SF Apartment : May 2017
by Pam McElroy
Supervisor Sheehy talks about the importance of activism, the challenge of making every neighborhood in the city safe, and his favorite
way to spend a day in San Francisco.
Pam McElroy: What brought you to San Francisco? What do you love about the city? Do you have a favorite neighborhood?
Supervisor Jeff Sheehy: I came to San Francisco in 1988 so I could live as a gay man and fully realize myself. It was just the idea of freedom and being able to be free. I also love that San Francisco is a hotbed of activism. I was a gay guy in Texas. I considered New York, but the weather is awful. I thought about LA because the weather is nice, but I didn’t want to spend half my life in a car.
My favorite neighborhood, well, I live in Glen Park. I love my neighborhood, my neighbors, the businesses that we go to. It’s like family.
McElroy: I understand that you were involved in politics about 12 years ago but took a step back to raise your daughter. What made you decide to get involved again and what brought you into politics originally?
Sheehy: Well, I never got completely out of HIV activism and healthcare advocacy. I’d been on the board with the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine since 2004, which is a three billion dollar state stem cell institute. I’d been on the Democratic County Central Committee. I had two terms as the Harvey Milk Club president.
But when my husband, Billy, and I decided we wanted to adopt, which was in 2002, gradually I started moving away from being very, very active in politics. And then in 2005, when our daughter came into our lives, it took me out of the political mix.
The single biggest motivator to get involved again was the election of Donald Trump, which I felt was kind of like a call to arms. I thought it’d be good to have somebody on the board who’s been in the back of a paddy wagon for civil disobedience. Direct action may be necessary in these times.
Another reason was just a generalized frustration from a neighborhood perspective—things seemed to be slipping. Twice in the three months before I’d been appointed, cars had been broken into in front of my house. Nothing really focuses you like seeing a young mom with her three-year-old kid holding on to her pants leg as she shakes broken glass from a car seat.
So, I have a different perspective in looking at these problems, having been very active in politics for a long time and understanding how it all works, and then also having been removed from the rough and tumble of day-to-day politics—I am living in a neighborhood and want to help out my neighbors and other folks living in my district (Castro, Noe Valley, Diamond Heights, Glen Park). So yes, I think having the perspective of both a politician and a regular citizen of San Francisco will be useful.
McElroy: What are your main priorities and goals as supervisor and how do you see yourself on the board? What are your legislative passions?
Sheehy: First and foremost, we have to sustain what we have in San Francisco in the face of Donald Trump. We just got the first Trump budget—if it were to go through unmodified, it would not be good for our city. It’s cutting a lot of social services.
We have a social safety net with healthcare that we’ve been able to expand to so many San Franciscans through Medical, the Affordable Care Act, and Covered California. Sustaining that is a key priority for me.
Making sure that we maintain our sanctuary city and defend our African brothers and sisters is another key priority. Refusing to go along with attacks on Muslims, whether it’s a registry or something else that Donald Trump may invent, is also very important to me.
More broadly, my special passion is for what I might call life sciences—the healthcare and biomedical sector of the San Francisco economy, which represents one in four jobs. When I was first diagnosed with HIV 20 years ago in 1997, I didn’t have insurance. I’ve been on a gurney on a Saturday night in San Francisco General in the emergency room—I especially appreciate the safety net that the Department of Public Health provides. Small biotechs are popping up all over the area. That whole sector of our economy brings great jobs—nurses, support people, doctors. And it feels like we’re on the edge of a revolution—like something out of Star Trek—with the medical research and breakthroughs that are taking place here.
And, finally, it is important to me to find a solution for homelessness in the city and improving the city’s infrastructure.
McElroy: Do you think the city could be doing something differently about the growing rate of homelessness?
Sheehy: Yes. I think it’s unfortunate that the proposition that was going to raise the sales tax failed because we set up the Department of Homelessness, but then we didn’t provide the resources. We need to find the resources so that the director, Jeff Kositsky, can implement his vision. As a city, we can’t continue to accept the number of people sleeping on our streets. It’s just not okay.
I think our response to homelessness is broken. I don’t understand how it has gotten so bad that our BART stations have become homeless shelters, why when I walk through the BART turnstile with my daughter, we’ll see someone injecting drugs. I don’t understand why we have camps on our sidewalks and our streets, and I don’t understand with all the resources that we put into trying to address that problem—even though we didn’t pass the proposition—nothing seems to change.
To paraphrase a friend: if we saw an injured puppy on the street, we’d take that puppy to the SPCA. The SPCA would provide medical care and heal that puppy. That puppy would be there until the puppy had a home. What we have is a health crisis and our response is not to take individuals off the street, get them into environments where they heal and then get them into places where they can live and learn to have a normal life. And so I don’t understand why that isn’t our system.
But these are difficult questions: How do we help people who are controlled by drugs or mental illness? How do we stabilize them? Putting them in jail doesn’t solve the problem. Bringing them to the hospital where they’re released back to the streets before recovering also doesn’t make sense to me.
There are a lot of people in City Hall who are frustrated with these difficult problems. Every sector is looking for a solution: the Health Department, law enforcement, the EMTs, the fire department, regular citizens in neighborhoods across the city. I don’t think anybody is satisfied with the current situation.
McElroy: What is your past experience working on housing issues and what can we do as a city to address the general housing issues that we’re all facing?
