By Tim Redmond
MARCH 11, 2014 — When Sup. London Breed asked Mayor Lee today what he was going to do about the shortage of city ambulances, she got an answer that will help define housing politics this spring.
In his Question Time response, Lee said he agrees that the city really ought to spend $9.8 million more on emergency medical equipment for the Fire Department. That way the department will be able to meet its goal of using public ambulances for 80 percent of the 911 calls that come into the city. The rest go to private companies.
But Lee said he wasn’t sure he would be able to fund that need: The city, he said, despite the tech boom and soaring tax revenue, still has a $66.7 million budget deficit.
(Now: I haven’t reviewed this year’s budget figures, but I will say that it should be hard for anyone to believe that a city in the throes of a new Gold Rush should be short of money. Unless you understand the history: Every study ever done shows that office and market-rate housing development costs the city more in services than the developers pay in taxes.)
Still, a budget deficit at a time of a cataclysmic housing crisis is going to make the mayor’s job a good bit harder this spring. That’s because affordable housing advocates are concerned that much of the new housing trust fund will wind up going not to build new units but to repair and upgrade the city’s existing (and badly maintained) public housing projects. Not that anyone thinks public housing should be left to rot – but groups like the Council of Community Housing Organizations want the mayor to put aside $100 million from the General Fund to fix that housing, so that the trust fund money can underwrite desperately needed new affordable units. (more after the jump)
To make things more complicated, the city is embarking on a plan to let private nonprofits – and in some cases, private for-profit companies – take over the management of the dilapidated public housing stock.
And all of this is happening in the Year of the Tenant, when many argue that the housing crisis is by far the most important item on the city’s political agenda. Budgets are a reflection of political priorities – and if it becomes public housing vs. new affordable housing, Lee’s going to be caught in the middle.
The nice thing about Question Time (which is often a Waste of Time) is that the mayor has to walk from the board chambers back to his office, and reporters get to do what by rule the supervisors can’t – follow up with unscripted questions. So I asked the mayor today whether he was going to set aside $100 million to repair and renovate existing public housing.
His answer: No. Well, at least, not that much money, “not at this time.”
But he did say that he “recognizes the challenge” (good political-speak) and that if nonprofit housing groups are going to take over managing public housing, they’ll need more resources. Something of an understatement.
He also said that he’s open to having for-profit companies bid to manage public housing, along with “public-private partnerships,” which in the 31 years I’ve been watching this stuff, have never been good for the public.
I know there are always competing interests at budget time, and it’s always a balancing act – but in 2014, defending tax breaks for tech companies while arguing that there isn’t enough money for both public housing and new affordable housing is going to be a nonstarter. Good luck with that, Mr. Mayor.
One of the hottest political issues in the city will come before the supervisors in April when the board hears an appeal of the tech-bus program.
Technically, the issue is whether San Francisco needs to do a full environmental impact report before launching a pilot program to charge the shuttle buses $1 a stop to park in Muni zones. In reality, the issue is whether the supervisors think that’s a high enough fee, how angry the public is about tech-industry entitlement, and why the city hasn’t enforced existing law for years.
I can’t see how six members of the board – in an election year – are going to side with the Planning Department and, in effect, approve what on the surface is a ridiculously low fee for the use of public space. The tech companies will argue, of course, that they are getting cars off the road; some will argue that they are also providing a fancy alternative to Muni so that the wealthy don’t have to ride the bus with the rest of us.
There’s no law that says the tech companies can’t offer to pay more for the bus stops (or find another staging spot for their luxury buses). If they don’t, I can see this appeal winning, and the plan going on hold for a year or more – at which point, a lot of people will start asking when the Google buses will start getting $271 tickets, as many as 30 times a stop a day.