SF Apartment : December 2017
The Big Picture
by Pam McElroy
Supervisor London Breed, a San Francisco native, talks about creative planning for the more affordable and inclusive city she envisions for the future.
Pam McElroy: It’s rare to meet someone who was born and raised in San Francisco. You’re from the Western Addition. What do you love about the city and what has kept you here?
London Breed: I love everything about the city. I like people being everywhere—it’s alive, people are at restaurants, they’re at events. I love going to events all over the city, performances, going out to dinner, hanging out with friends. It’s just alive. Going to the dry cleaner, the shoe repair guy—I love the sense of community in each neighborhood.
Pam McElroy: Do you still live in the Western Addition?
London Breed: The Western Addition is my neighborhood. Well, people have changed the name, so now where I live is called Lower Haight. When I was growing up, there was only the Fillmore, Western Addition, Haight-Ashbury and that was it, and now there’s all these different neighborhoods.
Pam McElroy: The Fillmore district has changed drastically over the years. Where do you spend time in your district? Do you have a favorite restaurant?
London Breed: I spend most of my time in the Fillmore, at Sheba’s Lounge or Fat Angel or Fillmore Café or one of the other coffee shops. I’m always at Sheba’s Lounge—I’ll go with my friends or colleagues. They have live music every night. It’s owned by two sisters who are the sweetest, and the food and drinks are incredible. I feel comfortable in the neighborhood. But as someone who grew up here, I’m always amazed by how much it has changed.
Pam McElroy: What brought you into San Francisco politics?
London Breed: I went away to college, and what I saw when I came home was depressing. I didn’t understand why my friends were getting killed, or in jail, or having to move out of the city. I felt alone and frustrated when I saw how many opportunities there were out there, but that my community didn’t have access to many of them.
So at first, it was less about getting into politics and more about just registering to vote, getting my community more active and becoming more active myself—serving on commissions, volunteering, helping elected officials, community work. Eventually, people started to encourage me to run for supervisor. For a long time I went back and forth with the idea. But then I thought, why not me? as I continued to watch the board make decisions with good intentions that were supposed to benefit our community, but I knew weren’t going to help. Unless you grew up in San Francisco and understand what it’s like to grow up here in poverty, it’s hard to know what will really help.
That is what drove me to politics. It had a lot to do with my upbringing and what was happening in my community and my desire to change things.
Pam McElroy: What accomplishment are you most proud of since being elected supervisor?
London Breed: I’m most proud of the Neighborhood Preference program, which is legislation that requires 40 percent of all new development in a district to first go to the people who live there. There were so many new developments being built in my community, and it was hard for us to get into those units. Residents in my district were stuck or being displaced, especially because a lot of our buildings were being torn down.
So for example, if someone builds 20 percent onsite inclusionary housing, 40 percent of those units that are affordable are a separate lottery for people who actually live in that particular district. They get the right of first refusal, so it doesn’t guarantee housing, but it gives residents a better shot at getting in.
When I finished college, I started off making $32,000 a year, so when I came back home to San Francisco, I had to move in with my grandmother. Some of my friends got jobs working for the city or the state and were still living at home with their parents. Or they were living in an affordable housing complex, but there were no vacancies—no next level when they started having kids, so they were having to leave the city. In a building I used to live in, my neighbors had their son’s bedroom in a closet. So it was frustrating when I’d be asked to support new developments, knowing that the people in my district had no real shot of actually getting into them.
And so, making the Neighborhood Preference program happen is what I’m most proud of. To see the results of the legislation already in one of our senior developments that opened this year—a 98-unit senior building. I’m proud to see that many people from the neighborhood actually live there now, including seniors who were formally homeless or who grew up in the neighborhood.
We just opened up the Booker T. Washington Community Center. Neighborhood Preference helped to move in a lot of folks who are from the neighborhood, born and raised in the neighborhood. A lot of these people are African-Americans from San Francisco, and before this program, they had no real opportunity to get access to the affordable housing the city was building. It’s a game-changer. I wish this legislation was around when I was young.
Pam McElroy: Will the Neighborhood Preference program be applied to the McDonald’s purchase on Haight Street?
London Breed: When the housing is developed, it will have Neighborhood Preference attached to it. It’s being purchased with affordable housing money, and so I’m hoping it will be 100 percent affordable housing. It still has to go through the community process, and it’s still too early to tell, but hopefully it will be housing for low- and middle-income families—40 percent going toward the Neighborhood Preference program.
We sadly have too many families with small children living in shelters—this shouldn’t be happening in a place like San Francisco. We need to do what we can for our most vulnerable population, the families, seniors and disabled.
Another building I’m proud of is 1099 Masonic Street, where there are 17 new affordable housing units for disabled San Franciscans. This was a partnership with The Arc and Mercy Housing. The building was designed for people in wheelchairs and has support services for those who need it, like the residents with Down syndrome. The residents live independently, but they have community support when they need it. And the Neighborhood Preference program helped people from the neighborhood get placed there.
Pam McElroy: What do you think should be done to address homelessness in San Francisco?
London Breed: Of course, there is a lot of work to be done—but I don’t think we talk enough about what we have done. For example, 160 units at the Richardson Apartments are now housing people who were chronically homeless. They had been costing the city millions of dollars in hospital visits. They’re receiving support for mental illness and living down the street from City Hall. They’re being treated with dignity and respect.
