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Perspective: ‘San Fransicko’ Gets It Upside Down: It’s Neoliberals Who Ruin Cities
Saturday, May 21, 2022

Perspective: ‘San Fransicko’ Gets It Upside Down: It’s Neoliberals Who Ruin Cities

There is so much wrong with San Fransicko that I don’t know where to start, so I’ll just begin with the subtitle: “Why progressives ruin cities.”

That phrase alone shows how disgracefully little Berkeley writer Michael Shellenberger knows about the politics of the city that he so gleefully (and often with factual inaccuracy) attacks. It assumes that progressives have actually been running San Francisco.

San Francisco is run by a strong mayor, who controls the budget, appoints department heads and the majority of every major commission, and can unilaterally fill any vacancy in any elected office. The City Charter specifically bans the legislative body from “interfering” with city departments, giving the mayor the power to implement laws (or refuse to implement them) without meaningful legislative oversight. 

The city’s chief executive, in short, has a lot of power. And there has not been a mayor of San Francisco who could remotely be called “progressive” in at least 30 years. So the idea that “progressives” have created the problems on the streets of this city is simply, utterly, fundamentally wrong.

The homeless crisis that’s the focus of much of Shellenberger’s screed began in the early 1980s when the mayor was Dianne Feinstein, who might as well be a Republican. She was succeeded by Art Agnos, who was in many ways a progressive, but lasted only four years. Then we had former Police Chief Frank Jordan, political fixer Willie Brown, corporate Democrat Gavin Newsom, tech-industry lover Ed Lee and now London Breed, who is at best a moderate.

“Progressive” actually has a meaning. It refers to a political philosophy that includes social justice, racial justice, climate justice—and economic justice. Progressives believe in using the tools of government, including taxes and spending, to fight economic inequality.

Some mayors of San Francisco, in some cases, took progressive social stands; Newsom showed immense courage in legalizing same-sex marriage. But on economic policies—the policies that could really impact the crisis on the streets—the people who have run this city for decades have been mostly neoliberals. Our mayors have operated under the politics of Bill Clinton, not Bernie Sanders.

I would agree that many of their policies have made economic inequality in San Francisco—and its manifestation in evictions, homelessness, drug addiction, and social misery—worse. But that’s not the fault of progressives. We have been fighting with every bit of our energy to do things differently.

Every political leader in San Francisco ought to take what I call the Hippocratic Oath of Housing: First, do no harm. Housing in many major US cities is a crisis. Mayors ought to try to make things better—but you can’t do that if you are, as a matter of policy, constantly making things worse.

For decades, starting with Feinstein, the city approved millions of square feet of new office space. Under Ed Lee, the city offered tax breaks to encourage tech companies to flood in. All of this brought tens of thousands of new high-paid workers—in finance, insurance, and real estate under Feinstein and her successors, in tech under Lee—to the city.

New workers could pay more than existing residents. Without proper protections, existing residents were forced out, some of them onto the streets.

Yes: Gentrification is a cause of homelessness. The vast majority of people living on the streets in San Francisco at one point had a home in San Francisco.

Progressives, the much-maligned folks in this book, did everything possible to demand that new offices be linked to new housing. But for years, and even today, the Mayor’s Office opposes the idea of charging developers the full costs of their impacts.

The idea of mandating some affordable housing as a part of new luxury development came from the progressive community (over the objections of the Mayor’s Office). The idea that new office development should be directly linked to the provision of workforce housing came from the progressive community and was dismissed by several mayors.

Generations of mayors have followed the neoliberal mantra that the free market will solve our housing problems. But developers in free markets seek only the highest return; for much of the 1980s and 1990s that was office space, so no housing got built. Today, it’s luxury housing, so that’s what gets built.

Oh, and over the objections of progressives, the Mayor’s Office encouraged Peninsula cities to accept huge tech offices and outsource their housing problems to San Francisco. The tech-industry-loving mayors allowed the companies to charter luxury buses to take workers from SF to offices in Silicon Valley.

Shellenberger focuses on four major urban problems: homelessness, crime, drug addiction, and mental illness. These are, of course, all part of a larger crisis in the United States, one that goes back to the early 1980s.

Shellenberger tries to dismiss the role of the Reagan Revolution in creating homelessness, using only one metric—funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development—while failing to mention the transformation of HUD from an agency tasked with housing the poorest of the poor to one supporting market-rate developers and landlords.

