- Photo by David Rolland
Spend some time with Bob Filner and you’ll find he’s an impatient man. A week after being elected as San Diego’s next mayor, and three weeks before his Dec. 3 swearing-in, he showed up to a Metropolitan Transit System committee meeting to speak in favor of free passes for students who rely on public transportation to get to school but whose families struggle to afford a monthly $36 youth pass.
Free bus passes for low-income students—something community groups have long been pushing without much success—was a small piece of Filner’s mayoral platform; while the passes aren’t a done deal, the fact that the mayor-elect showed up to the meeting got people’s attention.
Murtaza Baxamusa, director of planning and development for San Diego Building Trades, describes it as a “new populist paradigm.”
“Public agencies are scrambling to put alternative proposals on the table—on youth, on transit, on good jobs, on environmental justice, on solving homelessness, on veterans affairs, on border relations and on sustainability—that were not even considered seriously a month ago,” Baxamusa says in an email. “Their leaders are bracing for a Filneresque line of reasoning, questioning, organizing, advocating and voting.”
When he takes office, Filner will be the first Democratic mayor in San Diego in two decades and, arguably, the most politically progressive in the city’s history. He’s promised a culture change at City Hall, where people who’ve felt shut out will now be welcome participants.
If Filner’s supporters were looking for a theme song, Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” would fit the bill: “It’s a new dawn / It’s a new day.”
For this story, CityBeat got in touch with a half-dozen people working in affordable housing, smart growth, environmental protection and social and economic justice who were less than thrilled by Mayor Jerry Sanders’ tenure. We asked what they hope Filner will accomplish. While progressives have applauded Sanders’ ardent support for gay marriage and his introduction of car-sharing and bikesharing programs to the city, they’ve been displeased with things like his Downtown-centric approach to development and economic policies that often favor private enterprise over the public good.
“It was a brutal eight years,” says Nicole Capretz, a coordinator with the Environmental Health Coalition. “That is why having Filner in office is so surreal.”
Development: As part of his “10 Goals” for San Diego, Mayor Dick Murphy rolled out the “City of Villages” concept in 2002—an urban-renewal strategy that envisioned San Diego as being made up of smaller “villages,” where residents would have easy access to schools, shopping, transit and culture. For obvious reasons—mainly, the city had no money to fund the project—the plan languished.
Howard Blackson, an urban designer with smart-growth-focused firm PlaceMakers, hopes Filner can find a way to revive it. Filner’s promised a neighborhoods-focused approach to revitalization, Blackson says, as opposed to Sanders’ focus on Downtown.
“I think Bob Filner’s neighborhoods-first campaign will allow our city to do a better job of generating economic development and taxes via neighborhood improvements (mix of uses, self-taxing districts, new housing / commercial / industrial) throughout the city than Sanders, who appeared to rely too much on flagship or ‘silver bullet’ projects downtown,” Blackson writes in a email.
Last year, to save money, Sanders got rid of the city’s Planning Department—which had been overseeing the City of Villages project—and shifted planning duties to the Development Services Department. While the building industry applauded the move, saying it would streamline the permitting process, others saw it as undermining the city’s ability to plan for its future.
Blackson says that getting information from Development Services has been difficult.
“While I had access to my local city councilperson, that councilperson did not have access to Development Services Department information and personnel,” he says. “The Mayor’s office disconnected… councilmembers from city-wide data, information and expertise.”
One of Filner’s first appointments was former Councilmember Donna Frye to head a department focused on transparency and open government. Clare Crawford, executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), hopes this will lead to greater community involvement in development and planning processes.
“I am hopeful that we will see City Hall opened up to a wider range of residents who have been overlooked and underinvested in [in] the past, and that communities south of [Interstate] 8 will really begin to see and feel the impact of a government that is seeking and, most importantly, responding, to their input,” she says.
Transportation: Last year, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG)—the agency that handles regional planning— rolled out its 2050 Regional Transportation Plan, intended to guide transportation planning for the next four decades.
And a lot of folks weren’t happy—including state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who rejected the plan for not doing enough to reduce pollution and curb greenhouse-gas emissions. The plan’s now facing a legal challenge.
“Filner came to the SANDAG [Regional Transportation Plan] hearing to advocate for improving public transit and prioritizing it before freeway widening,” says Livia Borak, an environmental attorney and president of the San Diego chapter of the League of Conservation Voters. By comparison, Sanders supported the plan as-is.
