The Lost Art of Compromise and the Failure of Democracy in San Francisco
by Adam Michels
In her classic urban planning treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Neighborhood activist Jane Jacobs writes: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
I teach American Democracy to high school students, but this past year I’ve received my own education on how decisions get made in San Francisco. I’ve seen that despite the veneer of democracy, these decisions are not influenced by everybody in the city–not even by those most affected by them.
Specifically, I am referring to the SF Board of Supervisor’s vote this month to pass a loan to build a massive affordable housing building at 2550 Irving street and 26th Ave. You might think that’s great news, as affordable housing is sorely needed all over the city. However, as a homeowner, I was distressed to see how easily the BOS and the mayor sacrificed the rights of individual homeowners and ignored substantive research in order to maximize housing units, political points, and profits. Compromise is now seen as a weakness to be avoided if at all possible. The great 19th century statesman, Henry Clay, would no longer be known as the Great Compromiser; perhaps he would be called the Great Appeaser or the Biggest Loser. If you compromise with people who see things differently from you, that is now considered a loss in American politics; San Francisco proves the rule.
My working class neighbors and I are not against affordable housing. We need it. Our colleagues need it. Our kids will need it to continue living in San Francisco. I’m surrounded by teachers, merchants, artists, of all different ethnicities, many living in multi-generational homes. We support building affordable housing on the site next to our homes. This proposed building is simply too big. At 7-stories, it towers over our 2 bedroom homes. That’s ok, we thought. We will work out a compromise. We will work with the city, clean-up the toxic PCEs that were found in the soil and build something that really works at this location. That’s how problems get solved. TNDC admits that it is experimenting with our neighborhood by building such a massive structure on sand, next to small one-hundred year old homes with cracked foundations. It does help to look at the affordable housing other communities have built. When the same architect, Pyatok, helped design affordable housing in Professorville, a small community in Palo Alto, it was a huge success, because the developer and the architect worked hand in hand with the surrounding residents to make something that everyone loved. This was the opposite of my experience with TNDC in San Francisco; they simply didn’t care if I liked the project.
The day my neighbors and I talked to Eric Shaw, the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, I had an epiphany. Listening to us was part of the process, but compromise was not. We had done extensive research on the General Plan, financing and toxics, but the information bounced off Shaw like a rubber ball. He had an obligation to listen to us, but not to do anything about it. He made it clear that he had one goal: to maximize the number of housing units in San Francisco. I appreciated his honesty, but I was unnerved by his all consuming commitment to this single goal.
Despite all the community meetings I’ve attended with city leaders, I’ve discovered that compromising with the neighbors is actually not on the agenda. If affordable housing is good, then maximizing the number of units must be great. The Mayor, the Supervisors, the media, and the general public have all bought into this logical fallacy. More is not always better.
I was proud that my neighborhood group, the Mid-Sunset Neighborhood Association, and our coalition partner, the Sunset Community Alliance, were not simply saying no. We were saying yes, and we came up with our own counter proposal. Our proposal would be four stories, but it would cost less per unit and actually house more people in a shorter amount of time by using some of the funds to buy and rehabilitate old homes already for sale in the Sunset. However, instead of sincerely considering our proposal, we were derided in the press and by online attackers who told us that if we didn’t like the project, we should move. The Chronicle’s editorial headline read, “Bay Area NIMBYs Are saying the Racist Parts Out Loud Over Affordable Housing Developments.” I had not heard a single racist word uttered at our 200 person community meeting. However, we were lumped-in with racists in other cities. Getting a hold of the dominant narrative was increasingly difficult, because it was too easy to reduce the whole discussion to NIMBYs v. everyone else.
Initially, I dismissed the criticism that we were NIMBYs and kept my faith in government, because surely my neighbors and I had rights that the majority were bound to respect by law. In response to those who said that toxics are everywhere and that’s just a NIMBY excuse, I would mention that epidemiological researchers think this is serious enough to view my block as a potential research site to study the linkage with Parkinson’s and PCEs. This is terrifying for all of us. From the evidence, PCEs have likely gotten into the sewer lines where it can spread to other areas; we still don’t know how far the toxic plumes have spread and how dangerous they are.
Finally my neighbors and I met with Supervisor Mar–someone whose job it is to represent the people living the neighborhood. Here is where representative government comes into play, I thought. We voted for this guy, so he must care what we think. Mar encouraged us, saying over and over again that he wanted to listen to all voices on this issue. What a relief. I asked him in a Zoom meeting whether the General Plan of San Francisco was actually adhered to when it asserted, “New buildings should be made sympathetic to the scale, form and proportion of older development.” He answered honestly: “I don’t know. That’s a good question.”
I was slowly starting to learn how city government really worked. I was told by Supervisor Peskin that in city politics, if a project is in one supervisor’s district, the other supervisors will defer to that supervisor’s wishes. So, when Mar said he wanted a continuance so that the loan could be approved only after the public had a chance to comment on the toxic clean-up plan, I had a surge of hope that the other Supervisors might follow his lead. Then I remembered that Supervisors sometimes plan this type of empty gesture of opposition so that they can save face with their own constituents, when they actually have no intention of modifying the project.
In what appeared to be a well-orchestrated charade, Supervisors Haney and Safai objected to waiting for the process on toxics to be completed. They said the loan could not wait, and they lectured the Sunset District for not doing its part in the affordable housing crisis. They seemed triumphant in their sentiment that affordable housing waits for no one. The three Supervisors smiled and congratulated themselves on being able to ignore all the objections raised by neighbors. Mar withdrew his request for a continuance until the toxics issue had been settled, and the three men unanimously recommended the loan. As for the compromise that I had been working for, there would be none that day. Mar continued to insist that it was important that he listen to all voices, not just the voices of those people who lived anywhere near the project. Strangely he decided to stop listening to the Chinese Americans by blocking emails from the Sunset Alliance. The Chinese American vote had carried Mar to victory, but now he had no use for their opposition to the project.The Chinese community was furious that their emails had been blocked by Mar and that he was giving disproportionate weight to the views of people who lived far away from the proposed project.
A few days after that committee vote, neighbors gathered in the 19th ave. Baptist Church to voice their outrage that their views had been ignored. After Pastor Joy had urged all of us to modify our positions in an attempt to come together, Supervisor Mar explained that he did favor a compromise. Yes, I thought. That sounds fair. Compromise is what this nation is built on.
The Developer and the Mayor’s Office want to maximize units and build seven floors. The immediate neighbors and merchants want a four story building that would fit better into the neighborhood and not cast a shadow over the surrounding homes all winter. Mar had told me in the past that he favored 5 or 6 stories, so the compromise seemed obvious. He explained that he had listened carefully to the concerns and views of everyone.
As Mar continued speaking, it became clear that he had decided ultimately the best compromise would be one where the immediate neighbors did all the compromising and the developer builds a seven story building. Simply the fact that he had listened to us was supposed to be of some consolation and restore our faith in democracy. However, listening to us express our concerns, though democratic in spirit, still left us feeling not only unimportant, but duped into thinking we had a say. That’s not democracy. I understand that democracy does not mean you always get your way, but it should mean you have an opportunity to truly participate in the process and that the rights of the minority will not be trampled on by the majority. (Benjamin Franklin supposedly said, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”)
What we have experienced over the last six months is just the appearance of democracy. The process almost felt participatory, but the fix was in. The result had been pre-determined before we opened our mouths. To get real results, we learned we have to escape the bubble of San Francisco’s blind progressivism. We need to protect our democratic rights, whether or not they are politically popular. We demand more than just the right to speak. We demand the right to have a say in creating our city.