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Moral Inferiority 

S.F. Democrats have talked "values" for years, but it's all been empty talk. To make a national comeback, Demos need to concentrate on moral works.

Wednesday, Nov 17 2004
At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 2, I pulled off the Embarcadero near the Ferry Building and sat silently with my mother, listening to election returns on the radio.

About a quarter of exit poll respondents said their most pressing concern was "moral values," a National Public Radio commentator explained, and these people voted mostly for George Bush. This poll question was drafted to capture the right-wing evangelical preoccupation with abortion, homosexuality, and racy images on television. My mom, a Tehama County Methodist pastor visiting the city for the day, leaned her chin into her hands as we listened, scowled, and said, "Those aren't moral values."

Editorialists chimed in during the next few days, announcing a crisis of public relations in which left-friendly concepts such as mercy, tolerance, and concern for the poor had somehow slipped from the public's conception of morality.

Though the relevancy of the "moral values" poll question was debunked in a subsequent Pew Research poll, pundits and politicos cranked the fretting up a notch nonetheless: "Democrats need to find a better way to talk about the moral underpinnings of their policies," said a syndicated Knight Ridder editorial typical of the tens of thousands of hits the terms "Democrats" and "Moral Values" produced on the Nexis news database in the days following the Nov. 2 election.

San Francisco Rabbi Michael Lerner, reputedly a "moral values" adviser to Hillary Clinton, joined the chorus in a widely distributed column that claimed "liberals, trapped in a longstanding disdain for religion and tone-deaf to the spiritual needs that underlie the move to the right, have been unable to engage these voters in a serious dialogue relevant to their yearnings for meaning."

Bless the liberal prophets' fretful hearts, but this is bunk, and not because pollsters' "moral values" numbers may have been misleading. Rather, the left wing of the Democratic Party -- a wing epitomized in the minds of American heartlanders by San Francisco -- has long talked a blue streak about moral values. Yet in this city, a symbol of progressive politics, it's been empty talk.

Liberal values of the Christian kind rely heavily on Isaiah 58, which invokes truly moral people to "share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house." Yet San Francisco is a city that shuns outsiders -- listen to neighborhood debates protesting the construction of new apartments if you have any doubt about this. This same, widespread anti-housing attitude has made it so expensive to live here that people earning less than an upper-class income are either driven away or pushed into poverty. For all San Francisco's vaunted liberal social programs and talk of more to come, the steady opposition by neighborhood groups and others to new apartment projects puts the lie to liberal moral values here, religious or otherwise.

"We've become a city that's turned on itself," says Adam Kruggel, organizer for the San Francisco Organizing Project, an Excelsior District group that unites 40 of the city's religious congregations around scripturally guided social issues such as housing. "Each sector of the city is turned on each other because of the lack of housing."

Politicos, particularly progressive ones, already wear their concern for the poor, the downtrodden, the working class, on their sleeves. But the talk has, for decades now, rung hollow in a city with the most shameful homelessness problem in the country and a refusal to solve a housing shortage that indirectly, but viciously, preys on the poor, the downtrodden, and the working class.

In such a context, "moral values" talk becomes the sort of hot air known in places such as Ohio as elitist hectoring, which is pretty much the last thing anybody needs more of.

I spent last Wednesday morning with Kruggel, sipping coffee and reflecting on moral values in San Francisco. Among the religious liberals (and many secular humanists), the most important moral issues are included in what Catholics call "works of mercy," which Christians undertake to comfort the afflicted, feed the hungry, harbor the harborless, visit the sick, instruct the ignorant, bear wrongs patiently, and forgive offenses willingly. There isn't a political speech in San Francisco that doesn't touch on most of these concepts.

Yet the San Francisco that Kruggel describes is not kind to the least of God's children. Families with children can't afford apartments here, so they move elsewhere. The elderly can't afford to live here, so they, too, find rooms where they can. And then there are those who fail to find a roof and make do without one.

"San Francisco has the lowest amount of children and families of other cities in California. It has half the average of the Bay Area. We have one of the biggest crises in homelessness anywhere, which is one of the challenges to being a city for all, and having any kind of social justice in the city," Kruggel said. Thanks to the city's housing shortage, which Kruggel sees as the most important issue facing San Francisco Christians, "we literally have examples of grandchildren evicting their grandparents, or brothers allowing their sisters to live in basements and garages. It's a function of a larger scarcity. It's important that congregations provide leadership on this issue.

"I don't know any other issue that divides the city more severely. Whether it's owners and renters, homeless and people with homes, most of the essential divides in the city are related to housing."

