District 6 SF supervisor candidates keep it polite at forum

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday August 9, 2022
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District 6 supervisor candidate Ms. Billie Cooper, right, answers a question as fellow candidates appointed Supervisor Matt Dorsey, left, Honey Mahogany, and Cherelle Jackson look on. Photo: Rick Gerharter
District 6 supervisor candidate Ms. Billie Cooper, right, answers a question as fellow candidates appointed Supervisor Matt Dorsey, left, Honey Mahogany, and Cherelle Jackson look on. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The four candidates vying for the District 6 supervisorial seat, which is up for grabs in this November's election, faced off in a polite first major debate of the campaign.

Gathering August 6 at Koret Auditorium at the San Francisco Public Library main branch for the debate, moderated by Mission Local journalist Joe Eskenazi, gave Matt Dorsey, the appointed D6 supervisor; Honey Mahogany, the trans former chief of staff to former D6 supervisor Matt Haney; labor activist Cherelle Jackson; and longtime trans community activist Ms. Billie Cooper a chance to weigh in on local issues. For attendees and viewers (the program was recorded and posted to Facebook), it was a chance to see how prepared the candidates were to take on those issues.

District 6 includes South of Market, Mission Bay, and Treasure Island. Mayor London Breed named Dorsey, who is HIV-positive, to the board in May after Haney won election to the state Assembly. Mahogany is also currently chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party.

In the cases of Mahogany and Dorsey, preparation was on exhibit throughout the one-hour forum, as both candidates were able to fall back on experience, as well as rich knowledge of city issues, as they answered questions from both Eskenazi and the audience. For candidates Jackson and Cooper, it was clear that, although passionate, they weren't as well versed in the particulars in some cases.

Eskenazi led off with a particularly loaded question: "How would you work with your board colleagues and with the mayor to keep District 6 from becoming the citywide dumping and containment unit they apparently expect it to be?"

Dorsey stressed the importance of a single "citywide strategy," a stance that put him at odds with Breed's Tenderloin emergency initiative last December, he said, even though he supported the effort. He wanted a strategy that wouldn't just move the problems currently plaguing the Tenderloin back to other neighborhoods throughout San Francisco. (Due to this year's redistricting, the Tenderloin, which was once in D6, is now in District 5 and represented by Supervisor Dean Preston.)

"We have the resources to do it," Dorsey said, and he urged following blueprints established by cities in Europe and New York City with supervised consumption sites. A bill by gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) to establish pilot supervised consumption sites in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles is awaiting action by Governor Gavin Newsom, who can either sign it into law or veto it. Those facilities allow people to use pre-obtained drugs under the supervisor of staff.

Mahogany brought up her four years of experience in Haney's office, where she "advocated relentlessly" for Navigation Centers in each district across the city. Those allow unhoused people to stay on site with their possessions and partners. She said she agreed with Dorsey that San Francisco needs a citywide strategy for dealing with mental health care, substance abuse issues, homelessness, and affordable housing. All these things could use a citywide approach and, "unfortunately, we've seen a failure of that at the Board of Supervisors."

Mahogany said she opposed Dorsey's proposal to station police around recovery sites because it would only drive potential clients farther away from help, "and it just becomes somebody else's problem." Dorsey, in recovery himself, has advocated for such a program.

Jackson called for investment in nonprofits and housing, calling it "critically important," as well as helping people learn the skills they need "to compete in the workforce" with funds allocated "in the right way."

Cooper decried the transfer of the Tenderloin from District 6 to District 5 during redistricting and said, "We have to stop pussyfootin' around with City Hall and our politicians that sit in the Board of Supervisors chamber..." There has been little to no progress on housing, she said.

Housing measures

The second question revealed just how on top of electoral issues the candidates were. Referring to two measures on the ballot in the upcoming election, Eskenazi asked, "What affordable housing measure you're supporting on the November ballot and why?"

One proposal, Affordable Homes Now, is backed by Breed. It requires a mixed-income project to meet the city's 21.5% affordable unit requirement plus another 15% more affordable units. A competing measure by District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan would require the percentage of affordable units to be 29.5% and also requires that additional on-site units include at least 30% two-bedroom units and 20% three-bedrooms.

Cooper replied, "Me and my constituents, and people who look like me, we're tired of just being tolerated."

She called out the high rents of new construction that is out of the reach of most Tenderloin residents. "I'm for housing. We need housing," she replied when the moderator asked her, again, which ballot measure she would support. A third try didn't elicit any better response. "I'm really not up on what the measures are," Cooper finally acknowledged.

Jackson, lamenting how little money seniors, disabled persons, and veterans have to live on, declined to take a position on either measure because she said she believes there needs to be amendments to them.

Mahogany said the two measures sound very much alike on the surface but she was supporting Affordable Homes Now, proposed by Breed. That measure, Mahogany said, is the only one of the two that streamlines 100% affordable housing. If she could change the measure, Mahogany said she would add language about skilled trades labor and more affordable housing.

"We need to change the way we build affordable housing in San Francisco," Mahogany said, wrapping up her answer. "We can't do it alone and we need the state to help us."

The state announced Tuesday that it is launching an unprecedented review of San Francisco's housing approval process, which is expected to take months, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Dorsey said he was one of the first supporters of Affordable Homes Now, the charter amendment supported by Breed and Wiener that will accomplish regional housing needs and goals, building more than 82,000 housing units. "There are consequences if we don't do the necessary work to provide the amount of housing required by the state," he said, noting that — at worst — the state could step in and assume control of the city's efforts. With that, he added that he supported a housing plan for the whole city. The days of supervisors supporting something in their district but not in another are over, he said.

