Livable City’s November 2020 election recommendations

This November’s election will be one of the most consequential ones ever for our country – and for our increasingly interconnected planet. We need to vote as though our lives, and those of future generations, depend on it.

It’s also important to vote all the way down the ballot. Many of the decisions that most affect our daily lives – housing, transportation, parks and open spaces, our local economy, schools and services – are made locally. We need national leadership that protects the climate and our living planet, champions equity and justice, and supports housing, education, health, and livelihoods for all. We also need to make wiser local choices to create a more livable city and a more just and sustainable society.

Next month we will choose our elected representatives. We can also vote to sustain local public transit, build affordable housing and health facilities, improve our parks, make our tax system more equitable while funding essential public services, and expand the right to vote and participate in civic life to more people. Here are Livable City’s 2020 recommendations for San Francisco, regional, and California measures and propositions.

San Francisco measures

Yes on AHealth and recovery bond. Measure A is a $600 million general obligation bond to build, repair, and upgrade health facilities, parks, and sidewalks across San Francisco.

No on B – Split the Department of Public Works and create two new commissions. Measure B would amend the City Charter to split the current Department of Public Works into two departments. The Streets and Sanitation Department would perform street cleaning and maintenance. Street construction and design would remain in the Department of Public Works. Both departments would be overseen by a new seven-member appointed commission, with some members chosen by the Mayor, others by the Board of Supervisors, and the ‘tie-breaking’ member by the City Controller. Proponents of the measure, including several members of the Board of Supervisors, say that creating a dedicated streets and sanitation department under its own department head and commission will increase the City’s accountability and responsiveness for keeping streets, sidewalks, and some City plazas clean and well-maintained. Keeping sidewalks, streets, and plazas clean and well-maintained is essential to city livability, and if we were convinced that Measure B would improve matters we would be enthusiastically behind it. But we’re not convinced. Creating a department overseen by an appointed commission is no guarantee that it will function properly; the City’s Department of Building Inspection, created by a similar ballot measure in 1994, has remained mired in scandal and dysfunction. We are also concerned that Measure B will further fragment San Francisco’s already fragmented and uncoordinated system of streets governance. San Francisco has siloed agencies responsible for every aspect of the public right-of-way – from planning to construction to maintenance and cleaning. Most of our peer cities have fewer, better integrated, right-of way agencies. Cities are made up of neighborhoods, and San Francisco’s struggle to coordinate the activities of separate citywide agencies at neighborhood scale chronically undermines neighborhood livability. We deserve reform of our City’s poorly designed and maintained streets and sidewalks. Effective reform likeliest to come from deliberative process involving impartial analysis and work with community stakeholders. Measure B’s authors didn’t do that.

Yes on Cremoving citizenship requirements for members of City bodies. Current law limits membership on the City’s many appointed commissions and advisory boards to citzens of the United States. Measure C would allow adult San Francisco residents to serve on appointed commissions and boards regardless of citizenship status. Jane Jacobs wrote “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Opening opportunities for participation in civic life to all city-dwellers, and including more perspectives on City boards and commissions, will make San Francisco a better place by making it a more inclusive one.

Yes on E – Police Department staffing. A 1980s charter amendment mandates that San Francisco must fund positions for 1,979 sworn police officers. Measure E will eliminate this minimum staffing mandate, and replace it with a bi-annual staffing plan. Measure E will allow police staffing to respond to current needs rather than an arbitrary number fixed decades ago. It will allow for innovation in policing – expanding roles for trained non-sworn personnel.

Yes on FBusiness Tax Overhaul. Measure F is an overhaul of the City’s business tax. It will raise more money overall, which will help sustain public services. The measure changes the rate structure to make it more progressive – the smallest businesses will pay less than under the current system, and the largest ones will pay more. It also phases out the payroll tax component of the current system, shifting the entire tax to gross receipts. This change will make the system less complicated. It’s also more in line with our municipal values. Gross receipts taxes are a tax on business income, and payroll taxes are a tax on the jobs a business creates. We want businesses to pay their fair share, but we also want them to employ local people. This tax shift encourages that.

Yes on G – Youth voting in municipal elections. Measure G permits 16 and 17-year olds to vote in local elections. Many of the decisions politicians make – particularly around issues like climate – have very long-term consequences which will disproportionately be borne by younger people. The burgeoning youth movement to prevent catastrophic climate change is giving us hope. Giving youth more of a say in who represents them and makes decisions on their behalf will help build a more participatory democratic, and future-focused political culture in our City.

