San Francisco is earning a growing reputation for more than just its unmatched tech sector – for critics, the city stands as a profound example of the damage ultra-liberal policies can do.
After 20 years of envelope-pushing changes to grow government and ease law enforcement, the once-shining City by the Bay has turned into a place where:
- Property crime runs amok
- An online map is needed to track human feces on city streets
- Discarded syringes are common sightings
- Public urination is so widespread it has damaged subway elevators and escalators, building walls and power poles
“There’s a very tolerant attitude, you can very much do anything on the streets you want,” said Marc Joffe, director of research at the California Policy Center think tank. “As members of a civilized society, there are things you should not accept. But we have ignored that … and there is nobody on the other side setting limits.”
San Francisco’s lax attitude is nothing new and has served as a beacon for the American counter-culture dating back to the Beat Generation. But the city’s embrace decades ago of free love and drugs has morphed into something else.
Depending which list you read, San Francisco has the dubious honor of being at or near the top of numerous national surveys tracking homelessness, the cost of housing and other issues. One distinction is not disputed: it has the most property crime in the nation, according to the FBI. The city also has crafted defiant sanctuary city policies and is preparing to battle the incoming Trump administration on the issue.
And in the media, San Francisco’s brand has taken hits, with headlines such as “Why San Francisco is the Worst Place Ever,” “34 percent of Bay Area Residents are Ready to Leave,” and “Complaints of Syringes and Feces Rise Dramatically in SF.”
Local officials defend their ‘sanctuary’ policies as critical for the thousands of undocumented people who live there. And they contend the city as a whole, with its iconic landmarks and top-notch dining and steep surreal streetscapes shrouded in fog, has not lost its luster.
“San Francisco is a world-class city with tremendous natural beauty and diverse progressive residents,” said Democratic state Rep. David Chiu, of San Francisco. “We value inclusiveness and innovation, which is why so many social justice movements and tech companies have started here. We must be doing something right when 25 million visitors came last year and our economy is thriving.”
Chiu admitted the city faces challenges, which are being addressed with a $300 million bond measure for affordable housing and hundreds of millions more spent to combat homelessness.
Housing indeed represents one of the biggest challenges.
In an election year where Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both highlighted the gulf between haves and have nots, San Francisco ironically captures that divide better than perhaps any city.
This bubble dates back years.
California as a whole has long put a premium on clean air, open space and modern buildings. But in 1996, San Francisco took a hard left turn with the mayoral election of former state speaker Willie Brown. His ensuing policies increased government, taxation and building regulations while shying away from creating more affordable housing. Brown worked with developer lobbyists he knew from his legislator days to demolish single-room occupancy hotels and other low-income homes, making room for well-heeled dot com workers.
“If you don't make $50,000 a year in San Francisco, then you shouldn't live here,” he reportedly said on television. When he was challenged on this by Ariana Huffington, Brown remarked that the statement was untrue “since San Francisco will always need waiters and waitresses.”
Within three years, Brown had increased the city budget by $1 billion, or 33 percent. This included new programs, 4,000 new employees, and pay raises to make the existing city workers the highest paid in the state.
He then did away with ordinances against sleeping in public and blocking sidewalks, while counterpart Rudy Giuliani was doing the opposite in a drive that ultimately reversed New York City’s growing crime and blight.
San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan -- who had taught Marxist seminars and helped run the Communist club at UC Berkeley, an investigation by City Journal Magazine showed – also refused to prosecute “victimless” crimes involving drugs and prostitution, saying his focus was on violent crime. The DA’s resistance to taking a hard line against drugs prompted dealers to flood into the city from across the nation, City Journal reported.
Years later, the mindset remains. Smash-and-grab thefts from locked cars are so common that car repair shops have waiting lists. The city does not want to install surveillance cameras, and its aversion to tougher law enforcement had until recently left its police force at 1980s staffing levels.
And there's this: “With a crime rate of 70 per one thousand residents, San Francisco has one of the highest crime rates in America compared to all communities of all sizes,” says the data collection site Neighborhood Scout. “One's chance of becoming a victim of either violent or property crime here is one in 14. Within California, more than 98% of the communities have a lower crime rate than San Francisco.”
On the hazardous waste side, the city is reporting an increase of syringes and feces sightings at 41 and 39 percent, respectively, over 2015 levels. That's just an average. The hardest-hit area reported a 77 percent rise in discarded syringes and a 140 percent rise in feces. The city spends about $2 million a year on urine and feces cleanup.
Despite $9 billion in tourism revenue and $4 billion in tax revenue last year, San Francisco faces a perennial budget deficit in the billions factoring in generous pension costs, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
The city, meanwhile, is proposing to spend $5 million on lawyers to defend illegal immigrants against Trump's push to deport criminals. This doesn't take into account the tax dollars Trump is threatening to withhold if the city doesn't comply.
“No one here wants to see the Trump administration rip apart our families and deport our neighbors,” Chiu said.
He says every San Francisco lawmaker is dedicated to solving its problems.
“It's unfair to just say this is a San Francisco thing,” Chiu said. “These are the same issues across the state and the nation.”