Under Lee, the city instituted a payroll tax holiday on companies that relocated to the mid-Market neighborhood, drawing Twitter, Uber, Zendesk and a handful of others. It reshaped an entire area of the city, but did not solve the rampant homelessness and street crime in the area.
Lee also leaned toward the tech industry’s point of view on minor controversies such as whether tech company bus shuttles should be allowed to park at the city’s Muni stops in the mornings. Lee died in office in December 2017 and was replaced by London Breed, a similarly tech-amenable mayor who grew up in the city’s public housing.
The power of the mayor in San Francisco is limited by the Board of Supervisors, an 11-member city council, each of whom is elected from a discrete geographic area, giving neighborhood voters uncommon power over how the city is run.
The supervisors oversee most governance in the city, and they serve a range of very powerful constituencies, including public workers’ unions, neighborhood groups, the huge local health-care industry, homeowners, renters and local “progressives” — who, despite their name, vote mostly against new development and growth and in favor of preserving what they perceive as the old San Francisco. The city also allows voters to put initiatives on the ballot, leading to more bizarre and often contradictory laws, which are often challenged in court, not enforced and so on.
Working within this diversity of opinions is challenging. It’s easier to have cities line up with incentives every time you threaten to leave. But it’s also why San Francisco is a city worth living in for many of the people who live here, including the young creative workers who flock here in search not only of a paycheck but also adventure and novelty.
The area’s gnarly problems predate the tech industry. Tech critics point to San Francisco’s inability to “solve” its homeless problem over the last decade, but the problem stretches back well before the dot-com boom. When I first moved here in 1992, Mayor Art Agnos was dealing with the fallout of allowing (that is, not actively opposing) hundreds of homeless people to live in the park in front of City Hall. The last seven mayors have all tried various approaches — law and order, relying on services, “cleaning up” various parts of the city, shelters, more funding for housing and so on. It’s the kind of problem that resists simple algorithmic solutions.
The roots of the problem include broadly popular zoning and housing laws that make it difficult and expensive to build new houses, a reduction in mental health services in the 1980s that has never been recovered, historically permissive attitudes toward hard drug use and many other factors. (Kim-Mai Cutler’s 2014 long take on housing policy and Nathan Heller’s piece on homelessness during the pandemic are excellent places to start if you’re truly interested in learning what’s going on, instead of just repeating talking points from national politicians and tourists who can’t understand why all the hotels are next to the roughest neighborhood in town.)
The same goes for most of the other problems the tech departees are citing. Power outages? Let’s go back to the early 2000s when a botched deregulation plan and market manipulation contributed to rolling blackouts, leading voters to recall Democratic Gov. Grey Davis and replace him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Wildfires? How about the 1991 firestorm in the Oakland hills, which killed 25 people and burned thousands of homes? Corruption? Been going on for more than a century (like with many big cities).