The tech boom that Mayor Ed Lee embraced ensured that the man who began his career fighting for poor tenants ended up presiding over a city known for some of the nation’s most unaffordable housing and pervasive homelessness. The city remained in the throes of the crisis at the untimely end of Lee’s tenure, but the mayor had grappled with it since his early years in office.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, a former member of the Board of Supervisors, said that while jobs were the priority when he and Lee took office in the wake of a recession six years ago, “Very quickly, things flipped, and we had plenty of jobs and a housing shortage.” Even so, he said, the mayor’s focus on housing ultimately helped the city produce more homes than it has in decades.
Lee supported the creation of a trust fund to replace lost state spending on affordable housing and set a goal of building or rehabilitating 30,000 homes by 2020, of which more than 17,000 have been realized. He also supported major residential developments in Parkmerced and Treasure Island, though they have been slow to take shape.
In September, Lee signed a promising order setting deadlines to speed the city’s glacial planning and permitting process and set a goal of 5,000 new housing units a year, more than double the city’s average over the past three decades. “Obviously, no mayor is going to solve housing in one or two terms,” Wiener said. “He put us on a good track.”
Lee’s record on homelessness is decidedly mixed. It remains one of San Francisco’s most intractable issues despite Lee’s efforts. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s latest point-in-time population count, more than 1 percent of the nation’s homeless live in San Francisco — about 6,257 people.
Lee created the city’s first Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. His favored solution — the Navigation Center shelters that allowed entire homeless camps to move in and receive services — were considered successful by the few who could access them. But Lee simply couldn’t create enough shelters, from Navigation Centers to permanent supportive housing units, to dramatically reduce the number of desperate people on the streets.
Lee’s record on public housing, on the other hand, is one of unqualified success. The mayor, who grew up in a public housing complex in Seattle, made a pledge to remake San Francisco’s “poverty housing.”
This was a tall order. When he came into office, the vast majority of San Francisco’s public housing was replete with mold, pests and decrepit facilities. The Housing Authority was short on cash and better known for a string of scandals, including employee discrimination and favoritism in awarding contracts, than it was for improving the lives of San Francisco’s poorest residents.
Lee appointed competent new authority leaders who got the budget in shape. They partnered with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a long list of nonprofit and for-profit developers to upgrade all of San Francisco’s public housing.
The cost of this ambitious project, which is still in progress at sites around the city, was hundreds of millions of dollars. It couldn’t have been done without Lee’s leadership, creative thinking and willingness to try new partnerships.
Lee was grappling with housing even in his last hours: His final Twitter post noted new legislation to rein in unscrupulous landlords. The next mayor should see through his permitting and planning reforms as well as public-housing improvements, said Gabriel Metcalf, chief executive of the urban planning think tank SPUR. He or she should also take on the difficult issue of changing the city’s zoning to create more opportunities for housing.
“The interlinked problems of homelessness and overall housing affordability stand as the greatest problems facing the next mayor,” Metcalf said. “Mayor Lee made a lot of progress … but the next mayor needs to take it a lot further.”
No mayor can accomplish these goals without public resolve. The burden is on us all to help fulfill Mayor Ed Lee’s unfinished mission on housing and homelessness.
Tribune Content Agency