San Francisco general election guide, November 2020

Barak Gila

I heard Trump was messing with the election; how do I vote?

The endorsements

President and Vice President
Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris, Democratic Party

U.S. Representative, District 12
Nancy Pelosi

State Senator, District 11
Scott Wiener

State Assembly Member, District 17
David Chiu

State Assembly Member, District 19
Phil Ting

Member, San Francisco Board of Supervisors
District 1: Marjan Philhour
District 3: Danny Sauter
District 5: Vallie Brown
District 7: Myrna Melgar
District 9: No endorsement
District 11: Ahsha Safai

Member, Board of Education
Jenny Lam
Michelle Parker

BART Director, District 7 (edge of SF, East Bay)
Lateefah Simon

Bart Director, District 9 (downtown SF)
Bevan Dufty

State Propositions
No on Prop 14, stem cell funding
Yes on Prop 15, increase commercial property taxes
No endorsement on Prop 16, reverse affirmative action ban
Yes on Prop 17, allow parolees to vote
Yes on Prop 18, allow those who'll turn 18 by the general to vote in the primary
Yes on Prop 19, strengthen Prop 13 property tax loophole for those 55 and older in exchange for reducing its inheritability
No on Prop 20, lengthen criminal sentencing
Yes on Prop 21, allow localities to expand rent control
No on Prop 22, overturn employee classification for gig workers
No on Prop 23, dialysis regulation redux
No on Prop 24, data privacy regulation
Yes on Prop 25, eliminate cash bail

Local Propositions
Yes on Prop A, bond for parks and public services
No on Prop B, reorganize public works
Yes on Prop C, allow noncitizens on advisory boards
Yes on Prop D, police oversight
Yes on Prop E, allow fewer than 1,971 cops
Yes on Prop F, business tax changes
Yes on Prop G, reduce voting age to 16 for local elections
Yes on Prop H, expedite business permitting
No on Prop I, double property sales tax for large sales
Yes on Prop J, parcel tax for schools
Yes on Prop K, permit (but not fund) 10,000 public housing units
No on Prop L, punitive tax on SF companies with highly-paid execs

District Propositions
Yes on Prop RR, sales tax for Caltrain

The details

How'd you decide on your endorsements?

I consulted campaign websites (mainly to find who endorsed local candidates); Ballotpedia, especially for California propositions; my friends; and the YIMBY and SPUR voter guides, detailed below.

The candidates

President and Vice President

You already know why you're voting for Joe Biden, but let me add that his housing plan is solid. He supports fully funding the Section 8 housing voucher program, a relatively cheap step that would dramatically reduce poverty. He also supports ending exclusionary single family home zoning, and creating a new renter's tax credit. I'm not optimistic Biden would actually risk alienating fauxgressive suburban residents by making significant zoning changes a priority, but he has the potential to move us in the right direction on housing.

U.S. Representative, District 12

I support Nancy Pelosi for reelection. She is the current Speaker of the House, and has enormous clout in Congress. Though I do wish we had a younger generation of leadership (the top 3 members of Democratic leadership in the House are all octogenarians), she's been effective in running the House, getting bills passed, and managing impeachment in a popular way.

State Senator, District 11

Scott Wiener is the best legislator I've ever known. He's been tireless in advocating for more housing, our state's biggest issue. On housing, Wiener passed SB 35, which has led to the under-construction 2000-home (half market-rate and half-affordable) project in Cupertino at the site of Vallco, and tens of thousands of other units. Another obscure but critical housing bill he passed is SB 828 requiring cities to zone for their actual housing needs. It quintupled housing goals in Southern California, and doubled them in the Bay Area.

Here are a few of the many bills Wiener's written that have been signed into law:

State Assembly, Districts 17 and 19

David Chiu and Phil Ting are both pro-housing Democrats. Neither are facing Democrats, and both are prohibitive favorites for reelection.

Board of Supervisors

I outsourced these endorsements to YIMBY Action. Again, they're Marjan Philhour (1), Danny Sauter (3), Vallie Brown (5), Myrna Melgar (7), no one (9), and Ahsha Safai (11).

