Like draining water from a flooded valley, COVID-19 has exposed features of San Francisco that many knew existed but only now are becoming obvious to everyone: San Francisco was in a state of emergency long before the pandemic. When the pandemic passes, San Francisco must continue to act as if lives are on the line — because they will be, are now, and have been.
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In aspiring to become a policy innovator, San Francisco has neglected to adequately address basic necessities. In the recent past, when unemployment was low and the economy was generally humming, supervisors were advocating for policies that garnered New York Times coverage but fell short of the fundamental needs of many residents.
For example, in 2019, a number of elected officials representing the city earned nationwide coverage for efforts to create a city-owned bank. While the merits of a municipal bank are worth debating in policy school, it’s the sort of proposal that should receive city resources after basic necessities have been covered. Instead, an entire task force was formed to analyze the proposal.
In a similar way, supervisors spent substantial time and political capital in labeling the National Rifle Association as a domestic terrorist organization. Again, if resources were not an issue and time wasn’t finite, this sort of action might be worth the attention of the Board of Supervisors. But, in a city with increasingly limited resources, that action exposed the city to a lawsuit that was thankfully dropped before requiring the expenditure of too many city resources.
There’s an argument to be made that policymaking doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. Why not spend time tackling hot-button issues, such as facial recognition technology, as well as “boring” topics like ensuring everyone in San Francisco has their basic needs secured? That argument would hold up in most situations. However, our city has long been beyond the point necessary to consider issues other than those affecting whether or not someone will survive to the next day, feed their family, or sleep with a roof over their head.
A state of emergency requires dropping every action short of critical. In response to COVID-19 the city has demonstrated the sort of targeted action that must continue when the pandemic passes. The creation of the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Task Force — charged with “guiding the city’s efforts to sustain and recover local businesses and employment, and mitigat[ing] the economic hardships already affecting the most vulnerable San Franciscans” — was necessary before this current crisis started and it will remain necessary for the foreseeable future.
The economic lines that divided San Francisco will only worsen in the wake of the coming recession. Five years ago, the unemployment rate for African-Americans in San Francisco was nearly four times higher than that of white residents (12.1 percent to 3.2 percent), and San Franciscans in the top 5 percent were making 17.1 times more than those in the bottom 20 percent. And, just last year, more than 8,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the city.
Soon San Francisco will not be able to afford to do anything but focus on housing security, access to health care, and economic stability for vulnerable populations. Supervisors will have to pare back their lofty policy ideas in light of an impending $1.7 billion budget deficit. The Board must remain narrowly focused on the needs that the pandemic has made even more apparent. There’s no time nor any resources to spend on task forces and study groups — we can leave those studies to think tanks and universities.
San Francisco’s state of emergency will not end when COVID-19 does. We must hold our elected officials at the city, state, and national levels accountable to getting back to the basics and taking care of the most fundamental needs of San Franciscans.
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