A plan for San Francisco’s new mayor London Breed
San Francisco’s new mayor-elect, London Breed, has impressively risen from the most troubled of upbringings, wracked by poverty and urban ghetto life. As the first African American female mayor of this high tech city, and the only female mayor among the 15 largest US cities, her inspiring personal story has lifted many hopes and expectations.
But the challenges of governing over a decaying urban vortex like San Francisco are formidable. As a journalist, I spend a lot of time in Europe, and recently I was a fellow at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB) for several months. When I returned to San Francisco, where I have lived for 25 years, I was struck by how backward my hometown seemed, compared to Berlin and many European cities.
It’s not just the shocking levels of growing inequality, though that is certainly a big part of it. Despite all its aggregate wealth, San Francisco has failed to build and invest in the institutions and systems that can promote a broadly shared prosperity, or can enact higher living standards for the general population. When you spend time outside the country, you realize how, in so many ways, San Francisco’s political leadership has dithered and the City has fallen behind First World standards.
When I returned to San Francisco, where I have lived for 25 years, I was struck by how backward my hometown seemed, compared to Berlin and many European cities.
If I could communicate one message to Mayor-elect Breed, it would be — learn from what works elsewhere. Here are a few examples:
“Social Housing” in Vienna
Vienna, a city of nearly two million people, has a lot of what is typically called “government housing,” with the city owning and managing about 25 percent of the housing stock, primarily for lower-income residents (about 220,000 housing units). But the more interesting and innovative housing sector is that run by private — but non-profit — housing developers. The city also indirectly oversees another 200,000 units by buying the land and retaining regulatory control over development. A jury selects a private developer, based on objective criteria including proposed rent levels, and sells the land to the developer at an affordable price. That includes giving the developer a low-interest loan and extended repayment periods. Sometimes the developer is a housing co-operative. Rents are regulated so that no residents pay any more than 25% of their income for housing. In Vienna, nearly half of the overall housing stock is this kind of “social housing” (i.e. either city-owned or non-profit-owned), which makes this sector large enough to act as a brake on the market forces that escalate rents and speculation in the private housing sector.
Many European states and cities follow such practices as a way of keeping housing markets in check. In Finland, the Helsinki city council decided that 40 percent of the apartments in new areas had to be “social housing.” This reflects the European view that adequate affordable housing is tantamount to being an individual right.
Public transportation in Berlin
It was such a relief to get away from the crowded, crazy Uber/Lyft congestion of San Francisco streets. Berlin’s public transportation system works so well that I never needed a car. A transit stop is a short walk away, and I could get most places within 30 minutes (often far less), all while sitting back and relaxing. A $70 monthly pass (less than San Francisco’s monthly Clipper card) gave me unlimited use of a combination of underground subways, above ground trains, buses and trams. Decent taxi service and car-sharing services like Car2Go are available for those rare times when you need a private car. The result is that Uber ridesharing is virtually nonexistent. Congestion and gridlock are far less of a problem.
Let’s get real: if the US is going to reduce carbon emissions, cope with climate change and construct a transportation system for the future, urban dwellers need to get out of automobiles — even someone else’s — and start using public transportation. Public transport is one of the great social mixers, where people from all walks of life meet each other. Unfortunately in San Francisco, public transportation is underfunded, inefficient and unpopular, but it doesn’t have to be that way. By letting Uber ridesharing flood the streets with cars instead of investing heavily in public transportation, San Francisco is going backwards, failing environmentally and reducing overall living standards.
