Peskin talks housing, 'doom loop,' and leadership during Castro visit

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Monday May 20, 2024
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Former mayoral candidate and state lawmaker Mark Leno, left, greeted current mayoral candidate and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin during a walking tour of the Castro May 18. Photo: Rick Gerharter<br>
Former mayoral candidate and state lawmaker Mark Leno, left, greeted current mayoral candidate and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin during a walking tour of the Castro May 18. Photo: Rick Gerharter

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who is running for mayor, wants voters to know he doesn't think he's against new housing.

"I would say that we are a very smart city with very smart people and we are smart enough to grow San Francisco and add more units without destroying our neighborhoods," Peskin, who represents District 3 on the board, told the Bay Area Reporter, adding he'd voted in favor of 100,000 units being built since he first started on the board 19 years ago. He also touted his support for the Eastern Neighborhoods Plans and development in the Rincon Hill and Park Merced neighborhoods. Between 2005 and 2021, 56,226 units were produced in San Francisco County, according to the California Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

"We can do it in a way that doesn't eviscerate small business," he added, saying that people "thought I was crazy" when he pushed for restrictions on formula retail decades ago, "but now they're thanking me."

Peskin made his remarks while touring the Castro neighborhood as part of his campaign just after a rally in support of Queer LifeSpace on Market Street, which claims it's under an eviction threat. Mayor London Breed — who at that same time was launching her reelection bid with a rally at the Fillmore — had said when she was in the Castro earlier this month that Peskin was obstructing housing construction.

San Francisco is the most expensive city in California to build housing, with the longest timetables for advancing housing projects. It is struggling to meet a mandate to build 82,000 new units in over eight years.

"We don't need another 'bureaucratic fix.' A lot of his 'bureaucratic fixes' are being fixed by me because they amount to obstruction," Breed had said of Peskin's housing stance during her walking tour of the Castro.

San Francisco's reputation has taken a beating since the COVID pandemic. Property crime and open-air drug sales and use have been among the issues leading to businesses pulling up stakes, which has led to the city's downtown ranking last among 62 North American cities in recovering to pre-pandemic levels of commercial activity, according to a 2023 study. Now, the city is facing a $245 million deficit, and Breed asked department heads to prepare a 10% cut across the board.

When asked why voters should trust him or others who've been in city government, Peskin said that the "doom loop" could be a self-fulfilling prophecy if San Franciscans forget what makes the city unique and worth protecting.

"I would say, first of all, leadership needs to stop the blame game and finger-pointing and embrace how incredible San Francisco is, and we have to stop the self-fulfilling prophecy," he said. "We should stop beating up on ourselves and start loving ourselves. You can't make progress when you're too busy hating."

Peskin visited the Castro Coffee Company, Fabulosa Books, Welcome Castro, and Queer Arts Featured, the site of Harvey Milk's old Castro Camera store, all on Castro Street. Robert Emmons, a gay man who owns Welcome Castro, told the B.A.R. that he's grateful candidates like Peskin are coming by.

"It was great seeing Aaron in the neighborhood," Emmons said. "It's great that the mayoral candidates are coming to our neighborhood looking for our support."

Peskin was led on the tour by Mark Leno, a gay man who ran himself for mayor against Breed in 2018. Prior to that, Leno had been in the state Senate, the state Assembly, and on the Board of Supervisors as the Castro's representative. He characterized the idea Peskin is opposed to housing as "fake news" — and is all-in on his bid for mayor.

Leno said that one reason is that Peskin knows the machinery of city government better than anyone.

"There's no management right now. Departments don't know what each other are doing and we have serious crises," Leno told the B.A.R. Peskin "is the best candidate in the race — the most experienced, the most earnest, and I think most people would agree. With the state of the city as it is, we need someone who can manage a $15 billion budget and 35,000 employees."

Stephen Torres, a queer man who is running for the open District 9 supervisor seat that includes the Mission and Bernal Heights neighborhoods, also joined Peskin on the walk and said he's supporting his campaign. A longtime bartender at Castro gay bar Twin Peaks, Torres is a former board chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District.

"I feel you could hardly find anyone else who has the know-how to work in the city departments, and he has the strongest history of centering the community he represents, and the City and County of San Francisco," Torres said.

At Harvey Milk Plaza, Peskin spoke with Brian Springfield, a gay man who's the executive director of the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza. Springfield showed Peskin the plans for the plaza's renovation, which will get additional funding from the city if a bond measure backed by Peskin and Breed passes.

"It went really well," Springfield said of the conversation.

In addition to Breed and Peskin, the other major mayoral candidates are former San Francisco mayor Mark Farrell, a former supervisor who served in the office for six months after the death of then-mayor Ed Lee and the Board of Supervisors chose him over Breed; Levi Strauss heir and former nonprofit executive Daniel Lurie; and District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí.

Lurie stated to the B.A.R. that "since January of 2016, City Hall made changes to a total of 4,516 sections of the municipal code. We have an ineffective, outdated and corrupt bureaucracy that is failing San Franciscans.

"It's embarrassing that we're the slowest city to build housing in California," he added. "I know there's no excuse because I've built housing here on-time, under budget, and with good paying union labor. As mayor, we will restore accountability and expedite permitting for new housing and small businesses. The era of finger-pointing and excuse-making is coming to an end."

Joe Arellano, a spokesperson for Breed, told the B.A.R. that "Opposing housing is in Aaron Peskin's DNA — he even sued to stop the construction of new dorms when he was in college."

"Aaron Peskin's resumé contains a literal graveyard of dead housing projects that he's opposed: housing on a valet parking lot at 495 Stevenson, 8,000 units on Treasure Island, multi-unit housing in Pac Heights and Nob Hill, and more recently, downzoning much of his own district. That's not fake news — that's very real impacts on people's ability to live in San Francisco," he continued. "Peskin filed papers to run for mayor and now also wants to file away his record of complete and total obstruction."

In response, Peskin told the B.A.R. that Breed's campaign is engaging in the finger-pointing he'd previously called out.

"If you look at my true housing record, I've voted to approve housing capacity in this city by more than 100,000 new homes," Peskin stated. "That may not be more than she promised but it is a heck of a lot more than she has delivered. The mayor is conveniently leaving out her own cemetery full of killing housing, like affordable housing at 400 Divisadero, the DMV site, and Parcel K in Hayes Valley. Every year since Mayor Breed has been in office, we have built less housing than we did before. She wants to finger-point, but the mayor needs to take responsibility for her own housing failures."

None of Peskin's other opponents' campaigns returned requests for comment for this report by press time.

Update 5/20/23: This story has been updated with remarks from Breed's campaign and Peskin's response to them, and to correct that Peskin said he'd voted for 100,000 new units over his time in office.

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