Katie Baker

Diversify, DIY, or die


› culture@sfbg.com

You never thought your innate talent for margarita mixing or jewelry design would get you very far, so you went to business school, or got into publishing. Soon, you were working your way up in a dependable industry, the sort guaranteed to provide you with a secure income.

Then the financial crisis hit.

This November alone, in the biggest one-month drop in US payrolls since 1974, employers cut 533,000 jobs. Seemingly invincible corporations like AT&T and Citigroup have laid off thousands of employees, and many jobs once coveted for the security they provided are now as unpredictable as Bay Bridge traffic.

It’s time to look up your secret margarita mix recipe. In order to survive the recession, Bay Area residents are rediscovering their old talents and secret passions. Got an eye for detail? Help people perfect their résumés. Speak three languages? Tutor someone preparing to study abroad. Whether you’re recently laid off or simply nervous about the prospect, this type of diversification can provide relief in a time when reliable jobs are scarce.

If you’re unsure how to market your skills, take some advice from Allan Brown, who may be the poster boy for career diversification.

Brown, a "senior level marketing guy by trade," is currently the director of marketing for a publishing services company. In addition, he runs a résumé and cover-letter business out of his home, as well as a private bartending service.

After being let go from a publishing company a few years ago, Brown searched for a way to make some extra income while looking for a new job. He remembered how his father used to help the neighborhood kids write résumés, and thought he might have a knack for it, so he posted some ads online. "I thought, maybe I’ll make a few bucks," Brown told the Guardian. "Instead, I made a lifestyle change without even realizing it."

His customers were so impressed by this work that they referred him to their friends, and it wasn’t long until his endeavor developed into a rather lucrative enterprise, one he doesn’t even feel comfortable calling a "side business" since it brings in so much income. Once his résumé-writing business took off, he started a private bartending service, which he does "for a little extra money" as well as for fun.

"All you have to do is think outside the box," Brown told the Guardian. "In hard times like these, people don’t want to — or can’t — work in an office. So what if the industry is dried up? Think of what else you have to offer."

Brown believes that by taking in internal revenue that has nothing to do with the corporate office, people can develop their own kind of job security, even in times like these.

He’s one of the few people who are currently optimistic about their own financial state. "I feel I’m diversified enough to withstand the tide," he says. He admits holding three jobs is "a juggling act, to say the least" — still, in this economy, it’s better to have too many jobs than none at all.

The crucial tip for diversification, Brown says, is Craigslist.org, the online listings community to which he says he is "forever indebted."

"Twenty years ago, people with my type of skills found it very hard to make a living because it was hard to let people know about them. The only thing we had were classified ads. Now, we have Craigslist, and it’s a wonderful tool."

Peruse Craigslist.org and it’s clear that many others are following in Brown’s footsteps. "Need a Latin quote or love poem deciphered? Possum te adjuvare [I can help]," writes John Sullivan. "I got my BA in English literature by writing papers on books and plays I’d never read while paying my rent on papers that I was writing on subjects about which I knew little to nothing," boasts John Dillion.

"No matter if you want to sell stained glass sculptures or quilts, there’s someone out there on Craigslist who’s interested," Brown adds. "If you know how to market and make a good product, it will sell."

Lysa Aurora knows what Brown says is true from firsthand experience.

Aurora also juggles jobs: she works part-time for a nonprofit and as a marine biologist lab manager. While she enjoys her work at both places, her true passion lies in hat design.

"There’s a buyer for everything — even for my hats!" Aurora says.

Aurora, who calls herself "a Renaissance woman … the kind who only needs a glass of water and a broom to work my way to the top," decided to try her hand at hat design because she wasn’t working full time and wanted some extra money. Now, she’s the founder of De La Lucha Designs and sells her hats at stores around the Bay Area. Her side business helps her make rent, but it’s also her dream — and something she may not have pursued if she had a more stable job: "These are hard times and [my hat company] directly translates from the struggle. Through the ugliest of situations, we find ourselves."

It’s not only current members of the work force who are diversifying. Soon-to-be college graduates, like Connie Wang, are frightened by the state of the economy and taking precautions to make sure they’ll be able to get by until the market gets better. Wang has always longed to be a fashion journalist, but admits that in times like these, "knowing about the latest runway trends and what the editor-in-chief of Vogue is doing is kind of nonessential. I’m still trying to build up my résumé with internships before I graduate in May, but print clips don’t exactly pay the bills."

