San Francisco's progressive mayoral candidate Jane Kim has tech millionaires running scared

In an exclusive interview, Supervisor Kim talked earnestly about the need for returning to New Deal–esque politics

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published June 1, 2018 6:00PM (EDT)

Jane Kim
Jane Kim

A good rule of thumb for figuring out who is the most progressive candidate in any race is to see who the rich people are the most afraid of. In San Francisco’s underreported mayoral race, happening next Tuesday, there is a clear frontrunner for the candidate who haunts the ruling class: Supervisor Jane Kim, who currently represents some of the city’s most impoverished districts, including the Tenderloin and South of Market. Multimillionaire tech investor Ron Conway, a widely loathed figure and essentially the local equivalent of the Koch brothers, has been pouring money into the coffers of the neoliberal mayoral frontrunner, London Breed; meanwhile, Conway and his wife have been funding SuperPACs devoted to smearing Kim and her legacy.

That is unsurprising given that Kim champions a particularly effective form of redistributive tax policies that have improved the lives of many San Franciscans. Unlike many Democrats, Kim is deeply skeptical of trickle-down economics or so-called neoliberal reforms; rather, she has had great success with taxing the rich and using the money to pay for things like free city community college, improved bathroom access for the homeless, affordable housing, childcare and guaranteed paid sick leave. “I really think that health care, housing, public transportation and public education are the four things that government should be focused on,” Kim told me.

Likewise, she was skeptical of “market solutions,” à la those championed by Reagan and many neoliberal civic leaders, for said problems. “The market simply will never take care of housing the poor and working class,” she told Salon. “It doesn’t pencil out. Why would you go into a business that’s not profitable?” Accordingly, Senator Bernie Sanders is among her fans; the beloved progressive senator flew to San Francisco to celebrate the free community college program Kim helped create, and Sanders’ progressive political action committee, Our Revolution, has endorsed Kim.

For progressives, Supervisor Kim is a beacon of hope for a beleaguered city plagued by income inequality and the social wrecking ball of a self-serving tech industry. A civil rights lawyer and former community organizer, Kim comes off in person as personable and capable of rattling off facts, figures and statistics with the speed and aplomb of a "Jeopardy" contestant. I sat down with the mayoral candidate to discuss the future of San Francisco, the state of the left and how to solve the housing crisis. This interview has been edited and condensed for print.

Keith A. Spencer: First, let’s talk about the elephant in the city: gentrification and displacement. What policies, in your opinion, actually work to provide affordable housing, or housing for homeless — or even middle-class — people?

Supervisor Jane Kim: The most effective solution is the most expensive: subsidized housing. Demand is so high in these cities that supply alone does not bring down rental prices or home ownership prices. What we’ve seen, or at least what I’ve seen – because 80 percent of development [in San Francisco] is happening in the district that I represent – is that it simply does not pencil out for developers to build housing for the poor and working class, and now the middle class too. I mean, they literally could not get financing if they had to charge less rent, or charge less for home ownership.

I talk about this a lot, but there was a time in our country when HUD [Housing and Urban Development]’s budget was larger than that of the Department of Defense. In the mid-twentieth century between 1940 and 1980, the federal government built close to 6,000 units of subsidized housing in San Francisco, and close to 200,000 in New York City – 176,000 in New York City. In the 1970s, at our peak, we had more public housing than people on the waitlist. And homelessness was not a crisis on our streets. It was really limited – we used to house people very rapidly.

When Reagan decided to start cutting HUD’s funding – along with passing the most sweeping tax cuts on the richest individuals and corporations – and actually look it up online, HUD’s budget going down between 1980 and 2002 [is correlated to] homelessness emerging as a crisis on our streets and in our cities starting in 1980s. So [subsidized] housing is absolutely the solution to homelessness. Because Reagan was all about smaller government, government should do less and the market should do more, but the market simply will never [take] care of housing the poor and working class. It doesn’t pencil out. Why would you go into a business that’s not profitable? So I just think housing is one of those goods that should also be a public asset – both public and private sectors should be building housing.

Have you seen a lot of your constituents or friends or family really affected by displacement?

Absolutely. I mean it is extraordinarily stressful. And I've watched family members age in short periods of time when they are economically insecure.

That's something people don't realize about housing: it's not just a roof over your head. It's actually your health. When people lose their housing — it’s not just having a protection of your physical body. And I think this place that we've gone to in our housing policy, where housing has become a privilege — and we take it for granted actually, we're like, “yeah, of course we should only have housing if you can afford it.” I mean people just have accepted that now. As opposed to understanding that there might be some basic rights that everyone should be afforded, and that the government should fill in for where the market has failed.

