I envisioned writing about San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s historic legacy—-in December 2019, as his days in office ended. It is with great sadness that I publish this now. I may have written more stories about Mayor Lee’s tenure than anyone, and this is one piece I wish I did not have to write.
Many see Lee’s legacy as his being the city’s first Chinese-American mayor. But Lee’s impact on San Francisco is far more significant for his policy accomplishments.
His historic legacy is primarily in three main areas: housing, the revival of Mid-Market/ Tenderloin, and transitioning San Francisco’s economy into the post-tech era.
Lee took on issues in all areas, such as pushing to build housing on the Westside, that no prior mayor had adequately addressed. He consistently offered a bold approach at odds with media depictions of him as an unambitious city leader.
Building Housing a Priority
Ed Lee was the first mayor in San Francisco history to make building new housing a top priority. His commitment of 5000 new units annually more than doubles the city’s annual approach over the last five decades. Helped by a new generation of YIMBY activists, Lee forever eliminated San Francisco’s historic hostility toward building enough housing to meet rising population and job growth.
I had a chance this fall to sit down with Lee to discuss how he became the first mayor to prioritize tackling the city’s longstanding housing deficit. The interview was for a new book I have coming out from UC Press next fall on how blue cities across the nation can slow if not stop the pricing out of the working and middle-class.
Ed Lee was a visionary in this area. Lee was ahead of his time in recognizing San Francisco desperately needed to build a lot more housing. He also understood that building housing alone was not enough, and had to be accompanied by stronger tenant protections.
Lee signed all of the major tenant protection measures passed by the Board. He invested more money in stopping no-fault evictions than all prior mayors combined.
Critics of Lee’s housing affordability record ignored that the working and middle class was priced out of most San Francisco neighborhoods before Ed Lee took office. They also ignored that housing prices also skyrocketed in Seattle, Denver, Portland, Los Angeles, Austin, New York City, Cambridge and many other cities. It was not a unique San Francisco problem caused by Mayor Ed Lee.
The truth is that what happened to housing prices in San Francisco starting in 2011 was part of a national urban housing crisis. The idea that Mayor Lee could have kept San Francisco, long among the priciest of cities, immune from these price hikes is something out of a fantasy novel. It has no connection to urban reality
With single family home prices and rents on vacant apartments exempt from government regulation, a mayor’s options are limited. The only way Lee could meaningfully address rising prices was by dramatically increasing affordable housing and increasing housing supply overall.
And that’s exactly what he did.
Mayor Ed Lee imposed a more comprehensive affordable housing agenda from 2011-2017 than in any other city. He also brought in more new affordable housing funds than any prior San Francisco mayor.
Recall that San Francisco had three failed affordable housing ballot measures prior to Lee placing a winning $310 million bond on the November 2015 ballot. Why did this bond pass while others failed and one affordable housing measure did not even get 50% on the November 2008 Obama ballot?
Mayoral leadership provided by Ed Lee made the difference.
Lee passed a $1.3 billion housing trust fund for the very poor families living in public housing, a $310 million affordable housing bond, and allocated major general fund dollars to housing homeless people. Think about the above facts when someone tells you that Lee “only cared about housing for the rich.”
Ed Lee will go down in history as San Francisco’s housing mayor.
Ed Lee greatly increased spending to address homelessness. Yet the results, based on encampments and what people see on city sidewalks seem to not reflect either this financial commitment or a sound strategy. But ignored by critics of Lee’s approach to homelessness is how Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, New York City and other cities saw homelessness rise far more than San Francisco during the Lee years.
Every San Francisco mayor since homelessness reemerged in 1982 —Feinstein, Agnos, Jordan, Brown, Newsom, and Lee— has been criticized for not effectively dealing with homelessness. It should be obvious by now that no mayor can solve homelessness because no city can solve a problem requiring a major federal response.
You can’t evaluate a mayor’s record on homelessness by comparing it to a city outside the United States (in a country that funds affordable and public housing) or to a mythical city within this country; homelessness is a national problem that no city has the space or resources to solve.
That’s why homeless advocates from across the nation held Ed Lee in such high regard. They know what all cities are doing and recognize that San Francisco has the most comprehensive approach. When people say Lee did a “bad” job on homelessness, ask them what city in the United States they are comparing San Francisco to.
Until Ed Lee took office, no mayor invested major resources in two great historic neighborhoods that had endured fifty years of hard times. Ed Lee took up the challenge.
