San Francisco

I lived in San Francisco from 2016 to 2019, and still follow its politics. See also these voter guides (I don’t fully agree with them, but they are well-researched):

Elected offices

Scott Wiener for Senate District 11

I’m proud to have voted for Scott Wiener in my first San Francisco election in 2016. As a result of his narrow win, the debate around housing policy has changed around the world; I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he’s had a greater impact on this policy area than anyone else in the country.

Wiener’s first major bill, SB 35, streamlined approvals of new housing projects in cities that failed to meet housing production targets. This enabled developers to replace a mall in Cupertino with 2,400 homes, overcoming the exclusionary city’s NIMBY leadership; it has also produced affordable housing in San Francisco and other cities.

In 2018, Wiener pushed for SB 827, the most significant land use bill in California, attracting national media attention. The bill would have legalized apartments in transit-rich areas, but it died in committee. Wiener introduced its successor, SB 50, in 2019, expanding its scope to include job-rich areas and carving out vulnerable communities, and while it also failed to pass, it continued major momentum for pro-housing legislation, arguably creating room for less controversial bills like SB 330 to pass.

Wiener is a productive legislator who has worked hard on other issues as well. He has passed multiple bills relating to HIV and LGBT issues, and has sought to increase state funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

His opponent, Jackie Fielder, is aligned with the democratic-socialist wing of San Francisco politics. She’s branding herself as the “progressive” in the race, but her policy stances reveal that she’s anything but. Fielder:

It doesn’t matter how progressive the effects of a policy are, if it involves markets, Fielder opposes it. Her housing plan condemns market-rate housing, instead seeking to print $100 billion to add 100,000 homes over a decade. This is both wildly unrealistic—California’s General Fund is only $150 billion—and wildly insufficient—California is short 3.5 million homes, which will require at least a trillion dollars of investment to build. Apartment legalization would help either way, but because it allows some of those apartments be market-rate (the kind of homes the vast majority of Californians live in), she’ll side with wealthy NIMBYs, conservatives, and Donald Trump in opposing it.

However Fielder describes herself, the result of her policy preferences would be higher housing costs, more carbon emissions, and more poverty. Between her and the most effective, progressive pro-housing legislator in the country, the choice is clear.

David Chiu for Assembly District 17

Chiu is a major ally to YIMBYs, both in substance, for example authoring AB 2923 which allows BART to build more housing on its land, and sentiment, having spoken at many YIMBY events. He is a reliable vote for pro-housing legislation, such as SB 50 and SB 330. The anti-housing views of his opponent in the close 2014 race that brought Chiu to the assembly, demonstrates his “value above replacement” to AD-17.

Chiu has also authored bills to expand Medicaid, fund transit, and pursue other progressive priorities.

His record isn’t perfect, as he’s also been the chief advocate of rent control—which benefits incumbents at the cost of newcomers—in Sacramento, authoring AB 1482, signed in 2019. He’s also authored AB 857, which enables cities to create “public banks,” a performative institution that advocates falsely claim will enable them to essentially print money for government projects, avoiding real solutions like taxes and permitting the market to deliver critical services like housing.

Chiu’s opponent, Starchild received 56 write-in votes in the primary, and while he has progressive values on zoning, sex work, and immigration, he has no public policy experience and advocates counterproductive policies like abolishing the police and reducing lawmaker compensation.

Phil Ting for Assembly District 19

Ting focuses less on housing than his peers Chiu and Wiener, but he still votes reliably for pro-housing legislation. As chair of the Assembly Budget committee, he has notably promoted the expansion of CalEITC, a cash transfer to low-income Californians. CalEITC effectively reduces poverty in California and is a step toward basic income.

His opponent, John McDonnell, is a Republican who demonizes people experiencing homelessness and the gas tax, and advocates protecting Prop 13’s inequitable property tax system. While I agree with him on some views like equal protection, allowing gig work, and supporting charter schools, a vote for any Republican is, today and for years to come, a vote for Trumpism and the GOP, which have failed our country and our state.