Board of Education

I outsourced these endorsements to my favorite San Francisco politicians, Scott Wiener and London Breed; they endorsed Jenny Lam, an incumbent, and Michelle Parker, a challenger, who is also the most pro-housing candidate in the race.

BART Director, Districts 7 and 9

Lateefah Simon and Bevan Dufty are both incumbent BART directors that have supported housing developments on BART land. Dufty also came out in support of controversial SB 50, which would have upzoned residential areas near transit.

State propositions

Prop 14, stem cell funding: No

This proposition would renew funding for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which was created and financed by voters in a 2004 proposition, and has since run out of money. Prop 14 lacks endorsements from prominent California politicians, and $5.5B is a lot of money. There's no clear rationale for this spending, and I think we could do a lot better with $5.5B (for scale, the entire San Francisco Muni budget is $1.3B).

Prop 15, increase commercial property taxes: Yes

Prop 15 is a significant step in undoing the biggest mistake in California political history, Prop 13. Under 1978's Prop 13, property taxes cannot go up with the value of the property; instead, they increase by 2% or the inflation rate per year, whichever is lower. Imagine that in 1980, Apple bought a building for $5M. Then, after 40 years, Apple pays taxes on $11M in assessed value, even if its campus is now worth $200M. (So if Stripe were to buy the same building, they'd have to pay 20 times more.) Prop 13 also caps the property tax rate at 1%.

Prop 13 has resulted in many state services, including schools, being underfunded. It has led our tax code to be more reliant on income and capital gains taxes, which are more volatile. As a result, we've had budget shortages in past recessions. It also causes staggering inequities, where one household or business pays way less property tax than their neighbor, just because they have owned their property for longer.

This year's Prop 15 repeals Prop 13 for commercial properties, while retaining it for residences. It phases in beginning in 2022, and by 2026 it would assess business property taxes based on property value. It is expected to generate ~$10B per year towards schools, community colleges, and local governments, mitigating the budget issues mentioned above.

One negative effect of Prop 13 is that it's encouraged cities (for example, Bay Area suburbs) to build more office space than housing. Revenue from housing (property taxes) is capped by Prop 13, and while that applies to businesses as well, payroll and other taxes can be levied on businesses. Unfortunately, Prop 15 may exacerbate this imbalance, by making commercial property even more profitable for local governments. However, this potential drawback is not serious enough for me to oppose the measure; there are zoning and other policy changes we could make to encourage housing production, and the money raised by the measure is more important.

Prop 15 has been endorsed by most prominent state politicians, as well as all major Democratic 2020 presidential nominees.

Prop 16, reverse affirmative action ban: No endorsement

This proposition would repeal 1996's Proposition 209, which stated that the California government and universities cannot "discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to persons on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public employment, public education, and public contracting." If passed, it would allow affirmative action programs to be reinstituted at the University of California system.

A lesser-discussed potential impact of Prop 16's passage would be on government jobs and contracts. As the legislature wrote in their statement placing Prop 209 on the ballot, its implementation "cost women and people of color over $1,000,000,000 annually in lost contract awards." A UCSC study finds that contract prices fell 5.6% after Prop 209, as state governments were no longer required to prefer minority-owned businesses. Conversely, a Berkeley Law study emphasizes the return of "good old boy" networks, in which well-connected, nonminority contractors had more influence in government contracting, in preventing equal access to minority businesses after the passage of Prop 209.

Prop 16 is endorsed by most state politicians, as well as SPUR and the ACLU of California.

Prop 17, allow parolees to vote: Yes

This proposition restores the right to vote for people on parole for felonies (though not those currently serving their sentence). I believe all adult citizens should have the right to vote, and am in favor of this proposition.

Prop 18, allow those who'll turn 18 by the general to vote in the primary: Yes

This proposition prepones the voting age so that anyone who'd be old enough to vote by the general election could also vote in the primary election. California would join 18 other states in making this change. It makes sense to adjust eligibility to let someone vote for a complete primary/general cycle.

