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Politics & Policy

New and familiar challenges await supervisors in 2023

Supervisors Catherine Stefani (left) and Matt Dorsey (right) at a press conference on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Twenty-twenty-two was a challenging year for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

In addition to the usual tug-of-war for power between the board and Mayor London Breed, supervisors had to weather a massive election cycle while addressing exigent problems such as the drug overdose crisis and economic shocks from the Covid pandemic.

While there will be no marathon of elections in 2023, the board will continue to face hurdles in both policy and politics. Here’s a look at the key issues that will shape next year’s board politics, some familiar and some new.

New Balance of Power

A pedestrian traffic sign illuminates the do not cross signal outside San Francisco City Hall in San Francisco Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

At the beginning of 2022, Catherine Stefani was the only member of the board who could be reliably called “moderate”—San Francisco’s chosen label for the socially liberal, pro-business position that makes up the city’s broader consensus.

2023 brings a full-on moderate caucus, with Stefani joined by Matt Dorsey—who was appointed by Breed in May and ratified by voters in November—and newly elected Sunset Supervisor Joel Engardio.

Moreover, there will also be an out gay male caucus comprising Engardio, Dorsey and progressive swing voter Rafael Mandelman. They will form a united front on issues specific to that community, and find common ground with Stefani on addressing homelessness, drug abuse and degraded street conditions, which will continue to be top issues at the board.

That still leaves a functioning progressive majority on the board, with Dean Preston and Hillary Ronen as the most hardcore, and the rest—elder statesman Aaron Peskin, Rafael Mandelman, Connie Chan, Myrna Melgar and Board President Shamann Walton—spending more time on Swing Voter Island with “Labor Mod” Ahsha Safai.

Who Gets the Captain’s Chair? 

Supervisor Shamann Walton attends a press conference at City Hall on Thursday, July 28, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

Where does that leave the board presidency? At least according to one City Hall source we spoke to, the presidency could be back in Walton’s hands once the supervisors have voted at their inaugural meeting on Jan. 9. 

Mandelman and Safai are also candidates, and Chan may also take a shot at the job to advertise a new more centrist stance as she looks ahead to her re-election chances in 2024. But it’s just as likely that Walton will take over the conn again, this time with more moderate visibility on the board’s all-important committees.

Homelessness, Drugs and Street Conditions

Two people sleep under the bridge in the SoMa District in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Sep 21, 2022. | Felix Uribe Jr for The Standard

Crime and homelessness continue to be top concerns for voters and businesses, and there is a natural instinct to conflate the two issues, regardless of causality.

Homelessness is often identified with drug use, and drug addiction is identified with property crime, which, combined with behavioral health incidents, makes people feel unsafe when walking on the streets.

2022 was marked by arguments between supervisors and Breed on how to approach the tangle of homelessness, drugs and street conditions. The legislative year ended with a call by progressives, led by Preston and Ronen, to stand up safe consumption sites regardless of legal risks or burden on neighbors.

Meanwhile swing voter Mandelman championed stronger conservatorship laws, and got his “A Place For All” shelter policy passed after two years of work. Now comes the challenge to make all those places.

Expect public-private partnerships to take a more visible role in all of these initiatives. One example is RescueSF’s advocacy for shelter cabins built by DignityMoves, some of which are already standing in SoMa; more are planned for the Mission.

“’A Place for All’ could produce San Francisco’s first plan for providing sufficient shelter and housing for everyone who needs it,” Lori Brooke, a co-founder of RescueSF, told The Standard. 

“For the plan to succeed, it needs the right mix of spending on shelter, housing, and prevention […] we want to make sure that the City considers the most cost-effective solutions. We expect the City’s plan to receive a lot of scrutiny,” Brooke said.

On the prevention side, the board has yet to debate Dorsey’s “Right to Recovery” plan which would curb open-air drug dealing and use in “priority zones” adjacent to treatment facilities. Given the recent incident involving accidental ingestion of fentanyl by a child in a Marina District park, we could also see calls for an expansion of the concept.

Housing Crisis

Economic shocks from the pandemic may have brought down the prices of SoMa and Downtown condos, but there is still a housing shortage, as evidenced by continuing tenant buyouts. San Francisco continues to miss opportunities to build affordable housing, as well as the kind of market-rate housing that can eventually filter into starter homes.

In 2022, conflicting factions offered a hodgepodge of policy ideas ranging from a vacancy tax passed by voters to Mandleman’s star-crossed “Fourplex” upzoning plan. With the recent ballot fight over affordable housing financing ending in a draw, new plans and tactics will inevitably be introduced.

Thanks to housing boosters state Sen. Scott Wiener and Assemblymember Matt Haney, many of those new plans will play out in Sacramento. Some activists hope that the state-mandated builder’s remedy takes center stage in San Francisco; others are more hopeful for productive policymaking at the board.

“I expect the next board to move away from the anti-housing antics of the past two years, in large part to the election of Supervisors Dorsey and Engardio,” Housing Action Coalition Executive Director Corey Smith said.

“2023 will be the year where the board will decide if we want to fix this problem or continue working to make it harder for families, young people, and everyone else to live in San Francisco. I hope they actually do something,” he said.

In the meantime, the board still has to give final signoff on the Housing Element, which looks hopeful if supervisors can stomach the latest changes.

Waking Up Downtown

The Transamerica tower looms above San Francisco, as seen from the skybridge of The Four Seasons in the downtown, financial district of San Francisco, Calif. on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022.| Camille Cohen/The Standard

Finally, the pandemic-stalled downtown will be a prime issue for the coming year.

San Francisco’s sleepy Downtown is a huge source of concern for voters as well as business leaders. Empty office towers are set for a dive in assessed values that will take a big bite out of tax revenue. As federal and state pandemic aid dwindles away, the city faces a massive budget deficit.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, the top issue for city government has to be the re-imagination of San Francisco’s economic core. We need to make short term investments in safe and clean streets as well as transportation to help bring employees back to the office,” Rodney Fong, president and CEO of the SF Chamber of Commerce, told The Standard. “Long term, we need to think big to incentivize business attraction and retention as we imagine a new downtown that includes a diverse range of businesses and uses.”

So far, the mayor’s office has looked into updating zoning and other possible solutions. As the supervisors look at slimmed-down budgets, the pressure will be on to come up with more.

Speaking of More

Many more issues will percolate and possibly erupt over next year, including the current fight over Police Commission leadership and the ever-controversial debate over police reform. (And yes, even Killer Robots could return from the wings).

Speaking of Killer Robots: As always, expect further debate at the board over attention-grabbing progressive moral crises. With San Francisco hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Summit late in the year, we could see more outspoken members tread back into the nettlesome turf of foreign policy resolutions. It all remains to be seen.

After the Jan. 9 inaugural meeting, the new board will convene the following day to begin legislative activity for the year. Until then, the city’s policy wonks will hopefully have gotten a much needed—and deserved—rest.