Marjan Philhour #1, Veronica Shinzato #2 for District 1 Supervisor

Philhour’s website’s housing section is unambiguous:

Marjan supports building housing of all types, including 100% affordable, in-law units, and new apartment buildings.

She also supports transit and safe infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, for public safety, economic inclusivity, and the environment. As a small business owner and organizer of other small business owners, she supports simplified permitting to stop giving NIMBY neighbors (including competitors) unlimited authority to keep new businesses from opening.

Shinzato also supports re-evaluating requirements that prevent or slow down the production of new housing, such as parking requirements and discretionary permitting. She also supports creating new bike lanes and supporting people experiencing homelessness and people with mental health needs.

The competition wants to preserve District 1’s exclusionary low density. Tropes like Connie Chan’s “100 percent affordable housing” are proven recipes to build nothing: if apartments are illegal, even public monies can’t produce below-market-rate housing, and developers by definition can’t build entirely below-market-rate housing without subsidy. David Lee’s call to “stand up to real estate interests” really means “stand up to newcomers seeking to live in District 1.” His Trumpian “Richmond First” slogan really means, “only people who currently live in the Richmond matter.”

Philhour and Shinzato are the pro-housing, pro-inclusivity candidates in the race.

Danny Sauter for District 3 Supervisor

Sauter seeks to provide District 3 with new leadership. It is desperately needed.

Incumbent Aaron Peskin has, since being first elected in 2000, authored and supported legislation that has plunged San Francisco into its housing crisis. He’s tried to block allowing housing at a hotel site and on Treasure Island. When not outright opposing housing projects, he has promoted tools like CEQA and historic preservation to de facto reduce the number of homes. He introduced legislation that raises the share of housing units developers must reserve for low- and middle-income tenants to 32 percent; similar legislation cratered development. And he’s led city resolutions to formally oppose state laws like SB 827 to legalize apartments.

Peskin’s bad policy extends beyond housing. He’s proposed banning employee cafeterias that create jobs for food workers, and wants to tax vacant storefronts, even if they’re waiting on permits. He capped permits for alternative mobility options like bikeshare and scooters that reduce vehicle reliance. During the pandemic, he’s enacted price controls on delivery companies and opposed the initial version of Measure RR to fund Caltrain with a sales tax.

Finally, Peskin is personally unfit to serve the people of San Francisco. He has performed his duties while intoxicated, and is known for harassment. He illegally converted a rent-controlled duplex into a single home, abusing his power, and then proposed legislation to slow even minor modifications to similar projects.

Sauter could not be more different. On housing, he wants to “legalize apartment buildings,” “reform discretionary review,” “prioritize transit-oriented development,” and, for the first time in almost two decades, “set a goal and strategy for District 3 housing.” On transportation, he wants to make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists to get around, and improve transit. He’s the respectful, thoughtful, policy-oriented leader District 3 deserves.

Vallie Brown for District 5 Supervisor

Brown gets it on housing. She promises to:

Zone our neighborhoods for affordability with higher levels of density to meet the public demand for more housing and more 100% affordable housing. This must include removing the restrictions that have been designed to keep low-income renters out.

and

Create new and denser housing on underutilized lots in the district on former commercial land and in our neighborhood corridors.

Brown was one of only two supervisors to vote against a slanderous resolution to oppose SB 50, the state bill that would legalize apartments in transit- and job-rich areas. Her opponent, current supervisor Dean Preston, made it clear that he would have voted for the resolution to oppose SB 50.

She’s far from just talk, having approved housing in her district as supervisor. Preston tried to block the project by raising below-market requirements.

Preston would prefer a parcel remain empty than for people be able to live in non-100-percent-subsidized apartments there. Brown recognizes that 100 percent of zero is zero, and that people can only live in homes, not percentages.

Myrna Melgar for District 7 Supervisor

Melgar, a current planning commissioner, wants to “build more housing at every income level” and “encourage accessory dwelling units.” She is alone in the field in this view.

