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Meet the San Francisco Politician Who Is Fighting Gentrification by Slowing Down Development

We met with city supervisor David Campos, who recently introduced legislation to create a 45-day moratorium on new market-rate housing in the Mission.
May 20, 2015, 2:00pm

Mission Street in San Francisco in 2014. Photo via Flickr user torbakhopper

Go to a café in Crown Heights or Harlem or Silver Lake, to the table next to the display case of charcuterie and artisanal flatbreads, and pretty soon you're probably going to overhear yet another conversation about gentrification. The dream of a white-picket fence and a lawn in the suburbs has turned into a nightmare for our generation, which means cities have become increasingly desirable destinations for young professionals, artists, and their ilk. As they move in, rents go up. And as rents go up, it gets harder for lower- and even middle-class residents to stay in their once-affordable neighborhoods.

In San Francisco, the debate about the changing city centers on the Mission—the traditionally working-class Latino neighborhood that has become a favored destination for the tech elite, including Mark Zuckerberg. It is there that Google Buses have been surrounded by colorful acrobats, where the tech bros booted local kids off the soccer field, and where anti-eviction protestors marched on Google lawyer Jack Halprin's home.


On May 5, supervisor David Campos, who represents the district, introduced legislation that would create a 45-day moratorium on the construction of multi-family market-rate housing in the Mission District. If he finds support for the moratorium, it could be extended to as long as two years under California state law. The law would effectively pause the free-housing market in the neighborhood, allowing the city to purchase land to build below-market public options.

The law is an aggressive, "big government" move that is antithetical to the actions of the business-friendly San Francisco City Hall and the free enterprise ideals of Silicon Valley. It's a move most supervisors with dreams of one day being mayor would run away from. But for Campos, it's just the first of a few unpopular steps—the next of which is legislation curtailing commercial Airbnbs—that he believes could save his neighborhood and the city as a whole.

VICE: To start, tell me about what you hope to accomplish with the moratorium?
David Campos: The reality is, in a neighborhood like the Mission, there is a limited amount of land where you can actually build affordable housing. And the way things are working right now, by the time this city gets to buying the limited land that's available, that land will be taken by market developers to build luxury housing. And so, for the city to have a fighting chance to be able to actually buy the limited amount of land that's left, a pause is needed.

The Mission has been drastically changing for at least the last half decade. What was the breaking point that finally pushed you to attempt to pass this legislation?
I have reached a point where I just feel that we are in crisis. If things continue the way they are, the community, the neighborhood, will change to the point where it's no longer recognizable. And let me say this: Change is the only constant, change is inevitable. It's not that we're trying to keep change from happening. But I think it is about a balance—striking the balance from helping the folks that are coming in and welcoming them, and at the same time, making sure the people who made this community what it is can stay here. Right now, there are hundreds of units that are in the pipeline to be built in the Mission, but 93 percent of those units are luxury. Only 7 percent are affordable. It's just not going to work.

The question is: Will San Francisco be able to have a middle class? Unless we change course, I think the answer could be no.

For a while, right after the housing crisis, the San Francisco housing market was held up as a sign of the city's unassailable appeal/wealth. Obviously, for a lot of native residents, that unquenchable desire to live here has become something much more troubling. When do you think that change occurred? Specifically for the residents in your district, what set off the alarms that the life they knew was changing?
San Francisco is a special place. It's the greatest city in the world as far as I'm concerned. But I think at some point we lost our way. In response to a bad economy, I think we went too far. And I think that we did not think about our most important asset, which is our people.

It is a tale of two cities, the same way people are talking about a tale of two cities in New York and other parts of the country, that's what's happening in San Francisco. There is one city that has unprecedented wealth. We have the highest per capita of any major city in the country. Our top 5 percent of households make more than any other top 5 percent of households in any other part of the country. And yet, we also are a city that has the fastest growing inequality of any major city. So you have another city where the vast majority of San Franciscans—and it's not just low-income San Franciscans, it's also middle-income San Franciscans—are being left out of this prosperity.

The Mission in San Francisco in 2014. Photo via Flickr user torbakhopper

Our inequality is growing so fast that if San Francisco were an independent country—and the Brooking Institute did an analysis of this—the inequality would be at the level of Rwanda and other parts of Africa. That's how unequal this city is. And nowhere is that inequality manifesting itself more than in housing.

The question that we have before us is: Will San Francisco be able to have a middle class? And unless we change course, I think the answer could be no. I'm not happy with the answer being no, which is why we're fighting to save this neighborhood. And in trying to save the Mission, we're trying to save San Francisco.

'Right now, there are hundreds of units that are in the pipeline to be built in the Mission, but 93 percent of those units are luxury. Only 7 percent are affordable.'

The tech world in general is very libertarian in practice, if not always in name. There is an idea that free access is paramount. Obviously, your proposed moratorium is the antithesis of that ideal. It is government stopping free enterprise in order to protect those who can't afford the development. Are you concerned about the backlash from the San Francisco/Silicon Valley elite to your action?
The corporate elite—who are the ones that are actually running the show here in City Hall—don't see me as their friend. I'm not worried about them. What I do worry about is making sure the tech workers who are also suffering understand what we're trying to do.

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The housing market of San Francisco has been driven by this hands-off, laissez-faire, leave-the-market-alone, supply-side view of the world. It's this idea that as long as you build, it doesn't matter that all you build is luxury housing. If all you do is build luxury housing, not just for the rich but the super-rich, then somehow the benefit of building will trickle down to the middle class and the working class even though you're not building for them. Well, that didn't work in the 1980s and it's not going to work today.

And what I'm saying is government is not the only answer, but government does have a role—when you have limited land in a small place like San Francisco—to set priorities of what should be built. I believe that the priority should be building for the middle class, building for the working class.

'We cannot be San Francisco if we have inequality that rivals Rwanda.'

San Francisco is a really liberal city, but that sounds like old-school conservative ideals.
What's ironic is that you have Democrats who are pushing for supply-side economics and Reaganomics. The ghost of Ronald Reagan is alive in San Francisco City Hall, because that's what's driving the housing policy. It's this supply-side, trickle-down, view of the world.

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There's an idea that development is inherently good for a neighborhood. While it's true the Mission has become safer, that doesn't matter for the people who've been priced out. As a representative of District 9, whom do you represent? The neighborhood, the people within it, or the city as a whole?
I think I'm representing everyone. I'm representing the residents of the neighborhood, I'm representing the people who live there, the people who voted for me, the people who voted against me. I'm representing the people who work. What I'm trying to do is have a city and neighborhood that works for everyone. And that requires balance.

San Francisco cannot be San Francisco if it continues to be the most unequal city in the country. We cannot be San Francisco if we have inequality that rivals Rwanda. We need to make sure that everyone in San Francisco, across all income levels, across all groups and neighborhoods, benefits from this prosperity. Because if we lose our middle class, if we lose our artists, if we lose the people who have made the Mission what it is today, we lose San Francisco. San Francisco will no longer be San Francisco. So that's what we're fighting for. We're fighting for the soul of the Mission. We're fighting for the soul of San Francisco.

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