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Deconstructing polls

By Susan Vaughan, special to Fog City Journal

January 25, 2008

I get polled several times a year, most recently, a few days ago. Someone said, "They [the pollsters] must have you on their rolodexes," because they - the pollsters - seem to know I will spend the time and answer the questions thoughtfully.

I don't know who commissioned the poll of a few days ago, but here, in this column, I have deconstructed it with the hopes of determining who commissioned the poll for myself - and guiding others, should they ever be asked the same or similar questions.

Let me preface my deconstruction. Forty or more years ago, the powers that be were blatant about their efforts to revitalize the city by displacing lower income residents, largely working class people and/or people of color. But revitalization is the same as gentrification, and both those forces encourage land speculation.

Nothing has changed much. The profit motive still drives land-use policies, and housing costs, which rose astronomically during the Dot Com boom, have not abated at all.

The revolution at the Board of Supervisors in 2000 was largely a response to profit-driven land-use policies, but the supervisors have not been successful at keeping the city affordable. They - and the rest of us - are, for one thing, constantly fighting off political enemies who are perfectly happy with the rising cost of land and housing.

Through polls - through THIS poll - they might be playing on a lack of sophistication and getting us to respond in ways that are against our economic self-interests. My own responses to this poll are from the point of view of a relatively low-income person who has found San Francisco to be a sanctuary for free spirits who live their lives according to no conventions - and who very much wants to stay here.

In the Beginning …

Are you a news reporter or an employee of a high level person?

No. (I work at a school.)

How likely are you to vote in the upcoming election?

Very. The only reason I wouldn't vote was if there were some kind of emergency that prevented me from doing so.

Is the city on the right track or the wrong track?

Wrong. (Our most powerful elected officials neglect our major problems.)

Do you approve or disapprove of Mayor Gavin Newsom?

Strongly disapprove.

Do you approve or disapprove of the Board of Supervisors?

Somewhat approve.

Do you approve or disapprove of your district supervisor?

Somewhat approve. That would be Jake McGoldrick, as I live in District 1. Jake is a great guy. He kept his promise and went out on a limb for Healthy Saturdays, and has a strong record on tenant rights. (He is himself a tenant and used to serve on the rent board.)

But I have taken issue with him on a few of his votes, especially his recent votes against halting construction on Parcel A and his vote in favor of the Seven Hills proposal for market-rate housing at 3400 Cesar Chavez.

What is important to me in terms of candidates for the Board of Supervisors in my district?

Values and priorities similar to my own.

What are the three most pressing issues in San Francisco right now?

Cost of rent, public transportation, and violence.

I initially answered "affordable housing," but when the pollster responded, "Ok, cost of homeownership," I corrected him and said, "No, I didn't say that."

He quickly corrected himself and said, "The cost of rent" even though I had not said the word "rent."

Homelessness and Other "Hot-Button" Issues

Then the pollster listed a set of issues and asked me how important I thought they were on scale of zero to ten, with zero being of no importance at all.

Cracking down on camping in parks

I said, "Zero." I don't deny that homelessness is an issue, but I also know that there is a deliberate effort in this city to criminalize poverty, mental illness, and homelessness.

The goal of these efforts is to drive poor people who are down on their luck out of the city. You'll see as we continue …

Muni reliability

This one is a "ten" for me. I committed myself to the car-free existence back in 1990 for reasons that I don't think need explanation.

I rely on my feet, my bicycle, and public transportation to get around, but I live in the Richmond District, one of the neighborhoods that is most ill-served in terms of fast, reliable public transportation to other parts of the city.

Fighting crime

Again this is a "ten." I am in education, and the traumatic fallout from violence in some parts of the city reverberates in our schools and undermines efforts to help our younger population prepare for successful adulthoods.

Traffic and parking

A "zero." OK, I don't deny that traffic is a headache when I'm the 47 Van Ness trying to get to or from North Beach or to or from the Civic Center, but I reject the premise of the question. If we accept that traffic is a problem, we might also be able to accept a solution that calls for widening roads to accommodate more cars. I won't do that.