Opponent Joel Engardio, for example, “opposes attempts to eliminate or rezone single-family neighborhoods.”

Stephen Martin-Pinto doesn’t mention housing on his platform, instead calling for counterproductive zero-tolerance homelessness policies.

Ben Matranga also doesn’t mention housing.

Emily Murase promises to protect zoning for single family homes, and is “not unequivocally supportive of new housing along transit corridors.”

Vilaska Nguyen says, “Our neighborhoods are singular and architecturally unique and need to be preserved for future generations.” (Read: He will continue banning apartments.)

Legalizing apartments—any apartments—in the low-density District 7 should be a low bar in our progressive moment. Instead, all candidatesare siding with Donald Trump in preserving apartment bans—all candidates except Myrna Melgar.

Blank for District 9 Supervisor

Incumbent Hillary Ronen is running unopposed. She has consistently opposed housing, in her district and across California. She doesn’t deserve a token vote.

Ahsha Safai for District 11 Supervisor

Safai approved housing in his district and was one of only two supervisors to vote against the anti-SB50 resolution.

His opponent, former supervisor John Avalos, is more of the same that has gotten San Francisco into its crisis, saying:

Top-down policies that push luxury development into our neighborhoods without concern for affordability and community stability will not solve our housing crisis.

Michelle Parker for Board of Education

Parker is one of several candidates running against incumbents Jenny Lam and Mark Sanchez for re-election. Lam and Sanchez are mismanaging the Covid-19 crisis, dedicating resources to school renamings instead of bringing kids back.

In November 2018, I did not vote for Parker, given her opposition to charter schools and proposal to reserve housing for teachers. I still oppose those stances, and I couldn’t find evidence that she’s changed them, but she is a qualified, pro-tech, pro-housing candidate with a good chance of winning a seat and otherwise good values.

Another candidate I voted against in 2018 is Alida Fisher, who shared her outright nativism in a 2018 questionnaire:

Lotteries for low and middle income housing, as well as down payment assistance programs, should also provide priority or tie breaker options for young San Franciscans whose families have been in San Francisco for at least a generation.

Parker would be better than the incumbents and the competition.

Victor Olivieri and Jeanette Quick for Community College Board

Olivieri and Quick are among the candidates running against incumbents Tom Temprano and Shanell Williams. They support housing on land controlled by the board, with Olivieri having been previously endorsed by YIMBY (they didn’t endorse for school or college board this cycle). I voted for Olivieri when he ran in 2018—here’s why.

Williams sought to delay approval of a housing development at Balboa Reservoir, of which the board has control. Temprano has been more supportive of the project, but has not committed to maximizing total housing units at the site.

Lateefah Simon for BART Board of Directors District 7

Simon, the incumbent, supports building housing at all affordability levels on BART land.

Bevan Dufty for BART Board of Directors District 9

According to SF YIMBY’s endorsement, Dufty, the incumbent, “has supported all transit-oriented development projects on BART property that have come up to the board” and voted for a pro-SB50 resolution.

Ballot measures

Yes on Prop A

Prop A is a bond for homelessness, parks, street and sidewalk safety.

Local bonds are a great way to fund priorities since they can raise property taxes beyond the far-too-law rate of one percent dictated by 1978 Prop 13. Because property values in San Francisco are primarily land values, property taxes function nearly as land value taxes, which are one of the most efficient forms of taxation. Landlords cannot pass on land value taxes to tenants because the supply of land is fixed.

The programs this would fund are also valuable. While 2018 Prop C created the largest budget set-aside in history, locking in nearly $700 million per year to homelessness in perpetuity, there are probably some valuable uses of marginal dollars for homelessness; if nothing else, SF could give homeless people money, as an organization in Canada recently piloted, with positive results. San Francisco is sorely lacking in parks, and street and sidewalk safety have much room for improvement. Prop A funds important programs with an efficient tax. Vote yes.