Among my saddest feelings about Ed’s death this week is that he did not live to see the fruition of his work in these two neighborhoods. I always thought that he, I, and Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) staff would take a tour of Mid-Market and the Tenderloin in December 2019 to appreciate all that the mayor’s leadership has achieved.
We will have to take that walk without him. Projects in both neighborhoods encountered unexpected delays due to rising construction costs in 2017, but they will be completed or nearly done by the date Lee was supposed to leave office. By this scorecard Lee fulfilled his goal.
Ed Lee rescued Mid-Market. He invested economic development resources in the Tenderloin, paving the way for the Tenderloin Museum, 826 Valencia, the Black Cat, Onsen Spa, CounterPulse, PianoFight, and neon signs and façade improvement throughout.
Ed graciously did a blurb for the back cover praising my book on the Tenderloin. At virtually every event in Mid-Market or the Tenderloin, Lee would always urge the audience to visit the Tenderloin Museum. He loved the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that did not get a fair shake from prior mayors. Lee matched his love with OEWD staff, and they made a huge difference.
Mayor Lee took such joy in the opening of new Tenderloin businesses. And nothing would have made him happier than when the long overdue Tenderloin streetlight project (adding roughly 100 streetlights) is completed next summer. The Tenderloin is very dark at night due to a lack of streetlights. I asked the mayor to request $3.5 million from CPMC for this project as part of his negotiations for their big new hospital on Van Ness. I figured the mayor would use that number to compromise down to $3 million.
But Lee did not get us $3 million. He got us $4 million. That’s the real Ed Lee. He was a far bolder, innovative and creative thinking mayor than the media has portrayed him.
Thanks to Ed Lee’s leadership, by the end of 2019 we will have a revitalized Mid-Market and safe, healthy, and economically diverse Tenderloin. This is a crucial part of Ed Lee’s historic legacy.
A Prosperous City
One reason some have not appreciated Lee is that he made huge advances look easy.
When he began as mayor, San Francisco unemployment was at near record highs. He soon brought it to record lows.
When Lee started as mayor, tech companies routinely left San Francisco for the South Bay to avoid a payroll tax no other city in California imposed. Ed created a political coalition to get voters to eliminate that tax.
Those thinking that San Francisco would be more affordable had tech not stayed, check out the other blue cities across the nation whose skyrocketing housing prices are not driven by tech. Lee helped make San Francisco the envy of other cities for its prosperity. And he used that prosperity to house homeless people, improve transit, and otherwise improve the city for everyone.
No San Francisco mayor had greater economic success than Ed Lee. This is part of his historic legacy.
A New Type of Leadership
Ed offered a new type of leadership for San Francisco. He did not yell at department heads, threaten staff, or dominate meetings that he attended. For these very reasons some in the media saw him as weak.
But Ed Lee was as strong a mayor as the city has ever had. He did not need to yell or threaten to demonstrate strength. He had no problem being self-deprecating, particularly about his height.
Ed Lee assembled the broadest electoral coalition on behalf of affordable housing in the history of San Francisco. He then won the biggest electoral victories for housing. That does not happen without strong mayoral leadership.
I was with Lee the day after the November 2016 election. Nobody hearing his public commitment to retaining San Francisco as a sanctuary city would have ever called him weak.
Lee was as outspoken against the Trump Administration as any mayor in the country.
Lee’s strength was also shown in his ability to take criticism. When I told the mayor at a small meeting why his D3 supervisor appointment the preceding day of Julie Christiansen instead of Cindy Wu was a colossal mistake and betrayal of Chinatown (Rose Pak insisted I pull no punches), he accepted it. We maintained our ability to work together on issues where we agreed. With other mayors that would have been the last words we spoke.
But Lee had the inner strength to recognize that people who strongly agree on many issues will equally strongly disagree on some—and that you cannot allow what divides you to define your relationship.
Lee did not micro-manage department heads. That’s one of the reasons he was so popular with them—he let good people do their jobs. Sometimes his lack of supervision caused projects to drift, as occurred with Better Markets Streets. But people underestimate the high level of proficiency Lee’s government operated because they are not comparing it to other cities, but rather to a lost city of Atlantis where double-parked trucks do not exist and busses never come late.
Ultimately, Ed Lee laid down the foundation for San Francisco to avoid becoming a city of only the rich and rent subsidized poor. This was his greatest gift to the city, and the core of his legacy.
San Francisco will miss Ed Lee. He has set a very high bar for his successors.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. If you are looking for a fun holiday read with 118 rare photos, pick up his book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.
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