Breed has consistently sided with real estate developer’s proposals over many of her constituents needs. In a district ravaged by the racist policies the of Urban Renewal in the 1960s. One should question if it’s simply District 5’s fate to suffer or if Supervisor Breed has anything to do with it.
Midtown: District 5 Residents in Need
One notable housing debacle in Breed’s district is the city’s treatment of the residents of the Midtown Park Apartments, known as Midtown.
Midtown is a Western Addition apartment development constructed as part of the Urban Renewal project. Urban Renewal had systematically demolished, displaced, and relocated members of the community in San Francisco’s prominent Jazz (read black) Community, formerly known as “Harlem of the West.” Shortly after Midtown’s construction, its for-profit developer defaulted on the property’s loan, and, after a series of emergency deals, the city of San Francisco became the owner of the property. This in turn led to a unique relationship between the City and Midtown tenants. A deal was struck that recognized the Midtown tenants board as on-site property managers, with further promises towards eventual rent-to-own, co-operative style housing at Midtown. For reasons covered elsewhere, though Midtown’s community thrived, the buildings themselves slowly descended into a form of disrepair. But through it all, the promise of rent control and the promise of eventual co-op-style ownership remained.
Then the city pulled the rug from under Midtown residents. On Christmas Eve of 2013, with Ed Lee as Mayor and Breed serving as Supervisor to District 5, the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH) abandoned their commitment to the tenants of Midtown. In a backroom deal, Olson Lee, director of MOH, abandoned all previous commitments with Midtown’s tenants regarding eventual ownership transfers and hired Mercy Housing (led by former head of MOH, Doug Shoemaker) to manage the property. Though Midtown’s residents were irate at this betrayal, some were placated by a promise from their district Supervisor Breed that they would not see any increases in their rent. This was another empty promise, immediately broken when Mercy assumed control of Midtown. Mercy demanded Midtown residents all sign new, draconian lease agreements, which no longer included the rent control protections that had long existed for Midtown residents.
Since then, Midtown residents have staged what is now the longest rent strike in San Francisco’s history and a Black Homes Matter campaign to raise awareness city-wide. To add insult to injury, Mercy Housing and the city appraisers then declared Midtown beyond repair and announced plans to demolish the development; a property that had been under the city’s ownership and responsibility would now punish its lifelong tenants for the negligence of the city’s MOH, Mayors and Supervisors over the years.
Supervisor London Breed
It wouldn’t be fair to pretend Breed was solely responsible for the catastrophe of Midtown. After all, Breed was born in 1974 and raised in the Western Addition, so it would stand to reason that she knows better than most the troubled history of District 5 and redevelopment. However, as Supervisor of the district during the time of Midtown’s betrayal, she was complicit, alongside Ed Lee and the rest of the Board of Supervisors, in the failure to preserve rent control rates for Midtown residents. Breed could only do so much as district Supervisor, but when some of District 5’s most vulnerable residents needed an ally to fight on their behalf, Breed did not rise to the opportunity. Instead, Breed often sided with Ed Lee and with the developers, as she often did during Lee’s increasingly unpopular tenure as Mayor, a time in which the city further transformed from its bohemian past to become venture capital’s favorite playground.
Midtown is only one example. In 2014 former Supervisor David Campos put forward a bill to fight ever-increasing evictions throughout the city aided by the Ellis Act. The bill called for additional relocation fees and compensation in the difference in new rent price of the unit of evicted tenants to be paid by the landlords who were evicting them. Breed (along with former Supervisor Scott Wiener) fought the bill by putting forth amendments to dramatically restrict qualifications for said relocation fees; misrepresenting the tenant-landlord relationship by advocating for legislation based on a near-mythology: defending an imaginary elderly landlord for whom the required relocation fee would be a financial hardship. Surprising no one, the elderly in Breed’s district are far more frequently the evicted tenant, not the evicter.
Breed also falls short on her housing policies for new developments. In 2015 she successfully rezoned portions of Divisadero and Fillmore streets, allowing a new development to increase the number of units from 16 to 60 — a change in density that would dramatically transform the neighborhood. While changes in density are natural and often necessary for a growing city, the addition of 44 new units came with no additional affordability requirements, something long-term residents desperately need. The increase in “market-rate” units come as a gift of higher profits to the developer and an opportunity to the same monied investor class who had been responsible for the rise of Ellis Act evictions in the district.