In order to make money while still doing what she loves, Connie started her own fashion blog, www.prettylegit.blogspot.com, where she posts about trends and writes product reviews. As her site gained more popularity, companies began sending her free products in exchange for write-ups.

"Unfortunately, what interests me more than honest-to-blog fashion reporting is not starving, so there have been a couple times where I’ve found myself reviewing products that didn’t exactly fit in with my readers for a little extra cash," she says. For example, she was just sent a new Google phone — trendy, but not exactly wearable. Wang does have limits — once, she was sent a set of "fancy douches," which she chose to disregard. "If I get sent something that is completely irrelevant and/or offensive, I won’t write about it. I’m not evil, I’m just poor."

Wang says she feels more confident graduating this spring with a steady, albeit small, stream of income — as well as an online portfolio and an abundance of free goods.

If you can’t find your inner blogger or designer, you could always try growing out your hair. "The economic situation has resulted in a substantial increase of users on our site," says Jacalyn Elise, the executive partner of www.hairtrader.com, which is essentially a hair-specific version of eBay.com. "Predominately, the people who visit our site seem to be those who were going to donate their hair to groups like Locks of Love, but now they’re in a financial bind, lost their job, need money to help pay the rent … selling hair helps."

Elise started the Web site a few years ago to help a friend who needed some extra money and had 12 inches of hair to spare. Soon, more and more people were contacting her to ask if they could participate. The site allows people to sell straight to buyers rather than going through a salon. Interested parties — whether wig makers or, yes, hair fetishists — browse through ads with frequently laughable sexual connotations, such as "20+ inches virgin uncut Asian hair: asking for at least $1,000." Jaclyn says site traffic has increased 40 percent since the Dow first plummeted in September 2008.

An Oakland resident and www.hairtrader.com user who prefers to remain anonymous says she is slightly embarrassed that she sold her hair instead of donating it. "But, I have to pay my bills — and I got over $500 for the hair I’ve had on my head for years."

It’s hard to keep a positive financial outlook these days. But sometimes — as these Bay Area residents discovered — it takes a layoff or a similar struggle to get out of one’s comfort zone and take a chance on change.

Taxi merger


› amanda@sfbg.com

A plan to merge the Taxi Commission with the Municipal Transportation Agency will be heard by the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 25. Most city officials and taxi industry bigwigs support the change, but some drivers fear it could signal the end of the semi-autonomous medallion system that has been in place for 30 years.

The merger legislation by Sup. Aaron Peskin is brief, simply transferring duties from the Taxi Commission to the MTA beginning March 1, 2009. But Peskin also helped write another key piece of legislation — last year’s sweeping MTA reform measure Proposition A — that contains a provision allowing the MTA to wipe out all prior taxi regulations.

Skeptics fear that the real target of the merger is Prop. K, the 1978 law that created the current driver permitting system, which requires taxi medallions that are owned by the city to be in every car. With the MTA in control, the door could be open to privatizing taxi medallions. These permits are currently leased by the city for a fee — $658 a year for most cabs — to longtime drivers, but a scheme to sell or transfer them could mean huge profits for the select group of drivers who now hold medallions, with a potentially high transfer fee kicked back to the city.

Reguutf8g San Francisco’s taxi industry involves ensuring cabs are being properly operated, with medallions held by legitimate drivers, and investigating various complaints. But the Taxi Commission barely has enough money to meet its mandate. Proponents of the merger say the MTA can bring more resources and professional attention to the industry. Mayor Gavin Newsom, who as a supervisor in 1998 pushed for formation of the Taxi Commission, has long supported the merger as a way to have all transportation housed in one agency.

“The benefit of merging is the MTA already regulates all surface transportation,” said Jordanna Thigpen, acting director of the Taxi Commission, who was appointed by Newsom after the Taxi Commission ousted Heidi Machen in 2006. “Most cities in the country do incorporate taxis into the common transportation agency.”

Currently, cab companies, medallion holders, and rank and file drivers essentially function as a feudal system, with the serfs driving San Franciscans around in vehicles usually owned by the lording cab companies and permitted by older drivers who hold the coveted medallions. There are only 1,500 of these permits, which are literally tin medallions that correspond to the numbers printed on the sides of cabs. They are owned and regulated by the city, and leased for life to drivers who wait years to move up the list.

