As USF readies for its downtown return, so, too, is the city of San Francisco embarking on a new chapter with the election of its first Asian American mayor, the largest surge in technology jobs since the dot-com boom of the late ’90s, and crushing budget woes. Corey Cook, USF associate professor of politics and director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good, is an expert on urban politics and public policy. He sat down with USF Magazine to discuss the challenges and possibilities that lie ahead for San Francisco. The following is adapted from that discussion.
USF Magazine: Let’s start with the San Francisco mayoral election. Can you talk about the ways in which it was significant?
CC: Obviously, the election of the city’s first Chinese American mayor is historic, particularly given the history of Chinese exclusion and discrimination in San Francisco and California. Mayor Ed Lee’s election is the culmination of decades of activism and organizing in the Chinese American community.
But there was an historic field of candidates. Among the top-tier candidates you might have had a lot of firsts—the first Latino mayor, the first openly gay mayor, the first Japanese American mayor. USF hosted the first of the many mayoral forums in 2011, and, in May, well before then-acting Mayor Lee jumped into the race, you could sense that this might be an historic election.
USF Magazine: What accounts for such a diversity of candidates?
CC: Part of that is the growing diversity of the city—in particular the increasing proportion of the population identified as Asian and Asian Pacific Islander and Latino. But part of it is the result of institutional and political changes. The city has undergone some fairly dramatic political shifts.
In the wake of the dot-com boom, and growing public concerns about rising housing prices and gentrification in the South of Market neighborhoods, the city adopted district elections for the board of supervisors. Not only have district elections helped ensure that neighborhood interests are represented on the board of supervisors; they have also diversified the board and helped bring about what has been called the progressive movement in the city.
We’ve had about 10 years of conflict over land-use issues, social services, and the city budget between these two broad camps—a moderate mayor and a progressive board of supervisors. But with Mayor Gavin Newsom heading to Sacramento and a complete turnover of the board of supervisors because of term limits, I think there was a sense that this election marked a new political era in the city.
So you had nine or 10 serious candidates running for mayor reflective of various neighborhood interests, the socio-economic diversity of the city, and also this ideological conflict between progressives and moderates. It was a pretty remarkable election.
USF Magazine: What are some of the other ways San Francisco has changed during the past 20 years?
CC: Well, you’ve seen some significant changes in how people live and work in the city: the decline of the middle class and the precipitous decline in the African American population, and also changes in the primary economic drivers in the city. Just in the past decade we’ve experienced a dot-com boom and bust and a housing boom and bust, and more recently a tech boom.
And the leading industries in the city have changed. Aside from construction, we don’t make things in San Francisco very much. The leading industries are typically talked about as knowledge.
generation and experience generation. Knowledge generation includes things like information technology, biotech, and digital media. Experience generation includes things like arts, retail, tourism, and hospitality. So much of what people do in San Francisco falls into these broad categories.
The challenge is that there isn’t much “middle” in either of these areas. There are a lot of high-paying jobs and a lot of low-paying jobs. So you see these growing disparities in the city and in the region, which has become one of the most disparate regions in the country in terms of income.
USF Magazine: What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for Lee’s administration?
CC: As I mentioned, San Francisco has gone through a period of divisiveness in City Hall. I think the mayor was elected, in part, because he has worked effectively across the political spectrum—as a civil rights leader and as city administrator. And as acting mayor, he dialed down the rhetoric and worked collaboratively. That’s not to say there aren’t still significant disagreements over a range of issues, but in his year as acting mayor, Lee was able to negotiate a consensus budget agreement and a near-consensus agreement about public pension reform
So he’s displayed the ability to bridge some of those differences because of his governing style, his experience in city government, and his ability to draw from both the progressive and moderate camps. But the challenge is that it is a fragile coalition. The mayor only appeared on about 44 percent of ballots cast. In other words, 56 percent of voters did not mark Ed Lee as their first, second, or third choice in the election. So while on one hand, he well outpaced his rivals, the election shows that he still has a lot of work to do to build a stable governing coalition.
USF Magazine: What are some of the issues the city will face in the next few years?
CC: I think many of the issues this administration will tackle are connected to land use, economic development, and the improvement of the city’s public schools. There are some big development projects like California Pacific Medical Center, the Central Subway, and Bayview redevelopment. And, of course, the budget, particularly this year as public employee contracts are renewed.
These are complex issues that oftentimes become highly divisive and can pit neighborhoods against each other, different ethnic communities against each other, and economic interests against each other. The challenge for the mayor is to try to maintain a broad coalition, and that’s remarkably difficult in a city as diverse and politically sophisticated as San Francisco.
USF Magazine: Relative to other American cities, San Francisco has a very small population of residents under 18, and the school district has lost almost 7,000 students over the last decade. Is San Francisco a family-friendly city?
CC: I think so. But in full disclosure: My family just moved to San Francisco from Oakland several months ago, in part because we think San Francisco is a great city to raise a family.
If you look at the Census data, one of the things that I think would surprise a lot of people is that there are more households with children under 18 in San Francisco today than there were a decade ago. But the average household size has shrunk. So people are having fewer children, and that’s part of a broader national demographic phenomenon, but it’s not the case that families with children are fleeing the city in droves.
