A ballooning cost of living and industries, like ride-sharing, testing the boundaries of the traditional business model, some voters would like to see a harder line drawn in a city known for welcoming tech and innovation.
(TNS) — On a cold and drizzly February evening, as the four leading candidates in the San Francisco mayor’s race shuffled their notes and sipped water before a debate on the city’s west side, Martin Kazinski sat in the audience studying each of them, his back straight and his arms crossed tightly beneath a black motorcycle jacket.
Kazinski came to the United Irish Cultural Center that night as an undecided voter. Like so many San Franciscans, he’s troubled by the city’s protracted homelessness epidemic and the soaring costs of living. But there was one issue above all others that Kazinski said would help him make up his mind about whom he’ll be voting for June 5.
“My favorite candidate will be the one who will take the city back from the tech people,” he said. In his view, City Hall has for too long supported the growth of the technology industry with an enthusiasm that “borders on a sickness.”
As a cab driver for two decades, Kazinski has an obvious antecedent for his perspective. He’s watched with deepening dismay and rising anxiety as wildly successful ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft gobbled up his customers and his income. He’s tried driving for both of those companies, most recently with Lyft, about seven months ago. After a month and a half, he gave it up.
“I was making $10 an hour after expenses,” Kazinski said. “These are not sustainable jobs. You can’t make money there.” These days, while he still drives a cab once a week, he’s found more lucrative opportunities working in the banquet department of a downtown hotel.
San Francisco’s next mayor will lead one of the world’s most important technology centers, but he or she will also have to face the unhappiness of people like Kazinski — the city has an identity crisis.
The rise of the technology industry is credited with dragging San Francisco out of the recession and cementing its status as an economic powerhouse.
“Tech has been directly or indirectly responsible for 80 percent of the city’s job growth this decade,” said Ted Egan, chief economist in the City Controller’s Office. By mid-2017, the industry accounted for 13 percent of all private sector jobs in the city, up from 5.6 percent just seven years earlier, he said.
That growth has conferred enormous wealth on the city’s coffers, but not without substantial costs to the city’s social fabric. The flocks of workers seeking their tech fortunes in San Francisco have been indicted by critics as the cause of the city’s punishing housing shortage, the erosion of its working class, the strains on its infrastructure and the diminishment of its vibrant cultural diversity through displacement and gentrification.
Against that backdrop, the quartet of candidates leading the field of mayoral candidates — Jane Kim, Angela Alioto, Mark Leno and London Breed — face a tricky predicament as they seek to embrace tech’s benefits while bridging the economic and social divides that have come with it.
The first piece of legislation Kim introduced as a first-term supervisor in 2011 was what became known as the “Twitter tax break.” The ordinance was designed to encourage companies to move to Mid-Market, one of the grittiest parts of San Francisco, in exchange for a six-year exemption on their payroll taxes for new employees.
Critics assailed the bill as emblematic of the city’s willingness to placate tech at the expense of its longtime businesses and residents. But Kim doesn’t see it that way.
“People always ask me if I would go back and change my vote. There’s no way,” Kim said. “I remember 2011. It was a stark year. We cut past the bone in the budget that year. To not be part of ramping our economic engine back up would have been irresponsible.”
The right direction for the city, she said, “is to have a good relationship with tech and partner with them. They’re clearly here to stay. It has to be a relationship, and they should be a good neighbor.”
Using ride-hailing services as an example, Kim said Uber and Lyft could become better neighbors by paying a per-rider fee to the city as a way to “give back for using our infrastructure to generate profit. There is no Uber or Lyft without our traffic signals, our roads. They use public infrastructure to generate revenue, so they should be giving back.”
She also supports capping the number of ride-hailing vehicles.
“It should fill a need but ... there can be too much of a good thing,” she said.
To close the city’s widening income gap, Kim said she would urge tech companies to increase benefits and raise wages for the many contract employees who drive corporate shuttle buses and serve meals in company cafeterias.
“If you want to say that you’re better and believe in a better future, actually demonstrate it in how you treat and compensate workers,” she said.
Alioto has frequently trained her trademark fiery campaign rhetoric at Uber, Lyft and Chariot while making her pitch to voters. Again and again, she has pledged to tax ride-hailing companies for wear and tear to the city’s streets.
“Why they get a free ride is absolutely beyond me when the effect on the city infrastructure is so overwhelmingly negative,” Alioto said. “They’re doing business in the city, and they need to be taxed.”