Yes on H – Neighborhood commercial districts and City permitting. Measure H amends the City’s planning code to change zoning rules that govern certain commercial uses, as well as arts uses and community-serving nonprofit uses, in the City’s several-dozen Neighborhood Commercial zoning districts. It also amends the City’s administrative code so that permits for small businesses from separate city departments, including planning, building, and public health, can be sought concurrently rather than one after another. These permitting changes are intended to ease the opening, expansion, and relocation of neighborhood-serving small businesses and community institutions, and allow them more flexibility to respond to changing customer needs and business practices. For years we have championed many of these changes, and believe that Measure H will benefit communities and small businesses, and support the measure. We do have some reservations about it. The provision which allows restaurants to function part-time as office co-working spaces could increase rent pressure, since tech office space can demand higher rents than many community-serving uses can afford. We also think the ballot box is the worst place to settle complex planning issues. The legislative process, which allows for community input, amendment, and revision over time, is far superior. Measure H’s author (the Mayor’s office) did include two provisions that are rare in ballot-box planning and which make us much more comfortable with it. Measure H allows for legislative amendments within the next three years, so long as they don’t substantially weaken its provisions. After three years any provision of Measure H can be amended or repealed through the regular legislative process. 2020 is not like any other year; the Covid pandemic threatens the very existence of most of San Francisco’s neighborhood-serving businesses and community institutions, which makes these reforms particularly urgent.

Yes on I – Real estate transfer tax on properties valued over $10 million. Measure I will increase the City’s existing real estate transfer tax on properties valued at $10 million or more. The tax increase will increase funding for City services by taxing financial transations on the City’s largest properties. Sales of most homes and small commercial properties will not be affected by the tax. San Francisco’s system of taxes and fees on property and development has grown piecemeal, and ought to be better aligned with our values and priorities. Proposition 13 and its successor measures have limited the ability of local governments to tax properties at their full value. (we have an opportunity for progressive reform of the state property tax system with Proposition 16, which we discuss below). Many cities, including San Francisco, have increased fees on property development to pay for both expanded infrastructure and to fund ongoing maintenance and city services. Development does increase the demands on municipal infrastructure and services, including transportation systems, schools, and utilities. Development can also create the new housing and work spaces we need. Property speculation – the buying and selling of existing buildings and undeveloped properties – can be highly profitable, but doesn’t create more housing or work spaces; rather it capitalizes on their scarcity. We’re hoping that Measure I and Proposition 16 will be the start of a comprehensive reform of San Francisco’s system of property and development taxes and fees to bring it in line with our values and priorities – equity, housing affordability, sustainability, and a diverse local economy. This won’t happen in one election cycle, as with the business tax, but Measure I and Proposition 16 are important steps towards a better and fairer tax system.

Yes on K – Authorizing the development of up to 10,000 Affordable Rental Units in the City.
Article 34 of the California Constitution requires a local vote for any California city to build public housing. This amendment was passed in the 1950s in an effort to keep public housing out of many communities, and is part of comprehensive system of regulating land use to segregate communities by economic class and race. Parts of that system have been dismantled since the 60s, but much of it is still in place today and perpetuating exclusion and inequality. Earlier this year the state legislature considered placing a measure on this ballot to repeal Article 34, but that effort didn’t make it through the legislature and cities and counties must still meet its requirements. Measure K is necessary to allow San Francisco to build, buy, and rehabilitate up to 10,000 units of affordable housing in coming years. The measure does not fund or approve specific projects, but simply allows the City to funding and approve projects.

Yes on L – Business tax based on comparison of top executives’ pay to employees’ pay. Income inequality has been growing for decades across the US, and is higher in California and San Francisco than it is nationwide. Measure L levies an additional business tax on companies with the greatest disparity between the lowest paid and highest compensated employees. Measure I complements the progressive business tax reform in Measure F.