Medallion holders make about $20,000 to $50,000 per year leasing their medallions to cab companies, which then charge drivers daily “gate fees” that are set by the city. Drivers pay an average of $96.50 per day to use a cab, but are allowed to pocket all their fares. Drivers usually clear about $150 a day, but that’s before paying gas, tolls, and tickets, and before even sometimes allegedly slipping bribes to dispatchers to get the best assignments. Drivers have no health insurance and are essentially treated as independent contractors.

Drivers have criticized the newly formed Taxi Advisory Group, which has made recommendations to the MTA and is likely to be expanded after the merger into a 15-member council, which would have only three drivers, but seven medallion holders and cab company representatives. Five members of the public would also be seated and their unanimous support would be required for a driver-led initiative or idea to trump the medallion and cab company bloc.

“We want a much greater and fairer representation on this Taxi Advisory Council,” said driver and United Taxicab Workers chair Bud Hazelkorn. “Without that, all the issues that we bring will not be heard.” Those issues include providing health care for drivers and creating a centralized dispatch system so fares are allocated more equitably. He pointed out that drivers are the only people in the system making all their income directly from fares. Everyone else in the industry gets slices from other pies.

And the existing provisions outlined by Prop. K may soon be a thing of the past.

Prop. A included language that allowed for the Taxi Commission merger and stated that once the MTA was in control, “Agency regulations shall thereafter supersede all previously adopted ordinances governing motor vehicles for hire that conflict with or duplicate such regulations.”

During the 2007 election season, this was interpreted by the UTW and Judge Quentin Kopp, a former supervisor who authored Prop. K, as possibly undermining the current medallion system. “The taxicabs CEOs have tried EIGHT times to undo Prop. K, failing each time as voters upheld this good government measure,” Kopp wrote in a paid ballot argument at the time. “Now encouraged by City Hall, Prop. A slips in a deceptive clause undoing 30 years of voter policy.”

Back in 2007, when seeking the Guardian‘s endorsement for Prop. A, Peskin told us, “I have met with the mayor. The mayor has no desire, as do I, to undermine Prop. K, and what we would do if we ever were to transfer the Taxi Commission to MTA, we would transfer upon the condition that they adhere to and embrace by regulation all of the previously voter approved ordinances, such as Prop. K. So I think we have it handled.”

Peskin said he reaffirmed that commitment in a letter, cosigned by Newsom, but neither office could locate a copy of that letter as of Guardian press time.

But at a Nov. 17 Government Audit and Oversight Committee meeting, Peskin asked MTA executive director Nathaniel Ford if it was his understanding that this merger was not to undermine Prop. K. “That is my understanding,” said Ford. “I think it is important to all stakeholders.”

Yet the interpretation is still correct. “The MTA will now have the authority to enact provisions that supersede Prop. K,” City Attorney’s Office spokesperson Matt Dorsey told the Guardian.

This past summer, the Taxi Commission established a Charter Reform Workgroup with a primary goal of reviewing Prop. K. The group is expected to meet for about six months with any recommendations subject to a citywide vote.

Although the workgroup has yet to release any specific statements regarding Prop. K, chairman Malcolm Heinecke believes it’s already making strides simply by opening up public discourse among citizens, companies, medallion holders, and drivers.

“One of the problems with the taxi industry and discussions of reform is that they are very insular,” said Heinecke, who is also an MTA board member. “I believe we have a balanced group of voices [in the group].”

Heinecke said he thinks varied stakeholders are essential because of broad dissatisfaction with Prop. K. “You hear everyone — both inside and outside the industry — bemoaning some aspect of Prop. K. It’s a system we’ve had in place for 30 years; rather than just say it’s bad and not do anything, [the goal of the workgroup] is to look at where we are and revise.”

While it may be true that no one is satisfied, that hardly means members of the factional workgroup agree on how exactly Prop. K should be changed. For some, the problem begins with issues of representation. Not everyone agrees with Heinecke that this is a “balanced group.” Of 12 members, there are just three drivers and three members of the public, with the rest representatives from the upper echelons of the industry.