For the past year or so Kruggel had been organizing his religious troops to advocate for a $200 million housing bond that failed to earn the required two-thirds majority on the Nov. 2 ballot. Before that, the congregations had been waging what they call a "YIMBY" campaign, rallying churchgoers to attend Planning Department meetings and shout, "Yes in My Back Yard," when apartment complexes were proposed, in opposition to homeowners' groups that crowd the same meetings to say, "Not in My Back Yard." These churchgoers in still-barely-blue-collar neighborhoods such as the Excelsior have watched the city's housing situation destabilize their communities as a lack of new apartments has caused wealthier people to move to blue-collar neighborhoods, bidding up rents and home prices and displacing long-term residents, forcing them into substandard living conditions. Where Excelsior churchgoers might in years past have raised money for the starving in Africa, they are now devoting evenings to government meetings, fighting on behalf of apartment developers. The starving Africans have been supplanted by San Francisco families with babies, living two to three families in small apartments, or in cars, or garages. Kruggel described one local war veteran who recently was found near death from cold because he couldn't afford to live anywhere but in an unheated garage.

One YIMBY-backed project, a federally subsidized, 36-unit apartment building on Mission Street in the Crocker Amazon neighborhood, recently received 1,600 applications from low-income seniors desperate for an affordable place to live out their sunset years. The building will be completed within the next month or so, after years of rancorous protest from neighbors who didn't want it near their homes.

"We had the specter of seniors fighting against other seniors," Kruggel said, describing the years of planning meetings where elderly homeowners claimed the low-income elder residents would degrade property values. "There were meetings where people stood up and accused people of issuing death threats. Other people said this was going to bring everybody over here from Geneva Towers. It was supposedly going to bring riffraff into the neighborhood, cause parking problems. Even though this was proposed as a senior housing development, it got blown out of proportion."

Since those meetings five years ago, enough churchgoers have stood up in public and denounced San Francisco's housing shortage as a moral scourge that it's now become gauche to openly oppose apartments per se. NIMBYs instead use euphemisms -- they talk about parking problems, aesthetic and architectural considerations, or neighborhood compatibility to say new apartments shouldn't be built.

Kruggel would like to push this subtle shift even further.

"For us the lack of housing and the crisis of affordability in the city, that's the essential moral crisis in the city. If that's not what the faith community needs to stand up to, I don't know what is," he said.

In San Francisco there's no shortage of political talk about "moral values."

In July, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Supervisor Chris Daly saying that helping the homeless and working poor is "our moral obligation." A month later Daly attempted to halt the development of 1,000 apartments, a fifth of them subsidized for lower-income residents, in the Mission District.

"The increasing cost of housing has resulted in many working families, seniors, disabled folks, people with AIDS, people of color, artists, students, and others being forced to leave our city because they can no longer afford to live here," wrote Supervisor Jake McGoldrick in an editorial for a Richmond District newspaper.

McGoldrick supported Daly's measure to halt housing in the Mission, part of a four-year legacy of siding with NIMBY groups that oppose new apartment buildings.

Mayor Gavin Newsom has said in speeches that our housing shortage hurts mentally ill people on the streets as well as struggling nurses and teachers, proclaiming that 2004 would be the Year of Housing on his political agenda.

In May, in response to requests from NIMBY-packed neighborhood associations, the mayor instructed his planning staff to remove language from city housing plans that would call, among other things, for increased height and density of apartment buildings along transit corridors and decreased parking requirements for some developments.

This kind of contradiction is common, not because left-wing politicians are natural hypocrites, but because liberal values -- the kinds of values Kruggel suggested I look up in Isaiah 58 -- require sacrifice.

In San Francisco, a city with a housing shortage of about 30,000 apartments, "bringing the homeless poor into your house" can mean seeing a new apartment building go up in your neighborhood, and accepting that the building, during certain times of year, might cast a shadow over your yard. It can mean having a more difficult time parking your car when additional neighbors occupy new apartments. And hewing to the morals of true Christianity can sometimes mean living near people poorer than you when subsidized apartments are built in upscale neighborhoods.

Hundreds of San Francisco churchgoers in congregations allied with the San Francisco Organizing Project believe the human toll of the city's housing crisis is so great that it's worth making real sacrifices to change. They think saying, "Yes in My Back Yard," to a new apartment building is a duty to the underprivileged, even if -- or, perhaps, because -- that means some underprivileged people will now live in the neighborhood.

They've come to realize that we don't need more moralizing to burnish the liberal creed. We need more good works based in morality.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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