Analysis

Housing is core issue in SF’s Wiener-Fielder Senate race

Housing in a San Francisco neighborhood. (Photo: Bertl 123, via Shutterstock)

While most electoral contests in San Francisco are a fierce fight, incumbents up for reelection tend to have an easy run. A year ago, few thought that Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener, a veteran San Francisco politician, would have difficulty defending his Senate District 11 seat.

But when activist and first-time candidate Jackie Fielder came in second in the spring primary – 33% to Wiener’s 56% — people started to comment on the race.

In San Francisco, housing is so important an issue that it defines local Democrats.

Media coverage emerged comparing Fielder, a woman in her 20s who has never held elective office, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive House Democrat from the Bronx who defeated 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley, a powerful Democrat in New York and in the House.

Some reporting pointed to Wiener’s progressive voting record in the Senate, or to San Francisco’s penchant for pushing candidates to the left of established progressives. The tone of the reporting was: “Wiener supports transgender rights and criminal justice reform. Sure, Fielder is gay but so is Wiener. Why the challenge? Crazy! Only in San Francisco!

But this challenge is more serious. Why? The answer lies in the issue that Wiener is most closely associated with: housing.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, there is no issue more important than housing. A December 2019 report by the San Francisco Foundation (SFF) reported that 79% of Bay Area residents who responded to a SFF survey identified housing as their No. 1 issue. Fifty-seven percent added that affordable housing is “extremely important.”  Recent polling by the business-oriented Silicon Valley Leadership Group and Bay Area Council also shows housing affordability to be a high concern.

In San Francisco, housing is so important an issue that it defines local Democrats. Progressives or Left Democrats are seen as representative of renters and middle-income residents. Moderate Democrats, which in San Francisco includes Wiener, are seen as allies of the real estate lobby (brokers, developers, builders, land use attorneys, public relations firms working for developers, among others) and Big Tech.

In 2010, Wiener was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors with support from San Francisco’s real estate lobby. When he ran for reelection in 2014, real estate interests were his top contributors, accounting for 41% of the campaign cash. It is a pattern that has followed Wiener into the Senate.

Fielder’s $1,000-plus donors made up only 6.8% of her total backers, but they kicked in 46.4% of her total contributions.

A Capitol Weekly analysis of Scott Wiener’s campaign contributions from the first two quarters of 2020 shows that little has changed in the senator’s fundraising patterns, according to financial disclosure documents filed with the state. Of the $1,110,296.82 that Wiener collected, 30.6% came from the real estate lobby. Wiener’s second biggest money source came from tech (15.4%), followed by labor unions (11.3%). One-third of the money from labor came from unions representing the building trades.

Fifty-one percent of Wiener’s money came from within Wiener’s Senate district.  Capitol Weekly found that 35.4% of the in-district contributions were from the real estate lobby, 23.5% from tech, and 10.7% from the financial services industry.

Contributions originating from the rest of California show 28.4% from the real estate lobby, with another 23.6% coming from labor. Far behind the top two are energy (mostly business in solar) at 7.3%, tech at 7.1%, and healthcare at 5.6%.

During the first two quarters of 2020, 34.1% of Wiener’s contributors gave his campaign $1,000 or more. This made up 83.2% of the $1.1 million contributed to Wiener.  While 23% of Wiener’s contributions were $100 or less, these small contributions came from only 2.2% of his supporters.

Miscellaneous wage workers in hospitality, retail and the arts, among others, contributed 15.1% of Fielder’s money.

In contrast, of the $289,198 that Fielder raised in the first two quarters of 2020, 39.9% came from supporters who contributed $100 or less, comprising about 10.3% of her total campaign dollars. Fielder’s $1,000-plus donors made up only 6.8% of her total backers, but they kicked in 46.4% of her total contributions.

About 38.3% of Fielder’s contributions comes from the tech industry, about 81% of them workers, who each gave $500 or less.

Miscellaneous wage workers in hospitality, retail and the arts, among others, contributed 15.1% of Fielder’s money. She also shows support from people who work for non-profits, particularly those advocating for renters, affordable housing, and poverty rights (7.8%). Most of the rest of her support is scattered among teachers, university professors, and civil servants.

During the first and second quarters, Fielder received about two-thirds of her campaign cash — 65.8% — from within District 11, compared with Wiener, who received about half, or 51.4%.

The California Teachers Association, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and the California Faculty Association are among her union support.

Of Fielder’s in-district contributions, 41.4% of the money came from tech workers, 12.7% from other workers, 8.4% from civil servants, and 6.8% from people working in non-profits. Only $1,893 or 1% of Fielder’s in-district contributions came from the real estate sector, specifically from a broker, a project manager, a property manager, a leasing consultant, and a real estate marketer. None of Fielder’s contributors from real estate pitched in more than $500.

The breakdown of Wiener and Fielder’s campaign contributions from the first half of 2020 reflects the under-reported issue in the race: housing.

Fielder has made the lack of affordable housing in San Francisco the centerpiece of her campaign. As reflected in campaign finance data, she has been rewarded for her emphasis with support from renters and workers struggling with housing in the nation’s most expensive rental market. She also has received the endorsement of the San Francisco Tenants Union, San Francisco Affordable Housing Alliance, Our Revolution, Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club, and other progressive groups.

The California Teachers Association, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and the California Faculty Association are among her union support.

Fielder’s support might confuse those who see Wiener as a housing advocate due to his authorship of SB 50 and SB 87, bills that would have streamlined local housing ordinances. Critics of Wiener’s bills, including San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, contended Wiener’s “trickle down” solution to the housing crisis would create what San Francisco does not need – more luxury and market-rate apartments and condos.

Those supporting Wiener’s bills include his longtime backers, a variety of real estate interests and their allied political action committees. Those include the Southern California Rental Housing Association PAC, the San Francisco Apartment Association PAC, the California Real Estate PAC, the California Building Industry Association PAC, and the Apartment Associations of Great Los Angeles.

Wiener is also supported by the building trade unions, a host of developers and construction firms, and Govern for California, a political group funded by those in the finance, real estate, tech and inheritance sectors.

San Franciscans might agree on issues of LGBT rights, criminal justice reform, and the climate crisis, but on the important issues of housing there is a great divide.

On one side are those who believe that the market is the best way to approach the crisis. On the other are those fearful that a market approach to housing will lead to their eviction from San Francisco. That Jackie Fielder presents a challenge to Scott Wiener’s reelection is a comment on both the fears of many San Franciscans and their loathing of the real estate lobby.

In 2015, the Legislative Analysts Office wrote, “housing in California is extremely expensive. Many households struggle to find housing that is affordable and meets their needs.” A March 2020 report by the San Francisco Planning Commission reads, “Perhaps no issue facing San Francisco today is more pressing than rising housing costs and lack of housing affordable at low- and moderate-incomes.”

Gov. Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, in a pre-pandemic speech to 1,300 attendees at a Sacramento business breakfast, said “Housing is our great challenge. It was a trend line in 1991; it is a glaring headline today.”

Resolving the problem, he said, is “a question of political will.”


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