News of the development’s density change took the neighborhood by surprise and spurred the formation of Affordable Divis, a group of neighbors who were frustrated with the lack of engagement and input Breed sought from the community. In a letter to Breed, Affordable Divis requested that the rezoning be rescinded in hopes that community-driven changes, including a dramatic rise in affordability, be met. Breed’s response rejected the group’s request, dismissing their affordability requests by incorrectly citing Prop C. Breed did not attend Affordable Divis community meetings, but had a staff member attend and explain-away her mistaken reference to Prop C. Breed has been known to ignore community meetings like these and on occasion her own public meetings have been arbitrarily canceled following plans where activists organized to attend en masse. This cowardly approach to community engagement makes one wonder what kind of Mayor Breed would make.
Housing isn’t London Breed’s only weak point. Following the murder of Jessica Williams by an SF police sergeant and the subsequent resignation of Police Chief Greg Suhr, Breed sided with Ed Lee to oppose police reforms. The proposal that Breed opposed, put forward by former Supervisor John Avalos, aimed to withhold funding from SFPD until they adopted a series of reforms including a use-of-force policy with a focus on de-escalation techniques and greater transparency into the department. Breed also failed to call for Suhr’s resignation following multiple other SFPD-related scandals, despite four of her fellow supervisors speaking out against Suhr.
Line of Succession
Like it or not, London Breed is now our Acting Mayor, and, when thinking about San Francisco’s current political economy, seeing her in the role seems to fit. After all, Lee’s former (and Breed’s current) corporate sponsor Ron Conway even took the opportunity of Ed Lee’s private funeral to tout London Breed as his personal choice for San Francisco’s next mayor. When coupled with her record on housing and police reform alone, Breed makes a more-than-suitable Mayor for the inequitable San Francisco that emerged under Ed Lee’s watch.
Should she be appointed as Interim Mayor, Breed will also have the power to appoint her replacement for District 5 Supervisor. Unfortunately, as Prop D failed to pass in 2015 (which Breed also opposed), Breed and her appointed replacement will be also will be able to run as the incumbent candidates in the upcoming elections. Incumbency is a powerful advantage in elections; it is arguably a major reason for how Ed Lee was able to secure re-election, despite low approval ratings. This, of course, undermines the fresh slate so many were hoping to see at the anticipated conclusion of Ed Lee’s final term.
Just because this is “business as usual” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned. 2018 will bring us the 9th year in a row of San Francisco mayorship compromised by appointments and unfortunately it’s a common occurrence. In 1978, following the murder of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone by former Supervisor Dan White, now-senator Dianne Feinstein was appointed Mayor despite two previously failed campaigns. The incumbent advantage also seems to roll forward to higher office. Now 84 years old, Feinstein plans to run for her sixth term, despite having politics that feel a bit too conservative for the state, and somewhat incongruous with her constituents. For example, Feinstein was one of roughly half the Democratic Senators who voted to invade Iraq in 2002, the original Democrat cosponsor of the Patriot Act and sponsor of a failed flag-burning constitution amendment that would outlaw any “desecration” of the American flag.
What the City Needs
We need to question our apathetic attitude towards San Francisco’s appointments to office, as well as their dangerous, status quo politics. While arguing over flags, budget allocations, or the precise percentages of affordable vs. market-rate units may seem like catnip for local policy wonks, everything coming out of City Hall has a material effect on the community and residents whose homes (or lives) are destroyed in the process. As San Franciscans, if we don’t maintain a high bar for who represents us in the city, then we shouldn’t be surprised if toxic policies emerge when our reps move on to Governor, Senator, or President.
When he governed the city, Ed Lee fully embraced Capital’s agenda for San Francisco, yielding much of the spirit and economic power to tech and real estate investors. London Breed follows in those footsteps and already has shown, like Lee, that she will side with police unions and investors over her constituents. San Francisco’s appointed incumbents often get re-elected. The city deserves something better than the status quo London Breed represents.