The problem is too many cars and over-reliance on personal automobiles as a means of transportation.

And parking? You know that old canard, "If you provide parking, they will drive." How better to discourage people from driving - and encourage them to walk, bicycle, and take the bus - than to restrict parking availability for the able-bodied?

Repairing city streets

Another "zero." OK, I ride a bicycle that I bought in 1986. It's the only one that I have ever had that's been my very own.

I admit, I feel it when I'm riding down Balboa, 14th Avenue, Page Street, or that little stretch of Grove Street with sharrows on the way to the Civic Center. I feel the ragged surfaces beneath.

But the question was not about the smoothness of my bicycle commute or the adequacy of the bicycle network. Had it been, I might have responded differently.

Creating more jobs in San Francisco

I had to say, "Don't know" because I honestly don't. I have been underemployed in San Francisco, and I certainly know other underemployed people and people who have lost their tech jobs to outsourcing.

But I don't know the unemployment rate in San Francisco - and I think I would need to know that to provide my best answer. Besides, had I responded that the creation of more jobs in San Francisco was important, someone reading my poll responses might interpolate that I favor reducing taxes to encourage more business activity. Which was question number 17.

Reducing taxes

A "zero." OK, I would like to see many sales taxes reduced or perhaps even eliminated. But I would also like to see Proposition 13 (the one passed in 1978) repealed or at the very least amended so that corporations pay higher property taxes and so that municipalities can impose taxes without having to meet a roughly two-thirds threshold of voter approval (I call that "tyranny of the minority"). And I would like to see the Vehicle License Fee reinstated, and the Bush tax cuts rolled back.

Here's what I would really like to see: percentage-based carbon taxes, starting at, like, I don't know, one percent the first year, and gradually increasing to 10 percent? With the revenues going to the enhancement of public transportation and the creation of walkable transit villages. The pollster did not ask about any of these things.

Homelessness and Taxes Come Up - Again!

Reducing the number of homeless people and panhandlers

A "zero." Yes, of course I would like to see the number of homeless people reduced, but a more positive way of phrasing the question would have sounded something like, "Increasing the amount and quality of services for homeless people."

Panhandling? We are all one economic disaster away from becoming panhandlers ourselves. Even the people who commissioned this poll …

Balancing the San Francisco city budget without raising taxes

A "zero." I would like to say yes, but I know who would suffer the most - the poorest among us who are dependent on social services for their housing and medical care. And in San Francisco "the poorest among us" can include people who are making somewhere in the $20,000 range annually, families that are making $30,000 to $50,000 annually.

(Did you know, for example, that at a middle school on the west side of the city, 48 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunches this year and that last year that figure was 55 percent?)

San Franciscans routinely vote to increase taxes - in the form of bonds. And they are getting ready to make a decision on a parcel tax to fund schools. Bonds and parcel taxes are extremely regressive ways of raising revenue.

I would prefer direct taxes, but state law restricts local governments in terms of how they can levy direct taxes. Local income taxes, for example, are against state law.

Improving the quality of schools

I gave this a "seven." I don't know who commissioned this poll, but let's remember something - while we have a locally-elected Board of Education, the members of that Board, and all the employees of the school district down the ranks, are governed at the state level, not the local level.

The Real Issue

Affordable housing for low-income families

A "ten." Right now we see space - on the ground in the air - being taken up with market-rate housing. In my own Richmond District neighborhood, market-rate housing starts at about $650,000 per unit.

Every square foot of space that is dedicated to market-rate housing is the loss of square foot of space that could have been dedicated to something we truly need - affordable housing. Our local laws only require that about 15 percent of units built by developers be designated as affordable.

In addition, owner move-in evictions still happen apace. It happened to me in the mid-1990s; it recently happened to one elected official who had been living in the Richmond District; it happened to my new neighbor Ed, an SF native, and his wife three months ago; it happened to Mrs. Perez, a past colleague who was born in San Francisco and raised her own family here - until she was forced out to South San Francisco.