Prop 19, strengthen Prop 13 property tax loophole for those 55 and older in exchange for reducing its inheritability: Yes

Back to Prop 13. One especially galling provision, added in subsequent amendments, is that it's inheritable. In California, we have a feudal system, in which if you were lucky enough to buy real estate years ago, your children (and even grandchildren!) can inherit not just your property but your artificially low tax rate. Prop 13's tax rate is inheritable not just on your primary home, but also on up to $1M of assessed value of other property. So, for example, your landlord's child could inherit an expensive apartment building, and continue paying less in annual property tax than your monthly rent.

Prop 19 would get rid of this tax break, allowing Prop 13's tax rate to only be inherited on the primary home in which the inheritor resides. This is the reason I'm in favor.

The trade-off is that Prop 19 would increase the value of the Prop 13 tax break for those 55 and older. They are currently able to take their artificially low Prop 13 rates with them if they sell their home and buy another (a) in the same county and (b) for no more than their current home was worth. Prop 19 removes both of those restrictions. I believe older homeowners are huge beneficiaries of California's tax system; are usually wealthy due to appreciation of their property values; and do not need additional tax breaks, and thus do not support this provision of Prop 19. However, one silver lining is that it might encourage homeowners living in high-cost, high-opportunity areas to move elsewhere, increasing the supply of houses in Cupertino, Palo Alto, and Berkeley (for example) available for younger folks in the workforce.

Prop 20, lengthen criminal sentencing: No

I don't support lengthening criminal sentences, and especially not removing the possibility of parole, as this proposition does for 51 crimes. This proposition is supported by the Republican Party and Devin Nunes, and opposed by the Democratic Party, former Governor Jerry Brown, and the ACLU of California.

Prop 21, allow localities to expand rent control: Yes

Since the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Act, cities in California have been heavily restricted in passing rent control laws. They're only allowed to impose rent control on (a) apartments, not single-family homes or condos (b) built before 1995 (or a city's existing cutoff date, 1979 for San Francisco).

Prop 21 would allow cities to impose rent control on (a) single-family homes, as long as they're owned by individuals who own at least 3 homes (b) which were built more than 15 years ago. New construction is exempt from rent control for 15 years (to allow developers to profit from the building) before it kicks in.

Another change is that under current law, when a rent-controlled tenant leaves, the landlord can raise rents to market rate. This incentivizes landlords to evict heavily rent-controlled tenants. Prop 21 allows cities to cap the rent increase when a vacancy occurs at 15% every 3 years. This may reduce the eviction incentive, but it could also incentivize landlords to rent a unit to their friends rather than the broader market, or to sell the house to a new owner (who might live in it, taking it off the rental market entirely).

I recognize the value of rent control for allowing lower-income folks to stay in their homes, and reducing the financial burden of rent. Expanding rent control might also reduce the rancor between tenant groups and more pro-development groups, which may lead to a more productive housing politics in California.

The primary cause of high housing prices in California is that supply is too low because we haven't built enough homes. Prop 21 would not solve this problem. At the margin, it might worsen it, by reducing the profit developers would expect on their new construction. However, I couldn't find compelling evidence for this. I found the UC Berkeley study cited by SPUR on this unconvincing, because it drew its conclusions by asking industry experts with a stake in the outcome their opinion. At any rate, the far bigger obstacle to housing supply is that apartments are illegal to build in 70% of San Francisco, as well as the vast majority of other residential land in California. As Alfred Twu points out, historically rent control was enacted after downzonings reduced housing supply and increased prices. We should address zoning and other restrictions, rather than using the supply concerns to block any expansion of rent control.

Prop 22, overturn employee classification for gig workers: No

A 2018 California Supreme Court decision, codified into law by 2019's AB 5, restricted worker categories which could be classified as independent contractors. It was recently amended to exclude many industries from being affected, so that AB 5 now appears aimed squarely at Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and other tech companies.

Uber and Lyft have responded by placing Prop 22 on the ballot. This proposition would overturn AB 5 for "app-based drivers," as well as specify some benefits and labor protections for them, for example partial health insurance payments depending on the number of hours worked.

A much-maligned provision of Prop 22 is an incredibly high 7/8th threshold for amending it in the legislature. As context, it's important to remember that by default voter propositions cannot be amended by the legislature at all (only by the voters in another proposition). This raises the question: should labor regulations be passed by ballot proposition, and written largely by the companies they'd regulate?