Lower carbon emissions
Approximately 70 percent of carbon emissions come from cities. And US cities, including San Francisco, are not doing nearly enough to implement common sense changes. Led by Germany and its ‘Energiewende’ initiative, many European cities have moved forward ambitiously with renewable energy technologies like solar and wind, and incorporated “green design” into everything from public buildings, homes and automobiles to low wattage light bulbs, motion sensor lights and low flush toilets. A Berlin apartment I rented had a heat exchange system and superior insulation that kept it toasty warm in winter for the amount of energy needed to run a hairdryer. These efforts have not hurt the economy, as hundreds of thousands of new green jobs have been created. San Francisco and other major cities, like the US generally, have failed to lead this global effort, which must be rooted in local practices. Despite the fact that most cities are dominated by Democrats, liberals and progressives, they have failed to implement many easy changes that most European cities have already put in place. So cities can’t blame Donald Trump, a Republican Congress or Fox News for their failures. While a Green New Deal makes sense, in reality it does not have a chance to make it past Trump or the GOP Senate. But the good news is that the key battleground is in cities, where Democrats and progressives dominate. Wasting time on losing efforts makes little sense when there is low-hanging fruit right before your eyes.
Portable safety net in Germany, Netherlands, France
In most European cities, all regularly employed workers, even part-timers and temps, are covered by health care, sick leave and other social supports. Even certain classifications of freelancers and contractors, such as artists, musicians, journalists and certain types of home-workers, are covered. In San Francisco, huge numbers of part-time, temp and freelance workers, many of them in the tech industry, are not covered by basic social supports or many labor laws. This should be unacceptable in a civilized society. San Francisco should require employers to contribute to a portable safety net that covers all local workers.
The “smart city” of Barcelona
Barcelona has created citywide networks of “internet-of-things” sensors, providing real-time feedback on everything from air quality to noise, energy and waste management. Coupled with free WiFi around the city, and USB charging stations at interactive, solar-powered bus stops, this new level of connectivity and data collection has allowed Barcelona to launch many “smart” projects. One of those is determining certain government decisions via “wired democracy,” utilizing online and face-to-face consultations with the public as a way to increase transparency and effectiveness of government. San Francisco is the epicenter of high tech, yet its digital investment and public consultation lag woefully behind.
Europe has over ninety public financial institutions with total assets of over $4 trillion and a 15% market share of the European financial sector. Rather than investing in speculative markets and risky companies, these public banks finance social housing, health care, education, infrastructure, greening the economy and leveraging assets for the public good. San Francisco stashes nearly $10 billion in Wall Street banks that could be used to capitalize a public bank, investing locally and saving $2 million a year in banking fees.
Digital licenses in the EU
New EU laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) are focused on protecting our personal data. But beyond that, EU Commission fines of companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, whether for manipulating their services or refusing to pay taxes on company profits, has set a new tone that seeks to harness the digital, Internet-based society. The EU is putting pressure on tech companies to be good corporate citizens instead of greedy, unaccountable disruptors. Meanwhile, San Francisco has allowed many of these companies to ignore and even create their own laws, and upend the local quality of life.
More economic democracy in Germany, Sweden
Imagine if Wal-Mart, Amazon or Facebook were required by law to allow its workers to elect half of its board of directors. That’s what Germany, Sweden and other EU states do — it’s called “co-determination.” Europe has more Fortune 500 companies than the US, and even they are subject to this law. Worker-elected boards are for big companies, but smaller workplaces have works councils, which operate in parallel with stronger labor unions that benefit from more worker-friendly labor laws. Co-determination for big and small companies provides greater economic democracy and power-sharing between management and labor, and has fostered a “culture of consultation” that results in a more broadly shared prosperity. San Francisco could start small by encouraging local companies to adopt this practice, and using its influence with the state of California to require co-determination at universities and medical centers.
The challenges of governing over a decaying urban vortex like San Francisco are formidable.
These institutions and practices already are being deployed all over Europe, and could be enacted in San Francisco by local government. So San Franciscans really can’t blame our city’s poor development on Donald Trump or Fox News. Despite its extreme wealth, San Francisco has tragically fallen behind due to long-term local government neglect and failure. At this point, from a vantage point across the Atlantic, San Francisco doesn’t look all that different from those regions of Trump’s America that San Franciscans like to criticize.
It is time for San Francisco to try some new approaches. Mayor-elect Breed would do well to examine what has worked in other places.
[Steven Hill (www.Steven-Hill.com) is a San Francisco-based journalist and author of “Raw Deal: How the ‘Uber Economy’ and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers” and “Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age”]