San Francisco’s Chamber of Horrors

Zombie free-market ideologues rise again to strike terror in the hearts of urbanists everywhere.

Editor’s Note: The SF Chamber of Commerce relaunched its website after this piece was written, sending much of their record of supporting anti-worker/anti-tenant policies into the memory hole. Several links in this article will make use of the Internet Archive and Google’s cache to source the history of the Chamber’s policy agenda.

Given the severity of San Francisco’s homelessness crisis, one would think that the Our City, Our Home (OCOH) measure qualifying for November’s ballot would be seen as great news. But, if you spend time hanging around the San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) or with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, you would hear a wholly different story.

OCOH will provide thousands of beds in permanent supportive housing to our homeless neighbors, provide assistance to city residents at risk of becoming homeless, would fund mental health services, restrooms and shower facilities, along with other support. The funding to pay for these critical needs will come from a very modest tax, averaging half a percent, on businesses with gross receipts exceeding $50m per year. We’re talking about Whole Foods and Target here, not mom-and-pop local businesses.

The best way to help the unhoused is by housing them. That may seem like a wild concept, but many cities across the country are trying this approach and finding it to be effective. And given that the Chamber of Commerce states on their own website that they work to “organize support to reduce homelessness in San Francisco,” it would be easy to think they’d be on board with the most comprehensive local ballot measure to address homelessness in decades, if not ever.

Unfortunately, the Chamber of Commerce’s commitment to reducing homelessness seems to be purely rhetorical.

You see, according to our good friends at the San Francisco Chronicle, the OEWD sent a memo to Mayor Breed’s office re: OCOH, expressing grave concerns about its economic impacts on businesses. Jim Lazarus, the senior VP of public policy for the Chamber of Commerce, seems to agree that we, as a city, simply cannot afford to do anything about our homelessness problem, despite being the richest city in the richest country in history.

It is ridiculous for anyone to plead poverty on behalf of businesses taking in more than $50m per year, but the Chamber of Commerce’s line of reasoning makes more sense when you think about what exactly the Chamber does.

Chambers of commerce are organizations that exist to promote business interests, which makes them a form of private lobbying groups for businesses, and they operate at municipal, state, and federal levels. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce is funded by its membership and by large corporate sponsors like Macy’s, Microsoft, Visa, Wells Fargo, and others. As a result, their stances on matters of public policy are almost always reactionary ones, nearly universally putting the interests of corporations over those of communities.

Cynical though we may be, even we were surprised by some of the claims made by the Chamber of Commerce in the Chronicle piece. For example, Lazarus seems to imply that businesses like Safeway and Whole Foods might flee San Francisco for Oakland over this measure. That is patently absurd. The tax levied by OCOH, on average, will be less than half a percent. The steepest tax it levies is less than three-quarters of a percent. Are we really to believe that the Amazon overlords would be so impacted by a half-percent tax that they’d close all of San Francisco’s Whole Foods locations? Who is credulous enough to buy this line? Nordstrom is also described as “struggling to stay afloat”, which seems odd given their extravagant executive compensation numbers for 2017.

Let’s be frank, these are bullshit arguments. The Chronicle’s article notes that fewer than 5% of San Francisco businesses would be paying this tax, so holding up grocery stores as bearing the brunt of the burden is lazy scaremongering.

The scaremongering doesn’t stop with Lazarus. Supervisor Catherine Stefani, the replacement for Mark Farrell in District 2, is also quoted in this piece, and she seems to believe that if the funding earmarked to solve a problem has proven insufficient, then the solution is to do nothing. We’re not sure how else to interpret this statement from Stefani: “San Francisco already is spending more than $300 million a year on homelessness and the problem seems to be getting worse.”

If, as Supervisor Stefani intimates, $300m a year is adequate, why are we unable to house all of our unhoused people? If we are spending enough on dealing with this problem, why is there a 1,000+ waitlist every night for shelter beds? If the agencies that actually deal with unhoused people say that we need this kind of program to house people, why shouldn’t we listen to them? Who’s in a better position to determine what’s necessary to address this problem, the people dealing with it on the ground every day? Or the plutocrats who are forever pleading poverty from their mansions in Pac Heights?

The simple truth is that the Chamber of Commerce and our corporate ruling class are hopelessly out-of-touch. Studies tell us that wealth reduces empathy, and empathy is crucial to grappling with the problems created by unchecked capitalism. For more local examples, we can take a quick stroll through recent history and see that the the Chamber of Commerce has repeatedly been on the wrong side of our most contentious issues.

