It was 1996 and current San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was making his way up through political ranks. He spoke with Willie Brown – the Mayor at the time – about a new job. Lee wanted to be in the City Purchasing Department where he felt he could move beyond advocacy.
Brown liked the idea but at the time Lee was still living in Oakland. Lee remembers Brown saying, “You want this job? Move your ass into the city.”
Lee laughed Tuesday as he remembered how hesitant he and his wife were about paying $360,000 for a house. He called it the riskiest financial decision of his life.
“Today, if you could find a three hundred and sixty thousand dollar house you would be very, very fortunate,” Lee said.
With a new plan, Lee is trying to make affordable housing in San Francisco easier to come by. It would create a “Housing Trust Fund” that would generate $20 million to $50 million for 30 years. The fund would help homebuyers with down payments and fund 4,500 affordable housing units by diverting tax money from the Hotel Tax, taking from the General Fund, and a proposed 0.2 percent increase on the transfer for properties that are more than $1 million.
The average home price in San Francisco is now almost twice what Lee paid, according to DataQuick, which collects real estate information across the nation. And home prices rose nearly 7 percent in April over that same month last year.
And while most people can get behind affordable housing, Ken Cleaveland, vice president for public policy at the Building Owners and Managers Association, said the property transfer tax increase isn’t fair.
“Everyone loves affordable housing but everyone should help make that happen, not just the businesses,” he said.
Cleaveland said there are talks of getting rid of the property transfer tax increase and replacing it with money from business licensing fees and other sources.
Supervisor Scott Weiner confirmed this and said that they hope to have a finalized version within a month and certainly before the end of July for the ballot.
Now that Lee is mayor, he has to balance his past as a housing rights activist, and growing an economy, which often means rising real estate costs.
“I’m trying to link the first days of activism, which was to help people who need affordable housing, to what I’m doing as Mayor,” Lee said.
There’s talk of a stadium on the San Franciscan pier. The renderings show a colossus of a building, like a pear donut, that would be an ode to the city and to a man’s political term at the helm of that city.
Even though he’s just begun his first elected term, the media, and Mayor Ed Lee himself, have called it a “Legacy Project.”
But in some ways it doesn’t really matter whether Lee builds the Golden State Warriors stadium at piers 30-32, or that he brings down unemployment or creates job.
Ed Lee was the first Asian-American Mayor elected in San Francisco. In a city with a prejudiced history and laws that legally shunned the Chinese until the ‘40s, the most important legacy Lee might have left was on the day he was elected.
Lee’s life has been like a Horatio Alger book. It’s the type of story that drew immigrants to America, and that politicians love to tell: born to poor Chinese immigrants in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, his father was a veteran who died when Lee was young. Lee walked up winter hills to help earn money for the family at a laundromat or to wash dishes in a restaurant; his friends remember him as a happy kid, nicknamed “Brillo Head” because he had thick, wiry hair. He never let on that his family struggled, and he played the role of the self-effacing foreign kid who eased tension with a laugh, saying he was related to Bruce Lee or Robert E. Lee.
“I always felt, you know, I’m gonna get out of here,” Lee said of his poor roots.
It’s the type of success story that really made David Lee pause, look at his own, similar path, and decide to run for office.
David Lee – no relation, (there are believed to be at least 10,000 Lees in San Francisco) – has worked and volunteered in San Francisco’s Richmond neighborhood for more than 20 years. His father is from China, his wife, who he met while volunteering to register Chinese voters, is too.
Richmond is a small community – more than 40 percent Asian, according the U.S. Census Bureau. David was the Executive Director of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee but he had never thought of running for political office.
“It happened all of a sudden,” his wife, Jing Lee, said. “Suddenly we made a bunch of phone calls.”
David is running for the District 1 Supervisor seat in San Francisco. He said he wanted to run because he spoke with people who were unsatisfied with the current supervisor. But it was also Mayor Lee, who David has worked with in the past, and who beat him once at a game of ping pong – “You don’t even see the hands, like, pow, that came from Ed?” – who motivated David to put his name on the ballot.
The current supervisor, Eric Mar, is also of Chinese decent. David said that seeing Lee win made him realize that the Chinese community needs to be better at stepping up into politics, even if it’s to displace a fellow Chinese-American candidate.
David and his wife drove through one of the main streets in Richmond recently. In the console of their gold minivan was a lopsided ceramic bowl that only a loving mother would show off.; the back seat was full of office supplies. David stopped at a stop sign and two elderly Asian men crossed while a third hobbled slowly by, stabbing his cane at the ground. David smiled and said, “See, there are almost all senior citizens out here.”
David worries about the elderly in Richmond being hit by cars. Some of the intersections are six lanes across, and at the rate the hobbling, cane-stabbing man moved, David is going to need to lobby for much longer crossing lights.