To say he misses the point would be a rather profound understatement.

David Harvey, in his classic A Short History of Neoliberalism, brilliantly describes how the Reagan Revolution created a radically new approach to the social contract in the US. Heather McGhee, in The Sum of Us, equally brilliantly explains the racist history of how this country, in the same era, lost its ability to operate an effective public sector.

“Welfare” under Reagan became a racially-driven term used to convince white people that their taxes were too high. Under Paul Volker, the Federal Reserve in 1982 so shocked the economy that unemployment soared—at one point, more than 20 percent of Black Americans had no jobs—but inflation, which upset the bankers, fell.

The entire notion that human beings had basic rights to food, clothing, and shelter—which were built into the War on Poverty and Great Society programs of the 1960s—came under attack. And that approach to public policy hasn’t changed much in Washington, under either Democrats or Republicans.

Reagan also eliminated revenue-sharing, the program that guaranteed federal money to cities. In the meantime, the policies of racist, conservative post-war redevelopment agencies wiped out reams of low-cost housing that was never replaced; in San Francisco alone tens of thousands of units were lost.

Shellenberger argues that San Francisco provides more money in General Assistance to indigent adults than other communities. That only counts if you ignore Newsom’s signature Care Not Cash plan, which took most of that money away.

But here’s the reality: In 1981, when I arrived in San Francisco, a person with no job and no money could go to the welfare office and get about $350 a month and about $75 worth of food stamps. A room in a single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel was about $30 a week. So people on General Assistance could stay off the streets and eat.

Some of them used drugs and drank alcohol. Some had mental health issues. But they didn’t live in tent camps and shoot up on the streets; they had a roof over their heads.

Now, Shellenberger asserts, welfare recipients in SF get around $550 a month. What a bonus! Index that with the cost of living, and the obvious fact that even the whole $550 won’t pay for any type of housing in this city, and you see why there is so much homelessness.

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Prop. I, promoted by progressives and passed in November 2020, offers more than $100 million a year for the city to buy up existing housing and take it off the market. The mayor has refused to spend the money for that purpose.

The progressives on the Board of Supervisors passed a measure during the height of the pandemic that would have provided (empty) hotel rooms for every homeless person in the city. The mayor refused to implement it, and Project Homekey, as it is called, ended up housing around 3200 people rather than the 8000 the supervisors wanted. 

Wes Enzinna in The New York Times points out the long list of factual problems with San Fransicko. Among other salient points, he notes:

According to experts, as many as 30-40 percent of San Francisco’s unhoused may suffer from some form of mental illness, but addiction and mental illness are often the result of homelessness, or are greatly exacerbated by the stress of living on the streets, not its root cause.

I want to go a step further. Pretty much everything that has sought to make a positive impact on housing in San Francisco, from rent control to Prop.I, has been pushed by progressives—and opposed by the people who were running the city.

Only a fool would argue that cities can solve these massive problems on their own. But the California legislature, which is dominated by the real estate industry, has blocked efforts by cities to prevent evictions and keep rent-controlled housing permanently. And the federal government has done almost nothing to fund the millions of units of non-market-rate housing that are needed to seriously address the crisis.

So cities are on their own. It’s a huge challenge that decades of neoliberal mayors have bungled.

Shellenberger argues that the solution is more “responsibility,” that cities shouldn’t allow people to (among other things) sit on the sidewalks. He favors mandatory mental health or drug treatment for those who, to quote Bob Dylan, were “bent out of shape from society’s pliers,” and jail for those who refuse and commit (mostly minor) crimes. That’s inhumane and has never been successful.

Housing first—affordable living spaces with social services—does in fact work, according to the data. Buying or leasing 10,000 hotel rooms would get people off the streets (without forcing them into shelters, which are not only temporary but are in many cases similar to jails, with strict rules and curfews that many, for good reason, reject.) 

Buying existing buildings that are at risk for displacement has a solid record. Protecting existing vulnerable communities from eviction prevents homelessness. Safe injection sites, pushed by progressives for years and only now supported by Mayor Breed, have an excellent history of getting drug users off the streets (and keeping them alive).

Taxing the rich and thus reducing economic inequality also works wonders, according to the eminent economist Thomas Picketty.

These are progressive ideas. The people who really run this city haven’t given them enough of a chance.

Tim Redmond is editor of 48hills.org, SF’s progressive digital daily newspaper. He’s been a political and investigative reporter in the city for 40 years.

