Since April 2020, like the rest of the world, San Francisco has suffered economic setbacks due to the global pandemic. Many people were priced out of San Francisco, and continue to be priced out. Those who are able to stay often struggle to earn a living wage, stay housed comfortably, and stay healthy and safe.
Now, our city leaders are looking at the activity of our downtown as the most significant economic indicators and focusing on the area as a way to revitalize our local economy. But there were already signs of major problems for the City prior to the pandemic – working people were steadily getting priced out, tenant evictions and buy-outs were daily occurrences. Our homeless count was soaring, property crimes were rapidly increasing, and empty storefronts and blight were such a widespread issue that San Francisco voters supported a commercial vacancy tax to curb the problem. A San Francisco Chamber of Commerce survey in 2018 showed the majority of San Franciscans thought the City was heading the wrong direction.
The reality is the pandemic likely accelerated our foreseeable economic bubble burst and compacted the negative consequences our City was facing in just a few short months. Still, this City by the Bay has always been beloved by many, and its history and characters, generations of immigrants, communities of color, LGBTQ community, and so many more who have called San Francisco their sanctuary, has made it a resilient city. As a result, San Francisco’s local economy now becomes a volatile environment for long-term investment and sustainable gain. Yet many can still see its potential for a remarkable economic comeback.
As one of San Francisco’s elected leaders, I am mindful of this economic volatility. In addition to working with the mayor, my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors and I are actively identifying solutions that support robust economic activities. I also see a great need and an opportunity to correct the course we were previously on by establishing a healthy economic ecosystem that is sustainable and symbiotic for workers of all income levels, and small and corporate businesses.
In order to sustain an equitable local economy for the long term, we also have to consider the following factors in order for our budget to prioritize equitable recovery.
Boost Local Economy Equitably with Workforce and Business Diversity
The pandemic, a shift to remote working, and the expansion of online shopping has resulted in an estimated 147,303 fewer office workers downtown each weekday. While there has been an improvement in tourism since 2020, office attendance downtown remains well below pre-pandemic levels. Downtown workers in San Francisco bolstered the local economy, and if the area remains at a 40% office attendance, businesses stand to lose $1 billion in expenditures.
I am open to Mayor Breed’s suggestion for the City to look into short-term strategies focusing on downtown to boost our local economy. In order to boost the local economy and support the growth of small businesses, I suggest the City utilize some interim control policies and other related permit and conditional use waivers to encourage diverse businesses to occupy vacant spaces so we can bring in and develop a more diverse workforce for San Francisco. The City should consider providing a short-term commercial tax credit for local artists and entertainers to occupy vacant storefronts. We should also look into waiving restrictions for non-retail use for vacant spaces above storefronts or vacant ground level spaces to create small business and start-up incubators to support innovative entrepreneurship.
Deliver Efficient City Services Through Accountability
Clean and safe streets are the basics that we must deliver for San Franciscans, yet the City is facing a $728 million deficit for the next two fiscal years. If we do not immediately close the deficit gap, the city’s controller has forecasted that the City will face more than a $1 billion budget deficit by 2028.
So, as the Budget Committee Chair, I will be working closely with Mayor Breed to comb through every city departments’ budget and hold city department heads accountable to deliver quality city services in a timely fashion, and allocate funding to these departments based on their performance audits and programming results.
In the coming months, I will be holding a series of public hearings on city departments’ performance and measures to correct any overspending. I will follow this by working with City Administrator Carmen Chu asking her to report the results of her progress streamlining city operations since she took the position in 2021. I look to mandate a city services dashboard, so government service is accessible, and their performance – as well as their annual budget and spending – are transparent to the public.
Regional Approach to Address Homelessness as a Public Health Crisis
From the successful lessons we learned in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with Alameda, San Mateo, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Sonoma, Napa, Marin and Solano Counties, and following the science, data and advice from public health officers from all counties, we should consider a similar approach to treat homelessness as the public health crisis that it is.
