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Atlantic and San Francisco
The Atlantic gets it wrong again.

Billionaires Are Pulling the Strings

Our homeless don’t just need housing — they need help

• • • • • • • • • • October 16, 2023 • • • • • • • • • •

The Atlantic magazine is another device designed to destroy history. I was in disbelief over “How San Francisco Became a Failed City” by Nellie Bowles (The Atlantic, 6/8/22). People get paid for writing this garbage? Amazing. (See my article in response.) “The Looming Revolt Over Homelessness” by Jerusalem Demsas is just as bad. A fantasy world populated with straw men she can knock down to reach her spurious conclusions. And Jerusalem Demsas is a staff writer for the Atlantic. I should have known.

Regrettably, she is just parroting the talking points of “Neighbors for a Better San Francisco,” “TogetherSF Action,” and “GrowSF,” groups funded by right-wing billionaires determined to dismantle what little protections remain for renters, poor people, and neighborhood communities. “Money from groups like these will pour into the coffers of candidates who promise to carry out their agenda, one that benefits big business at the expense of regular San Franciscans.” (Julie Pitta, Westside Observer, October 2023)

Ms. Demsas reveals the astounding fact about homelessness that others seem to have missed. “.. it’s simple: lack of housing. The places people needed to move for good jobs stopped building the housing necessary for economic growth.” If you parse these statements, Ms. Demsas is saying economic growth, good jobs, and upward mobility are our society’s values, the unquestionable fundamentals. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Really, Ms. Demsas should be a speechwriter for a politician. In San Francisco, we have 7,000 homeless people at last count. Very few of them are people who came to San Francisco from other areas and many of them don’t just need housing; they need help. Many of them, in fact, will likely never be able to recover. Go and visit the encampments of people without homes; you will see people literally driven to despair and madness by poverty and deprivation, many comatose on the sidewalk from opiate use. This didn’t need to happen in a city that’s home to some of the world’s wealthiest people.


... the unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of the elite few, the obscenely bloated defense budget, and the fact that billionaires like Marc Benioff of Salesforce pay no federal taxes; we don’t talk about that in Ms. Demsas’ world.”

Income inequality, the unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of the elite few, the obscenely bloated defense budget, and the fact that billionaires like Marc Benioff of Salesforce pay no federal taxes; we don’t talk about that in Ms. Demsas’ world. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the massive diversion of federal tax dollars to the military, the subprime mortgage meltdown — when tens of thousands of poor people lost their homes after being conned by the banks into taking out adjustable-rate mortgages, we won’t mention that. According to Ms. Demsas, all we need is for city and county governments to get out of the way of the real estate developers, and all will be well. But there’s a problem here; that is simply untrue. Certainly, it’s not true where San Francisco is concerned.

“Fact: SF NIMBYs, such as they exist, are not stopping housing right now; the Federal Reserve and the preferences of speculative capital are. The City has approved tens of thousands of housing units that could break ground today, no NIMBY opposition, no frivolous lawsuits … they have building permits. But there’s not enough return on investment to make those units profitable, which is what developers care about.” - Tim Redmond, 48 Hills, Sept. 27, 2023.

“The main reason so little housing is under construction has nothing to do with city “red tape” or fees. It’s the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes, which make financing much more expensive, and the cost of construction materials, wildly inflated since the pandemic, and the reduction in the demand for ultra-luxury units, which are often bought just as investments and never occupied.” - Tim Redmond 48 Hills, Sept., 2023

Demsas says we need housing “to accommodate economic growth. She has a simple equation that solves homelessness. I quote:

1. “A study led by an economist at Zillow shows that when a growing number of people are forced to spend 30% or more of their income on rent, homelessness spikes.”

2. “...politicians and policy makers have generally failed to address the root cause of the crisis.”

3. “The U.S. is now millions of homes short of what its population needs.”

4. “But local politicians seeking to protect the interests of incumbent homeowners spawned a web of regulations, laws, and norms that has made blocking the development of new housing pitifully simple.”

5. “But liberalism is largely to blame for the homelessness crisis.”

Therefore — it’s obvious — the solution is to remove those “liberal” local politicians and their pesky regulations and let real estate developers have free rein. Ms Demsas’ real agenda is not solutions to the lack of housing; it’s the vilification of “liberals” and those few progressive politicians who dare to stick up for people with low incomes and renters. There’s no money to be made in rent-controlled buildings and affordable housing.

