San Francisco’s Prop C puts spending on homelessness in the spotlight | KALW

San Francisco’s Prop C puts spending on homelessness in the spotlight

Oct 22, 2018

San Francisco may permanently double the money it spends on housing and services for homeless people, if voters pass Prop C on November 6. The measure would raise new funds by taxing the top 300 or so highest-grossing businesses in the city.

San Franciscans consistently rank homelessness as one of their highest priorities. However, Mayor London Breed opposes the measure, State Senator Scott Wiener says it’s too extreme, and getting voters on board with new funding measures to address homelessness has historically been a challenging feat.

Prop C would fund new permanent supportive housing, rental assistance to prevent homelessness, new temporary shelters, and 25 percent of the revenue would go to mental health services for people on the street.

Kate Brannan, a volunteer with the Prop C campaign, says she’s tired of standing by while people suffer through mental health crises.

"It's the ultimate feeling of helplessness," she says, "So, if there's a proposition to help address that, I want to support it."

The coalition opposing Prop C worries the tax could cost the city jobs. The city controller’s analysis estimated that the tax would only amount to a 0.1 percent hit to San Francisco’s total GDP. But the report admitted it couldn’t account for the possibility of companies taking their business to other cities.

The city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development speculated that if businesses relocate from San Francisco, middle class jobs and administrative jobs will be the first to go.

“That’s your retail clerk at Safeway, your brewer at Anchor Brewery, the grocer that potentially works at Bi-Rite,” said Jess Montejano, vice president of PR company Riff City Strategies, and spokesperson for the “No on C” campaign.

None of those or any of the businesses contacted were willing to comment on this story or even disclose their stance on Prop C. But Anchor Brewing and Bi-Rite say they do not make enough to be affected by the measure.

Only companies making $50 million in annual revenue would be. If the measure passes, they’d pay, on average, a 0.05 percent gross receipts tax. In most cases that’s much less than companies gained from recent federal tax cuts. But still, if a business can avoid that tax by relocating one city over, Montejano worries they may.

"I think the aim of any policy should to be to do no harm. I think they failed at that basic objective."

Montejano says he suspects many members of the coalition he represents would support the measure if real results were guaranteed. But he’s wary of continuing to increase spending on homelessness without seeing progress.

He points out that the city has doubled its spending on fighting homelessness over the last decade and meanwhile there’s been a slight increase in the number of people on the streets.

“These are contracts that exist between nonprofit service providers and the city — in essence, taxpayers,” says Montejano. “If you're not hitting the goals of the contract, if you're not performing to what you signed up to do, there needs to be discussion on how you can fix that.”

There are other factors that help explain why increased funding hasn’t decreased homelessness. First, the city has had to make up for cuts in state funding. Second, homelessness has gone up nationally since the '08 recession — much faster than it has in San Francisco. The city has managed to keep its rates relatively flat by housing people and providing rental relief for people in danger of losing their homes. Still, new people become homeless all the time.

Anakh Sul Rama is a community organizer with Community Housing Partnership and works with the Prop C campaign. He says the city is spending a lot of money fighting the symptoms of the problems rather than solving it.

"We're spending money on services and we're spending money on hospitalizations and emergency visits," says Rama. "We're spending money on the police responding to a humanitarian crisis."

New supportive housing is expensive. Each unit costs the city nearly a million dollars. But, most of that is upfront for the land and building, the rest is for on-site caseworkers. Studies show that it’s $40,000 cheaper annually to care for each person indoors than it is to care for them out on the street.

But ultimately, the argument Rama makes to opponents of the tax is a moral one.

“It would be interesting to see them having to tell a person that they are not being prioritized to come indoors, over the tax benefits that a massive corporation receives.”

According to the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Prop C would house 5,000 people with new and converted units. This “housing first” approach is based on data that shows people are much more successful at addressing mental health, addiction, and employment issues after being housed, rather than the other way around — but it takes support.

Rama was homeless himself before moving into supportive housing and working with caseworkers who guided him into his current career.

“I had no inner self-esteem,” says Rama. “It finally was someone I work with now who reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, you have a lot of worth that you might not see, but we all see and I want you to take this class and you can learn how to do it better.’”

He’s been at his current job for over four years. But still, he worries about falling back on the streets.

“Once you've experienced it, it's something that can come back,” says Rama. “Every one of us are literally one paycheck away, one recession away from being homeless ourselves.”

If everyone who feels that way votes for Prop C, it may have a chance of clearing the simple majority it needs to win. However, a simple majority may not be good enough in the long-term. That’s because of a legal challenge mounting against the state law governing ballot taxes. If state law changes to require a two-thirds vote to pass taxes on the ballot, Prop C could be retroactively struck down. So proponents are hoping to secure that two-thirds vote ahead of time.