Regional measure

Yes on RR – Sales tax to support Caltrain. Caltrain is an immense asset to Bay Area livability, linking the region’s two largest cities, our largest largest airport, and numerous Peninsula communities. Passenger rail service on the Caltrain line has been operating since 1863, making it the oldest continuously-operating rail service in the Western US. In the 1980s Caltrain service was purchased by three-county consortium who created a Joint Powers Authority to govern the service. Unlike the region’s other public transit services, Caltrain has never had a dedicated operating support, so all the operating costs that don’t come from fares come from county transit operators’ budgets or from regional and state transportation grants. The Covid pandemic hit Caltrain hard, reducing ridership by over 90%. Without additional operating funding Caltrain will likely close down completely. That would be a shame. Caltrain is a key component of the region’s transit network. The region has spent billions to electrify Caltrain and purchase modern electric trainsets; those upgrades, scheduled for completion as early as next year, would then sit idle. Measure RR would assess a 1/8-cent sales tax in the three Caltrain counties (San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara) dedicated to supporting Caltrain operations and maintenance. Measure RR will sustain Caltrain service without diverting funds from county transit operations (Muni, SamTrans, and VTA) whch are also facing revenue and service cuts). The Bay Area’s hobbled-together system for planning, operating, and funding transit needs comprehensive reform, and Caltrain is not the only agency whose services face immanent threat. Measure RR is a start.

California propositions

Yes on 15 – Requires commercial and industrial properties to be taxed based on market value and dedicate revenue. Proposition 13, approved by California voters in 1978, and its successor measures limited property tax increases in California. Property tax assessments were rolled back to their 1975 values, and frozen there. Properties are only reassessed at current values when they are sold or developed. The stated goal was to protect homeowners from unaffordable tax increases, but Proposition 13 limited tax increases on all properties, whether residential or commercial, and whether owned by individuals or corporations. People don’t live forever, so properties owned by individuals will be sold or transferred at some point, and are generally reassessed then. In our society corporations have the legal status of persons, but unlike persons, corporations are potentially immortal. Corporate personhood creates an enormous tax loophole. Unlike people, corporations can other corporations. Holding companies are created for individual properties, and those companies are bought and sold. Since the legal owner (the holding company) doesn’t change, the properties are never reassessed. Proposition 15 will allow commercial properties to be reassessed at present value. Residential properties, regardless of who owns, are unaffected by Proposition 15, as are many farm properties. Proposition 15 has many potential benefits, some obvious and some less obvious. It will increase funding for state and local governments. It makes the tax system more equitable by requiring commercial property owners to pay their fair share – 92% of the increased revenue comes from the most expensive 10% of commercial properties. Among its subtler effects are encouraging active use of commercial properties; owners will be encouraged to develop and rent properties, rather than hold onto undeveloped or run-down properties as speculative investments. Owners who build housing will pay less taxes over time than if they built commercial developments, which may reduce California’s commercial property glut and encourage needed housing.

Yes on 16Repeals Proposition 209. 1996’s Proposition 209 forbade state and local governments from discriminating or granting preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public employment, education, or contracting. It’s principal effect was to eliminate affirmative action programs, which sought to undo the inequitable effects of official and unofficial discrimination and segregation. Proposition 16 will allow state and local governments to create new affirmative action programs which address current inequities and meet constitutional requirements.

Yes on 17 – restores the right to vote to people convicted of felonies who are on parole. Proposition 17 restores voting rights for people convicted of felonies who have served their sentences and who are meeting any current parole requirements.

Yes on 18 – Allows 17-year-olds who will be 18 at the time of the next general election to vote in primaries and special elections. Proposition 18 will allow 17 year-olds to register to vote, and to vote in the primary elections if they will be 18 by the next general election.

Yes on 21 – expand local governments’ power to use rent control. Proposition 21 allows local governments additional flexibility in creating rent control programs, including extending rent control protections to residents of multi-unit buildings more than 20 years old, and permits rent control protections for residents of single-family houses owned by corporations and people who own multiple houses. Prop 21 overturns portions of the Costa-Hawkins act, a 1990s state law which restricts local governments’ ability to expand rent control protections. Prop 21 does not change local rent control laws, but permits local governments to do so if they meet its requirements.

No on 22 – Makes app-based drivers to be independent contractors and enacts several labor policies related to app-based companies. Proposition 22 was authored by Uber, and placed on the ballot as a voter initiative sponsored by the corporation. Uber hopes to overturn a portion of AB5, a 2019 law approved by the state legislature which classified Uber and Lyft drivers, along with other gig and contract workers, as employees, and requires employers to pay minimum wage and provide workers with benefits like unemployment and disability insurance required for employees under state and federal laws. Proposition 22 would reclassify drivers for app-based companies as independent contractors, and prescribes certain labor law changes for those workers. It strips away most of the worker protections established by AB5, and would prohibit the state legislature from amending its provisions except by supermajority vote – an unprecedented seven-eighths majority of both legislative houses.