Driver and UTW member Thomas George Williams pointed out that “companies and medallion holders often have the same interests — most companies are owned by medallion holders.”

Furthermore, Mark Gruberg, a UTW member, told us, “Everyone would say some things can and possibly should be done to improve provisions of Prop. K. But it’s one thing to work around the edges to reform a law and another thing to throw it out the window.”

He pointed out that one proposal before the workgroup would allow medallions to be sold for profit, something he said “would be a complete reversal of Prop. K.” If other cities are an example, medallions could fetch as much as $500,000 apiece, enough for the holder to retire handsomely. “People that have them would clean up at the expense of the next generation of cab drivers,” Gruberg said. “It would be a completely indefensible windfall.”

“This is public property, these medallions,” Hazelkorn said. “They could be misused as a pension, but that’s not a pension that applies to everyone.”

When questioned, Heinecke was vague about concrete changes the workgroup might instigate. “This is a delicate position for me because the whole purpose of the task force is to hear the views of all the stakeholders,” he said.

Taxi drivers, the serfs of the industry, do not have high hopes about the merger. “If the merger happens, the MTA [officials] will be able to do whatever they please,” Williams said. “Everyone knows MTA is always in need of money … they don’t care about drivers or improving industry, only their budget.”

Williams worries that, under the MTA, the commission will lease medallions to companies instead of individual drivers, which would “totally ruin the concept of Prop. K.” Gruberg agreed. He pointed out that some proposals mention levying a tax on the medallion transfers, a potential revenue source the MTA could be eyeing. “It’s a whole new ball game with MTA and if they’re so desperate for cash and they see the taxi industry as a cash cow, they might go for any scheme.”

MTA spokesperson Judson True told us, “We have no intention of looking to taxi revenue to supplement existing Muni operations.”

Judge Kopp said, “By itself that does not disturb Prop. K, but if that’s a fig leaf for some recommendation from this ersatz Charter Reform Workgroup, then it becomes ominous.” He said dressing the changes in a group with a pithy name like Charter Reform “is not reform, it’s subterfuge.”

And, he added, Prop. K doesn’t need reform as much as it needs enforcement. “They’ve been at this for 30 years. Their revisions are always to start to restore the pre-1978 conditions and enable them to treat these permits as personal possessions for sale.”

Peskin, with the approval of other members of the committee, calendared the full board hearing on the merger for a date after the MTA announces the result, expected sometime this week, of its national search for a director of taxi and accessible services. Solid leadership has been elusive: two years ago the Taxi Commission fired executive director Heidi Machen, reportedly for being too tough on cab companies. Machen was replaced by another Newsom appointee, Jordanna Thigpen, who said she has applied to stay on the job but doesn’t know if she’ll be selected.

When asked if the merger would unnecessarily stretch the MTA’s resources, Thigpen said, “On the one hand you could look at it that way. On the other hand, we’re so chronically understaffed. Trying to add staff is so complicated because we’re funded by the taxi industry.”

The taxi industry brings about $1.6 million in revenue to the city, mostly from fees paid by 1,500 medallion holders and about 7,000 drivers. However, “Fees do not currently meet the city’s cost recovery needs,” according to a Taxi Commission merger report. “Both Taxi Commission and Taxi Detail are understaffed and additional enforcement personnel are needed.”

MTA’s True said, “We expect some cost savings or at least increased efficiencies,” when asked how the merger will affect the MTA’s budget. “When it comes to changing Prop. K, raising fees, or adjusting how medallions are allocated,” True said, “I can’t say that it’s not on the table … In the last several months the focus has been on procedural issues. I think that policy questions will largely come post-merger.”

Holiday Guide 2008: Guilt-free gifts


› culture@sfbg.com

It’s that time of year again: stores are hanging up wreaths of holly, people are stringing Christmas lights and taking their menorahs out of storage, and you’re scrambling around the city, without enough money or time, trying to find the perfect gift for everyone on your list and cursing mindless consumption. Before you renounce all things holiday themed and decide to hide under the covers until January, though, check out our ideas below, which include small local businesses, nonprofits, charities, and other organizations that give back to society. As corny as it sounds, by shopping at any of the places listed below, you’re not just giving to your friends and family; you’re giving to the community as a whole — while reducing your own consumerist guilt. And after all, isn’t feeling good about giving what the holidays are really all about? (Well, that and copious amounts of eggnog.)