No on Prop B

Prop B aims to address corruption in the Department of Public Works by creating a new Department of Sanitation and Streets, moves DPW oversight from the City Administrator to a new Public Works Commission, and requires new annual audits and analysis.

As techworkers.vote said, “this is performative accountability.” Commissions don’t have actual power, and moving people to a new department—to the tune of at least $2.5 million annually—doesn’t change any incentives.

Yes on Prop C

Prop C allows non-citizens to serve on city boards, commissions, and advisory bodies. Citizenship status is an irrelevant factor in ability to contribute to these local government functions.

Yes on Prop D

Prop D has similar governance aims to Prop B, with respect to the sheriff’s department rather than DPW. But unlike Prop B, it creates real investigatory powers, addressing an institution in dire need of greater oversight nationwide.

Yes on Prop E

Prop E removes a minimum police staffing target set in a 1994 ballot measure. The city has never met the target. Elected officials and public safety experts should be in charge of staffing, unconstrained from non-binding ballot measures that should have never been enacted.

No on Prop F

Prop F repeals the city’s payroll tax, and replaces the lost revenue with increasing rates on its current gross receipts tax. It also reduces business registration fees and gross receipts taxes for small businesses. Finally, Prop F contains elements pertaining to prior ballot measures, which a court decision has made irrelevant.

A report from the Controller’s office, which considers Covid-19, found that Prop F would have modest revenue effects over the next couple years, followed by steady revenue increases of about $100 million per year beginning in 2024.1

Table 1 Net tax revenue generated by Prop F ($ millions)

2021

2022

2023

2024

2025

-8

31

64

97

97

The Controller’s report also estimated that, beginning in 2023 due to the elimination of the payroll tax, “An increase in employment in the City, and in City contractors, would slightly outweigh the job losses in the industries that face tax increases under the proposal.”

The tax revenue and slight employment growth are not the only effects of the measure, though. Prop F doubles down on a gross receipts tax, which doesn’t exempt wages, expenses, or investments like corporate income taxes do Nor do gross receipts taxes limit their scope to consumption, like both retail sales taxes (which tax final products) and value added taxes (VATs, which tax throughout the chain, and exist in all developed countries except the US) do. Instead, they tax a share of a firm’s global gross receipts (revenues) attributable to San Francisco operations, with rates and attribution rules varying by industry and gross receipts.

Experts agree that gross receipts taxes are extremely inefficient and distortionary. Taxing each level of production, called tax pyramiding, encourages vertical integration. Ignoring expenses like payroll and inputs discourages growth and investment. Basing tax rates on industry attracts corruption, with huge payoffs for favorable classification.

Prop F also increases the extent to which taxes rise with employer size. While progressive taxation might make sense for individuals, the same logic doesn’t hold for firms: policy should not discourage growth and hiring. But by shifting more to the gross receipts tax—which has graduated scales such that largest businesses often pay double the rate of smaller ones–and exempting small businesses from more taxes, that’s exactly what Prop F does.

To illustrate these distortions, consider a small business that provides administrative services for retailers, while also having a demo retail shop of its own (similarly to Eatsa for food). Here are a few wasteful things a gross receipts tax would encourage them to do:

  • Lobby tax authorities to classify them as being in the retail industry, where they’ll pay a seventh of the taxes they’d pay if they’re instead classified as in the administrative services industry.

  • Shift business practices from administrative services to retail if their lobbying fails, so that the tax authorities reclassify them.

  • Merge with another retail business, or acquire or be acquired by one, to raise their chances of being classified as retail.

  • Split their retail business from their services business if neither of the above practices convince tax authorities, since at least their retail business could lower its taxes.

  • Avoid hiring people which could push them into a higher tax bracket, either through increased payroll or increased sales.

  • Expand operations outside of San Francisco to reduce the share of payroll or sales in San Francisco, which determines their tax base conditional on global gross receipts.

  • Split business to stay in a lower tax bracket and qualify for other small business tax breaks in Prop F.

