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"But He's Not a Politician!"
Chris A. Smith | Photo: Jim Hughes | November 28, 2013
Mayor Ed Lee wasn't supposed to be a polarizing political figure. Then the economy went berserk, and the old San Francisco fault lines cracked wide open.
Midmorning at a building site on the edge of Chinatown. The fog is burning off, the earthmovers stilled. Mayor Ed Lee is here, tending to the ceremonies of civic progress: the groundbreaking of a 75-unit housing project for some of San Francisco’s poorest families. Hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his baggy suit jacket, he peers into the churned-up dirt behind the podium.
This is Lee’s home turf. Before he became mayor, before he spent two decades as a city bureaucrat, he worked here as a civil rights lawyer. The audience is composed mostly of activists and nonprofit workers, many of them old friends and political allies. Rose Pak, Chinatown kingmaker, sits in the front row near Gordon Chin, the now-retired cofounder of the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), which builds most of the affordable housing in the city’s northeast. Lee receives a hype man’s introduction. “He’s a brother, he’s a friend, he’s the mayor, but he’s not a politician!” the MC half shouts into the microphone. “This is good stuff, man! We should celebrate!”
In a brief speech, the mayor predicts that the city will become a national model for affordable housing construction. “This is just a beginning,” he says. Behind him stand nine shovels, their blades spotless and ready for photo ops, pincushioned into a mound of dirt. Grabbing one, Lee asks the photographers, “You want the construction face?” He grins big, shovel frozen in midair.
The mayor’s next event is at Pier 9, a recently spiffed-up patch of waterfront a few blocks down the hill. He has come to toast the expansion of Autodesk, a company that makes software for, among others, researchers in 3-D printing and biotech. It’s a different scene down here: all sleek glass, steel, and the ambient hum of raw computing power. Waiters circulate with sparkling water and ceviche. The only overlap with the Chinatown event is the mayor himself—yet Lee’s role is different here, more pom-pom-shaking cheerleader than conquering hero. He makes a few standard-issue Ed Lee jokes, including one about cloning his mustache with a 3-D printer that gets an amiable guffaw from the crowd. Mostly, though, he praises Autodesk—and the ever-expanding tech industry that, he says, is making San Francisco the “innovation capital of the world.”
As a public speaker, the mayor displays a cavalier approach to sentence structure and word usage. “This is the beginning of redefining manufacturing,” he says, the words tumbling out as if they had been stored under pressure and shaken before their release. “Not only are these machines and tools gonna be used here, exposing people to a new way of manufacturing and making things. Gonna be another added thing to the makers’ movement that we are wanting to converse in San Francisco.”
Undeterred by the syntax, the audience bursts into applause. Beyond the pier, the skyline bristles with construction cranes shimmering in the noonday haze. From Mission Bay to mid-Market, Dogpatch to SoMa, the drivers of this new economy—programmers and bioscientists and VCs and engineers—are feverishly at work. Squint hard enough, and you can almost see San Francisco’s future.
Afterward, as the mayor’s Chevy Volt spins off toward his next engagement, I find myself thinking about these back-to-back events. Together, they represent the alpha and omega of our current moment: the city’s white-hot, tech-fueled economy and the housing affordability crisis that it has exacerbated.
When Lee took office nearly three years ago, San Francisco was struggling with the lingering effects of the Great Recession. Though the city wasn’t nearly as hard-hit as the rest of the country, unemployment was close to 10 percent and home foreclosures had doubled over the previous year. With an intensity bordering on mania, Lee pushed for business-friendly legislation—with a heavy emphasis on tech—and stumped for new investment. Today, through some alchemy of good policy and good fortune, unemployment is below 6 percent. Between the end of 2011 and the end of 2012, San Francisco grew faster than any other large county in America, adding more than 30,000 jobs and spurring the biggest building boom in decades. And the mayor, who keeps a running tally of construction cranes (26 at last count), shows no sign of letting up. At a recent appearance before a ballroom full of developers at the Westin St. Francis, he assured the crowd, “I don’t ever want to signal to you that you’re not welcome in this city.”
In his quest to boost San Francisco’s economy, Lee has benefited from an unusually tranquil political climate. Taking the stage after progressive fire-breathers like Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin were termed out of the Board of Supervisors, Lee and his jobs message resonated with voters more worried about the economy than about runaway development. The current board, meanwhile, is more inclined to work with him than to fight him—a change from the trench warfare that dogged the administrations of Gavin Newsom and Willie Brown. His relationships with even his most vocal progressive opponents—District 11 supervisor John Avalos and District 9 supervisor David Campos—are at least civil and occasionally collaborative. The mayor has also made his own luck with a consensus-driven approach that has created space for agreement across political lines: Last year, for example, he passed one of the largest affordable housing measures in city history.
But a lack of animus doesn’t mean that everyone is happy in San Francisco. This boom, like the last one, has a pronounced downside. Apartment rents increased by 13 percent from mid-2011 to mid-2012, and they are up 10 percent over the past year. According to a recent study, a minimum-wage employee would need to work 3.4 jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the Excelsior—and 7.4 jobs for one in SoMa. Owner move-in evictions, meanwhile, are up 81 percent this year. And no wonder: As of July, home prices had risen by 17 percent in the previous year.
And, of course, it’s not just low-income San Franciscans who are being priced out of the city. According to Trulia, only 14 percent of homes for sale this October were affordable for the middle class, down from 24 percent a year earlier. To the multitudes who feel that the city they know is slipping away, it seems like Lee’s tech-friendly actions, from his tax breaks for mid-Market companies to his all-purpose boosterism, are just hastening the end.
Calvin Welch, a progressive housing activist and a veteran of the city’s development wars, says that Lee’s activist history initially gave him hope. The affordable housing trust fund instated last year was a good start, Welch tells me, but it’s been all downhill from there—“just this constant pimping for high tech.” He cites the eye-popping statistic that 30 percent of homes sold in San Francisco in the first four months of 2013 were bought for cash. “But it’s like it doesn’t register with Lee, like it’s all positive, nothing negative,” he says. “The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is getting forced out. This guy doesn’t get it about inequality.”
The mayor, critics say, isn’t equipped to manage the consequences of the boom. He is a captive of the system that cultivated him—and of its most powerful players, from tech moguls like Ron Conway to traditional power brokers like Pak and Brown. Though Lee was once a civil rights lawyer, he’s spent most of his career working in city government. He is a creature of the bureaucracy, and bureaucrats are rarely known for their big–picture vision—or their empathy. “We need leadership animated by moral imagination about what the city could be,” says Vincent Pan, executive director of the nonprofit Chinese for Affirmative Action. “That’s not the kind of thing one gets training for as city administrator.”
At the Chinatown building site, Lee acknowledges the problems presented by the overheated economy. “We need to continue to make sure this is the city for the 100 percent,” he says. He uses this line all the time, and it points to his central challenge—and, ultimately, to his legacy. As the mayor nears the halfway mark of his first term, the question is: Can he keep his promise?