Mayor Lee’s State of the City: Jobs, Innovation, Reinvention

by Randy Shaw, 2013-01-29

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s January 28 State of the City address highlighted past accomplishments and laid the groundwork for an equally bold future. This future includes a “re-envisioned” public housing system likely to include nonprofit management and increased private investment; "world class" city transit; and middle schools with greater resources and universal pre-school to get kids off to a good start. Lee noted city unemployment has declined from 9.6% to 6.5% since he took office (California remains at 9.8%), that 26 cranes across the city’s skyline testify to success attracting new development, and said 4000 housing units were under construction.

Lee, a longtime immigrant rights activist, became most animated when urging San Franciscans to “shout from the mountaintops” for Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform this year. Lee covered a wide range of topics, though he missed a chance to address one key issue that perfectly dovetailed with his chief themes.

If future generations want to understand the guiding approach and priorities of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, they need look no further than his 2013 State of the City speech. It included all of his favorite themes: jobs, a consensus-driven policy process, the generous sharing of credit with supervisors, former mayors, and city staff, the rebirth of local manufacturing, and the importance of small business. The Warriors new arena got multiple shout outs, and the mayor also highlighted smaller arts and cultural venues soon coming to the city, such as PianoFight in the Tenderloin.

Looking Back

Lee began by recounting the impressive accomplishments of the past two years. In addition to sharply reduced unemployment (26,000 new jobs were created from June 2011-12), the city now has 1800 tech companies with 42,000 employees, and has 42,000 housing units in the development process.

Describing the one million square feet of office space rented in Mid-Market since June 2011 as “nothing short of astonishing,” the Mayor described how the long neglected “heart of the City” in Central Market and the Tenderloin are reviving after decades of little progress. After Lee noted the new SFJazz, the soon to open new Exploratorium, the Central Subway, the Warriors arena, the expanded SF MOMA, and the proposed expansion of Moscone Convention Center, few could dispute his claim that San Francisco had “renewed strength, restored confidence,” and is a city moving forward.

Despite this success, the Mayor rejected any notion that he could now govern on auto-pilot. To the contrary, Lee stated that it was time to “double down” on addressing the city’s problems, particularly getting jobs for the 30,900 still unemployed.

Future Plans

On public housing, Lee openly expressed what anyone who has his long experience dealing with the Housing Authority knows: the “system is not working,” and since we cannot “mend it, we should end it.” The mayor said he was open to “replacing the Housing Authority with a new model,” denouncing the current system that “traps people in poverty housing” that leaves them racially and socially isolated

Lee revealed a meeting with HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan last week in which the latter approved plans for the city to operate all of the SFHA under the HOPE SF, private public partnership model.

The Mayor did not offer specifics, instead creating a Task Force that would report back to him on specific recommendations by July 1. This Task Force is designed not to avoid a solution, but to buy time to get a new model in place.

The most obvious reforms----turning management of buildings over to nonprofits, attracting private investment by building market rate units on housing authority land, and the elimination of the separate, mayor-appointed historically ineffective Housing Authority Commission---are all on the table. All three changes could occur.

Lee also acknowledged MUNI’s problems, calling MUNI the “third rail” of San Francisco politics. He announced the creation of a “San Francisco 2030” task force to examine the city’s big picture transit needs and come up with recommendations.

The Mayor said he was “not satisfied with our progress on homelessness,” but gave few specifics on plans for change. He did note that a restructured street outreach team began on January 1, which presumably would get more people needing help off the streets.

The Mayor did indicate that a revised CPMC project at Cathedral Hill, coupled with the rebuilding of St. Luke’s, would be coming back to the Board of Supervisors soon. That’s good news for all concerned.

Public Drug Dealing and Police Staffing

Mayor Lee could not address everything in his speech, and he missed a chance to connect his neighborhood revival emphasis to a strategy of reducing public drug dealing by increasing police staffing. The obvious place to start is in the Mid-Market and Tenderloin, whose progress the mayor discussed.

Lee noted that 43 new police officers will soon graduate the academy, and that 20% will go to Southern Station, which is responsible for Mid-Market. But despite new investment the area between 5th and 7th streets remains plagued with drug dealing and out of control behavior. Eight more officers for the entire station coupled with the soon to open Sixth Street substation may not be enough to make a difference.

Tenderloin police staffing has declined by 30% since 2009, and has reached a record low of 69 officers. Why has this occurred? It's not because public drug dealing in hot spots has disappeared.

The mayor’s office, district attorney, and everyone concerned with sharply reducing crime in Mid-Market and the Tenderloin should read last week’s New York Times story on how police in New York City accomplished this goal. The story, “Prison Population Can Shrink When Police Crowd Streets,” makes it clear that New York City’s historic crime drop occurred for two reasons: increased police staffing and a focus on crime hot spots.

The story marvels at the refusal of other cities to adopt an approach that has brought remarkable success in reducing crime. It also refutes the common belief that moving crime from lower Turk, Market and Jones and other hot spots simply displaces it to nearby areas. Contrary to popular mythology, the unacceptable tactic of “stop and frisk” has played only a small role in New York City’s crime reduction.

Mayor Lee spoke of the “tensions” surrounding Mid-Market investment, but did not make it clear that this tension involves unacceptable crime levels in certain areas. The Mayor spoke powerfully about providing a brighter future for San Francisco kids, but forcing low income children to endure public drug dealing in their neighborhood (the Tenderloin has 4000 kids) detrimentally impacts their entire outlook on life.

It’s great that the mayor will boost funding for schools, but let’s hope he also helps San Francisco’s kids by providing them the safer neighborhoods they deserve.