Living with homelessness

On our block in San Francisco, we see homeless people every day. This sad situation has been going on for years, and it’s not getting any better. Homelessness appears to be an intractable problem. Year after year, we fund more services, spend more on research, and build more shelters. But the number of homeless only grows. The homeless crisis is front page news every week, but nobody knows what to do except do more of the same. For years, I have read articles and editorials about homelessness, and one thing is clear: local and state solutions appear woefully inadequate to the scale of the situation. And, there is no plan for actually preventing homelessness.

The idea of planning for the future seems an afterthought for the politicians, developers and non-profits who want to build their way out of the “homeless crisis.” Did it not occur to anyone that we need to take care of people so that they don’t become homeless in the first place?

Federal investment in housing?

Preventing homelessness would require a commitment on the federal level to spend our tax revenues for the well-being of our citizens. Does that seem like a radical or impossible idea?

The Federal government could have used the tax money to create infrastructure, jobs and housing, fund education, and prepare for a pandemic. It went instead to the military-industrial complex. Hundreds of billions of dollars that should have gone to meet the needs of the American people went to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2016, 57% of the federal budget was spent on the Department of Defense, on wars and weapons programs, according to the American Friends Service Committee; 6% was spent on education. The military spending hasn’t slowed; the Friends Committee on National Legislation estimates the US spends about $750 billion annually on weapons and war. In 2023, it’s over $800 billion. For comparison, Housing and Urban Development got $57 billion in 2020.

A federal report from 2011 shows $60 billion (that’s billions, not millions) lost to war zone contractor waste and fraud alone. That money could have built a lot of housing. Often, when disabled and traumatized veterans return home to their families, they can’t get the support and treatment they need. Homelessness and opioid addiction are the result. “About 11% of the adult homeless population are veterans. Roughly 45% of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4% and 3.4% of the U.S. veteran population, respectively,” - National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “U.S. spending on the Afghanistan nation-building project over the last dozen years now exceeds $104 billion,” (U.S. aid to Afghanistan exceeds Marshall Plan in costs, San Francisco Chronicle, August 2014). Imagine if $104 billion had been invested in preschools, education, job training, healthcare and housing in the US?

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Does that resonate at all with you, Ms. Demsas?

Today's housing stalemate

So here we are now, in 2023. I’ll let Tim Redmond, founder of the on-line San Francisco newsmagazine, 48 Hills, help provide context.

“The gentrification, we called it ‘Manhattanization,’ of San Francisco, the process of allowing developers to build without limit, and without paying any fees that would alleviate the impacts of their office towers on housing, displacement, schools, Muni or anything else in the city, was rampant on her (Dianne Feinstein) watch. Thousands of low-income people were forced out of the city because of her policies. In fact, her administration sowed the seeds for what we are now reaping: A monocrop office economy facing a crisis because all of the more diverse businesses, including blue-collar jobs, were crushed in the name of finance, insurance, real estate, and later tech.” The local record and legacy of Dianne Feinstein by Tim Redmond, 48 Hills,Oct. 2nd, 2023.

And here is the current state of housing policy in San Francisco:

“The mayor’s housing legislation, which every major tenant group in the city and the Race and Equity in All Planning Coalition strongly opposed, comes back to the Land Use and Transportation Committee on Monday October 2nd. A SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association) op-ed in the Chron (San Francisco Chronicle) shows where the Mayor’s Office is coming from: They will attack the supes (Supervisors) as “anti-housing” if they oppose a measure that helps developers make more profit but does essentially nothing for affordable housing. The legislation allows for demolition without any community notice or input as long as the landlord says there are no rent-controlled units and no tenants have been evicted—but there is no enforcement mechanism. It’s just the landlord’s word. Given the money speculators can make buying smaller units and demolishing them for bigger units, the prospect that everyone will follow all the laws is rather dubious. Landlords violate the eviction rules all the time, and nothing ever happens...This is kind of amusing: TogetherSF, the tech billionaire funded organization that wants to destroy progressive politics in San Francisco, has a Twitter post talking about homeless camps. Except that they couldn’t even bother to get a local picture: This photo is from Los Angeles.” Tim Redmond, 48 Hills, Oct. 4 2023

Homeless encampment

“You know something’s wrong. Just look at any San Francisco street. A great city like San Francisco deserves great local government. Our coalition pushes City Hall to solve SF’s biggest problems. Follow us on social media.” — TogetherSF Action (@TSFAction) Sep. 21, 2023.

Unfortunately, Ms. Demsas’ side seems to be winning even though they have it wrong on every count. In a society where so much wealth is concentrated in the hands of so few, democracy suffers and people without money and power lose out. The “Looming Revolt...” turns out to have been engineered by big money.

David Romano is an environmental activist living near Ocean Beach

October 16, 2023

David Romano.
David Romano

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