Even though I do think AB 5 needs further reform, and Prop 22's provisions seem, at a glance, to grant significant worker protections with more flexibility than AB 5 allows, I would rather those changes be done through the normal legislative process. I am pretty skeptical of letting Uber regulate itself.

One final note regarding the size of the impact of AB 5 on Uber: its CEO suggested in an interview that its prices might go up by 20% in San Francisco if Uber had to classify drivers as employees, which isn't a large increase.

Prop 23, dialysis regulation redux: No

You may remember a similar dialysis-related proposition (2018's Prop 8, which failed). Both propositions are the result of a labor dispute between a healthcare worker union and the duopoly of companies who run dialysis clinics in California. Don't spend any more mental energy on it—any regulatory changes needed for dialysis should be done through the normal legislative process.

Prop 24, data privacy regulation: No

This proposition amends data privacy laws and establishes a new California Privacy Protection Agency. It's backed by a few politicians including Ro Khanna, David Chiu, Nancy Skinner, and Andrew Yang, but opposed by the ACLU of California and most media editorials. It was placed on the ballot after being filed by a random San Francisco-based real estate developer and amends a California data privacy law that was passed recently, in 2018.

Given the complexity of this proposition, and how recently the law it's amending was passed, I default to voting no. Any changes ought to be made through the legislature, after the full impacts of the 2018 law have become clear.

Prop 25, eliminate cash bail: Yes

The cash bail system requires low-income people accused of a crime to turn to family or high-interest bail bond companies to post bail in order to return to their jobs and lives while awaiting trial. If someone is likely to reoffend or flee, it makes sense to hold them in jail; if not, the bail is unnecessary.

One concern I've heard about this proposition is that the "risk assessment tool" which would be used to decide whether to release offenders would be biased against minority groups. The proposition states that the tools should be "demonstrated by scientific research to be accurate" and "minimize bias," which at least seems well-intentioned. While algorithms and ML tools can perpetuate existing bias, I'd trust them more than the existing system, in which individual judges make subjective decisions.

Local propositions

Prop A, bond for parks and public services: Yes

This proposition issues bonds and directs $487.5M for projects including parks and open space, supportive housing and shelters, mental-health services, and street paving. It's supported by both Mayor Breed and the entire Board of Supervisors.

Prop B, reorganize public works: No

Matt Haney, who has championed this proposition, is rightly concerned about corruption in San Francisco's Department of Public Works. This proposition would split out some of its responsibilities into a new Department of Sanitation and Streets, and create two new commissions to oversee the two departments.

SPUR has a great analysis here: they point out that separating the management of the construction of buildings from their maintenance is an antipattern, and that the new organization may reduce accountability for the departments, by splitting responsibility between the Mayor and the Supervisors (currently, the Mayor oversees the Department of Public Works).

Prop C, allow noncitizens on advisory boards: Yes

34% of San Franciscans are immigrants, and according to SPUR, as many as 13% are non-citizens. Allowing all residents to serve on city commissions and boards will allow those bodies to be more representative of the population.

Prop D, police oversight: Yes

San Francisco has both a city police department and a county Sheriff's Department; this proposition would strengthen oversight of the latter by establishing a civilian office to investigate misconduct, as well as an oversight board that could make recommendations to the Sheriff and Board of Supervisors.

There's a bit of complexity here; an alternative proposal would be to strengthen the oversight of the Department of Police Accountability (which investigates police misconduct) over the Sheriff's Department. That said, the new departments are not particularly expensive ($3M per year), and compared with the status quo, might publish reports that increase visibility of misconduct and encourage the Sheriff's Department to pursue disciplinary action.

Prop E, allow fewer than 1,971 cops: Yes

It turns out that the city charter requires at least we maintain at least 1,971 police officers. (We currently have 2,179.) While removing this requirement doesn't require that San Francisco reduce its police staffing levels, it at least creates that possibility, and it doesn't make sense for detailed staffing levels to be mandated in the city charter.

Prop F, business tax changes: Yes

This proposition completes San Francisco's transition from a payroll tax (which can discourage a business from hiring workers) to a gross revenues tax (known as a gross receipts tax). The specifics are a compromise between the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors.