If two-thirds of San Franciscans are renters, and if studies show that 64 percent of San Francisco residents cannot afford market-rate housing, then why are we building it?

Political Celebrities and Their Legislative Records

The next session asked me if I had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the following locally elected officials:

Supervisor and Board President Aaron Peskin

I answered "somewhat favorable." While Peskin scored a huge victory with the defeat of Donald Fisher's Proposition H last fall, the "A" in Proposition A, his Muni Charter Reform, stands for "ambilvalence." And he has signed on as a supporter of the Florida-based developer Lennar's bogus "Bayview Jobs, Parks, and Housing" initiative.

The line between "somewhat favorable" and "somewhat unfavorable" is thin - and lucky Peskin, he got bonus points for coming to the board as a part of revolution in 2000, for fighting the good fight against runways in the Bay, for supporting Matt Gonzalez in 2003, and for oh, just moments ago, introducing legislation to reduce the parking requirements in some planned developments.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi

Strongly approve. Mirkarimi has taken on the police union, the plastic bag industry, and the UC Berkeley and a private developer (A.F. Evans) in an effort to reduce violence in his district, make the city truly part of the "City Greening" movement, and extract higher levels of affordable housing from for-profit developers on publicly-owned land.

Supervisor Chris Daly

Strongly approve. On two occasions, Chris Daly has stared down the forces of gentrification and land speculation and won reelection. His close calls have not seemed to have dampened this modern day Robin Hood at all. Again and again, he has come back with legislation that extracts from the rich and redistributes to the poor.

And he rides a bicycle to boot! He will have an affordable housing charter amendment on the ballot in November, and at the moment, he is leading the charge against Lennar's bogus ballot measure with one of his own.

Mayor Gavin Newsom

Strongly disapprove. He has done absolutely diddlysquat to address the affordable housing crisis, has been AWOL in terms of tackling violence, and has most recently ditched the only people (Leah Shahum and Peter Mezey) on the Municipal Transportation Agency commission with any track record in support of sustainable transportation in favor of people who have no track records, let alone name recognition, in the sustainable transportation community.

The replacement of these MTA commissioner is part of a broader shakeup in City Hall in which he seems to be doling out high-paying patronage jobs to loyal staffers who are going to be part of his team as he moves on, seeking higher office.

He did, in addition, undermine efforts to tackle the plastic bag problem - and then took credit for the legislation that Supervisor Mirkarimi ushered through and that he eventually signed. How did this happen? When Mirkarimi proposed a 17-cent per plastic bag fee, Newsom intervened, presumably in response to lobbyists on behalf of the plastic bag and grocers industries, and negotiated a voluntary reduction in the number of plastic bags to be distributed.

His agreement got front-page, above-the-fold coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle - even though no one knew if 50 million or 150 million plastic bags were distributed in the city annually.

In the meantime, opponents of efforts to reduce the number of plastic bags in our environment succeeded in getting a law passed at the state level outlawing municipalities from passing ordinances requiring businesses to charge consumers for plastic bags. Way to go, Gav.

Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier

Strongy disapprove. Alioto-Pier was one of the few members of the Board of Supervisors to support Donald Fisher's radical Proposition H.

If Prop. H had passed, it would have increased the number of vehicles on our city streets by upwards of 19,000 to 20,000 daily. It also sought to mandate one-to-one parking in all new developments, drastically curbing the ability of our elected officials to craft legislation to address our affordable housing needs (housing with parking is more expensive than housing without, by tens of thousands of dollars).

Alioto-Pier was also party to the shenanigans in the spring of 2006, involving a forged letter that had the intent of derailing legislation to tame downtown traffic in the interests of pedestrians and public transportation.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd

I responded "Somewhat disapprove." Everyone says he's a nice guy, and I have feeling that he's smart and that he represents his district well. And he came out in opposition to Fisher's H. But sometimes supervisors have to vote on issues that are outside of their district.

