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Ed Lee’s Not-Excellent Adventure

The leading-from-behind mayor deals with hecklers and strife.


This story is part of our April 2016 cover story “The City Report Card,” a 24-part assessment of the true state of San Francisco. We’ll be posting new grades daily on Click here to read other status reports on policing, housing, schools, parks, pot dispensaries, the mayor, and more.

The hallmarks
of Mayor Ed Lee’s San Francisco are the three Ds: disparity, development, and division. Since Lee was elevated to office in 2011, the rich have gotten richer, the buildings bigger, and the demonstrators louder. (Lee’s January inauguration may have been the first time in American history that a mayor who ran without serious opposition was drowned out by boos at his third swearing-in.) The mayor certainly isn’t wholly responsible for the tsunami of money that has transformed the city. But has he done enough to mitigate its adverse consequences? 

First, the good news. San Francisco’s unemployment rate is flirting with a virtually unprecedented 3 percent (it was at 9.4 percent when Lee assumed office). The average household income is nearly $105,000. The average—average!—household net worth is $1.1 million. And for those not sitting on millions, after heavy prodding by labor unions, Lee helped push through a $15 minimum wage, set to match the highest in the country.

On paper, the average San Franciscan is doing very well. The problem is that the average San Franciscan increasingly doesn’t exist—only the very rich and the very poor. Averages are misleading in one of the nation’s most imbalanced cities. The fact is, the vast amounts of wealth Lee has helped funnel into this city and the hefty number of jobs he’s labored to create have not trickled down to enrich or employ everyone. The middle class, unable to buy or even rent, is melting away; the priced-out-of-San-Francisco story line has grown ubiquitous.

Of course, what Lee could do about this situation is unclear. His championing of the $15 minimum wage is laudable, but a $30,000 minimum-wage yearly income won’t go far in a city where one-bedroom apartments routinely rent for $3,500. His plan to build tens of thousands of affordable housing units is also commendable, but it’s limited by the fact that thousands of units in his plan aren’t new at all. They’re merely being refurbished—and are already inhabited. Meanwhile, the homelessness crisis shows no signs of abating. Lee continually touts the city’s Homeless Navigation Center as a panacea, and the center is a good idea. But its 75-person capacity is hardly going to be a game changer, and the vast stores of housing needed to transition the homeless into permanent dwellings don’t exist. The city can’t solve this problem alone, but it has refused to consider radically different approaches, such as erecting a secure, city-supervised tent encampment as has been done in Seattle and Portland. (It hasn’t even allowed the addition of Porta-Potties to existing tent cities, a shortsighted policy that only leads to further befouling of prime neighborhoods.)

Then there’s development. Progressive critics like Supervisor Aaron Peskin charge that the Lee administration has rolled over for the fat cats and blessed too many inappropriate projects. His defenders say that the city desperately needs housing units of all kinds. Without wading into this endless debate, it’s evident that the explosion of development has not lowered housing costs and may never do so. Meanwhile, the city sheds its scrappy character and grows ever more congested. 

Finally, there’s leadership. Lee, San Francisco has been told, has cut back senior staff meetings with his department heads to a once-, maybe twice-yearly affair. The mayor, says a longtime city hall denizen, is “very laissez-faire” in the way he allows the departments to go about their business. A sense of rudderlessness was certainly evident in the way Lee handled the closure of the Division Street homeless camps: by sitting on his hands until the Chronicle issued an outcry, which culminated in the tautological front-page headline of “Growing Outcry Forces Lee’s Move to Clear Homeless Tent City.” 

And therein lies the greatest problem with Lee, both as a manager and as a political leader: He’s forever controlled by external forces, rather than the other way around.

Grade: C

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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