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Costly Vote on Affordable Housing

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Probably the biggest frustration we face as advocates is the apparent inability of politicians and bureaucrats—and all too often, all too many people in general—to grasp the most simple, straightforward facts about the main cause of and mainstay cure for homelessness. But since simply throwing up one’s hands and admitting defeat is definitely NOT an option, we find ourselves repeating the same messages over and over, reworking and rewording them in hopes that someday, sometime, something we manage to say will strike a responsive chord in the hearts and minds of those whom we are trying to reach, and the necessary understanding will finally dawn on the people who make the policies.

So, please listen closely and repeat after me-once more, with feeling: The root cause of homelessness is… what? LACK OF HOMES. And the logical remedy for this problem would be… what? PROVISION OF HOMES.

Simple? Definitely. Simplistic? Well, yes, of course. But all it takes is the addition of a little language detailing what we mean by “homes” in this context (something along the lines of “universally accessible, affordable, available housing, some of it with supportive services attached”), and what you’ve got is basically a solid rationale behind a clear prescription for a surprising number of the ills of the current social system.

Why does the government seem so slow to grasp something so simple as the concept that a homeless person who is given a home ceases to be homeless? Quite possibly because of a related, similarly easy-to-grasp fact: Putting this approach into place as policy—that is, actually providing enough of such “homes,” to handle the already shockingly large and steadily growing numbers of people living on our City’s streets requires substantial funding and local government has been, pick one: a) traditionall; b) abysmally; c) both, slow to step up to the plate when it comes to making such funding a major line item in its budget.

In fact, in reality, the reverse is much more often the case; local government tends to look to programs that assist poor and homeless people not with an eye toward making new or supplemental funding commitments, but rather as targets at which it can swing its budget ax with relative impunity when deficit threatens. Even more bluntly stated, such programs are (again “traditionally”) the last to be funded and the first and hardest hit when funds are cut.

At-a-Glance: Prop A

Which brings us back to this election year’s incarnation of Proposition A, “Affordable Housing, Livable City,” a general obligation bond slated to provide $90 million specifically designated for housing the homeless and near-homeless; $60 million for rental housing for low-income households; and for moderate-income potential homebuyers, $25 million for down-payment assistance and another $25 million in subsidies to develop housing suitable for their purchase.

According to the Mayor’s housing staff, Prop A would have produced a total of some 3,350 new housing units. The Community Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that runs a number of the City’s homeless housing projects, estimated that the $90 million portion for homeless housing alone could have funded development of as many as 1,500 housing units—with on-site supportive services. All this, according to the Controller’s office, at an estimated cost to San Francisco taxpayers of an additional $52 in annual property taxes for a property valued at $300,000—a portion of which cost rental property owners would be allowed to pass along to their tenants.

Prop A and Me

Last month, at one point, I was asked to write a pre-election piece extolling the merits of Prop A, explaining just how significant a positive impact it could have on San Francisco’s currently dismal-and-getting-worse-by-the-day homeless situation. The idea was to point out that passage of Prop A would go a long way toward providing the City with the funding needed to work on actually eradicating what we just reiterated is undeniably the root cause of homelessness: lack of access to available, affordable housing—some with supportive services.

I ended up only getting as far as the lead sentence, which was going to read something like the following: “How can a proposition that’s supported by the Mayor, the local Republican Party, professional groups including teachers and nurses’ organizations, virtually every social service-related entity from City agencies to churches, AND the Coalition on Homelessness—check out that diversity—possibly fail?

Well, I didn’t get around to writing that story. A lucky break as it turns out, because it both gives me a chance to recycle my unused lead and makes me seem oddly prophetic—since fail is precisely what Prop A did.

So…WHAT HAPPENED?!?

As the dust of a particularly dirty election season starts to settle, several explanations present themselves. Unfortunately, none is precisely what one would term a “good” reason.

Incidentally, it’s worth taking a minute here to point out that the word “fail” is slightly misleading in this case, because to many people it connotes a less than 50% positive response, whereas in the case of Prop A, the requirement for passage was 66%, or a two-thirds count. And, in fact, the final tally for Prop A came heart-rendingly close, with 208,887, or just shy of 65 percent, voting for the measure and 116,484, or 35 percent, against.