I would have been happier had Elsbernd voted to halt the grading and construction going in Parcel A and had he voted in favor of the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition's proposal for affordable housing units at 3400 Chavez, as opposed to the market-rate housing proposal put forth by the developer, Seven Hills.

Unlike Peskin, Elsbernd couldn't earn Brownie points for being a part of some kind of revolution - especially since he was initially appointed to his job as part of a scandalous triple play.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera

Don't know. There are some among my circle of political junkies that condemn him for his decision to dismiss the signatures that would have turned the redevelopment of the Bayview into a referendum. But I have to confess - I don't know the legal ins and outs of what he did well enough to make an independent assessment.

Homelessness - Enough Already!

The pollster then asked me if I approve or disapprove of the following legislative proposals:

Would I support legislation prohibiting people from lying or sitting on public sidewalks from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m.?

Say, what? I responded that I would strongly DISAPPROVE of such legislation. Again, we're back to criminalizing the poor, the mentally ill, and the homeless.

Well then, OK. Would I approve of such legislation if there were services for up to 150 people who would be targeted by such a law?

Huh? Around the Transbay Terminal alone you could find 150 homeless people who would be the target of the legislation. What about the homeless people in the rest of the city?

Like Clay and Shannon in my neighborhood, two people who sit quietly in front of our local drugstores, about two blocks apart from each other, two people who are part of the fabric of Geary Boulevard. Why target them? Strongly disapprove …

Trick Questions …

OK, well what about the diversity index versus neighborhood schools?

I responded, "Don't know." I support both neighborhood schools and integrated schools in concept, but know that the diversity index is the response of the San Francisco Board of Education to a court-ordered mandate.

Certain conservative, big business groups like SFSOS (founded by Dianne Feinstein, among others, and dubbed a grassroots organization for billionaires by one locally-elected official) have tried to turn the diversity index into a political football by praying on the ignorance of certain voters. They have not succeeded.

Well, what about "earmarks" or "set asides" in our local budget for parks and recreation, libraries, and children services? Right now, the pollster said, 80 percent of our local budget, or $4.8 billion, is dedicated to set asides.

I responded that in general I oppose set asides - but brought up Chris Daly's charter amendment to set aside money for affordable housing which will be on the November 2008 ballot. The pollster assured me we would be getting to that.

Well, how would I feel about set asides if there were a new law requiring that all set asides be renewed every ten years with the exception of police and fire services?

Sounds good, huh? It's a trick question. Chris Daly's charter amendment, setting aside money from the general fund for the creation of affordable housing, expires in 15 years. I said I would strongly oppose 10 year limits on set asides.

Would I support a law that would prevent the Board of Supervisors from creating its own discretionary fund?

Would I support a law restricting the power of the Board of Supervisors in favor of the concentrating power in the hands of the mayor? Hell, no. Strongly oppose, I responded.

Am I going to support the $800 million bond for SF General and the Trauma Center that will be on the ballot this November?

Undecided. In general, I oppose bonds, but I support our public hospitals, and used to, in fact, take advantage of San Francisco General when I was a new resident of San Francisco.

Should the election for the mayor and District Attorney remain in odd years, as they are now, or be shifted to even-numbered years when voter turn out is higher?

Strongly oppose. Right now, when there are mayoral and DA elections, there are no elections for supervisor.

Thus, someone can run for mayor or DA, lose, and still be on the Board of Supervisors. This system favors progressive candidates. A progressive candidate might not risk his or her seat on the Board of Supervisors to run for mayor or DA in the same year that he or she had to run for reelection as supervisor.

Would I support a law to create minimum qualifications for people sitting on commissions that oversee elections, campaign finance, and lobbyists? Would I support banning people who have served as campaign treasurers, campaign consultants, and lobbyists from serving on commissions that oversee elections, campaign finance, and lobbying?

Strongly oppose. These are more trick questions. While they sound like they might be good ideas, the real targets are people who have participated in low-budget grassroots campaigns.

Should the SFPUC and the MTA have the authority to issue bonds without a vote by the electorate?

