Ed Lee’s legacy

San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor died on Tuesday after collapsing in a grocery store.
His seven-year tenure was heralded and he was mourned as an even-tempered politician.
But Lee’s legacy is more complicated, and gave way to the tech industry’s reckless boom.

Ed Lee sold out San Francisco

More than being the city’s first Asian-American mayor, Lee’s legacy is his complicity in the tech industry’s reckless growth.

When San Francisco mayor Ed Lee died suddenly yesterday morning after collapsing in a grocery store, he was mourned as an even-tempered politician; the first Asian-American mayor in a city that counts that group as its second-largest demographic. Over his nearly seven years in office, he helped pass a $15 minimum-wage hike, reduce of the rate of unemployment to under four percent, and funnel millions into affordable housing.

But buried further down in the obituaries and appraisals were mentions of another narrative, of the “struggles” and “controversies” he weathered as the largesse of the tech industry — skyrocketing rents, shuttered local businesses, neglected transit, and unprecedented levels of inequality — consumed a city once known for its radical, bohemian spirit.

Over Lee’s two terms, many San Franciscans watched as their blandly affable leader gave near-free reign to startups like Uber and Airbnb to smash unhindered through attempts at regulation. They watched as Lee threw up his hands repeatedly at an affordability crisis that seemed immune to public outcry. Any mayor would have struggled to balance the promise of this booming industry with its toll on neighbors, but Lee didn’t even try. He simply stepped aside and sold out San Francisco.


Lee’s political trajectory into the hands of big business was an unlikely one, especially for a man who grew up in Seattle public housing, spent a decade filing anti-discrimination lawsuits for Asian-American San Franciscans, had to be persuaded to give up activism for politics and, through a series of appointments in the city’s bureaucracy, earned a reputation as an efficient and unobtrusive administrator.

His pivot to power began in 2010, when California elected San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom as lieutenant governor, leaving the city in need of an interim; Newsom, his corruption-plagued predecessor Willie Brown, and Chinatown powerbroker Rose Pak — who had known Lee since college — all vied for Lee to get the seat. A handful of progressive members on the city’s Board of Supervisors, worried the interim job was a rehearsal for the real thing, opposed the nomination of an establishment-backed seat-filler. But they relented in a vote in January 2011 after Lee promised multiple times he had no actual interest in the job.

Lee didn’t even try. He simply stepped aside and sold out San Francisco.

Seven months later, after the same people who pushed him into Newsom’s vacant seat formed groups encouraging him to run, Lee announced that, in fact, he would. Supervisors who had approved his interim tenure, as well as voters who had already poured hundreds of hours into other campaigns, were furious at what they saw as a sleight of hand to deliver him the election. With the help of Pak’s deep pockets and the inertia of incumbency, and despite likely voter fraud and some cringeworthy campaign videos, Lee was propelled to an easy victory in a hilariously overstuffed field of sixteen.

Lee inherited a city that was already faring better than much of the country after the 2008 recession, not least because of the tech boom, which would soon eclipse the 1990s dot-com bubble in both profit and displacement. It appeared that Lee saw the financial surplus as an opportunity to reshape several neighborhoods, including less affluent areas like SoMa, the Tenderloin, and Mission Bay, toward the tastes of well-compensated transplants who could keep the city growing.

As interim mayor, Lee had already begun what would become his signature initiative, an aggressive remaking of a six-block stretch of downtown San Francisco. For years, the area had been a ghost town populated by discount stores, adult shops, fast-food franchises, and SROs. But the area was also an illustration of San Francisco’s history of open, hospitable, arms: an established homeless population carried out their lives on sidewalks, couples from the nearby Castro neighborhood took afternoon walks, and anarchists and other activists distributed free food to anyone who wanted it. As a teenager, I’d sometimes join the crowd for dinner before a show at a nearby venue, meeting others who were passing through for their own reasons.

Lee saw this area not as an existing community but as an opportunity. He dubbed it “Central Market” and promoted it as the perfect place to rehome tech companies eyeing bigger Silicon Valley offices. Backed by the the city’s Board of Supervisors (the same one that opposed his candidacy), he offered to eliminate the city’s 1.2 percent payroll tax, which startups said penalized their unique need for pre-profitability growth, for companies that agreed to set up on the strip instead. (Meetings between Lee and startups were arranged by his advisor Ron Conway, an angel investor who enjoys bringing together politicians and tech higher-ups.)

