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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Ed Lee's contested legacy on housing

Liza Veale
Protesters on Mission St.


As the mayor that presided over a wave of gentrification and displacement, Ed Lee took a lot of heat from the public. But, he also easily won reelection.

Since the affordable housing crisis was the number one issue during Lee’s time in office, his policies around housing are likely to define what he’s remembered for. And there’s no clear consensus on whether he did more damage than good.

Take supervisor Aaron Peskin, and Randy Shaw — who’s worked for low-income tenants for almost 40 years with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. They both champion working class people’s right to housing in San Francisco, but they have pretty contradictory views of Lee’s record.

“Five years from now if not sooner, people will realize that San Francisco is way more affordable than it otherwise would have been because of Ed Lee,” says Shaw. “He was maybe the most progressive mayor in the country.”

Peskin’s view of Ed Lee is not so rosy.

“Let's be honest,” says Peskin, “a handful of tech billionaires invested in San Francisco a decade ago and Ed Lee chose to dance with those people ... paving the way for the tech take over of San Francisco.”

A major fault line is that Lee believed that the public and private sectors could make mutually beneficial deals — when it came to housing and beyond.

But progressives, and people at risk of being priced out, often felt their interests were incompatible with the interests of the private sector and wanted their mayor to be more antagonistic towards what they see as the forces of gentrification.

Investing in mid-Market

One big piece of Lee’s legacy is bound to be his effort to revitalize the mid-Market Street region. It’s an area known for blight, neglect, and vacancy.

Lee saw it as an opportunity to create prosperity.

The neighborhood today is a strange mix of abandoned-looking lots and high-end retail and restaurants, many of which have struggled to stay open.

A bunch of housing is getting built, but a lot of residents have yet to move in. It’s still too soon to judge the investment.

Shaw, whose nearby Tenderloin housing clinic receives a lot of city funds, says the investment in mid-Market was long overdue.

“No other mayor had wanted to tackle that because it seemed like a loser. They want to pick winnable fights. He took a big risk that no other prior mayors had been willing to take.”

Lee and his supporters say the neighborhood would never have changed without the tax incentives the city gave Twitter and other tech companies.

With those companies come highly paid workers who live and spend money in the neighborhood, and pay taxes to fund needed services.

But, it also puts the existing tenants at risk.

“It is true in San Francisco economic good times are often bad for some tenants because it leads to speculation, it leads to displacement,” says Shaw, “but economic bad times also lead to eviction. So, everyone seems happier when the city has more money. ”

Shaw points out that a lot of social services located near mid-Market have more funding to help people now than when Ed Lee first took office — thanks to both greater tax revenue and to donations from the companies.

But, clearly, plenty of people are not happier.

People such as former San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos argue that Lee sold San Francisco out when the city subsidized mid-Market businesses instead of raising taxes on them.

“His defense was in order to grow the economy we have to give these breaks to big businesses,” says Avalos, “but the other part of it is these big businesses had done a lot to get him elected.”

Lee did lead the way on passing a big bond for low-income housing, expanded eviction defense funding and renovated a lot of existing affordable housing.

Yet Avalos maintains that he could have done all of this at a greater scale if he’d taxed the private sector more aggressively.

He believes San Francisco was in a position to drive a hard bargain with businesses — but instead “they weren't taxed in any way other than just to enable the city to keep the lights on.”

Revenue measures are hard to pass, that’s why progressive San Francisco supervisors didn’t pass one themselves. But, to the extent that San Francisco politicians are increasingly controlled by tech and private money,  the task only becomes harder.

A pro-growth agenda

Ed Lee’s trademark was an emphasis on practical cooperation and compromise to solve problems. You can hear this in a speech he gave in 2015.

“For too long, deeply held and honest ideological differences divided all of us,” said Lee. “Some say we’re not tough enough, others will say we’re not compassionate enough. Some say we spend too much money, others say we haven’t spent enough. Well it’s time to reconcile these disagreements — not put them aside, but work through them.”