“A” Is for Apathy

Voter apathy is a frequent culprit in the failure of local measures; the outcome of propositions voted on in non-Presidential election years often is determined by the relative efficiency of voter mobilization for or against, since without a concerted “Get out the vote” effort, many San Franciscans will neglect to cast a ballot at all in “local races only” elections (and even those who do show up are surprisingly likely to leave blank spaces on their ballots unless energetically—and better yet, repeatedly—lobbied to do otherwise).

But as we all know all too well, this was a Presidential election year—and one featuring a highly emotional, hotly contested race that saw both sides mobilizing to register voters and speed them pollward. Locally, Prop A proponents orchestrated one of the most concerted voter registration efforts. Consider that significant outreach effort, then factor in not only a highly professional citywide signage campaign (Were there any “No on A” signs?) and the impressive range of endorsements mentioned earlier, many made at officially convened media events carefully crafted to garner maximum publicity, and you’d think that apathy couldn’t be a factor in this year and in this case.

But, sadly—or even more appropriate, maddeningly—you’d be wrong. Because, although some 360,000-plus San Franciscans cast their votes in the presidential race (more than 80 percent of those votes going to Kerry, by the way), a shockingly high percentage of those voters apparently failed to make their way through the entire ballot, because the final figures show a total of fewer than 330,000 votes cast on Prop A. So apathy definitely played a role in the measure’s defeat—and possibly the lead.

Mistrust of Motives

Over and above apathy, though, hovers an even more disquieting trend in San Francisco politics: voters’ growing cynicism about the motives and methods of the City’s “powers that be.” The last housing bond to gain the approval of San Francisco voters was a $100 million housing bond passed in 1996. This measure, another “Prop A,” was the first of its kind in the nation, and represented both a political coup and a personal triumph for the then newly elected mayor, Willie Brown. By all accounts, it was a success for the City, too; According to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the 1996 housing bond measure ultimately helped to create almost 2,400 housing units and more than 2,000 jobs.

But San Francisco’s need for affordable housing continued to grow, even as the funding generated by the bond dwindled. And by the time a supplemental measure became necessary in 2002, the positive political climate that had allowed for the initial bond’s passage seemed somewhat naïve. The optimism that had marked Brown’s advent on the San Francisco political scene had been replaced by rampant skepticism about both the flamboyant former State Speaker’s personal ethics and his administration’s business practices—in particular, its handling of development-related planning decisions, political appointments, and contract awards. Allegations of municipal corruption had become commonplace, and there was a growing sense that the development boom was making San Francisco even less affordable, not more so, that the rich were still richer, the poor, still poorer—and increasingly likely to find themselves sleeping on the streets. It was in this new, negative political climate that the next affordable housing bond measure, a follow-up proposal intended to raise $250 million, backed by Brown, then in the latter half of his second term, went down to defeat with 56 percent of the vote—a majority but well short of the two-thirds requirement.

Since then, every attempt to craft a housing bond for San Francisco has been at least something of a political debacle. Moving a measure all the way from initial proposal to enactment through public election has become a process subject to intense scrutiny from an increasingly factionalized set of political players, each determined to protect a particular set of private or public interests.

Downers and Upsides

Unlike its immediate predecessors, though, for the most part, Prop A circa 2004 managed to survive this intense scrutiny. Still, the skirmishes it was subjected to along the way, coupled with the Brown legacy of cynicism about whether City-backed development efforts would actually benefit the City or merely the developers, left it somewhat weakened and vulnerable. And its defeat, despite the diversity and visibility of its supporters, could further increase voters’ leeriness toward City housing measures, thus further decreasing the inevitable next housing bond’s chances of success.

Then again, that’s certainly not a given; it’s just as likely, if not even more so that legacy of this near-win will be a positive one. Undoubtedly, the factions involved in getting Prop A as far as it got (roughly one percentage point from all the way) learned valuable lessons from the process, which should facilitate the drafting of future housing bonds. More important, the major outreach efforts made in support of Prop A did much to educate San Franciscans on the harsh realities of this critical issue—not only by increasing awareness of our City’s urgent need for additional housing to meet the needs of all residents, but also by alerting local voters to the fact that, for all its talk of eliminating homelessness on a nationwide basis, as long as the current federal administration is in place, the fiscal responsibility for developing the housing needed to actually achieve that much-desired outcome will fall to municipal governments and local taxpayers.

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Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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