That said, it’s certainly the case that San Francisco has far fewer children and youth than other large cities, and it’s a topic that was much discussed during the last election. And the consensus is that in addition to employment, the key determinants of the number of children and youth who live in the city are the quality of schools and the affordability (or lack thereof) of housing.
The McCarthy Center did a Bay Area Regional Survey last June, and one of the questions we asked was, “How would you rate the schools in your city?” We asked this of everybody and aggregated the responses by county, and San Francisco was rated abysmally in comparison to the others—something like 4.9 on a scale of one to 10; much lower than other counties. But later in the same survey, we asked people with children in the schools how they rate their own child’s school. And it turns out that people in San Francisco rate their own schools more highly than do folks in Marin County. So part of it is perception.
Still, there are significant disparities in student opportunity and achievement in the schools. African American and Latino students are less likely to graduate and have access to the courses needed to be eligible for college admission. There was a great panel at USF this spring that addressed this, and there are some innovative solutions being proposed, including creating community schools to focus local resources, like wrap-around services [individualized community-based intervention services], directly in these school settings. One community school plan is being implemented in the form of a federal Promise Neighborhood grant in the Mission District, a cradle-to-college community development program. A lot of people, including several faculty members in the School of Education at USF, and many of the organizations we work with at the McCarthy Center, are working with the school district to ensure that the schools are effectively preparing all students.
I’m less optimistic about affordable family housing. Rental prices are increasing in San Francisco and across the state. And there has been a profound loss of federal and state funding for affordable housing. In addition, the bursting of the housing bubble has affected housing developments that were in the pipeline and decreased the viability of affordable projects. In one of his first acts, the mayor initiated a task force to develop an Affordable Housing Trust Fund proposal. They are developing a proposal for the November ballot to fund affordable projects. It’s complicated policy and an early test of his political skill to hold together this coalition.
USF Magazine: What should businesses expect from Lee’s administration?
CC: When he was running for mayor, he proposed a 17-point jobs plan that was balanced between business recruitment, small business assistance, lowering payroll taxes, and cutting regulations, and a focus on workforce development and enforcing the local hiring ordinance, which suggests that he has a more nuanced view than the “pro-business” or “pro-worker” archetypes. That said, I think the first 100 days or so have seen a focus on the Mid-Market area and trying to nurture a high-tech cluster there, and we’ve seen that business interests have a strong voice within the administration.
USF Magazine: How seriously are California’s budget woes affecting San Francisco?
CC: It would be hard to overstate the effects. The UCs and the CSUs have been ravaged, and San Francisco State University, like USF, is one of the anchors of San Francisco socially and economically. So far, the state legislature and the governor have been able to insulate K-12 education from significant cuts, and the governor is putting some proposals on the ballot this upcoming year for revenue increases that, if enacted, will forestall further budget cuts.
However, if these measures do not pass, we will see massive cuts in K-12 education, including cancelling parts of the school year, which will have enormous consequences in San Francisco. There are also a whole host of cutbacks in the social safety net that have directly affected people living in the city, like seniors dependent on in-home supportive services, and a substantial number of nonprofits in San Francisco have gone out of business because of these cutbacks.
The consequence of eliminating the Redevelopment Agency has been profound. About half of the city’s affordable housing budget disappeared with the stroke of a pen when the Redevelopment Agency was eliminated in California. And the state is returning formerly incarcerated persons to their home counties, which ultimately means that San Francisco is facing an influx of ex-offenders. Supporting these individuals as they search for job opportunities and reintegrate into society will be a significant challenge absent adequate state funding.
At the same time, that McCarthy Center survey found that people in the Bay Area were, on the whole, far more optimistic about how things were going in their localities than in the state, and San Franciscans were much more likely to perceive that the city is headed in the right direction than the state as a whole. I think people’s perceptions are pretty much in line with the objective indicators.
USF Magazine: There’s a lot of buzz in the city about the latest tech boom. Is it actually a boom or a bubble?
CC: In many ways, that’s the million-dollar question. On the one hand, this period seems like a replay of the tech boom of the late ’90s. It’s been reported that there are more tech jobs in San Francisco today than at the height of the boom in the ’90s. But I think people around here remember how so many ideas that seemed so good at the time went bust.
So while the city is very much attempting to nurture a tech revival in the city, and build on its highly educated and creative workforce and physical advantages on the Pacific Rim, at the same time, there is some wariness. There are many economic lessons from the last dot-com boom. For policymakers, one lesson is that when there was enormous wealth being produced in the city, if you don’t figure out ways of having that wealth broadly shared, you’ll have considerable gentrification and displacement in neighborhoods and the loss of vital community, arts, and nonprofit organizations that can’t afford to stay.
While the city has certainly invested a lot in trying to create a tech cluster around companies like Twitter, Airbnb, Zynga, and Salesforce, at the same time there is concern about building a strong and innovative workforce and in creating vibrant, stable communities, rather than just attracting a transient workforce to the city. So you have the local hiring ordinance and a variety of proposals emanating from San Francisco’s state and federal officeholders to invest in primary, secondary, and higher education—in private, independent colleges, in Cal grants, and in public institutions like the California State University system and the community college system—to ensure greater sustainability than we saw a decade ago.