After 50 years, SF poised to move on public power

Plus: The Chron asks some questions about homelessness. That's The Agenda for July 29-Aug 4

The Chron kicked off the annual media week of stories on homelessness Sunday with a long, detailed, Q&A – readers submitted questions, and Editor Audrey Cooper and Reporter Kevin Fagan answered them.

Most of the section was entirely predictable (both the questions and the answers). But two stood out: 

Q: Are there examples in other countries of successful methods/processes that have been used to decrease homelessness? Can some of those be applied to the Bay Area?

A: Other Western countries don’t have the same kind of homelessness problem we have here because they have national health systems, living-wage laws, unemployment payments that pay basic bills and national social low-income housing programs, many with laws providing a legal right to a roof.

Q: What are the three main reasons for homelessness and what are the top three solutions?

A: The top three reasons for homelessness are loss of job, loss of housing, and drug or alcohol abuse. The top three solutions are housing aid — counseling-intense supportive housing for the most troubled — employment programs and substance abuse rehab.

The first question makes the point that this is ultimately a problem with the US version of late-stage capitalism (often referred to as “neoliberalism”), and it’s been in place for almost four decades, under both Democrats and Republicans.

One example: Ronald Reagan gutted federal aid for housing in cities – but neither Clinton nor Obama brought it back, and it hasn’t been a major issue in the Democratic primaries.

The second is more telling on a local level: Why do people become homeless? Because they can’t pay the rent or they get evicted. (Drug and alcohol abuse are reasons why someone might lose their job or get evicted; they are not, alone, causes of homelessness. Lots of alcoholics and drug addicts live in nice mansions with trust funds or money they have made at other points in their lives; their substance abuse doesn’t force them onto the streets.)

So in all of the solutions the Chron has talked about, not one mentions addressing the problem before it happens, which would require action on the state (not the federal) level. The state Legislature, dominated by Democrats, could repeal the Ellis Act and Costs Hawkins, allow cities to enact effective rent controls, enact state-wide just-cause eviction laws, and prevent thousands of evictions a year in SF alone – thus preventing thousands of people from becoming homeless in SF.

While we talk about the crisis in homelessness in SF and other cities, and the Chron interviews the mayors of SF and San Jose, nobody from the major news media is talking about the corrosive power of the real-estate industry in Sacramento and the failure of the Democratic leadership to rise above that corruption and address homelessness in a meaningful way.

(I see, by the way, that Cisco is a sponsor of this project. Nothing wrong with Destination Home in Silicon Valley. But I wonder if maybe all these corporations that want to do good might do more if they formed a major statewide PAC with millions of dollars that supported only candidates who vow to reject real-state money and protect tenant rights, including ending no-fault evictions. According to campaign finance records, plenty of Cisco employees, for example, gave money to Newsom for Governor; did any of them ask him what he was going to do to stop no-fault evictions and prevent the homelessness crisis from getting worse every day? Or: They could support candidates who are pushing for higher taxes on corporations that would fund housing. Putting a few million into the ballot initiative to reform Prop. 13 would be a start.)

Most of official City Hall shuts down the first couple of weeks of August – we’re like Paris that way. The supes don’t meet, the Planning Commission doesn’t meet, the Police Commission doesn’t meet … everyone goes out of town or take a break.

Everyone agrees it’s time for SF to take over PG&E’s facilities — but time is of the essence.

But before that happens, there’s a huge issue coming up Monday/28 in the Land Use and Transportation Committee. The SF Public Utilities Commission will present its report on the next steps San Francisco can take to create its own public-power system.

At this point – almost exactly 50 years after the late Berkeley Professor Joe Nielands wrote a groundbreaking story in the Bay Guardian (March 22, 1969) exposing the history of the Raker Act and PG&E’s illegal private-power monopoly in San Francisco – almost everyone in City Hall agrees that it’s time to get rid of the bankrupt, crooked private utility.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the director of the Department of the Environment, Deborah Rafael, testified to the supes that it’s critical for the city to take control of its own electric grid. It’s critical for our local response to climate change; it’s also a source of immense revenue. The city could buy out PG&E (right now, at a bargain price since the company is in bankruptcy proceedings), replace all the old, unsafe infrastructure, modernize the system, and still clear hundreds of millions of dollars a year – after cutting rates to customers.

And of course, lower electric rates are good for residents and businesses and would pour more money into the local economy.

Labor needs to be a partner in the discussions, since IBEW represents thousands of PG&E workers who would wind up moving into the city power system. But it’s entirely possible to transition all of those workers into the city system, at their same pay rates, with no loss of pensions or seniority; the city will need the trained workers.

The City Charter, which was ignored for many years when PG&E dominated City Hall, states very clearly that

It is the declared purpose and intention of the people of the City and County, when public interest and necessity demand, that public utilities shall be gradually acquired and ultimately owned by the City and County.

On April 9, 2019, the supes unanimously agreed that the public interest and necessity require a move toward public power. The resolution gave the SFPUC 45 days to produce a report laying out the next steps.

With PG&E in bankruptcy, and both management and potential other suitors (hedge funds) that want to buy the utility discussing options, time is of the essence. The city needs to be sure than any bankruptcy plan include SF buying PG&E’s local distribution system.

The hearing starts at 1:30 in the BOS chamber.