David had just come from voting in California’s primary election at the civic center. By noon, he was only the 35th person to vote there. The 36th walked in as David inked his name on the outside of the ballot and dropped it in the box as his doting wife photographed it all – given his history in registering the Chinese community, of (which, he said voter turnout had doubled since he started 20 years ago), David looked disappointed.
As the two continued their drive back from the polling center, Jing pointed to a boarded up storefront, cardboard in the windows and the inscrutable art from a spray can on its side.
“…every single block now – here’s another.” He had said earlier of the vacant buildings.
Both David and Mayor Lee went to colleges on the East Coast; both have long histories of civic service – Mayor Lee worked with the Asian Law Caucus in the ‘80s, defending immigrant-housing rights. David has sat on several community boards, and worked with a group that held educational classes on pedestrian safety.
When David asked Mayor Lee for advice about running an election, he said Lee told him “ to be genuine with people and put the community first.”
Mayor Lee said he doesn’t think about the legacy he’ll leave behind, whether it’s the new basketball stadium or his fiscal solutions – he also has a biography now in the San Francisco Public Library, next to those two relatives he told friends in jest he was related to: Robert E. Lee and Bruce Lee.
But to many young Asian-Americans, and to David, the Mayor has already left an indelible legacy.
David’s wife dropped him off on the street and she took the car to run some errands around Chinatown. David walked back to his office where his campaign posters tell residents to vote for him in English and Chinese. Inside the office the optimism of grass roots politics is almost as tangible as those speeding cars driving by outside that David worries so much about.
The bike messengers gathered at “The Wall” on the corner of Sansome and Sutter streets in San Francisco know who the real enemy is. The enemy is the nine-to-five bicycle jock, the “Super Commuter.”
Bike messengers have been targets of misdirected scorn, they say, because of an accident last April where a 71-year-old man was killed when a bicyclist blew a red light and plowed into him while crossing a street at the intersection of Market and Castro. The man was taken to the hospital but died four days later.
It’s bad enough as a bike messenger. The pay can range from minimum wage, to strictly commission – which ranges widely but is around $8 a delivery – and a lucky few who work as legal couriers get a base daily pay. Few have insurance in a job where taking a spill is the norm. Not to mention drivers treat you with ire and loathing, as if you were a pigeon in the road expected to move or be crushed.
“We get the spear head of the vitriol because we’re at the front,” said Mike Rabdau, part owner of Godspeed Courier service.
From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. messenger line up against “The Wall,” which, like it sounds, is a circular, stone wall. The messengers wait for jobs to come over their radio and the dispatchers all seem to have the same voice, which sounds like someone speaking into tin foil.
Nathan Gray has been a messenger for 10 years. Gray and the others meet here nearly everyday – messengers can by cliquey that way, he said. Most men at The Wall dressed in similar colors and Gray looked more like he was in a motorcycle gang than a messenger, with a black, cut off jean jacket with patches and slicked back, greaser style hair. His friend Smerf – many messengers only go by nicknames they’re given by other messengers – wore black shorts and a sweater and had dread locks.
As the messengers stand and wait for a calls to come over their radios, the enemy rode by. The enemy is colorful. He’s riding an expensive looking bicycle. He is not looking where he’s going and, as Gray stared at him, charged down the street weaving in between the cars.
And as the enemy did this, Gray shouted out the other name messengers have for the enemy: the first is Spandex, the other is a feminine hygiene product that ends with Bag.
“A lot of us have been doing this for a long time and we’re more experienced and this is our job,” Gray said. “This is our bread and butter.”
There have been two pedestrians killed in the last year by bicycles. The first was Dionette Cherney who was killed when a bicyclist ran a light and hit the 68-year-old woman. The second was Sutchi Hui in April.
The man who charged with manslaughter for the death of the pedestrian was on his way back from a meeting with a bicycle enthusiast group called the Mission Cycling club. This is the enemy Gray speaks of. He said they’re the sport bicyclist who think they’re entitled to the road.
Since the pedestrian was killed, Gray said the police have been hounding him and some of he others. They don’t cut through Union Square anymore because they say the police have laid down a trap to catch riders who don’t stop at the sign.
Blowing red lights is common but depends on the messenger.
“Absolute discretion,” Gray said. You really shouldn’t but if you do, you want to make sure it’s clear of people and cars. But with what’s been going on right now, I really don’t anymore.”
But others like Rabdau feel it goes with the territory of working on a bike and being on a deadline.
“I’ll run a stop sign if there are no cars there – no problem, every time,” he said. “But I’ll always yield for cars or other people around me.”
Market Street is the busiest bike commuter street in the city. The 2011 bicycle count report said that there has been a 71 percent increase in the amount of bicycles on the road in the past six years, with more than 75,000 bike trips each day.
Just down Market street is another messenger hang out, called One Post on the corner of Post and Montgomery street. The messengers here talked too of the enemy. They talked and pointed as the spandex clad riders drove by. They pointed even as they lit joints and drank beer from brown bags.
The messenger at The Wall are different, though, Gray said. “Down at One Post they’re really into the bike messenger lifestyle.”