It’s going to be a tough year for the mayor of San Francisco. Caught between public demands for police reform and a media narrartive of crime out of control, a drug overdose crisis that won’t be solved by law-enforcement, stubbornly high levels of homelessness, a collapsing downtown and deep budget cuts, the coming year is not going to be easy for anyone.
It will be particularly hard for a mayor who has never had a strong or effective economic development or equity agenda.
Mayor London Breed took office during a tech boom and managed to keep the budget from disaster during Covid, largely thanks to state and federal money.
Now that’s gone, the tech boom is over, Covid is still here—and without some very creative solutions, which have never been part of Breed’s governing approach, I don’t see how every major indicator doesn’t get worse.
Breed won’t be able to run for re-election this fall, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage: In a low-turnout 2023 election, with at this point no clear opponent, she could have slipped into another term.
But the passage of Prop. H gives her another year—and gives potential opponents more time to organize.
It also means that she will be on the ballot at the same time as the supervisor candidates in Districts 1,3,5,7,9, and 11.
And possibly the same time as a candidate for US Congress, which could complicate the race: If Rep. Nancy Pelosi retires at the end of her term, some of the same people who might have looked at running for mayor will be looking at running for Congress.
Let’s look at some of the issues and problems Breed will be facing in 2023:
Drugs and crime. San Francisco is not facing a horrible crime wave; most categories of crime, particularly violent crime, and down. But there’s a horrible news media narrative on crime, and it led to the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin and the installation of the mayor’s hand-picked replacement.
Does anyone think that’s going to change in the next 12 months? I still read every day on Nextdoor about car and garage break-ins. I still see the same folks who complained about Boudin saying that the cops still aren’t doing anything. At a certain point, they are going to realize that the recall didn’t make anyone safer.
Chief Bill Scott said his offices have been making hundreds of arrests in the Tenderloin, where merchants say they want to stop paying taxes.
The overdose crisis is very, very real. The mayor is backing away from solutions that we know will work, and pushing for a police response that we know will not.
These problems don’t just go away when the mayor holds a press conference or calls a State of Emergency.
Meanwhile, police reform
Breed, who constantly talks about wanting to “work together” with people she that attacks or refuses to deal with, is now going after a Police Commission controlled by her own appointees.
At the Board of Supes last week, she made a point of addressing something nobody asked her about: The commissions move to limit traffic stops, which are often used as a pretext to search and arrest Black and Brown motorists.
Let’s start with some basics here: the policy that some commissioners are promoting are neither radical nor out of step with the data or with what other communities are doing.
It aims to take the cops, to the extent possible, out of traffic enforcement, since the data on that is very clear: Of the moving violations SF cops issued in the past few years, the overwhelming number have gone to Black and Latino drivers.
At the Police Commission last week, Jacob Denney, who is the economic justice policy director at SPUR (and before you gasp at his current affiliation, which does not have a history of supporting economic justice, Denney has a long and distinguished career in the field), presented devastating data:
Black drivers are five times more likely than white drivers to be stopped for a traffic violation, and most of the time there is no actual citation issued (that is, the cops just pull the drivers over and hassle them but find no legal ground to write a ticket). Most Black traffic stops involve minor issues like improperly displaced license plates; most white people are only stopped for things like speeding and failure to yield to pedestrians—violations that could actually hurt someone.
So the commission, controlled by Breed appointees, wants to limit some of the causes for traffic stops. Breed attacked that approach at the board, saying that some of the limits “make absolutely no sense” and that the commission shouldn’t be setting rules for which state laws cops can and can’t enforce.
(Never mind that the commission does that all the time; state law allows cops to use Tasers, to shoot tear gas grenades at protesters, and to kill people without making any effort at de-escalation. SF Police Commission general orders limit those activities in the city.)
So the mayor has once again put herself on the side of the cops and against her own commission’s reform efforts. This despite the fact that Denney noted the new reforms would prevent 10,000 unnecessary stops a year—meaning those police resources could be diverted to serious public-safety issues (including the enforcement of speeding and pedestrian-safety laws.)
That comes back in the new year. The issues aren’t going away.
Breed had the distinct advantage during Covid of not having to make tough choices; the federal and state money kept the budget not only in balance but growing. Funding more cops didn’t require laying off social workers. Taxes passed over her opposition by progressives brought in money for low-income housing; a luxury housing boom brought in some cash for affordable housing.
Say hello to 2023.
The federal money is mostly gone, the state is going to have its own issues—and guess what: Big commercial property owners are demanding reduction in their taxes, saying their buildings aren’t worth as much since nobody wants to come back to the office.
We’re talking as much as $200 million a year in revenue if the appeals are all successful. That’s just the start: Downtown office space, which was the Golden Goose for so many mayors, is no longer viable as an economic future for the city.
This is a massive challenge, almost indescribable in its complexity and significance. If remote work is the future of the tech, finance, and real-estate industry, and it almost certainly is, then San Francisco faces an existential economic crisis.
It will start to show up in the budget this year, when Breed will have to make some ugly choices that will make nobody happy. According to her early budget statement, issued two weeks ago, she is asking departments to prepare for cuts of around eight percent; that’s only going to rise, just as the city’s needs explode.
Everyone in the city seems to agree that this is among San Francisco’s most pressing problems—and the mayor’s most visible policy failure. The city is now under a court order to stop the homeless sweeps, and the legal case is ongoing. The evidence shows that Breed has personally ordered the sweeps; she seems to have no other long-term policy to address the unhoused population.
The mayor has refused to spend money that the taxpayers approved to address homelessness. Now she is going to have to deal with the crisis with less money, and a court order blocking her approach.
I don’t see a way this works.
Sometime this spring, the state might decide to approve San Francisco’s Housing Element, which is supposed to make room for 80,000 new housing units, 46,000 of them below-market-rate. The city’s own figures show that the cost for the affordable units will be $19 billion. With the market for speculative housing capital in collapse, nothing any zoning changes will do can create anything remotely close to the state mandates.
So what then?
The Yimbys got most of what they wanted in the past few years. Single-family zoning is gone in San Francisco. State laws give developers easier access to permit approvals. And still, very little housing is moving forward.
This is the problem with market-based solutions; the housing market is at best a fickle lover under late-state capitalism, and right now it’s telling the Yimbys: Sorry, you can’t get what you want.
The next year
So I don’t see much room for mayoral victory or celebration or success in 2023. Breed has never been a visionary. She’s run the city as a day-to-day bureaucrat, with big business calling the shots and little in the way of ground-breaking policy proposals.
That didn’t work very well in her first term, but now she’s in a really difficult bind.
There are no easy answers to the Urban Crisis of 2023. But it’s very real, and it’s going to require profound changes in the way cities operate.
Breed’s “moderate” agenda is, for the most part, no agenda at all. If she ran for re-election today, based on her record, I think the best she could say is: “Hey, it could have been worse.”
A year from now, that won’t work.
As of Dec. 26, 2022, no serious candidate has emerged to challenge Breed in 2024. The person who does that will need to do more than criticize the failures of the incumbent; they will need to offer a powerful alternative policy agenda at a transformative time for urban America.
And they don’t have a whole lot of time.