In San Francisco on Tuesday, voters are deciding on 11 ballot measures, a perennial tradition in this state where no question is too small for a public referendum. A majority of the questions this year, though, speak to the same deep — and mounting — suspicion that a new tech boom may be altering this city in irreversible ways that could, among other things, make it permanently unaffordable.
There is one measure (Proposition A) that would authorize the city to issue up to $310 million in bonds to build and preserve affordable housing. Another (Proposition D) would greenlight a new development near AT&T Park that promises some affordable units. The "Airbnb law" (Proposition F) would newly restrict short-term rentals that critics believe are eating into the affordable housing supply. Another (Proposition I) would place an 18-month moratorium on new market-rate development in the rapidly changing Mission district.
Then there's a plan (Proposition J) to create a city fund to subsidize rents for "legacy" businesses that might otherwise be pushed out by rising costs. And another (Proposition K) that would require the city to prioritize the homeless and affordable housing when it offloads unused public property.
The cumulative effect of all these questions, as the San Francisco Chronicle put it, is that voters today could chart the course of change in this booming city. Or as S.F. Weekly more cynically asked — because this election has become the single vehicle for so much pent-up angst — "It's Election Day. Will San Francisco Survive?"
Several of these measures pit against each other clashing interpretations of what's causing the city's affordability woes. Backers of the Airbnb measure say the tech startup has diverted needed homes from the rental market and turned them into hotels instead. Airbnb counters that it enables residents who can't afford their rent to subsidize it with tourist income.
The Mission moratorium, meanwhile, is supported by residents who believe they can stem displacement in the historically latino neighborhood if new luxury apartments stop rising there. Opponents argue that a moratorium will only make the city's housing crisis worse — contributing to the very shortage that's driving up everyone's rent.
Each of these questions muddles economics and emotions, actual data (which is scarce in some places) and anecdotes (which are plenty). And all of these measures — what to do about a single new development, one company or one neighborhood — is further complicated by all the larger questions of who gets to shape the city's future. The role of tech lurks behind everything, even though the city's affordable housing problem long predates tech's latest boom.
In this climate, both sides have liberally exaggerated the consequences of the Airbnb law, which would restrict residents renting out their homes on such platforms to 75 nights a year. (A choice quote, from Airbnb's Chris Lehane, trying to sketch a comparison between San Francisco and ISIS: "No one is the world requires you to actually register with the government the number of nights that you’re sleeping in your own bed.") Airbnb has spent more than $8 million to defeat the measure in its hometown, lest it set precedent for other cities.
That proposition is expected to fail. It's less clear what will happen on the Mission moratorium, or whether the outcome of any of these questions will really give residents a sense of control over the city's future.