We talk a lot about poverty, but 49 percent of Americans are classified as economically insecure, which means they live paycheck to paycheck. So any single thing — a car collision, a major health care expense, a sudden illness — all of those things can put you between being in a home and working, to not working and no longer being housed. And it's far beyond San Francisco, I mean, these stories that you're reading even in rural counties, where eviction rates are incredibly high -- I think that you really have to start thinking about whether the market is appropriate for all types of goods like housing. Or is housing a different type of good that should be heavily regulated and heavily subsidized like health care? I mean I really think that health care, housing, public transportation, and public education are the four things that government should be focused on — if nothing else, we should take care of those four things.

Given that San Francisco is a one-party city, I imagine some outsiders might look at this race and see you and the other two top candidates – Mark Leno and London Breed — as kind of similar. How would you distinguish yourself from them?

Actually, Mark and I are running on a very similar platform. We're both fairly progressive. I do have the most local experience of any of the candidates running despite being the youngest. So I served 12 years here on the Board of Education and Board of Supervisors. I do think that just my experience both in public education and housing is far greater than the two other candidates running. The question I get all the time from journalists from outside of San Francisco is "what differentiates progressives and moderates?" And I always say everyone's progressive until money is involved— meaning everyone is pro-gay marriage and pro-sanctuary cities.

But once you have to start putting your money where your mouth is -- like, how much you want to spend on making San Francisco a sanctuary city? How much do you want to regulate the private sector? How much you believe in progressive taxation versus sales tax or fees to pay for city services? -- I think that is what differentiates progressives and moderates.

And you'll hear my moderate colleagues talk about trickle-down economics — that if we support those at the top, that those dollars are going to trickle down to our dry cleaners and local restaurants and lower-paid workers. And I think that has always been the distinguishing line between those are progressives and those who are not.

Interesting. Because London Breed has the Ron Conway money, Right? And there are a lot of attack ads running against you, Super PACs running ads against you?

Yeah, I think the big question — and [Breed] says it herself, is, “what is their agenda?” Generally what I've seen is that they push for less regulation in the tech and private sector industry -- because they view that as dampening or hampering innovation. But really it's about is the bottom line for these companies, right?

And by the way, I want these businesses to stay in San Francisco, I want them to do business in San Francisco. But I don't want them to run San Francisco. I think that if you're going to be a good neighbor, like everybody else, everyone follows a set of rules. Whether you're AirBnB or Uber, it's great for you to be here. But that doesn't mean there should be some set of rules under which you exist. Just like for every other citizen that's here.

So what do you make of this pattern, particularly in the tech industry of either getting legal exceptions or just blatantly breaking the rules? Recently there was this scooter debacle.

It's no different from any other industry. When the banking industry began in the early 1900s in this country, they also said "don't regulate us," right? I mean this is... I hate to say but it's the norm. Rules hamper bottom lines for companies.

And like I said, we have nothing against our businesses being prosperous, staying in San Francisco or coming to San Francisco. It's just that we believe everyone should abide by a set of rules. It's also that everyone should pay into our local infrastructure whether it's our schools, our roads, our police — by paying their fair share.

You’ve helped draft policies that involve the city buying up land to help provide affordable housing. That seems more unusual today, cities being involved directly in that sort of thing, isn’t it? Do you see that as a good model?

The more site control government has, the more flexibility we have in building what's needed for cities. We can build affordable middle-income housing, we can build spaces for small businesses, manufacturing, grocery stores — that are not as profitable as other real estate uses like offices and luxury housing. But there are two limitations that government has: One is site control, meaning ownership of land or some type of control [over what happens in a space]. The other is funding.

So even when you have site control, [you need] the funding to build housing. So for most of my time on the board [of supervisors], building housing in my district cost about $450,000 a door — whether you're building for the formerly homeless or for luxury market rate households. And so [the city] is paying the same costs as everybody else is.

One of the single largest line items in any development is the cost of land. If the city already owns land, you're taking a huge piece of the cost out. And so something I worked on in 2015 was the surplus property ordinance, [which] expanded what we considered surplus to not just land that had no public use but land that was underutilized. So a Muni [San Francisco’s public transit agency] storage yard where we're storing our buses — can we build on top of that? Can we still use it as a storage yard but build housing or another type of place on top of that?

I wanted to ask you briefly about this current debate among Democrats and progressives. Some people, including professors and policy wonks like Thomas Piketty, believe that when Democrats move left they win. Whereas a lot of the mainstream Democratic Party, on the other hand, thinks that the key to Democrats nationwide winning is for them to move to the center. And so I guess I'm curious, because it seems like you sort of would be more on this "moving to the left" side, no? Whereas your opponent London Breed would be more like moving to the center?

