Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

San Luis Obispo should heed San Francisco's demise as a warning



They say that a person trapped in quicksand sinks more rapidly the more they wildly thrash about. I am reminded of the government of San Francisco and its prevailing policies toward business, crime and the homeless.

A recent piece in The New York Times, "What Comes Next for the Most Empty Downtown in America," described San Francisco as having "perhaps the most deserted major downtown in America." Most of us can recall that just five years ago, San Francisco was renowned for a thriving, bustling downtown and exorbitant rents for office rentals. Today, it has a 27 percent vacancy rate, six times the pre-pandemic level, and the pricey shops and fashionable bistros that served the downtown are hurting and going out of business.

The vacancies are not limited to just business properties, but also include residential properties, which were also known to have stratospheric rents. According to a KRON News piece, 15 percent of the homes in San Francisco are vacant, the highest rate of major cities in the U.S. Vacancies total 61,473 homes, an increase of nearly 52 percent from 2019 to 2021.

What happened?

Many are quick to lay the blame on the pandemic and remote work, which clearly caused a lot of businesses to downsize. It doesn't, however, explain the residential vacancies and the employers who left town. While a few tech workers may have chosen to follow their employers to more welcoming locales, most workers and companies have left San Francisco for other reasons.

The exodus of employers from both San Francisco, and from California generally, has been thoroughly reported, as companies opt for lower taxes and fees, less regulation, and a friendlier business climate.

The workers? Only five years ago, San Francisco was a very sought-after place to live, and many tech workers chose to commute from their San Francisco homes to suburban Bay Area worksites, often in dedicated commuter buses like those provided by Google. Natives complained of all the "tech bros." With remote work now available, why would those workers leave town, after having paid so much and endured such long commutes to live there?

Well, San Francisco is in a self-inflicted downward spiral fueled by its bizarre policies. Rampant crime and the homeless population are the most prominent problems. Residents no longer bother to report crimes like auto burglary, vandalism, shoplifting, and many assaults, since the police will not respond. Large portions of downtown San Francisco stink and are covered with tent encampments, needles, and piles of feces, while the government passes out free needles and provides sites to inject drugs.

People report harrowing incidents of assaults or threats by the aggressive homeless. Few incidents illustrate the dystopian state of the city more than the much publicized video of the homeless man at Walgreens casually filling his bag with looted goods as the store security guard stood by, not wishing to risk liability for physically interfering with the thief. Walgreens is now closing most of its San Francisco stores, complicating the ability of many of fill their prescriptions. People do not feel safe.

Even famously liberal San Francisco showed signs that it may be losing its patience when the voters ousted a district attorney who prioritized prosecuting the police over prosecuting criminals. Earlier, voters threw out out three progressive members of a school board who focused on renaming schools named after "racist" figures like Abraham Lincoln and John Muir, instead of reopening the schools after the pandemic. They had antagonized much of the Asian population by accusing them of "white supremacist thinking" for their striving, and had decided it was most "equitable" to eliminate merit-based admissions at the city's most prestigious school. Still, the crazy ideas persist.

What else is causing vacancies? Well, many landlords are opting to give up rental income and leave their properties vacant, driven by the continuing eviction moratorium and rent control. Who wants to be forced to continue housing a tenant who won't pay rent and may be trashing the premises? Displaying the sort of brain-dead thinking that drives away business, politicians are now considering an onerous "Vacancy Tax" to force landlords to rent, arguing that this will cure the homeless problem. What landlord wouldn't be delighted to have meth and fentanyl enthusiasts permanently ensconced in their property?

An article in Fortune magazine has pronounced San Francisco as the "worst run city in the U.S." Cities run on emotionally appealing, but predictably disastrous policies, tend to fail. The city is following an evolution in which it attracts the creative but clueless, who transform a city according to their humane, naive notions of what society should look like, find that it doesn't work, and then depart for new locales to repeat their municipal malpractice.

The struggles of cities like San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle provide a cautionary tale. I hope that San Luis Obispo stays out of the political quicksand.

John Donegan is a retired attorney in Pismo Beach, who lived in San Francisco back when it was safer, fun, and smelled better. Send a response to [email protected].

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