By Susan Vaughan, special to Fog City
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
Do you approve or disapprove of Mayor Gavin Newsom?
Do you approve or disapprove of the Board of Supervisors?
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
OK, well what about the diversity index versus neighborhood
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,
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
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
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
Back to Taxes
Would I support or oppose raising revenue through the following
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
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