New data from the San Francisco Chronicle determines the city is the country’s third least equal. According to 2020 Census data, the top 5 percent rake in well over half a million dollars per year, nearly eleven times more than the 20th percentile’s income.
And for those towards the bottom, it’s nearly impossible to find an affordable place. A United Way study estimates a minimum-wage worker in San Francisco would need to log 161 weekly hours to afford a median-priced one-bedroom apartment.
Why? The scourge of vacancy. City analysts recently reported over 61,000 units sat empty in 2021, a nearly 52 percent increase across just two years.
“It is devastating to realize that for every person sleeping on the streets tonight, there are 14 vacant homes in our city,” said the city’s District 5 Supervisor, Dean Preston.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Next week, Bay Area residents will weigh in on ballot measures that could tackle their untenable vacancy problem. People First San Francisco, a campaign led by the local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), advocates a slate of three propositions – M, O, and H – as inequality antidotes, springboards for tenant and worker power.
Proposition M, an empty homes tax, would target units in larger buildings that are vacant for the majority of the year on a sliding scale – investing revenue in the creation, acquisition, and revitalization of affordable housing stock and in rental subsidies for elderly and low-income San Franciscans.
“No one lives in San Francisco and is not impacted by the homelessness crisis that we have here,” reflects Gwen McLaughlin, the field director for Proposition M. She recounted stories from volunteers, for whom “rental subsidies have been the difference between staying in or leaving San Francisco, or becoming homeless.” Intertwining immediate cash relief with the longer-term investment of housing acquisition has strengthened the proposition’s coalition, along with its mission to “maximize the use of existing housing stock.”
Proponents of the measure, which is modeled off a successful effort in Vancouver, BC, believe it will immediately result in the relisting of 4,500 units and eventually generate around $15-$37 million each year.
“We’re just asking that you pay your fair share for affordable housing,” says McLaughlin. “If you have the means to own multiple units and large properties in San Francisco, and you keep them empty and don’t collect rent on them, I am so confident that you are not going to be sent to the poor house with this tax.”
Instead, she continues, “you can avoid it by just simply renting out your unit, and you might have to lower the price, because no one’s going to pay that much for it.” (On-record opponents of the legislation, who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars against it, include landlord and real estate groups, anti-taxation PACs, and multimillionaire Republican socialite Dede Wilsey.) “But you’re choosing to contribute to a vacancy problem, so we’re asking you to help with homelessness prevention and with affordable housing.”
Alongside M, Proposition O would levy a new progressive property tax to revitalize San Francisco’s City College, a mobility engine for local students who can attend for free. Educating over 60,000 students, the community college offers technical and associates degree programs, ESL classes, emergency response training, and art. When People First organizer Sam Heft-Luthy speaks to potential voters, he recounts, “you say ‘City College’ and people start pouring out stories about how it saved their life.”
The institution, explains Heft-Luthy, has been in a “classic neoliberal death spiral” for the last several years. Similar to San Francisco’s MUNI public transit system, “Ineffective administration is used to justify budget cuts, budget cuts reduce the service, and the lack of service justifies further budget cuts.”
Indeed, the college has been operating at a brutal deficit over the last few years, which has forced down staff and student ranks and even jeopardized the college’s accreditation. The parcel tax would generate around $37 million per year, splittingrevenue across student services, and skills-training, workforce-development, and equity programs.
A democracy reform measure rounds out the People First slate: Proposition H would move citywide elections to even-numbered years, hoping to double voter turnout (from around 43 to 80 percent) and make local lawmakers more representative of their constituents’ needs. Though the proposal is nonpartisan and broadly endorsed by voting rights groups, the city’s mayor, Democrat London Breed, called the legislation a “democratic-socialist power grab.”
M, O, and H landed on the ballot due to the citizens’ initiative process – requiring the collection of thousands of signatures from those who were amenable to these ideas to begin with. From faith leaders to labor organizers, to rappers and rockers organizing fundraising shows and schoolchildren performing a play about filling empty homes, autonomous grassroots support for the People First slate abounds. “People, independently, are moved and energized by this very reasonable and common-sense policy idea to address what is a ridiculous fact,” said McLaughlin.
Beyond winning all three ballot measures, McLaughlin and Heft-Luthy hope that People First inspires San Franciscans to plug into broader fights for labor, housing, and transit justice – for “a better political horizon,” in Heft-Luthy’s words. As their campaign was inspired by efforts in Portland, ME and Whatcom County, WA, People First organizers hope to demonstrate how other DSA chapters or political groups can use ballot measures along with agitational and persuasive messaging to win across the country.
“It takes organization and community, but it’s possible,” affirms McLaughlin. “We need to restore the power of democracy and our political institutions to the people.”