Why San Francisco’s city government is so dysfunctional
SA FRANCISCO has the lowest covid-19 death rate of any major US city. An early shutdown, a culture of caution and mask warrants have helped curb the spread of the virus. “Our response to covid-19 has been hailed as a national model,” said the Mayor of London Breed. More than 78% of eligible people are fully immunized, one of the highest rates in the country.
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The City of the Bay may have avoided a heavy toll of covid-19 but, counterintuitively, it could feel the impact of the virus longer than other places. Ted Egan, the city’s chief economist, admits it. “San Francisco may well experience a slower economic recovery than other cities,” he said. The city, with a GDP which roughly corresponds to that of Greece, faces a series of problems. These include emigration, an increase in certain types of crime, drugs and homelessness. Dysfunctional and corrupt governance makes them more difficult to correct.
Faced with the prospect of paying high rents while enduring some of the longest and tightest lockdowns in the country, people left, some for good. According to CBRE, commercial property, 27% of offices are marketed as available in San Francisco (compared to 19% in Manhattan). Analysis by the California Policy Lab at the University of California shows that San Francisco’s “net exits” (those who leave less those who arrive) have increased 649%, from 5,200 to nearly 39,000, over the years. last three quarters of 2020. Falling apartment rents were the highest in the country, even if they are going up. Even with this adjustment, the cost of living in San Francisco is still about two and a half times the national average and 44% higher than in New York City.
Much attention has been paid to technicians taking their laptops to the suburbs, the Sierras or Austin, Texas, but the less well off have also moved. In the first quarter of 2021, average wages rose 34% year-on-year, the biggest jump of any major county and six times the national average. This suggests a serious shortage of workers, especially in the hospitality industry, says Egan.
With less fuss and fewer commuters, San Francisco’s problems became more evident. “We’re a smaller town, a dense city, so our social issues are more visible to people,” says Matt Haney, who represents the troubled neighborhood of Tenderloin on the 11-member supervisory board, which functions as the branch. city legislature. “Our municipal government is failing to respond at the moment and has been doing so for some time,” he admits.
Start with schools. San Francisco was the only city in the top 25 not to bring most high school and high school students back to classrooms at all in the 2020-21 school year. Meanwhile, the school board used its time to remove merit-based admissions from its main high school to bolster diversity, and spent months researching and then voting to change schools named after people who ‘he considered reprehensible on grounds of racism or otherwise obstructing progress, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, before dropping the idea after a public outcry.
The renaming saga without reopening was almost a parody of San Francisco. A school board commissioner criticized for his racist tweets tried to sue fellow board members and the school district for $ 87 million. Parents who could afford it, including the former director of the parent-teacher association, transferred their children to private schools. Now an effort is underway to collect enough signatures to remove three school board commissioners in a special recall election. On Twitter, some teachers and school board members retaliated against parents for “reopening”.
A similar dysfunction plagues the police and the criminal justice system. Prior to covid-19, San Francisco was the US burglary capital; but with fewer tourists, the criminals have diverted their attention. Home burglaries are on the rise. Filming more than doubled last year. Viral videos show daytime break-ins, with perpetrators walking out of stores without consequence. Lax enforcement of drug laws can be fatal when even small amounts can kill. In 2020, San Francisco recorded around 700 overdose deaths, mostly from fentanyl: more than double the number of covid-19.
The prosecutor (AD), Chesa Boudin, who ran on a platform to send fewer people to prison and took office in January 2020, is the person of public interest. Two recall campaigns to remove him from his functions were launched. One failed, but the other looks set to collect enough signatures to trigger a vote. Mr. Boudin, son of two members of the left-wing group Weather Underground who were convicted of their involvement in the murder of two policemen and a security guard, has many criticisms, including, unsurprisingly, the police. Tony Montoya, who heads the police union, says officers bring some cases directly to federal prosecutors because they believe the AD is reluctant to pursue them and pursue maximum loads.
Mr. Boudin says he is being unfairly targeted. “None of the recall groups are talking about the closure of our courthouse in the past year,” he says. “The problems were driven more by a pandemic than by any policy I have pursued.” The police are not faultless either. In the fourth quarter of last year, the theft “elimination” rate (which measures the share of reported crimes that result in arrest) was half that of New York City. The police are notoriously callous. Gillian Morris, founder of a startup, called three times about two office break-ins and a stolen package, but never got a response. She describes San Francisco as “the most dysfunctional place I have ever lived when it comes to property protection and public safety.” (She left and now lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico.)
All this despite San Francisco’s budget which has more than doubled since 2010 when the population grew by less than 9%. As Michael Shellenberger, a journalist, writes in his upcoming book, “San Fransicko”: “Although I have been a progressive and a Democrat my entire adult life, I found myself asking a question that seemed rather conservative. What were we going to get for our high taxes? And why, after 20 years of voting for ballot initiatives promising to tackle drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness, have all three got worse? “
A city hall insider suggests that San Francisco is overreacting to issues making national news and devising solutions to the country’s problems rather than its own. For example, when Mr. Boudin introduced his less punitive justice platform, San Francisco already had one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country. In 2019, 106 adults were in prison per 100,000 people, one-fifth the rate in California and the country. If the rest of the country behaved like San Francisco, the prison population would decrease by 80%, says James Austin of the JFA Institute, a think tank that evaluates criminal justice policy.
City politics would be very different, one district attorney quips, if everyone who is fed up could vote after leaving San Francisco. Joel Kotkin of Chapman University attributes the high costs to the city’s political makeup: “You wouldn’t have San Francisco politics if there was still a middle class left,” he says. Tech-savvy youth are transient residents, and older residents, who locked themselves in affordable housing decades ago, are quite happy with the status quo. The well-heeled can isolate themselves most of the time, withdraw from public schools, and hire neighborhood security guards. As it is, the city has been a safe Democrat for 40 years and seems allergic to choosing a Bloomberg-like character from one of the big tech companies to try something different.
No mayor-elect has failed to be re-elected in 20 years, says Together’s Griffin Gaffney SF, a group of volunteers. And this despite a series of corruption scandals. Joe Eskenazi, reporter for Mission Local, an online news site, believes that “San Francisco’s problems are not liberalism. These are incompetence and corruption. The municipal registry has long been a feature of the city, dating back to the days of the Barbary Coast and the Gold Rush. But many are unaware that their city is currently at the center of a major public corruption investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Already three former heads of department of the town hall have been indicted by federal prosecutors, including the former head of the public works department, Mohammed Nuru, who has been accused of corruption. Craig Fair, the FBI officer in charge, describes “the insidious corruption that plagues San Francisco”. Mayor Breed, who once dated Mr Nuru, recently agreed to pay the city’s ethics commission a fine of $ 23,000 for accepting payment for his car repairs from Mr Nuru and using the stationery of the mayor to pressure the then governor to reduce his brother’s prison sentence.
Ms. Breed is also the highest paid mayor in the country, with a salary of $ 351,000. She sits at the top of a highly paid bureaucracy. In 2020, nearly 150 city employees earned salaries in excess of $ 300,000 and about a fifth of salaries over $ 150,000. The cost of living contributes to these packages. But the city government also functions as one of those clubby and highly regarded startups that politicians accuse of ruining San Francisco – with cash, but operating with little oversight. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Fogged in”