I don't think I can answer the question [as to whether] you're more likely to win if you move to the left or to the center. But I do think that people want to hear a voice for those that are moving to the left. I think that need is suddenly very real. There's a hunger for some real positions.

I think that there is, in general, voter fatigue around trying to please too many people. On both sides — I don't think it's just liberals and Democrats, but I think on the right you're starting to see some voter fatigue with Republicans moving to the center-right. That's the growth of the Tea Party, and perhaps even Trump himself. I mean part of Trump's messaging was actually about the working class. He talked about making America great again and bringing back jobs, blue collar jobs in the country. Whether he did that or not is a big question.

I mean, [Trump] painted Hillary as "Wall Street," and making all these international deals that don't benefit local American workers, and captured that sentiment. So Bernie and Trump offered a similar sentiment.

Now, as to the question of, whose platform do I think would actually benefit low-wage workers? I think Bernie's does. Trump's is more like, “if you take care of the rich the rich will start spending more money, creating more jobs and buying more products" — that's how he wants to help those at the bottom. I think Bernie Sanders is more about progressive taxation, and investing in social infrastructure that supports working- and middle-class people — whether it's universal education, universal single-payer health care. So two different responses to the same problem. I think the problem with centrists on both sides is that they're not actually addressing the fact that people feel left behind.

I know Sanders’ group Our Revolution endorsed you, and has endorsed many progressive candidates. Do you see yourself as part of this larger wave of progressive candidates, perhaps a movement?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean I think for those of us that are running at the local and state level, we understand that most legislation is now being passed right at the state and local level, it's not at the federal level anymore. There's total gridlock in Washington, D.C., but also we have a little bit more flexibility to be laboratories for pilots. So [with] making community college free for all of our residents and hopefully in the next couple of years demonstrating with data what that meant for us, and then hopefully having the state and the country follow.

And that's actually another thing I wanted to ask you about. Do you see San Francisco as now setting an example for the country?

You already see that [happening] with our guaranteed paid sick day legislation, legislation that started in San Francisco. I think it was 2005 when we passed it. And then New York City passed it later.

Also, I think we're the leaders in inclusionary housing requirements, requiring developers to build on-site low-income housing. And you know, actually elected officials from around the country do contact me and ask me questions about legislation that we passed here in San Francisco whether it's Ban the Box, minimum wage...

San Francisco can't take ownership over those concepts, but we have a more liberal voting population that allows us to pass these ordinances, and we're wealthy enough to actually implement them. Like, we made community college free, it was easy for us to do that. Oakland can't afford that.

But if we can demonstrate again what it means to have community college free for residents, maybe the state will follow.

There are so many very wealthy people here in San Francisco. And it's in such contrast to some of the poverty you see. How do you see are ways of actually taxing some of the rich people?

The measures that I passed in 2016 to make community college free, that came from an ultra-luxury real estate transfer tax, on building sales of $5 million and above. It generated $40 million last year; making city college free only cost $5.4 million. So it's a very small investment. We generated $40 million from that revenue measure.

I have a measure right now, Proposition C, which is a tax on office landlords that make a million dollars or more. They currently pay 0.3 percent, one of the lowest tax rates in the country. We're raising them slightly below New York City levels — New York City taxes office landlords 4 to 6 percent. We're raising them to 3.8 percent. We're going to generate $140 million to make early childhood education and child care affordable for every family in San Francisco.

I've been researching and drafting a CEO surcharge — like Portland — on companies where CEOs make maybe 250 or 500 times the median employee salary of a company.

I'm not working on this, but the Coalition on Homelessness is working on a measure that will raise gross receipts taxes of companies that make $50 million or more — it's going to generate $300 million for behavioral health, substance abuse, shelters and supportive housing for the homeless. So there are a lot of ways [to do redistributive tax policies] outside of income tax. [Editor's Note: California state law says that cities cannot have their own income taxes; not all states have this law.]

For me, it's not a penalty on businesses doing business in San Francisco. I always tell them it's to their benefit, and to the benefit of their employees.

Right, they benefit from having well-educated workers and workers who can afford housing.

And to not have their workers have to step over people who are sleeping on the streets. Like, let's address homelessness. I always tell people, this work is not altruistic — I am safer when people can afford college. I'm safer when people aren't living on the streets, right? And you're taking care of folks, and so it is actually to their benefit to support those and lift those at the bottom. I think the difference I see with some of my colleagues is that some people believe that that lifting the top lifts everybody — because [they believe in] trickle-down economics. I really believe that if you lift up the bottom it actually lifts everyone up, because you build a healthier and safer community for everybody.


By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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