"I need to support housing in your district because it helps my district," said Dorsey.

Eskenazi's question "What can we do to get people back into downtown?" drew a range of responses, as well.

Dorsey said he had been hearing from small businesses about this matter. Large employers can't convince their own employees to return to their offices because there are more jobs than people. And many people, particularly tech workers, regard working from home as a perk, he said.

The gross receipts tax structure is based on the number of people working in San Francisco, Dorsey said, adding he doesn't know whether companies like Google or "big employers" are being forthcoming about their own structures because they have a financial stake in not having people come back to work.

Saying it was something she was "extremely passionate about," Mahogany said she wasn't sure that office space in the city would return to its former level of use, so finding alternate uses for existing buildings, such as housing, and then doing what's necessary to bring tourists back, such as cleaner streets, might help. Nightlife, too, is a big draw for the convention market, and South of Market, where much of District 6 is located, has some of the best nightlife in the city, she said.

Jackson, describing it as an opportunity to innovate, called for investing in small businesses and infrastructure, "but I also think it's a good time right now to support individuals coming back into the city" so they have ample opportunities to spend their money.

Cooper wasn't having any of that.

"I feel as though we need to stop pulling people into San Francisco and stop giving people money to come here because we're not helping the people that are here," she said, adding that she's upset because she sees Black and Brown people working but not actually owning any businesses. The city, she said, has done nothing to help them.

"Low-income housing! No BMRs! Because my people can't afford it!" she said, referring to below-market-rate units.

Safer streets

"What could be done about the situation on the streets of District 6?" Eskenazi asked about the growing drug crisis, adding that if the candidate used the term "accountability," he wanted to know what that means beyond incarceration. If they were to favor incarceration, how would that work given the state of the city's jails and limited space in pre-trial detention?

Cooper had her suspicions about the presence of dealers in the Tenderloin. Somebody must be lining somebody's pockets, she opined, adding that all the drug dealers are "foreigners" who come here specifically to sell drugs.

"We can't go to their country and sell drugs," she said, adding that the dealers work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then, at 5 p.m., the nighttime shift takes over.

Jackson called for increased investment in harm reduction practices to ensure "we get them rehabilitated, if we can," she said, calling for further investment in workplace programs, for example. "We gotta get them headed in a different direction."

Noting that she had 20 years experience as a social worker, as well as extensive experience in a supervisor's office working on this issue, Mahogany said the city needs to increase the number of beds, and "we also need the social workers, the nurses, the people who are going to treat these people and help them re-establish their lives ... I think that once we do that, we can talk about what we're doing to keep the streets safe ..."

"We need to start acting like this is an emergency," Mahogany said. Dealers do need to have accountability, especially for those dealing fentanyl.

"It is literally killing people, so I think we need consequences there," she said.

Dorsey pointed to a program launched in North Carolina called High Point Intervention, named for the town in which it was started. Prosecutors compiled evidence against dealers, "banked the cases, developed cases against them," he said.

Dorsey added there "are strategies that would help, short of incarceration, such as assertive case management, utilizing geo-tracked ankle monitors, and the wearers could be subject to searches."

"There's no business model that will persist if you're taking away their money and their product," he said.

Rent control

Eskenazi's final question dealt with an ever-pressing problem in San Francisco. What can and should the city do vis a vis rent control and vacancies?

"In South of Market, and before they took the Tenderloin out of District 6, the only rent control wasn't for thousands and thousands of units," said Cooper. "Most of the apartments that were rent-controlled really weren't afforded to people in the streets."

Cooper added that she understood developers had paid the city to avoid having rent-controlled units in their developments along Market Street. Developers for projects can pay a fee for any affordable units to be built off-site.

"So I don't see many people like me living in these apartments," she said.

Jackson said that the high cost of rent was at the core of the issue. "We've got to stop raising the rents every year, it's what we have to do. This would help so many individuals," she said. Rising rents are causing "hardship and poverty."

As for vacancies, Jackson said, "I think this is a more difficult issue and will need more time," and was then cut short by the bell.

Mahogany called for an end to Costa-Hawkins, the 1995 state legislation exempting some types of residential rental units from rent control ordinances, and allowing landlords to reset the rental rate on rent-controlled rental units when they become vacant or when the last rent-controlled tenant no longer lives there permanently. Efforts to repeal the measure in the Legislature and at the ballot box have failed in recent years.

The other step is to support vacancy taxes, she said. High rents are an artificial inflation, Mahogany said, and as a small business owner, she said she feels strongly "the rents are too damned high." (Mahogany is part of the collective that owns The Stud bar, which closed its physical space during the pandemic.)

"We absolutely do need to start taxing people for vacancies," Mahogany said. "We need to overturn Costa-Hawkins and the Ellis Act..."

The Ellis Act is another state law that allows landlords to evict tenants if they take the units off the rental market.

Dorsey agreed with Mahogany, saying it was also necessary to overturn Costa-Hawkins because it prohibits vacancy controls.

"We have the obligation to expand rent control beyond rent stabilization, beyond where it is right now," he said, adding that he is partnering with Supervisor Aaron Peskin (District 3) to add a rent control option to the Home SF program so that developers "can do an affordable option for BMR kinds of things, or do rent control by agreement."

Expanding rent control stock would be better for the public and the city, he said.

The city's two LGBTQ Democratic clubs, Harvey Milk and Alice B. Toklas, co-sponsored the forum with the Rose Pak Democratic Club, San Francisco Young Democrats, and San Francisco Women's Political Committee.

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