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Politics & Policy

San Francisco ‘tech families’ plot to spend millions influencing policy

Zack Rosen, second from the left, is creating a new political group, Abundant SF, which will receive heavy funding from “tech families” in San Francisco. State Sen. Scott Wiener, middle, is supportive of the group, which will work to advance his policies on housing and transportation. | Courtesy Zack Rosen

A network of “tech families” in San Francisco are forming a new political group that intends to spend up to $5 million a year—over the course of decades—to radically rewrite the script on housing, transportation, education and public spaces in the city.

Abundant SF, whose name gives a nod to a line in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1937 inaugural address, is seeking to make a sustained investment in YIMBY ballot measures and candidates who are ideologically aligned on the group’s core tenets, according to more than a dozen people who are familiar with the organization. 

While other political groups backed by tech money have flexed their muscles in San Francisco, what’s novel about Abundant SF is its ambitious targets and prolonged time commitment. 

The group’s structure is still in flux—it plans to operate in a nonprofit capacity and is considering a political action committee—but the organization might also advise donors to direct their dollars directly to causes and independent expenditure committees. Altogether, Abundant SF could quickly become a political power broker in San Francisco.

Zack Rosen, a tech executive who is leading Abundant SF along with Democratic political strategist Todd David, said the idea of forming the group crystalized after his wife, Robin Pam, led the Proposition J fight last year to keep John F. Kennedy Drive car-free.

A crowd of various community groups gather in front of City Hall on March 10, 2022, to protest the proposed closure of JFK drive in Golden Gate Park. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The initiative was largely a response from parents who were upset over the de Young Museum funding a ballot measure to reopen JFK Drive to cars. The tightly organized Prop. J campaign secured the backing of Mayor London Breed and a majority of the Board of Supervisors before cruising to victory in November.

“I think the road map is building confidence amongst the families that live in San Francisco that we can get involved, we can help and we can figure out all the ways you need to work under the surface of politics to drive that change,” said Rosen, who worked on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. 

Rosen, who is the CEO of web-ops platform Pantheon and founder of California YIMBY, has experience in both the political and nonprofit realms. Campaign records show he recently gave $15,000 in support of the school board recall and $101,000 on Proposition D, an unsuccessful housing ballot measure. In addition to starting his own pro-housing nonprofit, Rosen also serves on the board of the TechEquity Collaborative. 

He compared Abundant SF’s plan for achieving policy outcomes to the incremental fight for equality and legalization of same-sex marriage. Its long view could also be compared to successes on the other side of the ideological aisle, where Republicans managed to roll back and ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade through a series of court and legislative victories over the course of decade. Rosen acknowledged the success of the GOP’s political approach while calling its desired outcome “poison.”

Housing and real estate are seen on Putnam Street in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

The thinking goes: San Francisco needs an abundance of housing to bring down the cost of rent and the number of people living on the streets. The city needs an abundance of decarbonized public transit options to make the streets safer and more liveable for families and their children. And public schools need an abundance of resources to raise performance, close achievement gaps and make it possible to receive a quality education.

Too often, Rosen said, political organizations in the city have either been disorganized or given up after years of frustration.

“A lot of people want it to be simpler, kind of want there to be a silver bullet—like if you just did this one ballot prop or if you just had this one person get elected,” Rosen said. “And that’s just not true. What is true is that all of this stuff is solvable.”

The fix, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Abundant SF’s housing imperatives will be a direct assault on progressives’ approach to prioritizing affordability at the expense of market-rate developments.

Aaron Peskin, the president of the Board of Supervisors, had not heard of Abundant SF before being contacted for this story, but he seemed unconcerned by a new political player in town backed by substantial tech money.

“God bless them, they have the right to spend their money however they choose,” Peskin said. “But I don’t think there’s anything new here. All I have to say is: same shit, different name.”

Corey Smith with Housing Action Coalition attends a press conference at City Hall on Oct. 26, 2022, promoting affordable housing and proposition D. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Abundant SF’s work will rely on a “donor table” heavily consisting of families with at least one parent working in tech, according to sources familiar with the organization. Many of the group’s funders backed Prop. D, a measure that wanted to speed up housing approvals in the city, and the successful Prop. J. Abundant SF also has substantial overlap with the political group Effective Governance California, said Rosen, who was part of a group of tech leaders calling for decisive action after the Silicon Valley Bank collapse.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a potential candidate to succeed former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Congress, is seen as the organization’s “North Star,” sources said. Perhaps signaling a campaign platform to come, Wiener sent out a short thread on Twitter last month in which he used the word “abundance” six times.

“I’m excited about what Abundant SF is trying to accomplish,” Wiener said in a statement to The Standard. “By advocating aggressively for more housing, sustainable transportation, and better city governance, Abundant can help cement these issues as top priorities in San Francisco politics.”

Meanwhile, Mayor London Breed, whose campaign staff declined comment, will also be a beneficiary of Abundant SF’s spending in her reelection race next year, sources said. In a nod to the political clout Rosen has amassed in a short window of time, he and his wife sat front row last month at Breed’s State of the City speech.

Abundant SF has already started making public policy inroads, giving a grant to the urbanist nonprofit SPUR to fund a job for Annie Fryman, a former legislative aide to Wiener. Rosen and a SPUR spokesperson declined to disclose the value of the grant, but Fryman is expected to focus on housing and transportation.

The rise of a new tech-funded political organization will almost certainly be polarizing, but not just for its opponents. Sources said Abundant SF’s arrival could also sharpen existing fracture lines within the more moderate wing of the city’s Democratic Party.

Organizations like Grow SF and Together SF have some notable differences in priorities—the former emphasizes public safety and the latter has targeted the fentanyl crisis—but in some cases, they could be competing for the same donors as Abundant SF, sources said. 

“There is totally a tension there,” said a source familiar with the organizations. “If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re either not informed, lying or delusional.”

Any attempt to address housing in San Francisco—the city’s Housing Element requires 82,000 new homes to be built by 2031—will obviously take patience. Multiple people raised concerns about Rosen’s bullish style.

In a 2016 blog post on Medium, Rosen wrote: “If I am confused or bored, my blood pressure rises and I can become a bad listener. I hate wasting time.”

Add in the always complicating factor of millions of dollars getting thrown around, and Abundant SF could make more than a few enemies.

“People are going to get mad. I don’t really care about any of that,” Rosen said. “If we can get people involved and work together, we can get things done.”

Disclosure: Michael Moritz, a partner at Sequoia Capital, provided initial funding for The Standard and Together SF. He is not involved in editorial decisions.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to clarify that Abundant SF supporters also have ties to Effective Governance California