If lawmakers want comprehensive tax reform, they should go back to the drawing board to identify a reform that doesn’t repeal the tried-and-true payroll tax in lieu of the most distortionary tax available. They could abandon the gross receipts tax and return to the fair and simple payroll tax it replaced in 2012. They could raise retail sales tax rates. They could enact a VAT, which enables other developed countries to fund their generous social services. They could offset potential distributional drawbacks (which haven’t been identified or quantified) with transfers to low-income San Franciscans.

Prop F barely raises any new revenue before the 2022 election, and after that it grows the General Fund by about 1.5 percent.2 Rejecting this flawed proposal now creates an opportunity for leaders to bring the voters something better thought through in the future, without cementing a terrible fiscal precedent.

Yes on Prop G

Prop G allows 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. A New York Times investigation (written by my grad school colleague Alexandria Symonds) attributed low youth turnout—15 percentage points below overall turnout in 2016—to habit formation, opportunity cost, and alternative participation. Allowing young people to vote plausibly addresses each blocker:

  • Many would be influenced by seeing their parents vote in a community they’re connected to, while having an opportunity to do so themselves, and would form habits around this early practice.

  • High school students generally have more flexible schedules and less financial worry than young people in the workforce, reducing the opportunity cost of taking the time to vote.

  • Their preexisting passion for politics can translate directly to voting, in addition to other forms of participation.

It also addresses part of each intervention cited by experts (bold verbatim):

  • Short term: Get young people the specific information they need to register and make it to the polls. Parents and high schools can provide this information.

  • Medium term: Work to reduce systemic barriers, especially to registration. A 2017 study found that “permitting future voters to preregister at age 16 or 17, making them automatically registered on their 18th birthday, increases both registration and turnout by 2.1 percentage points.” The chance to cast a real vote may increase the chances of this kind of pre-registration (California Prop 18, which would allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries and special elections if they will be 18 by the next general election, could help too, and I recommend voting yes).

  • Long term: Reimagine civics education. What better civics education than a senior class field trip to a polling location for a local election?

By raising youth—and thus lifelong—voter turnout, Prop G strengthens the bedrock of our democracy.

Yes on Prop H

Prop H removes a number of unnecessary and counterproductive roadblocks to starting and operating a business. For example, it streamlines the process for public engagement, which has added months to activities as minor as opening an ice cream shop. It also legalizes the cafe/workspace model in certain districts, allows restaurant service in parklets (as the city has temporarily allowed for public health reasons), and makes other changes to help businesses commence and modify their activities without permission from City Hall and neighbors.

Ideally, this would be passed as legislation, but the Board of Supervisors has failed to act, so Mayor Breed brought the choice to voters.

As San Francisco recovers from Covid-19’s economic collapse, its failed limitations will become a bigger drag than they’ve already been. Prop H fixes issues that have long plagued the city, at a time when it especially needs them to be fixed.

No on Prop I

Prop I doubles taxes on sales of properties valued at $10 million or more, with revenues compensating landlords who waive rent payments due to Covid-19 and funding public housing projects. This has been sold as a tax on “mansions,” but in reality, its targets are new apartment buildings and large commercial buildings, which are transferred from the developer to property managers. The city economist projects major negative impacts due to discouraging construction:

  • 450 housing units lost per year (0.1 percent), raising housing prices by 0.17 percent

  • 210,000 square feet of commercial space lost per year (0.2 percent), raising non-residential prices by 0.31 percent

  • 625 jobs lost (0.06 percent)

  • $50 million of GDP lost (0.03 percent)

  • $100 lower per-capita disposable income by 2030

A less robust part of their analysis also found that it would have raised revenues by an average of $196 million per year (about 3 percent of the General Fund2) over the past three years. However, this does not consider the effects on deferring sales to avoid triggering the tax, and the economist cautions that actual future revenues would be less.

This measure taxes specifically what San Francisco needs more of: large multifamily housing and dense commercial space. It puts more wood behind a broken arrow, with the transfer tax discouraging the turnover in properties that loosens San Francisco’s tight housing market, and also creating huge cliffs at particular sale prices by virtue of not being a marginal tax. Transfer taxes should cover the cost of the city processing the transfer, and no more.