If you love supporting local farmers but hate jostling your way through the crowds at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, why not order a package of Black Forest ham and Gruyère turnovers ($24 for six) or a seasonal fruit sampler ($38 for six pounds of hand-selected fruit) straight from Frog Hollow Farm’s Web site? An organic farm just an hour outside San Francisco, Frog Hollow will ship baskets of fresh fruit, olive oil, chutneys, and pastries to whoever your lucky recipient may be — a friend, a family member, or even just you (now that I know I can get cherry galettes and pear, Gorgonzola, and walnut tartlets delivered straight to my house, I’m not sure I’ll have enough money to send any packages out this year). Plus, this way you won’t feel guilty for forgetting to bring your reusable canvas bag to the market, again.



Don’t lie: your childhood dream of having an elephant or a monkey for a pet never completely went away. Unfortunately, it’s illegal in the state of California to own such exotic animals, but that doesn’t mean you can’t adopt! The San Francisco Zoo offers Adopt-an-Animal gift certificates, which include a personalized certificate, a framed photo, information about your adoptee, and an invitation for two to the zoo’s annual Zoo Parent Day. The recipient gets to select his or her own animal, with options ranging from the traditional (polar bear, alligator, penguin) to the unique (laughing kookaburra, Nigerian dwarf goat, Mexican red-kneed tarantula) to the endangered (snow leopard, Magellanic penguin, Siberian tiger). All animal adoptions cost $50, which helps support all zoo residents of that species for a year.

(415) 753-7117, www.sfzoo.org


If you’re gifting an art lover but lack the cash to buy a piece from an expensive gallery, visit the Annual Holiday Art Sale at Creativity Explored, San Francisco’s premier gallery showing work by artists with developmental disabilities. These virtuosos, whose work has been called some of the most imaginative, original, and sophisticated art in San Francisco, include not only painters and sculptors but also T-shirt designers and pillow makers. And even if you have less than 10 bucks to spend, you’ll walk away with something special. Check out the selection of blank note cards, which come in sets of six or eight, cost between $7 and $12, and have names like "San Francisco Icons," "The Sky Is Falling," and "Bottlecap Ferris Wheel." Half of the proceeds go directly to the artist, so no need to feel guilty when you tell your significant other that his or her new piece of artwork is "priceless" — it may have been cheap, but it was for a great cause.

Dec. 5–30. Opening-weekend hours: Dec. 5, 6–9 p.m.; Dec. 6–7, 1–6 p.m. Regular gallery hours: Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–3 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Creativity Explored, 3245 16th St., SF. (415) 863-2108, www.creativityexplored.org


Everyone has that one annoyingly hip fashionista friend who’s impossible to shop for. Surprise yours this holiday season with a piece of jewelry from Kittinhawk, a one-of-a-kind clothing and jewelry line handmade from vintage and recycled materials. Designer Allysun Dutra describes her wares as perfect for "people who love to be extravagant and fancy while still being conscious of the environment." Whether you decide on a pair of dangly feathered earrings, a choker adorned with pearls and vintage keys, or a whimsical charm bracelet, there’s no doubt it will be your friend’s favorite new statement piece.

Bell Jar, 187 16th St., S.F. (415) 626-1749, www.kittinhawk.com


As painful as shopping malls are during the holidays, there’s something to be said for the convenience of doing all your gift buying under one roof. Still, who wants to deal with pushy fellow shoppers, corny decorations, and gross food court cuisine? This year, check out the first annual Eco Holiday SF, presented by the Urban Alliance for Sustainability, a nonprofit co-op in San Francisco. This localism extravaganza (all products will be from within 100 miles of the city) will offer items like earth-friendly RocknSocks slippers, handmade jewelry, and organic fair-trade chocolate truffles. The celebration will also feature the Bio-Shuttle, a bus service to and from BART; valet bike parking; "healing spaces"; healthy food; and cocktails. Hopefully some Macy’s representatives can drop by and take a tip or two.