We are doing a lot to address homelessness in the city, but we just don’t do it fast enough, and that’s the challenge.
I’m working on a comprehensive plan for mental illness. Part of it is going to be administrative, part of it is going to be legislative. I’m still working on the details, but I’m proposing a plan to make it easier to get those suffering from mental illness conserved, to get them off the streets and in stabilization beds, to get them the support they need. We’ve sent so many people through the court system, which has failed—I want to fix that.
The substance abuse and mental illness prevalent in our homeless population is one of the most important things we need to work on. I’m also looking into safe injection sites. A safe injection site might not sound great—and I know some people may not be happy about them—but they could be a solution to needles on the streets and people using on the streets.
Pam McElroy: If you could change one thing about the city’s government structure, what would it be?
London Breed: I would add more members to the Board of Supervisors who are actually citywide supervisors. It’s important that we have district supervisors who look out for the individual districts, but we could use more people to consider the bigger picture, to take care of the city as a whole, to look out for everybody’s best interest.
We need people who have a vision about moving the whole city into the future: who’s going to live here, what kind of housing are we going to have, how do all the different layers fit together. That’s a change I’d like to see.
Pam McElroy: Would you ever consider running for Mayor of San Francisco?
London Breed: Yes, I would. I’m seriously thinking about it now. This is my home, and all are welcome here—I feel protective of everything and everybody in the city. I grew up poor in San Francisco, but I don’t think I should only be looking out for the poor; everyone who lives here is a part of the city, and everyone deserves to be represented and treated fairly with respect.
I love our city and I love our neighborhoods, and I want to see the mayor—whether it is me or someone else—representing the entire city. While I’m definitely considering running myself, if there’s someone who jumps in the race who gets me excited enough to want to support them, I will.
Pam McElroy: You’ve spoken frequently about your “blueprint” to create more housing. What are some of the specifics about the plan in addition to the Neighborhood Preference program?
London Breed: I want to build more, and I want to build faster. I’ve been running into some problems with this though, because the city is a bureaucracy. My vision is that we get more creative with how we use space—especially underutilized space. To provide more housing, rebuild of some of our low-income developments that are falling apart and increase the height because a lot of these buildings are below 65 feet, so there’s opportunity for growth, and there’s opportunity to do it without displacement. I want the community to be aware of what exists and what’s possible; I would love their input on changes that could better neighborhoods.
We also need to consider the folks in the middle who are getting left out. Either you have to be rich or you have to fit within the very-low income category. Middle-income folks are struggling to live here. Even making a six-figure salary, after rent and taxes and student loans and retirement, it’s hard. We have to do something different.
Pam McElroy: Of the rent-control ordinance, what do you think has been the greatest success and also failure?
London Breed: This is a hard question because I see this from so many sides. I’ll talk to someone whose rent is going up $500 or $1,000. I am lucky to live in a rent-controlled building; if I had a rent increase like that, I don’t know what I would do. And a lot of the times, the person increasing the rent isn’t even a person, it’s an entity, an LLC. I don’t believe that it should be okay to raise somebody’s rent by a ridiculous amount of money; I just think that’s wrong. Having a bad landlord is really uncomfortable. Having the weight of not knowing the certainty of your future and whether or not you’ll be housed is really stressful.
But there is abuse on the other side as well. If someone’s living in a rent-controlled apartment, but then they own property someplace else, I don’t think that’s fair either; somebody needs that apartment. It makes it hard for folks who are just trying to live here. There are landlords who are just trying to make ends meet, to pay their mortgages. I met a woman whose Section 8 tenant wasn’t paying her rent, and the city or Housing Authority wasn’t paying her—she wasn’t even charging that much.
The challenge is with the bad landlords and the bad tenants—when landlords are greedy or tenants create difficult situations. If people on both sides were fair, honest and good to each other, we wouldn’t need so many laws that make things harder for so many people. I think the landlord-tenant relationship should be more of a partnership. As a tenant, I will take care of your space, like I own it myself, but I want to be respected in return.
Pam McElroy: What are your legislative passions beyond housing?
London Breed: I’m passionate about making good things happen in the city. For example, the N-Judah, I’m passionate about that and getting it done right. We added a shuttle to the N-Judah and people are so happy about it, and now we’re going to get new trains, and we’re fixing the tunnels and the infrastructure. To improve people’s commutes is something I’m passionate about. In Cole Valley, it’s one of the only things people ask about, to fix that particular problem.
I’m also passionate about cleaning up dated legislation. I cleaned up the arcade legislation, which limited the number of machines an arcade could have within a certain proximity to a school. So now places like Free Gold Watch and The Emporium can stay in operation. To me it seemed unnecessary for a business to have to close its doors because it had too many pinball machines within a certain distance from a school.
My graffiti legislation made it more efficient to go after vandals civilly rather than criminally. Because of this, the city attorney was able to get judgement on a notorious offender. We have so many amazing graffiti artists who get permission to do what they do, and then there are the people who break the law, making it difficult for the graffiti artists. I enjoy making things more efficient, making the quality of life better in San Francisco.
Pam McElroy is editor of SF Apartment Magazine.