The Democratic Party’s San Francisco Problem

Thursday, November 19, 2020
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Progressive Democrats have dominated San Francisco’s city government for the last 20 years, a time during which homelessness, drug abuse, the cost of living, and the city budget have skyrocketed. San Francisco is becoming an increasingly obvious problem for the national Democratic party, with vice president-elect Kamala Harris, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and Senator Dianne Feinstein all from the Bay Area.

As a succession of city governments have tacitly tolerated drug abuse and the crimes that go with that, a de facto thriving drug-based economy tragically plays out in the open on city streets every day. The city spends a small fortune each year collecting millions of used hypodermic needles from city streets and pays city workers about $185,000 annually to clean up feces from the sidewalks.

This is why $8 million in campaign money was poured into local elections earlier this month to convince San Francisco voters to replace progressive Democrats with more moderate Democrats on the city’s Board of Supervisors, and to vote down a number of local tax initiatives that would make San Francisco even more expensive and less desirable as a business location than it presently is.

The party strongly backed more moderate candidates with the view that San Francisco could make progress if a moderate majority board was elected who would in turn work productively with San Francisco mayor London Breed, who has a much better understanding of the city’s problems than the current board.

The party’s investment in bringing about more responsible governance and policies didn’t work. It wasn’t even close. The most progressive Board of Supervisors candidates won, which means that the board’s majority remains highly progressive, and thus likely will continue to block many housing proposals. Why? Because most developments would gentrify neighborhoods by replacing very old, low-density housing with new, high-density housing. And for progressives, gentrification is not an option.

Blocking new development means constraining supply, which in turn means San Francisco housing costs remain ridiculously high. How high? How about $1.1 million for about 1,000 square feet in the city’s Mission District, San Francisco’s highest crime neighborhood? For comparison, a similarly sized home in in a low-crime Atlanta neighborhood is yours for $174,900. In rapidly growing Denver, a similar home costs about $250,000.

The blocked housing developments in San Francisco would be so valuable that those residents who might be displaced could be substantially compensated. The devil is always in the details, but the status quo of keeping the economic pie much smaller than it could be is never the solution. 

For decades, San Francisco’s politicians have blocked new housing to prevent highly aid tech and finance workers from moving in and changing old-school neighborhoods. Yes, the 1950s-era Italian American diner serving spaghetti with red sauce and sausage, as delicious as it is, would be gone, and would be replaced by a higher-priced restaurant with a menu tailored to serve new residents. But times and people change, and so will neighborhoods.

It is grossly expensive to prevent new development, because new development helps everyone by expanding the city’s housing stock. Build it, no matter what it is, and supply expands. As more housing opportunities open, people move, freeing up existing homes for others to move into. California grew from about 7 million people in 1940 to about 20 million by 1970, but home prices, adjusted for inflation, did not skyrocket, because new construction kept up with demand. Prices did not enter the stratosphere until local government began to block development.

Local progressives have drawn a line in the sand: no new housing unless it is new housing that they personally find acceptable. Meanwhile, about 17,000 homeless people live in the streets, according to the National Homeless Information Project, roughly twice as many as the official count. And there are now more drug users within the city than there are high school students.

San Francisco’s failure to effectively govern is a growing problem for the national Democratic party, and for reasons that go beyond the human tragedies that unfold every day in plain view, and which remind everyone that the Democrats own this.

Former San Francisco mayor and old-school Democratic politician Willie Brown knows this as well as anyone. Brown recently was interviewed and argued very candidly that the Democratic party has lost its way, and that it provides little of interest to voters outside of Sunday morning political talk shows. He openly worries about the fate of San Francisco and his party, a political party that is increasingly being dominated by wealthy elites and one that is moving far from the ideas that he represented.

Brown knows that San Francisco and, more broadly, California have run the experiment of very liberal governance, and that experiment has clearly failed. He also knows that California voters made a right turn two weeks ago by voting down tax increases and the restoration of affirmative action, and by voting to restore the right of gig workers to work as independent contractors by passing Proposition 22. By passing this proposition, voters told elite Democratic lawmakers they didn’t approve of the legislature stealing economic freedom and making it illegal for many to work as independent contractors. 

California’s failure to effectively govern is a teaching moment for the rest of the Democratic party. The progressive agenda failed in California, and it will fail nationally. Without the perfect foil of Trump to hide behind, Democrats must now deliver without the benefit of simply saying that they are working 24/7 to fight against everything Trump. 

Willie Brown and other old-school Democrats know that if Biden and Harris are to succeed, the party must move against its progressive wing that includes Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar, all of whom favor policies that would sharply reduce economic freedom, economic growth, and our quality of life.

The national Democratic party has plenty of problems to address. The global pandemic remains. China is China. Iran is Iran. Russia is Russia. And 70 million voters remain skeptical that the party even knows they exist. What has happened in San Francisco scares the national party, because they understand San Francisco’s fate can happen anywhere if the old guard can’t find a way to take control of the party and implement moderate policies.

It is good that the national party is worried about what has happened in San Francisco. Sadly, San Francisco’s plight will continue for the time being. But we can hope that its lessons will help promote better national policies in the Biden-Harris administration.