Dec. 14, 11:11 a.m.–8:08 p.m., the Galleria, San Francisco Design Center, 101 Henry Adams, S.F. (415) 255-8411, www.ecoholidaysf.com


Show your opposition to the passing of Proposition 8 by giving your loved ones marriage-equality–themed presents this holiday season. Oakland-based Marriage Equality USA will be selling holiday CDs ($20) featuring slightly altered versions of your seasonal favorites. Expect lyrics like "Wedding bells ring / Are you listening / No more second class citizens, / We’re happy tonight / Our goal is in sight / 1100 federal marriage rights." Order the CD on the Web site or stop by Union Square, where MEUSA employees will be caroling throughout the holiday season. You can also pick up locally made equality- and Castro-themed T-shirts, as well as Christopher Radko–designed holiday ornaments, at the Human Rights Campaign’s San Francisco store. Regardless of what gift you choose, your money will be going to a great and important cause.

Marriage Equality USA, www.marriageequalityusa.org. HRC Action Center and Store, 600 Castro, SF. (415) 431-2200, hrccornerstore.myimagefirst.com/store *

More Holiday Guide 2008.

On the Obama campaign trail


OPINION I live and have always lived in a bubble, isolated from most of America. I grew up in Los Angeles, where I attended a high school so liberal that almost the entire student population wore black the day after Bush won his second term. Now I attend UC Berkeley, a historically ultra-liberal university in one of the most progressive cities in the United States.

That’s why I decided to join 30 of my fellow UC Berkeley students and go to North Carolina to campaign for Obama the final week before the election. Not only did I want to make a difference I felt I couldn’t make from California, I wanted to experience first-hand what the rest of the country is like.

In some ways, North Carolina was exactly the way I expected it to be: full of white steepled churches, swirling autumn-colored leaves, and drive-through fried chicken restaurants called Bojangles. In other ways, it wasn’t. I thought I’d be talking mostly to undecided voters and people leaning toward the right. Instead I worked mostly with Democrats, making sure they know where their polling locations are and how to protect themselves against voter disenfranchisement.

I talked to all kinds of North Carolinians. I visited student dorms, low-income housing complexes, and beautiful Southern-style mansions. The Obama campaign was thrilled to have so many Californian volunteers at its disposal: there’s a large Hispanic community here, and few native North Carolinians speak Spanish. My Spanish isn’t perfect, but if I hadn’t gone around to Hispanic communities asking Ya esta registrado? on Nov. 1st, the last day to register in North Carolina, many people wouldn’t have gotten the chance to vote.

While I encountered a few ultra-conservative crazies (one man told me he wasn’t voting for Obama because he was "probably" the Antichrist), most people oozed Southern hospitality. I probably gained five pounds from all of the free food thrust at us at every polling station. One generous volunteer let all 30 of us stay in his house.

My cohorts and I snuck into a Sarah Palin rally one night. Unfortunately, we had to leave before she spoke (according to our campaign manager, there were more productive things for us to do than gawk at children carrying "Pro-lifers for Palin" posters). But I felt like I was a spy in an enemy camp, surrounded by people in pink "pitbulls with lipstick" T-shirts. I was definitely far away from my little liberal bubble.

Most satisfying was the feeling I got every time I inspired someone undecided to vote. I spoke with a man one day who was somehow under the impression that Obama was nine points ahead in the North Carolina polls. When I assured him that that was far from the case, he decided to vote. I’ve never felt so powerful before.

In completely unrelated news, I am no longer a vegetarian. I decided to sample a different fried chicken restaurant every night. I highly recommend the Bojangles fried chicken biscuit sandwich (with extra honey) if you’re ever in the area.

Guardian intern Katie Baker sent this piece from the campaign bus.

Housing for whom?


› news@sfbg.com

San Francisco is currently experiencing an unprecedented shortage of affordable housing, a reality that threatens to change the city’s socioeconomic character. If city officials stay the course, building mostly market rate housing, even more lower and middle-class families will be forced to move elsewhere.

Proposition B would stabilize — and probably increase — affordable housing funds by setting aside 2.5 cents out of every $100 in property taxes, or about $30 million a year, in a specific affordable housing account. Prop. B would not create any new taxes, and would allow for public participation in deciding how funds are spent. A long-term revenue source seems the only way to combat the affordable housing problem, yet Mayor Gavin Newsom has called the measure "unnecessary" and "ballot-box budgeting at its worst."

