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San Francisco Dispatch: Second City


Editor’s Note:This post originally appeared in The New Republic.

San Francisco’s cool summer fog is giving way to the warm autumn days that residents quietly think of as their extended summer, and November’s elections are already holding out the promise of the lefty silliness that has come to characterize the city’s politics. In a half-serious taunt to the Bush administration, residents will be asked to vote on a ballot measure about whether the city should grow marijuana for residents who have their doctors’ permission to take the drug.
San Francisco being what it is, the measure will pass. But elsewhere on the ballot are two other initiatives that, if successful, promise to turn the dope-growing initiative into the last gasp of a fine, if increasingly comic, tradition of liberal tolerance. One, dubbed “Care Not Cash,” asks whether the city should slash cash payments to homeless residents. The second, hope, for “Home Ownership Program for Everyone,” will loosen city regulations to make it easier to convert rental apartments into condos that occupants can buy. The two measures resonate with San Franciscans who don’t understand why the city’s homeless aren’t better cared for; why the available housing is so expensive and run-down; and why trees aren’t planted, streets aren’t swept, and graffiti isn’t removed.
San Francisco politics, in short, is moving to the right. It’s partly the result of all those dot-this and e-that arrivistes who moved here searching for Internet gold. Some left empty-handed. But many, particularly those who did well, have stayed. And their bottom-line approach to life has given San Francisco’s beleaguered business community a chance to regain some political muscle. The dot-commers have been joined–led, even–by San Francisco’s largest block of motivated voters: the politically savvy gay community. More prosperous, safe, and wealthy than most residents, the community is now focused less on civil rights–all but guaranteed, legally and socially, in a host of ways–and more on civic rights and responsibilities. “We are such a rich city,” says David Blumberg, a gay San Francisco-based venture capitalist and a member of Plan C, one of the city’s fastest-growing civic organizations. “We can be efficient and very livable.”
Passage of both initiatives would go a long way toward disabling, even crippling, two of San Francisco’s largest and most powerful advocacy groups: homeless activists and tenants’-rights organizations. The two have worked happily in concert for years, forming a coalition that made for some of the strongest tenant laws and some of the kindest homeless policies in the nation. Evictions are hard to effect, rent increases are modest to minimal, and for years living on city streets has been considered a sacred right. It is exactly this ideology that the Internet newcomers–who hail from cities where the homeless are helped in spite of themselves and where renters live in recognition of landlords’ authority–now deride as too idealistic and impractical. And they have defenders of the leftist status quo worried. “We are looking at that larger political picture,” says Ted Gullicksen, a longtime activist with the San Francisco Tenants Union. “This is all about changing the face of San Francisco. It’s an assault on progressive politics.”
Care Not Cash, the brainchild of aspiring mayoral candidate Supervisor Gavin Newsom, would kick just under 3,000 of the city’s homeless residents off a payment system designed to supplement the shortcomings in federal welfare payments. Currently, those residents get about $350 per month in municipal cash payments, money that many claim is spent on drugs and alcohol, thus keeping people on the streets. If Care Not Cash is approved, these flat payments will be replaced by vouchers for city services.
The measure has been denounced by homeless advocates as needlessly cruel, and there are plenty of questions about how the city plans to administer the voucher program. But polls done by the city’s business community show that it is steadily gaining ground. Surveys taken this summer gave Care Not Cash 56 percent of the vote; one late-July poll put that number at 74 percent. Plan C members like Blumberg are among the measure’s strongest supporters, one reason that Care Not Cash is considered likely to pass. If it does, the almost classically handsome Newsom–a 34-year-old restaurant and nightclub owner and a longtime friend and protégé of the Getty family–will get a big boost for his 2003 mayoral bid. “This election is critical,” Newsom said recently. “It’s going to tell us where we’re going.”
