With new powers, SF Mayor London Breed-supervisors clash over coronavirus homeless response

San Francisco Chronicle, April 16, 2020

By Trisha Thadani


For weeks, members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors haggled with Mayor London Breed’s office over how many hotel rooms the city should lease for the homeless during the coronavirus outbreak — and who should be allowed to occupy them. Recognizing the importance of keeping an appearance of City Hall unity before a jittery public, the supervisors involved said they were careful early in the crisis not to criticize the mayor’s plans. Instead, they negotiated privately, trying to persuade the mayor to lease hundreds more hotel rooms than her departments planned to and loosen the requirements for which homeless people could move into them. But the mayor’s strategy for moving the homeless indoors kept changing, and the supervisors weren’t getting what they wanted. Criticism from the board intensified as more than 100 people tested positive for COVID-19 in the city’s largest homeless shelter — a number that threatens to unravel the progress San Francisco has made in “flattening the curve.” Breed said she has been moving as fast as possible to move people indoors, but enraged supervisors and homeless advocates said the city’s executive branch could have taken more immediate measures to avoid such a cluster of infection.


“From the get-go, I have not agreed with the mayor’s office of their handling of the homeless crisis within the larger COVID-19 crisis,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen said Tuesday before the Board of Supervisors passed an emergency ordinance forcing the city to procure those additional hotel rooms. “If I don’t go public with my disagreement with the mayor’s office, then I am not doing my job as a supervisor.” As the coronavirus throws more challenges at San Francisco nearly every day, City Hall’s normally unwieldy and complex decision-making process has been largely centralized into two people: the mayor and county Health Officer Tomás Aragón. Armed with the power of an emergency order, they have been able to enact previously unthinkable policies — like ordering the entire city to shelter in place — on their own. As mayor, Breed has been the face of the city’s response, while Aragón has largely stayed out of the public eye. The pandemic has suddenly given the mayor broad powers to steer San Francisco in a manner and direction that she sees fit — amounting to perhaps the biggest test Breed will face in leading the city, where a public health crisis, a housing crisis and a homelessness crisis have all collided into one. In an interview Wednesday with The Chronicle, Breed hit back against any criticism she has received over her response to the outbreak’s impact on the city’s homeless population. “If you want to be mayor you can’t be concerned about criticism,” she said. “Especially when you are working hard every single day to do a good job for the people.”


Under the emergency declaration, the Board of Supervisors can accept or reject the mayor’s orders, either in part or in their entirety, but cannot propose any orders of their own. So far the board has not rejected any of the mayor’s 10 orders.


While the board has mostly stepped aside, that has begun to shift as the crisis deepens and supervisors assert their independence. “This is why we have separation of powers,” Ronen added Tuesday. Breed declared the emergency in February. The order gives her the power to redirect the personnel and money of any department and “do whatever else the mayor may deem necessary to meet the emergency,” according to the City Charter. Her orders include slashing the amount of time it takes to hire a nurse and a moratorium on small business evictions. Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors retains its regular powers to enact legislation. But, amid a rapidly changing pandemic, there’s a major flaw in those powers: Even an expedited emergency ordinance takes more than a week to enact. To make themselves heard, the board had initially turned to resolutions to “urge” the mayor and her departments to take actions — from increasing benefits for grocery workers to opening more public bathrooms. But resolutions have no legislative teeth. It was a notable shift in the power dynamics of City Hall, where the board has enjoyed a progressive majority over the moderate mayor for the past year. If they didn’t agree with her on an issue, the supervisors could often conjure enough votes to get their way. “In an emergency, unity is important not only for public perception but also for doing the things that need to be done in the most efficient way,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said. “There is no time for bickering. And I think everyone gets that.”


Over the past month, the mayor and her departments have worked with the board on many of their requests — like releasing more data about the local spread of the virus to the public, placing a cap on how much third-party delivery companies can charge restaurants, allowing cannabis businesses to stay open and placing a moratorium on small business evictions. “It’s helpful to push. I call every day,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. “The mayor has been very willing to compromise and find funding for people’s priorities, listen and be responsive.” Breed has been applauded nationally for the city’s swift and aggressive response to the pandemic. But locally, she has also received intense criticism over the inconsistent response to the vunerability of the homeless population — and the supervisors decided that “urging” her on the homelessness issue was simply not enough. At issue is how many hotel rooms the city should lease to house the city’s 8,000-plus homeless population, and frontline workers who need a place to quarantine. The Human Services Agency is currently working on leasing 7,000 hotel rooms for homeless people who have tested positive, were directly exposed to the virus or are at risk because they are older than 60 or have health conditions. Frontline workers and those who live in dense apartments where they can’t properly distance from others would also qualify for a room. So far the city has secured about 2,000 rooms, and nearly 800 homeless people have been moved into them. Breed has maintained that it simply isn’t that easy to move more people into the rooms faster, as the city also needs to provide the people inside the hotels with food, security, cleaning services and case management for those struggling with mental illness and addiction.


But the board stood firm, saying there needs to be far more hotel rooms for the homeless and that those who can care for themselves should be allowed into the rooms — not just those who meet the conditions set out by the mayor and public health and homelessness officials. “We’ve been doing everything we can to partner, to urge, to pass resolutions to demand, and frankly it has not happened quick enough,” District Six Supervisor Matt Haney said. The board unanimously passed an ordinance that will force the city to lease more than 8,250 hotel rooms for homeless people and health care workers by April 26. The city is still working out the details on how to implement the new plan. The mayor can choose to veto the legislation. But with a two-thirds vote — which likely will be easy to gather — the board can override her veto. When asked Wednesday if the supervisors’ plan was realistic, Breed swiftly answered: “No.” “We all want the same things,” she said. “But there is the desire and then there is the reality.”

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