We need to coordinate and facilitate regional strategies with county public health officers to tackle health treatments involving the homeless population. It is important that we share our resources and coordinate collectively with all our local health care systems. The counties should also share resources and data to track regional homeless populations and services, including, but not limited to, providing shelter and health care facilities beyond city boundaries.
A Future of Right to Transit Access for San Francisco Residents
If we want to center the downtown area and consider it as the “heart” of our local economy, then our public transit would be the artery system to keep our City connected and moving. But our transit system is built and operated partly based on ridership revenue, and without consistent and dedicated funding sources, SFMTA continues to face uncertainty about ridership levels and revenues it could generate. So, the system is stuck in a chicken-or-egg dilemma, whether we should wait for ridership demand to return before restoring a bus line or service capacity, or operate based on a build-it-and-they-will-come approach.
That’s why, as a commissioner on our County Transportation Authority, I look forward to working with our state representatives and regional transit partners to identify dedicated state and regional funding for our transit system to accomplish two goals. First, that we restore and expand our transit services and coverage areas to serve San Franciscans equitably, and second, that we work toward a future where starting with all our low-income residents, and then all San Francisco residents will have the right to access our public transit system no matter their economic status.
This means we must focus on funding the spending needed to build an efficient transit system, and to serve more San Franciscans. This will result in pumping more ridership into the system that transports people to downtown and connects them from different neighborhoods citywide for robust local economic activities.
Build a Village for Working Families to Care for Children and Youth
Many businesses have challenges to bring back their workforce to meet the growing demands, and many workers have challenges to find work that can pay them a living wage in San Francisco when the cost of living is one of the highest in the nation. For many working families, especially wage workers, the cost of childcare is a heavy financial burden, and sometimes the cost of care outpaces their wages. So, to build a diverse workforce and bring sustainable economic growth to San Francisco, we need to think long term about supporting working families to live and thrive in our city by caring for children and youth outside of school sessions.
We must build a village of services to provide wrap-around care for our children and youth, including safe and reliable transportation access for school-aged children and youth to receive care and attend enrichment programming outside of school hours and sessions.
In 2021, I led the efforts at the Board of Supervisors to provide $15 million for Free Summer Camp to public school K-8 graders. Mayor Breed also helped to support our school children as well – through her Department of Children, Youth and Their Families (DCYF) and through philanthropic partnership, it collectively added $45 million to the Free Summer Camp efforts.
We can replicate the success of Free Summer Camp in 2021 by working together and leveraging existing public funds to gain philanthropic support. With this model of partnership, we can expand free care and enrichment programming before and after school sessions, including summer camp, and provide meals and school bus options for school age children to attend enrichment programming and access care.
When we take good care of our children and youth, we take good care of our future as a city.
Invest in Green Infrastructure to Lay a Foundation for a Sustainable City
According to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, nearly 70 public infrastructure projects were delayed due to PG&E creating obstacles to connect affordable housing, parks and emergency services to power. The project delays cost the City more than $10 million annually. While CleanPowerSF has helped our City move away from relying on the monopoly PG&E holds, we still rely on the company’s aging distribution and transmission lines to deliver our power.
To move San Francisco forward to a sustainable future, we have to work on what is underground, and behind the walls, infrastructures that often are not visible to us but are critical foundations to keep the City going. And to invest and green our energy, water and sewage systems will help us gain stability in City’s operation spending, as well as sustainability for our environment.
So as the chair of the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission, a commission that provides oversight of our municipal services, I will continue to push the City forward to acquire our power grid from PG&E and move away from the monopoly the company holds over so many city projects.
Then we must also continue to green our grid and power sources by investing in battery storage, study public acquisition and accelerate powering our infrastructure for public projects including affordable housing development.
The Equitable Recovery Act aims to build a future where all business sectors, big and small, all workers, wage and salary earners, everyday working San Franciscans citywide can continue to live in San Francisco and thrive.
This article was published in the Richmond Review in January 2023.