San Francisco Politics 2020: The Year in Review

by on December 15, 2020

A Year of Conflict and Division

San Francisco had a tough 2020. A local economy built on tourism saw its hotels, restaurants, bars and entertainment venues entirely closed down or restricted. Nevertheless, the political world —-public hearings, meetings of elected officials and a local, state and national election—-proceeded.

Here’s our take on the key San Francisco political dynamics of 2020.

Housing the Unhoused

The pandemic shifted San Francisco’s narrative around homelessness. With shelter capacity curtailed by social distancing mandates, a debate began over where to house the unhoused. The Board of Supervisors overcame the mayor’s initial resistance to moving former shelter residents and those living on the streets into temporary hotels. Federal and state funding has led to over 2000 such placements.

This should be a game changer. It’s a game changer because the city cannot return those temporarily housed to the streets. And because the implementation of the November 2018 ballot measure Prop C ensures that not a single person need become homeless when FEMA funding ends—San Francisco has the local funding to house everyone now in temporary housing.

The mystery, which I raised last week (“Mayor Breed’s Challenging Year”), is why the Breed Administration is not moving to secure this permanent housing. Instead, it has created a lot of unnecessary conflict over phasing out the temporary SIP hotels. I don’t get it. And supervisors and  groups serving the unhoused are equally perplexed.

FEMA funding and Prop C allows something great to finally happen in San Francisco. The Breed Administration needs to start negotiating to buy or lease hotels and get this process moving. Further delay almost ensures a crisis down the line as rooms are not ready for those needing to leave FEMA-funded hotels.

Tenderloin Tents

Even prior to the pandemic the Breed Administration found it acceptable for over 100 tents to occupy Tenderloin sidewalks. This number grew to 420 during the pandemic, raising serious health threats to the neighborhood residents and workers who could not gain the required social distancing walking down the street (See “San Francisco Violating COVID19 Guidelines in Tenderloin,” April 28)

A legal team assembled by Hastings College of the Law with neighborhood stakeholders as plaintiffs was forced to sue San Francisco for subjecting the Tenderloin to this serious pandemic risk. Many arguments from my Beyond Chron stories about the Tenderloin tent crisis were included in the plaintiffs’ legal briefs. (See “The Tenderloin Strikes Back,” May 5)

The May lawsuit immediately prompted city action. By July the tent count had fallen from 420 to roughly 30. The city and plaintiffs’ agreed to a stipulated injunction preventing the return of tents. The legal settlement was ultimately approved by the Board of Supervisors. This occurred after two lengthy hearings in which some supervisors expressed concern that disallowing tents in the Tenderloin would negatively impact their own districts. Such talk exposed why the city has long maintained the Tenderloin as a containment zone.

The city’s approach to the Tenderloin also exposed a major downside of district elections—instead of all supervisors feeling responsible for ensuring the health and safety of the city’s most multi—racial working class community, the Tenderloin’s crisis was seen solely as D6 Supervisor Matt Haney’s problem. D6 is fortunate to have another great supervisor in Haney but the health and safety of a neighborhood should be a citywide concern.

When I attended Hastings (1979-82) it was seen as the enemy of the Tenderloin. The school is now an essential ally in the struggle for a safe and healthy neighborhood.

The Tenderloin tent lawsuit also showed that the vast majority of people on the streets are eager to be housed—few tent dwellers turned down the opportunity.

Transit Crisis

2020 was a fiscal nightmare for all urban transit systems in the United States. San Francisco’s transit crisis is even worse.

Multiple projects—the Central Subway, Van Ness BRT, and repairs to the Muni light-rail system—fell way behind schedule. On top of these failures is SFMTA’s decision to terminate long planned improvements to Mid-Market.

Former Mayor Ed Lee worked with stakeholders to create a bold vision that restored Market Street’s historic role. The Better Market Streets plan was central to this vision. It was a product of years of stakeholder input. Lee got many skeptics to invest in building new housing along Mid-Market as part of this visionary future.

But SFMTA threw this all overboard. It suddenly announced this fall that it was eliminating two of the plans core features: fully protected bike lanes and the replacement of the rundown red sidewalk bricks with beautiful gray pavers.

SFMTA made no effort to consult with stakeholders prior to reversing Mayor Lee’s and the community’s vision. This lack of process is not what people expected in November 2019 when Mayor Breed selected Jeff Tumlin to run SFMTA.

Mayor Breed’s appointment of such a true urban visionary to head SFMTA was a bold and brilliant choice. But what’s happened at the agency under his leadership reflects deeper structural problems than he anticipated.

Let’s hope the Biden Administration will financially rescue urban transit systems like San Francisco’s. In the meantime, Tumlin should be heavily investing in building fully protected bike lanes so alternatives to MUNI are available when the pandemic ends.

City Hall “Corruption”

A City Hall “corruption scandal” was a major story in 2020. It brought down DPW chief Mohammed Nuru, SFPUC head Harlan Kelly, Sandra Zuniga, the head of the Office of Neighborhood Services, and has put City Administrator Naomi Kelly’s future at risk. DBI Director Tom Hui resigned at the mayor’s request following disclosure that he arranged for the agency to hire his son.

People love corruption scandals. Even progressives who support expanded government ownership and control believe many public officials are “corrupt.” But phrases like “corruption” and “pay to play” were completely misused in San Francisco 2020.

That federal, state and local building, planning and health code provisions have become extremely complex in today’s world is not a sign of a “corrupt” process. Reporters can joke about all this complexity but stories about decks collapsing, disabled access ignored, and restaurant customers going home sick when strict code requirements are not mandated is not funny.

Hiring experts to process permits is no more “pay to play” than retaining an attorney to help with a lease or other business transaction. Are parents who can afford to hire SAT prep companies or tutors for their kids also guilty of “pay to play”?

I don’t see any evidence of “corruption” or illegal “pay to play” amidst the hard working employees of the Department of Building Inspection. I see some bad actors violating laws and DBI officials dealing with these people under strict instructions from the city attorney’s office.

DBI is controlled by a Commission. Members are appointed by the mayor and president of the Board of Supervisors. I wonder how many believing they have been wronged by DBI have brought their concerns to the DBI Commission—and why they have not. I wrote last week about how the media’s permit expediter scandal of 2004 fell apart when people were unable to confirm their claims at public hearings; some of the “victims” in recent media reports on DBI did work without permits, while others faced delays that had nothing to do with DBI or any city malfeasance.

Maybe that’s why these folks went to the media and not to the DBI Commission to raise their concerns. Commission members are more likely to know the full story.

There’s a difference between an agency not performing as it should—and I can name several in San Francisco—and claims that the agency’s inadequate performance is due to “corruption.” Like all organizations DBI makes mistakes; but blaming the high cost of housing and planning department delays on DBI is simply wrong.

If the Board of Supervisors want to expedite renovations and new construction, they can vote to do so in January. DBI has nothing to do with promoting these appeal procedures. Mayor Breed has been calling for such action since her 2018 mayoral campaign. I’ve strongly supported the mayor’s call for restricting appeals of building permits. Frankly, I’ll be surprised if the Board goes along.

It’s been a rough year. But a vaccine is happening, Trump will soon be gone, and better times are  ahead.

Thanks for reading Beyond Chron in 2020. Have a safe and healthy holiday season.

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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