SF knows the problems. Where's the fix?
An ongoing saga of the same old, same old. Except it is getting worse
When I came to the SF Chronicle, over 40 years ago, there was an editor who had an all-purpose reply to any of us who asked for a raise.
First, he’s say no.
Then he’d add, “But you live in San Francisco.”
Meaning, of course, that it was worth the low salary just to be a part of this small, special band of brothers, sisters and families who are proud to call themselves San Franciscans.
It doesn’t sound like that would fly today. You probably saw the Bay Area Council survey that found that almost half of San Francisco residents say they will leave in the next few years.
The reasons are no mystery. This year’s Chamber of Commerce’s CityBeat Poll was alarming, mostly because there was nothing surprising or alarming in it. The concerns are the same as they’ve ever been — homelessness, crime and quality of life.
Those issues have been running on a continuous outrage loop for decades. The only difference, reinforced by the Chamber’s poll, is that the perception is that each has gotten worse.
And that’s totally on brand too. I believe it was former KPIX political reporter Hank Plante who said, “San Francisco isn’t a liberal city. It’s a lenient city.”
Meaning it isn’t that we are championing big, meaningful social causes. We’re more likely to just let things go.
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And today, coming out of the pandemic, would be the time to stop running in circles and move toward solutions. For instance:
HOMELESSNESS: Again, not a surprise, but the CityBeat Poll and the Bay Area Council found homelessness as the top issue. Eighty percent of those polled by the Chamber said homelessness was the top priority for the city.
Respondents also backed some measures that could address the problem. Eighty percent supported “expanding conservatorship for individuals experiencing severe mental illness.” Seventy-five percent supported creating temporary housing.
Instead, the city has gone with its time-honored approach — throw money at the problem. Mayor London Breed has announced a $1 billion budget for the unhoused. There’s the $200 million a year tax that passed in 2018 with lots of help from billionaire Marc Benioff.
But the proposals so far have proposed taking over, or purchasing outright, hotels in the city. It’s not an idea that’s converted me yet.
High-rise public housing in the center of town? I've been around long enough to remember the infamous Pink Palace public housing tower in the Western Addition. Built in 1962, by the 80s it had become a notorious center of crime, violence and drug use.
Ask Mayor Breed about it. She grew up in public housing in the Western Addition.
The Pink Palace was eventually condemned in the 80s and turned into a senior center. But as Breed said in a visit to her old neighborhood in February, she remembers it well.
“I don’t want to go into the details and provide specific examples of what happened, but it was pretty bad,” she added.
Creating another version of it, given the city’s track record for managing public housing, does not sound encouraging.
What does have some potential is Supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s “Safe Space to Sleep,” initiative. He wants to expand the city-sponsored open spaces for unhoused individuals to pitch their tents.
The idea seems to be working at Civic Center, where it has been in place for over a year. Homeless individuals can stay in their tents, with a partner or a pet, and come and go as they please.
As always, the objection is cost. The breakdown for the tents, including facilities like running water and toilets, is over $60,000 a year. Which, someone is bound to say, is more than the cost of a studio apartment.
But that’s including the amenities. It takes tents off the street and gives the unhoused a safe place to stay. The city has identified over 40 locations for more sites. It could happen right now. Why is this proposal unable to even get out of the Budget and Finance Committee?
As we keep saying, the problem isn’t money. It’s action.
CRIME: Even by San Francisco standards this Chronicle story by peerless reporter Michael Cabanatuan grabbed your attention. It said, in the month of May SFPD’s Central Station recorded an increase of 753% in smash and grab car burglaries.
And, to the surprise of no one, a huge chunk of the incidents are tourists in areas like Pier 39 and Golden Gate Park. TV news crews who go out to cover the story, often end up filming perps in the act. This KRON clip has a victim saying he not only saw video of a guy breaking into his car, a few days later he saw the same guy smashing windows and looting another car.
And yet, SFPD has told us over and over that the smash and grab epidemic is fueled by a relatively small number of individuals, who treat car break-ins like a 9-5 job. The same faces appear on the same videos, often filmed by tourists who can’t believe the crooks can be so brazen.
Surely, these individuals can be identified on tape. Last week, two days in a row, I saw the same guy on the same corner, at the same trash can, on Market. He was going through bags and backpacks, throwing away what he didn’t want.
You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to deduce that he’s ripping off people’s bags. Target him. Follow him. Catch him.
And then there have to be consequences — charges, convictions and deterrence. This is the perfect time to step up and make a difference. People are eager to break out of COVID confinement and go somewhere.
But if they come to SF — remember tourism is the city’s #1 economic driver — and get ripped off, they aren’t coming back.
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SCHOOLS: As much as we fret about these other problems, I’ve heard more complaints about San Francisco public schools than any other topic. The Chronicle’s Jill Tucker had a chilling story last week.
It concerns Naomi Laguana, a San Francisco mom who was actively volunteering at virtually every level in the school district. She was a PTA president. She worked in the classroom. She even served on the Parent Advisory Committee, which is a famous time-suck.
And last week she quit. All of it. She’s had it.
“I gave it my all,” she said. “And it just didn’t work out.”
Laguana was particularly frustrated with the lack of a plan to address the learning loss from a year of virtual classes. But there is also the dysfunctional school board, off in the ozone with proposals to remove Abraham Lincoln’s name from a school and an $87 million law suit filed by a member. And, of course, there is the Byzantine school selection system, which often leaves parents confused and angry.
“It’s a broken system,” Laguana said. “This is not something a few angry parents can take on.”
Well someone is going to have to. The upcoming fall semester has the makings of a meltdown. The district admitted earlier this month that it has lost over 1,700 students so far, but I’m betting that’s the tip of the iceberg.
Parents are putting their kids in private schools or actively leaving the city. And that’s not to mention the teachers, who are retiring in droves.
That’s a lot of fix. But it begins with accountability and the School Board. Best wishes to the recall efforts, but the best way to achieve change is to be an informed voter. Don’t be someone who (raises hand) just votes for the incumbent or a familiar name.
Elections have consequences, and the consequences can’t get much bigger for SF schools. Help get out the vote and change this Board.
So there you have it. It’s the same problems, year after year. But now they are perceived to be getting worse. In most cities, this would be an alarm, a call to action.
But you live in San Francisco.
Contact C.W. Nevius at firstname.lastname@example.org. Suggestions welcome. Complaints and criticism, not so much. Twitter: @cwnevius