Still more important for San Francisco’s political future–as well as for Newsom’s mayoral campaign–will be the fate of HOPE. It’s that measure, more than any other on the ballot, that threatens to effect real changes in what was once known as Baghdad by the Bay. It too is doing well in early polling among the city’s business community, with a margin in favor of about two to one. HOPE aims to turn San Francisco’s 770,000-odd residents, 70 percent of whom rent their homes, into home owners. Lefty activists like Gullicksen respond that, despite the “for everyone” in its acronym, HOPE won’t enable poorer city residents to buy their apartments–and in a city where a 900-square-foot apartment sells for $450,000, they’re probably right. Meanwhile, the measure’s sponsor, Supervisor Tony Hall, promises that the initiative won’t have any effect on the city’s strong rent-control laws. He’s probably right, too.
But HOPE isn’t aimed at those struggling to make rent. It’s for folks like Brian Mikes, a recently married 26-year-old who moved to San Francisco in 1998 to work for an online investment bank. “If I’m going to live here long-term, I want to own a house, my apartment,” he says. As it stands, if Mikes decided to brave the city’s housing market, he’d almost certainly be disappointed by the quality and cost of what he could find. And that’s where HOPE comes in. Supporters don’t like to talk about the direct effect that HOPE will have on the real estate market; but, being business people, they know the score. If enacted, HOPE would slowly put more housing on the market, and that should, in combination with the city’s recent building boom, moderate or even lower purchase prices.
Yet HOPE’s ultimate purpose goes far beyond real estate. By turning renters into home owners, supporters of the measure want also to turn them into “voters who are going to question where their tax dollars are going,” says Nathan Namen, director of the San Francisco Committee on Jobs. “This will radically change San Francisco,” agrees Hall. “It’s a program that, in reality, will bring more responsible behavior to San Francisco.”
Plan C co-founder Mike Sullivan, a San Francisco attorney, embodies that new ethic of responsibility. Earnest and boyish, Sullivan doesn’t seem like a zealot out to thwart the progressive cause. Despite his Silicon Valley experience, he all but squirms when Plan C is associated with anything dot-com. Sullivan and the other mostly gay business and property owners who populate Plan C are put off by the image of the rapacious, out-for-himself Internet entrepreneur that haunted the city’s politics for much of the Internet boom. And the earnest, good-neighbor vibe that Plan C’s organizers give off is very different. But, like the Internet entrepreneurs, Plan C’s members are absolutely convinced that if more San Franciscans were like them–home owners–the city would be a better place to live. “It’s important to San Francisco to provide home-ownership opportunities not just for the rich,” says Sullivan. “If what you care about is a city where you can have vibrant institutions, a city that looks good, that functions well, I think you have to have a vibrant middle class to make that happen.”
Adds Eric Mann, another Plan C board member, “I want to be able to walk my dog without tripping over homeless people.” He’s a liberal, he insists, but like many others living and working in San Francisco, he’s fed up with City Hall’s incompetence. “We used to say the problem is money,” he says. But San Francisco is a wealthy city that has squandered its riches. “You can still have lofty goals, and you can still have social programs–let’s just get rid of the waste.”
It is certainly hard to argue that the city is using its tax dollars effectively today. Some estimate that San Francisco spends as much as $174 million per year on all aspects of its homeless problem (in a city with a roughly $5 billion annual budget); others say that, in truth, the city doesn’t know how much it spends or how many people it helps. One Hayes Valley business owner, frustrated by the city’s inability or refusal to help a homeless man living–and defecating–in a bus shelter near her home, stopped calling the police and city services for help and started demanding that the city remove the bus shelter. And it’s not just Hayes Valley–a swath of downtown near City Hall that’s delicately known as a neighborhood in transition. Homeless men wander the aisles of organic grocery stores and sleep in doorways in tony Russian Hill and swank Pacific Heights as well. City Hall’s main plaza and most of the city’s central boulevard, Market Street, are crowded night and day with homeless people begging, ranting, or simply suffering.
Namen thinks the city’s newer residents and recent home buyers are more sensitive to such quality-of-life questions because they have a very good idea how much money has flowed through city government in the past few years: It came out of their wallets. Compared with other cities and towns they lived in before coming to San Francisco, the results are paltry. “Whether you’re a home owner or not, you feel this just walking down the street,” says Namen. “I think there are people who are smart enough to say there is enough money to take care of these problems. Other cities faced with the same problems have been able to deal with it. We have not. … People are smart enough to start saying, `When is it enough?’” “Enough” may come this November 5.

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