The policy was aimed specifically at keeping Twitter, which had been threatening to move outside the city over the tax, in the city, leading critics to rename the scheme the “Twitter tax break.” Within three years of Twitter’s 2012 arrival on the corridor, almost three dozen more businesses, half of them tech companies, had joined in. Shuttered storefronts became open windows beckoning brunch crowds with expensive grown-up junk food. Labor activists protested in bushy drawn-on mustaches that mimicked Lee’s. In 2014 alone, the city lost $34 million to the break. Lee was never receptive to the criticism. “I am not apologetic,” he said in 2015. “I am quite enthusiastic about what has occurred.”

The redevelopment of Central Market included only vague “community benefit agreements” for startups that moved to the area and did not include specific provisions or support for the homeless population that was inevitably pushed out. Such guileless cruelty would become a common theme in Lee’s governing. In 2015, he told homeless San Franciscans they “had to leave the street” ahead of the Super Bowl, which was being held at Levi's Stadium; he later sent police officers out with orders to evict anyone who remained. Last year, he supported a successful tech-backed ballot measure that banned sidewalk encampments without increasing funding for shelters. Earlier this year, he promised to dedicate $30 million in additional funding to homeless resources — not because of altruism, but in response to newer residents (like this guy who had begun to cite “quality-of-life” issues as a top concern.

The city’s transportation infrastructure, or lack of it, became another area in which Lee saw fit to court the tech industry. In response to the plague of Google bus shuttles blocking bike lanes, getting stuck between hills, and pushing Muni buses out of their own stops — not to mention the protests spurred by such events — Lee backed a 2014 pilot program to restrict the shuttles to designated routes and charge tech companies around $100,000 yearly for operating permits (for reference, Google’s 2013 revenue was $50 billion. Instead of forcing companies to cough up money for transit funding — as activists had suggested — he handed over not just the city’s streets but its visual landscape to tech, bestowing his blessing upon a reminder to everyday San Franciscans that they, too, should defer to the invasion.

The beating heart of all these problems was San Francisco’s housing crisis. Which, to be fair, was mostly outside Lee’s influence — California housing policy, which mostly affects big cities, is controlled by a state legislature indebted to real estate donors. Still, it appeared that Lee refused to take any action on the issue that would upset those in the tech industry.

In 2015, faced with veto-proof city-level eviction protections, he symbolically protested by leaving the bill unsigned, citing concerns that it was unfair to small property owners. The same year, Airbnb spent millions to defeat a November 2015 ballot measure capping short-term rentals at 75 days a year; the following November, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a 60-day limit, which Lee successfully vetoed the next month. He also refused to back a 2015 proposition putting a moratorium on market-rate additions to the development-ravaged Mission (it later failed at the ballot box). And even in his support of affordable housing, he was strategic about toeing the line, preferring to give developers excuses not to build rather than requiring them to do so.

So far, some of the people most performatively mourning Lee’s death have been tech CEOs and startup founders, many of whom donated generously to his virtually unopposed 2015 re-election bid. They are already wondering whether his interim successor, Board president and city native London Breed, will continue her lukewarm approach to their industry. The outcome of next year’s election is even less clear.

But they needn’t worry. The San Francisco that Lee inherited is gone, replaced by a tech heaven largely of his own creation. A hideous tower, built under Lee’s watch to house the cloud computing company Salesforce, pierces the skyline, its upper floors often shrouded in fog even when the city below gets some precious sun. The Google buses, with their reviled pilot program now permanently implemented, prowl neighborhoods where one-bedroom apartments go for $4,500 a month. Areas like the Sunset and Richmond, where working-class families once thrived, are now being populated increasingly by tech grads priced out of downtown neighborhoods.

It didn’t have to turn out this way; Lee had many opportunities to strengthen protections for vulnerable San Franciscans even as tech grew. He chose instead to fanboy over the companies who wooed and dazzled him, seeing only the good numbers — low unemployment, bursting municipal coffers — without acknowledging that permanent displacement made them possible. Lee should be remembered not just as the city’s first Asian-American mayor, but the only mayor to grant nearly every demand from a reckless industry at the expense of everyone else.

Zoë Beery is a freelance journalist in New York. She previously wrote about the Great 78 project.