Mid-Market Censorship & Class Warfare; Ed Lee Tries to Leverage Zero

Class Warfare

Ed Lee’s laundry list, as San Francisco Foundation CEO Sandra Hernandez dubbed it, went by the official name of Central Market Economic Strategy (CMES).  Not without its flaws, CMES (central-marketeconomic-strategy-november-2011) attempted to lay out a comprehensive road map to revitalization without displacing existing low-income residents.  It was developed after an exhaustive outreach effort and extensive vetting among mid-Market stakeholders and government officials.

CMES was recognized by the American Planning Association for its 2012 Grassroots Planning Award.  Not bad props.  From what I observed during the marathon development of CMES, this was recognition well deserved.  Any and all community gathering spaces were used by organizers to connect with neighborhood residents, ask lots of questions and solicit input.  I participated in many meetings in my capacity as Tenderloin resident and director of a neighborhood community development organization.

As far as I can discern, three things happened after this herculean effort.  First, there was no leadership from the mayor to move the multiple agendas forward.   Second, there was no money to move the multiple agendas forward.  Third, tech showed up and the mayor’s office effectively said: “What CMES?  May The Tech Be With Us!”

On leadership, it only fair to acknowledge this was a very ambitious plan to take on.  Numerous entrenched interests were being challenged, or at least questioned.   Statistics on placement programs were being made public for perhaps the first time, triggering at least one attempt to censor the CMES.   One prominent nonprofit ED went so far as to accuse the mayor’s staff of “class warfare.”  That’s a tough one, and a common paradox in progressive San Francisco: You listen to poor people, you respond to poor people, you’re accused of being anti-poor people.   What were plan organizers responding to?   Many testimonies from Tenderloin and nearby South of Market residents pleading for better housing conditions and cleaner, safer streets.

The failure in leadership was also, in part, our fault, when we opened wide and swallowed whole the Community Benefits Agreements approach the mayor and local supervisor laid before us after passage of the payroll tax exemption.  The larger, big budget, veteran mid-Market nonprofits, afraid or unable to challenge city hall because of their contracts/funding, raced to get in front of the line for the tech company handouts.  These large nonprofits squeeze out smaller nonprofits – especially those that focus on families and youth – even now as discussions with local builders/developers are ongoing.  One ad hoc assembly of groups, “Market Street for the Masses,” unwittingly became laissez-faire city hall’s best friend during this crucial time.  As one colleague who went to one of their meetings put it years later: “We gave city hall a Get Out of Jail Free Card.”

Let’s Not Go Dutch

The CMES’ had a task force: the Central Market Partnership Funders Collaborative.  As a participant I accompanied staff on the mayor’s magical mystery tour of imaginary Mid-Market messiahs (couldn’t resist!).  The Collaborative’s goal:

Launch a collaborative of foundations, corporate donors, social investors, and other private sector and commercial partners that will contribute and align funds to support projects outlined in the Central Market Economic Strategy.

We met with directors of several local foundations.  One especially respected figure in Bay Area philanthropy reviewed the CMES and concluded: “You’re looking at $100 million minimum; local foundations don’t have that kind of money.  Float a bond.”

They also famously said: Talk to the SF Foundation; while they don’t have that kind of money either they do have access to a network of immense wealth.  But Sandra wasn’t buying it, at least not without the city demonstrating it was going to put some skin in the game first.

Something along the lines of this might have gotten some traction: This is our program, to implement it’ll cost about $150 million.  We’re getting things started with $50 million by floating a bond.   We challenge and expect philanthropy to match with $50 million, and the private sector to match with $50 million.  Then we can work toward equitable development in the face of the tech boom.

Instead, the message was: Here’s our plan, please pay for it.   The neighborhood was left with city hall, philanthropy and corporate sectors all looking at each other and saying “You go first.”    (With the very notable exception of the Rainin Foundation.)

This was, in my view, the great failing of city hall on the eve of the city’s launch into a massive and inequitable period of growth.   It never presented a challenge; it instead raced to the back seat.  I’ve spoken with San Francisco real estate dynasty heiresses and young venture capital tycoons about their civic duties and they’ve all asked the same question in response:  Give back to what?

On this point I often think about one conversation in particular.  It was with Daniel Lurie, the Founder/CEO of The Tipping Point Community (TPC).  TPC gives away all the funds it raises each year, a different approach to conventional foundation grantmaking.  After hearing the city’s pitch, Daniel expressed skepticism about investing in the area.  “Who are your changemakers?  What will be different?  I don’t see new thinking or new models of anti-poverty programming in the Tenderloin.  What’s there has been there for a long time, and the intense poverty remains unchanged.”

It’s good to see, now years later, the Tipping Point Community investing in Larkin Street Youth Services.  If Daniel is reading this, might I also recommend the Vietnamese Youth Development Center?  The Asian Pacific Islander community in the Tenderloin has few voices representing their needs or rich and important legacy in the neighborhood; in fact, some consider them an inconvenient presence in the quiet but methodical campaign to upscale/gentrify the TL’s commercial businesses. (333 beer is out, molecular cocktails are in; alas, the Asian community is not down with the Uptown.  But you can help one family here.)