  • “forcing them into shelters, which are not only temporary but are in many cases similar to jails, with strict rules and curfews that many, for good reason, reject.”

    What are the strict rules being rejected?

    • Suffice to say these rules are constricting enough that those of us living under considerably less stress and deprivation, with infinitely more resources could not tolerate at the cost of our autonomy…. And so why would we expect the un housed to make those choices?

  • If your argument that San Franciaco mayors “ might as well be a Republican” as you described Diane Feinstein, your argument is falling flat. Most people across the country would consider people like Gavin or Diane or London to be very liberal.

    If your argument is that we need to tax the rich to solve this problem. Well, the rich and not so rich have been taxed to an extreme already. Please show me a city where taxes are higher than San Francisco.

    The ideas of harm reduction and housing first without requiring drug treatment and treatment of mental health have not been shown to reduce homelessness in the long term nor have they been proven to reduce drug use (please see the study that you cited in your article). They are still very experimental. We have been implementing both of these policies since the late 1990’s and our problem with homelessness seems to be getting worse.

    Finally, as we transform our hotels into permanent housing for the homeless, how will the city pay for all of the services it provides. Hotel revenues will decline. The number of office workers in San Francisco has declined significantly since the pandemic. The population in SF is already taxed at a high level. Where does the money come from?

    • “Most people across the country” I guess means you. The scale has shifted so far right that “people” are calling Joe Biden a communist. As TR said, “progressive” has real, not just politically relative meaning. Very liberal (and progressive) people do not recognize Newsom or Feinstein as fellow travelers.

      Quick web search has SF at 8th highest taxes behind NY, Houston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix, Columbus. Much of SFs tax burden comes from state taxes (included in this particular ranking) More significantly, SF income tax Is 0, and the property tax is the lowest of that group. These are two huge drivers of the financialization of housing that has speculation driving housing costs out of reach for working (eg, teachers) and certainly low income families. That’s fine I guess if you want SF to be a gated community for the wealthy – maybe rebrand it as “Google City?”

      I think the notion that we should hold off on housing people until they get back from rehab by the beach or a rest cure in the country speaks for itself – let ‘em eat cake while they’re at it!

  • I appreciate the rebuttal to Shellenberger’s book; however, your argument lacks specific factual or quantitative data. I think the public would appreciate a piece that, rather than plays the blame game and bickers over the semantics of liberalism; offers concrete and solution-oriented ideas.

    • I’d say ‘first undo neoliberal harms’ is pretty on point. Don’t dump public resources into “free market ‘solutions’”, is pretty concrete. And ‘do use public resources to create and defend affordable housing options’ describes exactly the path not heretofore taken. How ‘bout we try that?

  • This review really is an apology for the failed policies instituted by an incredibly liberal (since there’s a technical disagreement over the term “progressive) city government.

    While the book has its moments of stretching some facts, it’s certainly not dishonest.

    And if San Fransicko isn’t an accurate critique of the local government, it’s certainly an accurate critique of the powerful progressive constituency in San Francisco.

  • “The entire notion that human beings had basic rights to food, clothing, and shelter—which were built into the War on Poverty and Great Society programs of the 1960s—came under attack. And that approach to public policy hasn’t changed much in Washington, under either Democrats or Republicans.” One might argue that this essay seeks to perpetuate and incorporate as a permanent feature of US society the idea that the local/regional/national government is responsible for taking care of our basic needs. In the decades since 1960, we’ve seen how socially and societally damaging those programs have been.

  • Your entire article reveals you read the title of the book and basically nothing else. You outsourced the reading to the NY Times and provided exactly one refutation of the actual content of the book.

    You hand waved basic facts mayors of San Francisco, then gish galloped everything else which wasn’t even in direct response to claims made in the book.

    If this is the best you got, you’ve accomplished the exact opposite of what you set out to do: You’ve proven Schellenberger correct.

  • You and those that just dismiss Shellenberger out of hand seem to overlook what is so important. That would be that whatever San Francisco and the political elite are doing just isn’t working. If I might ask, would you leave a child to live on the streets because it suits your notion of fairmindedness and equality. I would hope not. Yet you would certainly do so for the mentally ill and the addicts who are folks who simply cannot help themselves. You would also subject the citizens of a once great city to all the homeless have to offer. I would ask where you live in the city. My guess is you live far enough away from all this that it doesn’t constantly offend your senses. That would be the job of lesser citizens.

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