Tech-related tensions pulling at the city, Alioto said, stem from former Mayor Ed Lee’s administration — generally perceived as being cozy with the industry — failing to take necessary steps to accommodate its explosive growth.
“We didn’t plan for housing, for traffic, for schools, for families — for the essentials to keep the soul of San Francisco San Francisco,” she said. “We were not ready. It’s that simple. When they were coming to town, we knew we had a (housing) problem, but no one sat down and said, ‘Mr. Facebook, where are your employees going to live?’”
That said, she finds the tech industry “extremely exciting” and, if elected, plans to assemble working groups made up of government officials, city residents and representatives from the tech sector.
“It’s all about building coalitions,” she said.
By meeting together regularly, Alioto believes she can better direct the industry’s financial largesse toward San Francisco’s most urgent problems.
“Like housing, street infrastructure, sidewalks and clean streets — it’s what we the city need you to give in order to be able to tolerate the influx of people here,” she said of tech companies. “It’s not just giving more, it has to be directed. That’s the most important part — giving specifically.”
Leno, like the other candidates, is optimistic about improving the city’s relationship with tech. But he’s also troubled by the uneven distribution of the industry’s success.
“As mayor of the town, it’s my responsibility to make sure that all of San Francisco is benefiting from all of this tech growth, and I don’t think we’ve been doing that right now,” he said.
To create a better balance, he has proposed establishing local hiring requirements like those for the construction industry, which mandate that developers hire a certain level of local workers. Hiring more people already living in San Francisco — for both technical and non-technical jobs — could help reduce pressure on the city’s housing market and its transit system, Leno said.
“We talk about local hiring, usually in terms of building trades. If a project’s going up, San Francisco and San Franciscans should benefit. I would like to start that conversation,” he said.
Above all, Leno wants new tech companies and the people they employ to invest in San Francisco for the long haul while safeguarding longtime residents.
“We want to be protective of those who have been here, who have had small businesses here,” he said. “We need to do what we can to make sure that that disgruntled San Franciscan ... has a real understanding that the city is here with their concerns in mind, as well as a growing industry’s.”
No candidate has had to walk a finer line when it comes to tech than Breed. Her relationship with the wealthy and politically active tech investor Ron Conway dates to around 2010, long before he endorsed her mayoral bid. The two appeared side by side at the Crunchies, a tech industry award show, in 2015 to talk about deepening the relationship between City Hall and technology companies to better civic life in San Francisco.
Breed’s critics depict her as an extension of the late Lee and his tech-friendly policies. But Breed bristles at the notion that her personal and political agency could be reduced to a relationship with a single person or a single industry.
“The fact that I was elected and re-elected as District Five supervisor, and elected twice as board president, is an indication of the fact that there are a lot of people who support and trust the work that I do for the city,” she said. “Not one time have my ethics been questioned. And everybody who knows me — even those who attack me in that way — they know that I’m my own person.”
In 2016, Breed introduced a measure to cap the length of time people could rent rooms through Airbnb, in which Conway is an investor, and similar services to 60 days. The legislation passed the Board of Supervisors with a 7-3 vote, including a vote of support from Kim. Mayor Lee vetoed the measure, and Breed was unable to muster an eight-vote majority needed to override the veto.
Like so many aspects of her mayoral campaign, Breed pulls her thoughts about how to work with the tech industry through the lens of her personal experiences growing up poor in San Francisco’s Western Addition. She said she’s not sure the path her life might have taken had she not been exposed to opportunities that expanded her sense of what she could accomplish. She wants tech companies to light a similar path for the city’s youth.
“How do we make sure that the next generation of young people growing up in San Francisco understand their place in these industries, if that’s the direction they choose,” she said. “You can give somebody something — feed them for the day — but how do we teach them how to fish for themselves?”
As mayor, Breed said she’d push for a program that would provide paid internships for high school students at any company of their choice.
“It could be a real partnership to shine a better light on a company, as someone who’s not just doing their part, but doing more than their part — to be part of the fabric of our city,” she said.
Whoever ends up running San Francisco after June 5, Kazinski — who said he’s leaning toward either Alioto or Leno — wants more than anything else to see the next mayor restore a sense of balance to the city’s priorities.
“It’s a matter of restoring some common sense and some some fairness and understanding about what happens if we get rid of the middle class here,” he said.
©2018 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.