San Francisco’s new mayor-elect, London Breed, has lifted many hopes and expectations but her challenges are formidable. As a journalist, I spend a lot of time in Europe, and recently I was a fellow at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB) for several months. When I returned to San Francisco, I was struck by how backward my hometown seemed compared to Berlin and many European cities.
It’s not just the growing inequality. For years, San Francisco’s political leadership has failed to invest in the institutions that promote a broadly shared prosperity and higher living standards. If I could communicate one message to Mayor-elect Breed, it would be to learn from what works elsewhere. Here are examples.
“Social Housing” in Vienna.
Vienna, with two million people, has a lot of typical “government housing,” with the city owning and managing about 25% of the housing stock (220,000 units), primarily for lower-income residents. But the more innovative sector is run by private – but non-profit — housing developers. The city indirectly oversees another 200,000 units, buying the land and having a jury select private developers based on rent levels and other criteria. It then sells the land to the developer at an affordable price, also providing a low-interest loan and extended repayment periods. Residents pay no more than 25% of income for housing. Nearly half of the overall housing stock is this kind of “social housing,” which is sizable enough to act as a brake on the market forces that escalate rents and speculation in the private housing sector.
Many European cities follow such practices, reflecting the view that affordable housing is tantamount to being a public right.
Public transportation in Berlin.
It was such a relief to get away from the crowded Uber congestion of San Francisco streets. Berlin’s public transportation system works so well that I never needed a car. A transit stop is a short walk away, and I could get most places within 30 minutes (often far less). A $70 monthly pass (less than SF’s Clipper card) gave me unlimited use of a combination of underground subways, above ground trains, buses and trams. Decent taxi service and car-sharing services like Car2Go are available for those rare times when you need a car. Consequently, congestion and gridlock are far less of a problem.
Unfortunately San Francisco’s public transportation is underfunded, inefficient and unpopular, but it doesn’t have to be that way. By letting Uber ridesharing flood the streets instead of investing heavily in public transportation, San Francisco is failing environmentally and reducing overall living standards.
Lower carbon emissions.
Many European cities have moved forward ambitiously with renewable energy technologies like solar and wind, and incorporated “green design” into everything from public buildings, homes and automobiles to low wattage light bulbs, motion sensor lights and low-flush toilets. A Berlin apartment I rented had a heat exchange system that kept it toasty warm in winter for the very little energy. And hundreds of thousands of new green jobs have been created. San Francisco, like the US, has failed to lead this global effort.
Portable safety net.
In most European cities, all regularly-employed workers, even part-timers and temps, are covered by health care, sick leave and other social supports. Even certain classifications of freelance contractors, such as artists, musicians, journalists and certain home-workers, are covered. In San Francisco, huge numbers of part-timers, temps and freelancers, many in the tech industry, are not covered by basic social supports or many labor laws. This should be unacceptable in a civilized society. San Francisco should require a portable safety net for all local workers.
The “smart city” of Barcelona. Barcelona has created citywide networks of “internet-of-things” sensors, including free WiFi citywide. The networks provide new levels of connectivity and real-time feedback on everything from air quality to noise, energy and waste management. SF is the epicenter of tech, yet its digital investment lags woefully behind.
Europe has over ninety public financial institutions with total assets of over $4 trillion and a 15% market share of the European financial sector. Rather than investing in speculative markets, these public banks finance social housing, health care, education, infrastructure and leverage assets for the public good. San Francisco stashes nearly $10 billion in Wall Street banks that could be used to capitalize a public bank, investing locally and saving $2 million a year in banking fees alone.
Despite its extreme wealth, San Francisco is tragically falling behind due to long-term government failure. It is time for the City to try new approaches. Mayor-elect Breed would do well to examine what has worked in other places.
Steven Hill (www.Steven-Hill.com) is a San Francisco-based journalist and author of “Raw Deal: How the ‘Uber Economy’ and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers” and “Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age”