Somewhat oppose. But again, this is another trick question. While I believe the voters should have a chance to weigh in, they have already delegated such power not only to the MTA, but to the Library Commission.

Voters passed Proposition A, Muni Charter Reform, and Proposition D, Renewal of the Library Preservation Fund, last November. Both of those measures include language permitting unelected commissioners to issue bonds with approval from the Board of Supervisors - but not the voters.

I voted for A and against D - but the reason I voted for A was because it included language in it that would negate Donald Fisher's Proposition H, had H passed.

Do I support increasing the number of street cameras to reduce crime?

Don't know. In some neighborhoods, the people want the cameras, and in others they don't. I think it should be up to the people of a particular neighborhood to decide whether or not they want street cameras.

Back to Taxes

Would I support or oppose raising revenue through the following means?

a) Increasing in fees

I had to say, "Don't know." If they want to raise parking, golfing or marina fees, be my guest. But Muni fares? Fees for San Francisco General Hospital? No way!

b) Increasing the property transfer tax on properties valued somewhere in the millions range?


c) Imposing parcel taxes

Oppose somewhat. These are extremely regressive forms of taxation. Every square foot of land upon which sits the Bank of America building is assessed at the same dollar amount that a single-family home in Ingleside is assessed at. But this year the Board of Education, strapped for income, is placing a parcel tax on the ballot. I haven't yet decided how I will vote.

d) Increases on taxes on big businesses

Hell, yes. Go for it. Nationwide, globally, let's start taxing these money-suckers.

e) Increasing the payroll tax

Somewhat oppose. But I have to admit I'm a little bit confused. Progressives have been talking about eliminating the payroll tax and replacing it with a gross receipts tax for years. Or is it the other way around?

f) Imposing a new fee on downtown businesses for Muni

Yes, yes, yes. In the lingo of transportation junkies, this is called a "transit assessment" fee. And in San Francisco, since nearly all public transportation leads to our bustling financial district, many think the businesses that benefit the most should help defray the costs of that transportation.

g) Setting aside up to $2.7 billion in the general fund - over 15 years - for the creation of affordable housing

Yes. This is Supervisor Chris Daly's affordable housing charter amendment, which will be on the ballot in November 2008. I understand all the arguments about potential cuts to Muni and health care. But like I said before, our current mayor isn't doing anything to significantly increase the amount of truly affordable housing in the city.

My Demographic and My Conclusion

The questions about revenue were followed by a set that determined my demographics - single, college-educated, white female renter who identifies as a progressive politically.

I don't know who commissioned this poll. But whoever it was, I hope that they deduced at least one thing. Four or five decades ago, the forces of land speculation were blatant in their goals - "take a massive parcel of downtown land, evict its occupants, demolish the existing structures, and convert the land to the desired uses," according to Chester Hartman in his book about San Francisco redevelopment, "City for Sale."

The same desire to speculate in land exists today in San Francisco, but like crafty Republicans, the people who want to cash in on land values - or progress politically from local office to perhaps governor - play on our annoyance with homelessness instead of addressing the root issue: our city's crisis in affordable housing.

I hope those who commissioned this poll understand that some of us out there can see through their smoke screens and intend to fight for the right to remain citizens of this city - no matter what our incomes are.

Sue Vaughan was born and raised in the northeast part of the country. In 1988 she turned down a reporting job at the Boston-area newspaper because accepting the job would have required her to buy a car. In 1990, she finally escaped the bitter northeast winters – and sweltering summers – by taking a Greyhound bus from the East Coast to the West Coast. She first lived in that suburban “hotbed of social rest” (so described by former SF Chronicle columnist Rob Morse) Palo Alto, which inspired her to commit herself to the car-free existence. She moved from there to the Richmond District of San Francisco, taught on and off for several years, worked on her masters degree, and became a sustainable transportation activist. She now serves on the County Council of the San Francisco Green Party and hosts an occasional public access television show, Car-Free Talk.

Susan Vaughan






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