Avalos, the former city supervisor, says that in practice Ed Lee’s focus on compromise meant looking for win/wins for the private and public sector.

It’s a sharp contrast to the way progressives talk about standing up to big business.

So, instead of raising taxes on companies, Lee gave them the good PR of making donations.

Instead of investing in affordable housing first, he invested in economic development in mid-Market, and promised it would generate revenue for housing later.

In September of last year, he pledged to nearly triple the amount of new housing the city aims to build by easing the approval process.

“This executive directive will provide the structure for an unprecedented amount of housing production by reducing project approval levels by nearly half of what they currently experience,” said Lee. “Those of you who are investors should smile about that — your money is not held up.”

This move pleased the new YIMBY — or, Yes In My Back Yard — movement that sprang up during Lee’s term as mayor. But it was unpopular among San Franciscans who think the only housing we should be building is non-profit or publicly financed affordable housing. Pro-growth activists like Shaw argue that gentrification would actually have been worse without all the new construction.

“The people who vehemently opposed market-rate housing, which is a lot of activists on both the left and the right, never forgave Ed Lee,” says Shaw. “They blamed him for gentrification — as if San Francisco was an affordable city prior to 2011 when he took office. It’s nonsense.”

Indeed, Lee’s pro-growth stance was unpopular among San Franciscans who worry about affordable neighborhoods becoming high-end. Market-rate rents are still wildly unaffordable for most of the workforce. Of the nearly 5,000 units built in 2016, only 802 were subsidized as affordable.

To Avalos, low-income housing didn’t seem to be as urgent of a priority for Lee as keeping the developer- and business-community happy.

“If you're saying that your goal is to create more affordable housing, okay, let's do that,” he says. “Let’s make that possible. But, if your goal is to grow the economy and bring in a little bit of funding to address a political issue like affordable housing and you don't bring enough of it, then we got a problem.”

That’s the view of plenty of San Franciscans today.

Homelessness persists

More than a month after Mayor Lee’s death, protesters marched from the Mission down to mid-Market, chanting “Save San Francisco!”

Their goal was to block tech offices from moving into a building they want used to house low income people at risk of homelessness.

“I lived in my place since ‘93, it was section 8,” says a man named Brian Paul Reed who now lives on the street near Market. “There’s a lot more money here. A lot more people with money.”

Ed Lee’s main response to homelessness was opening four new navigation centers — shelters with fewer rules, designed to navigate clients to long-term housing.

“The city services suck,” says Daryl Greer, who lives nearby. “The Navigation Centers are supposed to navigate you through the red tape, it takes you all inside the red tape and this is where I've ended up after 5 months.”

City records have shown he’s not alone. Fewer than a quarter of clients end up in stable housing — because there’s none available.

“All these people that you see on the street have been through the navigation center,” says Greer, “it has failed them.”

The city doesn’t raise nearly enough money to supportively house everyone living on the streets.

Yet Lee’s homelessness policies managed to keep San Francisco’s numbers flat while other cities saw huge increases. They do that through prevention and rehousing — but also with bus tickets.

Every year of Lee’s term, nearly a thousand homeless people left the city with a free ticket elsewhere.

Lee’s critics point out that when fighting for poor San Franciscans came into conflict with the interests of the private sector, he tended to recede from leadership: for example when his backers in the tech industry funded a proposition to ban homeless tent encampments.

Or when Airbnb illegally took scarce housing units off the market.

Inequality worsened during Mayor Lee’s term. Whether his policies could have prevented that or not, the calls for a new approach will be loud in the run up to this June’s election. Out of the four front runners, only one, London Breed, is likely to run as an heir to his unfinished work.

Crosscurrents San Franciscohousing
Liza got her start in radio with KALW's Audio Academy. Now, she is KALW's econmy reporter and a mentor for in the KALW Audio Academy.