Sheehy: Most of my experience is in public health and civil rights. However, I strongly believe in expanding our Small Sites program, and just building more in general. We have to continue to build housing. However, building more will only work if we set the inclusionary rates correctly. The waiting lists for affordable housing are horrendous, so creating more capacity is obviously the first step. And we need to dedicate more money to low-income housing that gets built sooner rather than later.
When I came to San Francisco in 1988, in many ways I thought of myself as a refugee. I came here to be free. I was able to experience all this freedom and find my life. I met my husband here. We bought a house here. We have a child. I’ve come a long way since moving here.
So, I don’t want us to pull up the drawbridge to San Francisco and all its beautiful values because it’s become unattainable to most. We shouldn’t say to potential newcomers: “Hey, those of us who got here are the last ones who get to experience this city. Everybody else, tough—too late, there’s no room.” We need to create additional housing capacity at all income levels.
McElroy: You often speak of the importance of supporting families. Right now, families make up only 18% of San Francisco. What can we do to provide more home ownership opportunities to families specifically?
Sheehy: As we’re negotiating inclusionary housing, we need to make sure that there’s enough workforce housing, including opportunities for home ownership. We need to make sure we have resources to help people buy homes; if we want to keep families in the city, we need to help them buy. Just like we focus on creating below-market housing, we should make opportunities for workforce housing and for people and families at lower incomes to be able to purchase homes. I’m a big supporter of home ownership, and I support programs that help raise money to contribute toward helping someone make a down payment.
But I don’t think the problem with families lies with housing difficulties alone; another problem is engaging the public education system here in San Francisco. The lottery system is daunting. Confronted with the challenge of not knowing where your children will go to school, families often leave the city to have more control. The process here is frustrating.
McElroy: You’ve done so much throughout your career to defend gay rights. In regards to housing, do you have plans for the low-income and elderly San Franciscans living with HIV?
Sheehy: I’m pushing to expand the Small Sites Program in our district. The Small Sites Program sets aside funding through Prop C, allowing nonprofit developers to buy multi-unit buildings. The sellers get market rate for their building, and the developers keep these buildings permanently affordable so existing tenants pay the same rate that they’ve been paying. And if a tenant leaves, the rent doesn’t skyrocket to market rate; it stays where it is, creating permanently affordable housing within neighborhoods where people have been living. That is one way to address housing for low-income, elderly people living with HIV. It doesn’t really help people if you take them out of their neighborhoods.
And, again, we also need to build more units—most importantly in neighborhoods where people are already living; if we can create more capacity, people won’t get evicted.
McElroy: Is the Small Sites Program currently funding many projects?
Sheehy: There is one building in my district. It seems like the market is softening, so I think there will be good opportunity in the future.
McElroy: Immigration has become a worldwide topic. How do you think San Francisco fits into this discussion and what are the biggest challenges that may lie ahead for immigrants living in San Francisco?
Sheehy: We fit in this discussion because we have a well-supported city attorney challenging the laws and activities that the Trump administration is pursuing. As a city, we are providing funding to nonprofits to defend detained immigrants. And it looks like the public defender will soon be involved. As a U.S. city, we are a model for the rest of the country through our nonprofits and funding defense for immigrants, and also for how cutting-edge we are legally. We are also a model through our non-cooperation in being and remaining a sanctuary city.
The problem is, though, we don’t have control over what the Federal Government does. So, immigration agents can come to San Francisco and knock on our doors, without anyone in the city even knowing they’re here. While I’m not sure what the permanent solution is, in the meantime, we’re doing what we can.
McElroy: What are the city’s biggest public safety concerns? How should we address them?
Sheehy: I think the biggest issues are the rise in crime in the neighborhoods. When I go out and I talk to neighbors and community members, that’s the first issue they talk about. Why are there so many auto break-ins? Why are people breaking into houses? How can this be happening? It didn’t happen two years ago, so why is it happening now and why is it happening at the rate it’s happening?
I’ve been meeting with police captains—there are three in my district. However, this is a problem citywide; we’re seeing it everywhere.
My very first piece of legislation was an anti-chop shop ordinance. We constantly see piles of stolen bicycle parts being reassembled and then sold. Frequently these bikes had belonged to folks who rely on them to get to work. It can be a real hardship for those folks to get to work if they lose their bike.
And replacing it forces hard choices on folks because it may be a choice between having a bike or paying your rent. We have created incentives for people to steal bikes and I think that we need to create disincentives for people to steal bikes. And right now the police can’t do anything because there’s no identifying information on the bikes. It’s an illegal business; people can’t set up a business on the sidewalk just willy-nilly and conduct business there every day, trafficking stolen parts. This is something that is very important to me.
Supervisor Yee has a bill that is going through that encourages the use of beat cops. I’ve been talking about this with my district captains, about actually having a presence on the street.
McElroy: What is your favorite way to spend a day off in San Francisco?
Sheehy: With my family. But I typically try to have one day on the weekend I spend with my daughter. I’ll take her to her ice skating lessons at the Yerba Buena Center, for a walk in Glen Canyon, to the Japanese Tea Garden, or we’ll take BART to do some shopping downtown. Sometimes we just walk around our neighborhood and district playing Pokémon Go. She likes Pokémon Go. It’s really kind of wherever she wants to go. It’s fun to hang out with her.
Pam McElroy is the editor of SF Apartment Magazine.