Newsom’s tin cup

Pub date September 5, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL We’re glad that Mayor Gavin Newsom is angry at the conditions in the city’s public housing projects. Denouncing the head of the Housing Authority as well as the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development made for good press, and it’s possible that Newsom will actually follow up and try to improve some of the third world conditions at places like Sunnyvale and Hunters View.

But his notion that the way to solve the problem is to bring rich people on a tour and hope they will donate money is embarrassingly wrong. It’s the sort of idea that sounds like it came out of the darkest recesses of the Bush White House — the notion that the wealthy will just come to the aid of the poor, volunteering to do what’s right, as soon as they recognize the need.

Let’s us be clear here: public housing has been a horrible mess for years now. If Newsom is suddenly upset about the conditions, it’s only because he hasn’t been paying much attention. As we reported back in October 2005 (see "A Place Called Despair," 10/19/05), the city’s housing projects have been an unimaginable mess: raw sewage flowing through the yards, toilets backing up into kitchen sinks, toxic mold, people living in apartments that are legally and morally uninhabitable, terrifying violence … the list goes on and on. And we haven’t heard a whole lot out of the Mayor’s Office until this sudden burst of righteous anger.

Let us also be clear: a few donations from a few of the many, many multimillionaires in San Francisco aren’t going to solve the problem. It’s pathetic to see the mayor of one of the world’s great cities begging for alms from the same people who have helped create the economic conditions that make it so difficult for the city to provide for its residents’ basic human needs.

There are exceptions, but for the most part, the wealthy and powerful of San Francisco — with the acquiescence of Newsom — have put their considerable resources to bear over the years pushing for low taxes, cuts in city services, and reductions in the money that goes to the poorest residents of this town. Care Not Cash, Newsom’s signature policy measure, was a cruel attack on welfare recipients. His budgets have put hefty raises for police officers above the needs of public housing residents. And now he acts like a little charity, a few crumbs from the swells, will turn things around.

If Newsom really wants to take his rich pals on tours of the city’s public housing wasteland, we can suggest a different educational monologue. Rather than trying to summon up some patrician pity, Newsom ought to say:

This is what the antitax policies that have fattened all your wallets have created. This is what happens when the city lets market-rate developers determine housing policy. This, frankly, is what you get when you rely on the private sector to set public policy.

And if he really wants to address the public housing problem, he should tell the powerful interests who support him that he wants their backing for some serious new revenue measures — say, a hefty increase in the real estate transfer tax — to fund affordable housing in San Francisco.