Newsom’s Oct. 15 press conference announcing that San Francisco is on pace to build a "historic number" of affordable homes by 2010 is likely an attempt to dissuade voters from voting for Prop. B. Newsom cited a dizzying array of statistics to support his claim that Prop. B is unwarranted: with 13,000 new affordable homes currently in the works, he insinuates, there is no need for such a measure.

Yet he doesn’t address the question of how the city will facilitate such an affordable housing boom without Prop. B. According to Doug Shoemaker, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH), the city spends around $220 million a year on affordable housing from multiple sources in multiple programs. He admits that this money is essentially impossible to track; which means it’s equally impossible to judge how productive the programs actually are or how much money is left.

Based on the San Francisco Planning Department’s preparation to update its Housing Element next year, as well as information provided by the MOH, Newsom’s statistics are grossly exaggerated. The discordance between Newsom’s embellished statistics and the department’s numbers illustrates that we need a more coherent solution — whether that means more funds, more organization, or both — to solve the affordable housing crisis.

In his press conference, Newsom asserted that "newly adopted and pending neighborhood plans will create over 13,000 new affordable homes." Although he failed to specify exactly when these homes would be completed, one would assume he meant by 2010, since the press conference was an update on the Home 15/5 initiative (which vows to produce approximately 15,000 new housing units between 2005-10).

According to affordable housing activist Calvin Welch, this plan is "an outrageous lie, a cynical lie, based on [Newsom’s] absolute and complete certainty that no one will understand what that means." The SF Planning Department’s Housing Need Assessment backs Welch’s sentiment: from 1999-2006, the city only produced about 800 low- and very-low affordable housing units a year. It would take more than 16 years to produce 13,000 new and affordable homes at that rate, leaving aside the question of how to pay for them.

Think it’s unfair to judge Newsom’s statements based on the past? Newsom also said in his press conference that "1,547 affordable homes have been completed since 2006." But statistics provided by the Mayor’s Office of Housing show that only 646 of these 1,547 housing units are below or at 50 percent of the area median income, or AMI. In other words, most of these units aren’t as affordable as one might think.

These dismal statistics prove that the Home 15/5 initiative so far has failed to significantly increase the city’s production of affordable housing. Since Newsom opposes Prop. B and has refused to spend affordable housing money allocated by supervisors in the past, it’s unclear how he plans to create 13,000 affordable housing units anytime soon.

Newsom also said that the Home 15/5 plan "increases the city’s production of housing affordable to low- and very-low income households to the highest levels ever, comprising 33 percent of all new homes built." This percentage is similar to the SF Planning Department’s production goals for 2007-14: the city strives to create 31,000 housing units, 39 percent affordable. Both aims fall far below the SF Housing Element’s objective, which states that 64 percent of the city’s housing units should be affordable. But they’re a start, or would be — if they actually come true.

A look at the SF Planning Department’s housing production statistics show that only 4,705 low- or very-low affordable housing units had been built as of June 2008. That’s a mere 19 percent, a far cry from Newsom’s 33 percent assertion. It wasn’t just a slow year — the number of moderate and market-priced housing built over the same period surpassed target production goals by more than 500 units. If San Francisco continues to produce at this speed, the city will not only fail to produce enough affordable housing units, but will increase the ratio of the very rich among city residents.

With help from Prop. B, the city could start working its way toward meeting the mandate of the city’s Housing Element, which states that two- thirds of city housing should be affordable. Unfortunately the Housing Element may also be under attack this November: the Planning Department is holding a public scoping meeting Nov. 6 — two days after the election — to discuss preparations for an environmental impact report.

Although 64 percent affordability may seem like a lofty goal now, a decrease in Housing Element aims and the lean budgetary years ahead could mean a continuation of policies that build mostly market-rate housing that remains unaffordable to most San Franciscans.

Horror at home


› news@sfbg.com

According to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 26 million people around the globe are currently seeking safety from conflicts within their own countries. Almost half of these internally displaced persons (IDPs) do not receive significant assistance from their governments.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that 16 million people have fled to other countries in search of safety — many settling down in refugee camps that lack adequate shelter, supplies, and medical treatment.

Find it hard to grasp the enormity of these statistics? According to Dr. Matthew Spitzer, so do most people — which is why the Nobel Peace Prize- winning humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is setting up a refugee camp in the heart of San Francisco.