“I think Filner will finally be a voice for real public transit,” Borak says, “and advocate for a more aggressive RTP.”
Housing: When the state killed redevelopment earlier this year, with it went affordable housing’s biggest funding source. State law required that redevelopment agencies—like San Diego’s Centre City Development Corp.—set aside 20 percent of their revenues for affordable housing. That money was frequently used to leverage federal low-income-housing tax credits—funding that’s awarded to developers on a competitive basis.
“Most developers score the maximum number of points and then there are tie breakers,” says Susan Tinsky, executive director of San Diego Housing Federation. One of those tie breakers is the amount of money a local government’s pledged toward the project. With the loss of redevelopment, San Diego’s Housing Trust Fund will need to fill that funding gap. Under Sanders, a proposal to augment the trust fund by upping development fees failed; Sanders also successfully expanded San Diego’s enterprise zone—parts of the city where developers are exempt from paying certain impact fees. As a result, the trust fund is millions of dollars under what it could have been.
Tinsky points out that San Francisco just passed a measure to augment its housing trust fund.
“That puts them at an advantage in terms of providing local leverage,” she says. “After many, many tries, we’d love to see the housing trust fund increased, however that’s done, whether it’s linkage fees or some other source. I think there’s a potential for doing that now.”
Filner’s said he’d like to have a dedicated staff person focused on affordable housing. Tinsky knows it’s something that won’t happen right away, “but the lip service alone gives us great hope that there’s potential change in the works,” she says.
Environment: During the campaign, Filner promised to enact a comprehensive, clean-energy plan for the city. Capretz hopes this means he’ll bring in someone to head up this effort.
“We were disappointed in Sanders’ lack of an environmental ‘czar’ in his office and his decision not to make environmental issues and public health a high priority,” she says. “We hope Filner has a cabinet position for environmental and energy issues.”
Capretz points to Sanders’ support for two power plants in designated open-space areas—the North City Power Plant in University City and the Quail Brush Power Plant near Mission Trails Regional Park. The former proposal failed, and while the Quail Brush plant was rejected by the Planning Commission and the City Council, it’s still moving forward at the state level.
“We believe Filner will push for a comprehensive energy policy focused on clean energy and offer new choices for residents in meeting their energy needs,” Capretz says.
Earlier this year, the San Diego County Water Authority raised water rates by 10 percent, a cost that was absorbed by the city instead of being passed on to residents. While this was popular with residents, Borak calls it “shortsighted.”
“It will force the next mayor to… pass on perhaps two rate increases to ratepayers next year,” she says. “This is because Sanders internalized the rate increase with funds available on a one-time basis, which won’t be available in coming years.”
That money could have gone to infrastructure improvements, Borak says, to help reduce water loss.
She’d like to see the new mayor push for a tiered pricing structure that will incentivize conservation.
“I hope Filner will make the tough water-supply decisions that focus on the long-term environmental and fiscal health of the city, instead of forcing the next mayor to deal with it.”
Economy: “There’s a growing body of evidence that economic inequality holds back overall economic growth,” says Crawford of CPI. “My sense is that Filner gets this and will approach economic development in a way that seeks job creation while paying attention to job quality as part of that strategy.”
Crawford points to Downtown’s Tourism Marketing District (TMD), set up by hoteliers to funnel a portion of hotel-room taxes into bringing more tourists to San Diego. Filner has questioned the scheme’s legality.
“Filner has already been public in his opposition to the current funding deal given to TMD to promote the tourism industry—one with notoriously low wages. At a minimum, I believe he will view this huge investment of public dollars as something that would have to be approved by voters.”
Under Sanders, the city’s living-wage law, which requires city contractors to pay $13.77 an hour, or $11.47 plus benefits, has been poorly enforced, Crawford says, due to lack of resources. It took four years to investigate and ultimately debar a contractor who wasn’t complying with the law.
“I imagine the kind of egregious violation of wage and hour laws were not limited to this one contractor,” she says, “but the city dedicates very minimal resources to this kind of enforcement as well as other contractor oversight.”
Last week, the City Council passed the Property Value Protection Ordinance to crack down on banks that allow foreclosed properties to blight the neighborhood and drag down nearby home prices. Filner supported the measure while Sanders opposed it.
“I believe Filner will want to continue having a positive relationship with business,” Crawford says, “but I do think he will be much more willing to take on the bad actors and hold them accountable.”