The Agenda, Jan 2-9: The mayoral issues

The campaigns need to give us specific plans and proposals, starting today

Five months from Friday – that is, on June 5th – San Franciscans will choose a new mayor. The campaigns are already under way, and there’s only one week left to file.

I’ve been thinking, as we enter a new year, what the person’s top priorities ought to be.

Protesters note that the Twitter tax break cost the city millions. It also spurred evictions and displacement

A few New Year’s Resolutions for the candidates:

You have to tell us how you will be different from Ed Lee. The late mayor was a kind, friendly, caring person, but his policies have created the worst urban disaster of my 36 years in San Francisco. The evictions, the displacement, the wholesale destructions of communities … The voters want to know: How will you dramatically change the direction of the city?

Part of that discussion is acknowledging the mistakes city leaders have made (the Twitter tax break, the Google buses, Airbnb, Uber and Lyft). It means connecting the tech boom that Lee endorsed and encouraged to the housing crisis that has driven tens of thousands or more out of the city, and suggesting how we can fix this mess.

I don’t believe that any of the major candidates in the mayor’s race – the people who have an actual chance of winning – openly or actively opposed the Twitter tax break. Jane Kim voted for it. London Breed wasn’t on the board but I never saw her make a public statement of opposition. Mark Leno, if he had a position, kept it to himself. Kim was a lot tougher on the Google buses, although she initially voted against an environmental appeal for the tech shuttles. Leno was in Sacramento, and didn’t have to vote on the issue. Breed has never opposed the Google buses.

Six supervisors, including Breed, voted to legalize Airbnb pretty much on the company’s own terms. Kim pushed for a series of amendments, which would have made the law far more effective; all lost 6-5 with Breed in the majority. Then in the end, Kim voted for the flawed law.

So let’s take stock for the new year and say:

Encouraging companies that hired tens of thousands of high-paid tech workers, most of whom moved here from somewhere else, then making it say for Peninsula cities to create even more tech jobs without building housing by allowing luxury shuttle buses to take workers from SF (thereby further making this city take responsibility for a regional housing crisis) was a terrible idea.

Allowing Uber and Lyft to violate the city’s taxi laws and create unlimited, unregulated service that has clogged the streets was a terrible idea.

Allowing Airbnb to profit for more than two years off the illegal conversion of thousands of housing units to hotel rooms, with no consequences, then legalizing the practice with a toothless law that devastated the city’s rental housing stock and contributed immensely to the eviction and housing crisis was a terrible idea.

Everything the city is doing now to try to mitigate the damage is too late for thousands of San Franciscans, now scattered, too late for deeply damaged communities. Everything we are doing now is a patch, a fix on a badly broken set of policies that put tech companies first and local residents second, that accepted the widely discredited concept of supply-side economics, that assumed that importing jobs and workers was more effective than doing local economic development.

We have a housing crisis because City Hall created it, by accepting and encouraging too much growth, too fast – and so far, the main approach to trying to solve it still assumes that the private market can get us out of this mess. That’s demonstrably untrue.

I am waiting for someone who is running for mayor to say these things.

There is, by the way, nothing wrong with a politician saying they made a mistake. It’s actually a good quality that we hardly ever see. And everyone who wasn’t actively against the Lee agenda made a mistake.

San Francisco has done a rotten job with technology. I’m not talking about using tech; I’m talking about the fact that nobody at City Hall seemed to be willing to enforce the rules, or write effective new ones, when Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, and the Google buses came along and started breaking local laws.

It wasn’t hard to see what was happening. Chris Hayashi, the city’s chief taxi regulator, saw it the moment it started, and tried to block the illegal cabs. She was shown the door. Tenant activists saw it when Airbnb started; Mayor Lee told city officials not to interfere with a local company. A lot of us warned – and it turned out to be true – that the Google buses would drive displacement and evictions; the Mayor’s Office instead made a secret “handshake agreement” not to ticket the buses for illegally using Muni stops.

Now Sup. Norman Yee is worried about robot delivery vehicles – and he had a hard time getting six votes to limit them. The Mayor’s Office never did anything to stop this clear threat to pedestrian safety.

Here’s the deal: Tech companies like to “disrupt,” and they have always operated on the idea that it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. Break stuff now; worry later about how to fix what you have left behind.

That’s fine, I suppose; that’s what they do. But the city doesn’t have to tolerate it.

City officials are supposed to stop illegal activity and set regulations in advance when they see a new technology coming along. San Francisco has done the opposite.

The next mayor might want to appoint a director of technology regulation, to get ahead of the curve.

I am accused of wanting to stifle innovation – but seriously: Would the world (or the city) be a worse place if Airbnb had to operate within strict limits from the start? Would we all really be worse off if Uber had to get permits and accept a limit on the number of vehicles on the street? Will humankind lose life-saving advantages if robots can’t deliver pizza?

Or would all of us be better off if the world was disrupted a little more slowly – and the tech industry made money a little less slowly? Does anyone want to argue that the economic inequality created by a monopolistic, predatory, sexist industry (that’s Wired talking, not me) is entirely something to cheer about?

I don’t expect anyone running for mayor to say that – but it would be nice.

I am waiting for the campaigns to tell us more details about their agenda. So far, it’s all just basic political positioning; Mark Leno wants “a new direction.” Jane Kim talks about her record in the past:

I am proud to fight for the city I love– the highest % of affordable housing, a medically staffed 24/7 shelter for our homeless, strong protections against frivolous evictions + free City College. We did this together. Will you join me to fight for more?

We only have five months to hear their plans for the future; that’s a very short period of time. Campaigns often wait months to put out position papers and specifics. In 1987, Art Agnos even wrote an entire book laying out his plans in great detail, and distributed 40,000 copies to voters. That took month. There are often multiple candidate forums.

This time, we can’t wait. When you consider that absentee voters will be getting ballots in May — just four months away — and groups that are making endorsements will have to decide in a matter of weeks, time is short.

Mark Leno and Jane Kim both have impressive records and strong progressive credentials. Others with credible records may enter soon. But we need the specifics of their proposals for the future, starting today.