By funding specific programs, it also reduces elected officials’ power over budgeting. And these specific programs are particularly flawed. Reimbursing waived rent will accrue disproportionately to landlords and tenants in expensive properties, who will be disproportionately rich. It also fails to target people in need, targeting instead those who know new laws well enough to find how to get rent waived. Public housing is allocated by lottery, forcing low-income people into whichever home they happen to be selected for, rather than empowering them to choose where to live. San Francisco also has programs to help low-income people in more direct and freeing ways, such as the Working Families Credit.

Prop I is a misleading measure that discourages density, harms the economy, and directs resources to flawed programs.

Yes on Prop J

Prop J replaces a 2018 parcel tax currently facing legal battles with a new one that would fund schools. Parcel taxes are great because land in San Francisco has appreciated so rapidly, making landowners generally quite wealthy. Normally, that kind of public wealth could be captured by property taxes—or better yet, land values taxes—but since Prop 13 limits that, parcel taxes approximate it while also taxing multifamily housing less than single-family homes (since each building, rather than unit, is treated as a single parcel). Funding schools, which need resources to educate kids in new Covid-19 circumstances, is a worthy use.

No on Prop K

Prop K allows the city to build public housing.

Public housing is one of the worst ways to spend public funds. Since it is always oversubscribed, it’s allocated by lottery, leaving people on waitlists for years or decades. People who want to be considered often have to apply for each new opening, getting their hopes up for almost-certain repeated rejection. There’s also evidence that public housing generates anti-immigrant sentiment, since it’s such a visceral, tangible zero-sum assistance policy.

Since Prop K doesn’t raise any revenue, it takes money away from better policies. For example, for the $500,000 or so it would cost to build a single public housing unit, San Francisco could expand its basic income pilot to an additional 100 artists. For the cost of four units, it could reopen its Working Families Credit, a cash transfer for low-income San Franciscans, to all 8,000 families who qualify, not just those who haven’t claimed it in prior years. For the $5 billion it would cost to meet author Dean Preston’s goal of 10,000 public housing units, it could become the first jurisdiction in the continental US to offer a child allowance, giving $300 per month for each child in the city for more than a decade. These broad-based transfers don’t rely on lotteries or waiting for approval and hodgepodges of funds, they simply reduce poverty and inequality in an empowering way.

Reject Prop K to force city officials to invest government resources in more productive ways.

No on Prop L

Prop L would assess additional gross receipts taxes to firms whose top-paid employee is paid at least 100 times the median San Francisco employee. The additional rate rises with the rate, with the top rate kicking in at a ratio of 600:1. For firms with only administrative offices in San Francisco—offices defined by the treasurer as those without “sales personnel or personnel actively engaged in marketing, research and development, direct customer service, and product support services”—the new tax is assessed on payroll rather than gross receipts.

The city economist’s report found that the tax would have the following effects:

  • Add $60 million to $140 million in annual tax revenue (1-2 percent of the General Fund)

  • Lose the city 615 employees (0.06 percent), most significantly in retail trade, financial services, and accommodations

  • Reduce GDP by $60 million (0.03 percent)

While it’s temperamentally targeted toward tech companies, the retail trade sector would be the most disproportionately impacted, paying 23 percent of the tax while making up 7 percent of current employment.

Yes on Measure RR

Measure RR is a sales tax to fund Caltrain. Without it, Caltrain risks shutdowns. Rail transit is critical for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, and provides affordable transportation options for people who don’t want to incur the large expenses of vehicle ownership. Sales taxes avoid distortions of some of the other more convoluted taxes on the San Francisco ballot, and the progressive benefits of public transit far outweights its mild regressivity.


1

Excludes now-irrelevant unlocked revenue from table in page 8 of the Controller’s report.

2(1,2)

The budget for San Francisco is $13.7 billion in FY 2020-21, of which the General Fund comprises about half.