"So often there are news articles that say 100,000 refugees just did this, there’s famine in Ethiopia … it just doesn’t register anymore," Spitzer, who has worked with MSF around the world and currently serves as president of the MSF board of directors, told the Guardian. MSF’s interactive exhibit, "A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City," attempts to combat what Spitzer calls "compassion fatigue" — and it does so with great success.

The camp is free and open daily to the public from Oct 15 to 19 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. in Little Marina Green Park. During the exhibit, which has appeared on almost every continent and in more than a dozen US states, MSF aid workers act as tour guides, taking groups around the 8,000-square-foot simulation and explaining what refugees need to survive. Statistics come to life as visitors of all ages crowd into makeshift tents, taste high protein biscuits used by MSF aid workers to ward off malnutrition, and attempt to carry 44-pound jugs of water.

Maybe the reality of the global refugee problem will hit you when you try on the "bracelet of life," a piece of paper refugee children wear wrapped around their upper arms to identify their risk of starvation. Some 20 million children qualify for the most severe form of malnutrition — the bracelet’s "red zone," which notes a less than 110 mm (4.3 inch) upper arm circumference. "Can you put your arm through this hole?" a Doctors Without Borders postcard asks in stark white lettering above a thumb-sized cutout circle. "A child dying of starvation can."

The simple postcard has more impact than the sobering statistics on the back More than half the deaths of children under five are due to malnutrition — 6 million per year, or 12 children every minute. Or maybe after struggling to carry your daily ration of water — one five-gallon jug — back to your shelter, the fact that most Americans use 100 gallons of water per day will become more meaningful.

For Spitzer, the shelter area, where guides lead their tour groups into tiny canvas tents and ask them to try and lie down inside, is one of the most effective parts of the exhibit. "Twenty people in a tent and someone coughs — what’s the impact of that?" Spitzer asks. "Where are you going to cook? Where are you going to clean?" He relates the simulation to his experience working as a field coordinator in Liberia, where he was shocked at the refugees’ living conditions.

"There were 50, 60 people living in makeshift tents that were supposed to be transit structures," he told us. Unfortunately, due to lack of UN funding and organization, more and more refugees were forced to crowd into the small tents, resulting in numerous medical issues. "It was ridiculous … we take shelter for granted, but [refugees] are denied these basic rights."

In 2000, the Sacramento Public Health Department, whose staff often works with IDPs seeking shelter in the United States, sent its health care workers to MSF’s Los Angeles exhibit for training. MSF’s Refugee Camp exhibit is meant to shock.

Nevertheless, the tours are age-appropriate and strive to educate rather than scare. Elementary school students touring the water supply area focus on carrying the heavy jugs, while older visitors might learn about the sexual abuse risks facing young refugee women who walk long distances to collect water. Regardless of age, every visitor absorbs the information his or her own way. "Students giggle at the latrines at first," Spitzer told the Guardian, but grow silent when they are told there are only two latrines for 8,000 refugees. "They’ll ask, ‘Where is the school? Where is the playground?’"

Establishing a connection between the refugees and exhibit visitors is an important step toward social awareness. While you might not be that surprised to hear that Sudan is home to 5.8 million IDPs, did you know that 4 million IDPs currently live in Colombia? Probably not, because the US media rarely covers international IDP and refugee issues.

Iraq accounts for 2.5 million refugees; Afghanistan for 3.1 million more. Most of these people were forced to flee as a result of US intervention and warfare — although there is barely any US media coverage. Spitzer told the Guardian he hopes that if the public can "feel solidarity with the refugees" as a result of visiting the exhibit, people will start to question the lack of information provided to Americans. The purpose of the exhibit isn’t to receive donations or recruit members, but simply, Spitzer said, "to educate" — regardless of whether the attendee "goes on to volunteer or become politically active or simply raises consciousness among their friends and family."

The MSF Web site is full of comments from people who were in some way altered or illuminated by the tour. Apoorva Balakrishnan, a University of Manitoba student, wrote, "I felt in a slump about my medical studies — so much biochemistry and details that seemed so pointless. This exhibit reminded me of the real reason I am becoming a doctor: people."

Another note, signed "Alec," says: "Some people have yet to realize what happens in the world around them. I came to this camp. Now I am no longer one of those people. "

One anonymous author summed up his reaction in two words: "I’m speechless."