Prop F also temporarily reduces taxes on business sectors negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and contains a technical feature to allow the city to more quickly spend revenue raised from previous, disputed ballot measures.

Prop G, reduce voting age to 16 for local elections: Yes

Sure; this change means that people will become eligible to vote while still in school, where there might be an organized institutional framework to encourage them to register and vote. Currently, voting participation is lower (in some past cycles, less than half) among young voters compared with seniors. If this change increases youth voter participation, that's a meaningful benefit.

Prop H, expedite business permitting: Yes

It takes too long, and costs too much, to start a business in San Francisco. Even an ice cream shop in the Mission is taking months, and more than $150K in rent and other costs, to open. Prop H speeds up the review and inspection process to 30 days for certain businesses, and relaxes rules around pop-up retail, usage of parklets, and artistic/charitable facilities.

In an ideal world, these regulatory changes would be passed through the normal legislative process, but in San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors likes the complexity of the process. It gives the Board more levers with which to favor well-connected businesspeople or kill projects they don't like. Unable to reach agreement with the Board, Mayor Breed decided to put this proposition on the ballot directly.

Prop I, double property sales tax for large sales: No

San Francisco's transfer tax (a tax charged when a property is sold) currently has a rate of 3% on properties above $25M in value. This rate already exceeds that of other Bay Area and California cities. Prop I would double this tax rate on properties at least $10M in value. (The rate for properties under $10M in value, which increases from 0.5% to 2.25% as the value increases, would not change.) As the Tech Worker Voter Guide points out, unlike most other taxes, the transfer tax rates are not marginal: sales for $10M would pay twice as much in total tax as sales for just under that amount, which distorts market prices.

Property owners who sell to nonprofits would pay only 0.75% in tax, while those who sell to the city (eg, to build affordable housing) would be exempt from the tax, to encourage such sales.

The city controller's office report finds that the higher transfer tax would discourage construction of new properties, and development of existing ones, which would cost $50M in GDP and cost 625 jobs (both small in proportion to the overall GDP and jobs base). It would potentially raise $200M annually, or less if the rate of property sales decreased.

By contrast, Prop 15, a better-designed commercial tax measure on the ballot, mostly affects incumbent businesses who have been operating for years; Prop 15 does not discourage new commercial construction.

Prop J, parcel tax for schools: Yes

This proposition replaces one school parcel tax, which has been contested for legal reasons, with a slightly lower one. It was placed on the ballot by Mayor Breed.

Prop K, permit (but not fund) 10,000 public housing units: Yes

Currently in California, Article 34 of the state constitution requires voter approval for the government to build public, low-income housing. Scott Wiener is working on repealing it, but meanwhile, this proposition is needed to allow the city to build public housing.

Granting this authorization is a positive step. However, while I support additional affordable housing, we should be clear-eyed that we cannot afford to plug a significant fraction of our housing shortage with affordable housing. 10,000 homes would simultaneously be very expensive for San Francisco to finance ($5B) and not be nearly enough to lower housing prices in our city. At the state level, it would cost $1.75T to build the 3.5 million homes we need, compared with a state budget of $200B.

Prop L, punitive tax on SF companies with highly-paid execs: No

This proposition, authored by Supervisor Matt Haney, would calculate the ratio of the highest paid employee of a company to its median San Francisco employee salary, and impose increasing punitive gross receipts tax rates (or payroll tax rates, for businesses not based in San Francisco which pay payroll tax) when the ratio exceeds 100.

I have a baseline skepticism to populist-sounding measures. Flaws with this proposal include: this tax seems easy to evade (companies could structure executive compensation as fringe benefits). It could encourage companies with a minor presence in the city, who pay payroll taxes, to leave by increasing the cost of doing business here.

District Propositions

Prop RR, sales tax for Caltrain: Yes

This small, 1/8 cent sales tax would allow Caltrain to continue operating amid dramatic ticket revenue decreases during the pandemic.

Thanks to Vadim, Hansen, Maggie, Daylen, and Andy for your helpful suggestions. Feel free to send me suggestions or complaints on Twitter @barakgila, or with the form below.