During our most recent election the Chamber of Commerce opposed Props F and C. Prop F guarantees tenants facing eviction a right to counsel, regardless of their income, and Prop C provides childcare for low-income families. Both of these props passed decisively, another indicator that the Chamber of Commerce is out of step with the voters of San Francisco.

That’s not an anomaly — it fits in with the overall pattern of pro-business, pro-wealth stances taken by this special interest group when it comes to homelessness and other social issues.

Here are some more examples of the Chamber of Commerce’s cruel indifference towards the unhoused:

Since nearly 70% of San Francisco’s unhoused people were previously San Francisco residents, keeping people from losing their homes would seem like a no-brainer. That would mean standing up for renters, and against evictions. Unfortunately, if you are a renter in San Francisco, the Chamber of Commerce does not have your back (but they would very much like your apartment):

  • In 2014, the Chamber of Commerce opposed Tenant Relocation Assistance Payments, which would have required tenants evicted under the Ellis Act to be paid the difference between the current rent and the prevailing rent for a comparable apartment in San Francisco. The Chamber of Commerce argued that this placed “an onerous financial burden on property owners.”
  • Boasted of opposing 2014’s Prop G, yet that measure would have helped keep housing prices down by taxing house flipping. According to SF Gate, SF Chamber of Commerce supporter Mark Farrell said, “the proper way to curtail Ellis Act evictions is to pass legislation on the state level.” That must be why the California Chamber of Commerce opposed Mark Leno’s bill that would have reformed the Ellis Act, and why they are currently opposing Prop 10, the statewide measure to do away with Costa-Hawkins so that we can expand rent control. True, that’s the California Chamber of Commerce, and not San Francisco’s, but it seems hard to believe there would be much daylight between their respective positions.
  • The Chamber of Commerce supported SB827, the controversial measure to upzone the city without affordable housing, and rejected the Mission Housing Moratorium, which aimed to slow down rampant gentrification in the Mission.
  • None of this would bother you if you were a homeowner. Luckily, the Chamber of Commerce appears to sincerely believe that we can’t buy homes because of avocado toast, a “joke” so insulting that only the SF Chamber of Commerce would continue to make it. Take that, student debt and basic accounting!

Is it only renters and homeless targeted by their bad policy ideas? No. The retrograde notions held by the SF Chamber of Commerce extend to many other policy areas, from bicycling to elections to, of all things, internet privacy:

  • According to the Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco transportation policy is biased towards bicyclists and transit riders — too biased. That was the claim of Proposition L, supported by the Chamber of Commerce in 2014. The Proposition would have ensured that SFMTA was even more beholden to motorists, defunding public transit and removing bike lanes. It would have also restricted the use of parking meters, even though studies show that paid parking helps local business. Luckily, Proposition L failed with 63% voting no.
  • Healthcare is a human right. Unfortunately, the Chamber of Commerce opposed the San Francisco Health Access Program in 2006, the first plan to cover SF residents who earned too much to qualify for Medi-Cal. (Jim Lazarus, quoted above, is still the Chamber’s VP of Public Policy.) Supervisors passed the plan 11–0. At the time, Lazarus said it was against federal law to locally mandate benefits, and threatened a lawsuit. Healthcare: it is just for business.
  • The Chamber of Commerce opposed AB375, a common-sense bill that protects internet-users’ privacy. The Chamber of Commerce claimed that privacy considerations would hurt “small businesses.” We’re not sure which small business would be impacted by this legislation, but we do think some of the biggest supporters of the Chamber of Commerce might find privacy considerations onerous.
  • The Chamber of Commerce vehemently opposed last year’s resolution to let local governments levy personal and corporate income taxes, because, well, taxes. This fits in with their goal to protect their own pockets, just like their support for direct mayoral appointees over popular elections in 2014.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce positions themselves as part of San Francisco’s government, but they are not a part of San Francisco’s government.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce positions themselves as a fiscally-savvy watchdog, but they have only the barest grasp of fiscal and urban policy. The Chamber’s proposals trade the long-term health of our city for the short-term gain of their members.

The Chamber is a regressive, reactionary organization, whose mandate is to ensure profit for corporations over the needs of communities, and their opposition to Our City, Our Home is a clear, cruel illustration of that.