I was crossing the Golden Gate Bridge when I saw a bumper sticker that made me literally laugh out loud: “God Hates Facts.” For most of us in the Bay Area, science denialism brings up images of the religious right. But since moving here I’ve become acquainted with the left-wing variety of sanctimonious, emotion-driven reality denialists. And Dean Preston is a perfect example.
Watching Preston debate his opponents for this November’s District 5 Supervisor election was a case study in how moralizing and populism are truly cross-ideological pastimes. District 5 includes part of the Inner Sunset, the Panhandle, Lower Pacific Heights, Japantown, the Fillmore, Hayes Valley, Western Addition, and the Haight.
The tenant defense lawyer and founder of Tenants Together lost to Breed in 2016. Now he’s running against Ryan Solomon and Supervisor Vallie Brown as self-described Democratic Socialist. “Bernie [Sanders] opened the door for all of us who have those beliefs and values to talk about [socialism],” Preston said.
Despite his avowed Socialism, there’s one kind of wealth Preston refuses to even try to redistribute: home equity.
Preston has promised to focus on homelessness and the housing crisis. "The biggest issues to people I talk with in District 5 are housing, affordability, fear of displacement, and homelessness," Preston said. And he claims he’ll make waves. “I'm not going to call for incremental change when we're addressing a crisis,” Preston said.
But when it comes to solving the crisis, the only solutions Preston has to offer are faith-based.
For example, Preston somehow believes that building more homes won’t lower rents. “I mean, you just go south of market in San Francisco and look at any residential building — it'll be half-empty,” Preston told Salon. In reality, a 2014 SPUR analysis shows that San Francisco has a lower vacancy rate than comparable cities, even though those comparable cities have much lower average rents.
“The policy experts who look at it, I think, understand that adding an unaffordable housing [unit] to San Francisco's housing market does not make housing more affordable,” Preston said. “We had trickle-down economics under Reagan, and it didn't work then. It doesn't work now.”
Preston may believe that policy experts don’t think more housing lowers average rents, but he’s incorrect. And not just a little incorrect. There is wide agreement among economists that building more housing eases displacement pressures and lowers rents regionally. We actually have a real-world example of it working in Seattle.
Preston also believes, for some reason, that, “San Francisco is a shining example of the complete and utter failure of the free market address housing needs.” Which is odd, because San Francisco’s housing market is the most heavily regulated in the country.
Dean Preston claims that “housing needs to be a human right.” And he’s promised that as Supervisor, “I'm committed to doing everything I can to make that a reality in San Francisco.”
He’s willing to do everything except, of course, the one thing that will make housing more affordable for everyone.
Preston opposed SB50, which would have resulted in more affordable housing units in San Francisco and raised money for the city through impact fees, saying it was “a gift to developers which only makes sense if you believe in trickle-down housing economics.” He also tried to block 186 new apartments by requiring that at least a full third of units be offered at below-market rates.
So if Preston won’t support building more homes in San Francisco, what’s his radical plan for solving the housing crisis? According to the Examiner, Preston thinks rent control “has been and continues to be the main tool that should be used to create and keep people in their homes.” Preston also wants to max out transit impact fees paid by developers.
Sometimes strong religious belief can obstruct a person’s ability to see the other side of an issue. I would know. I grew up firmly in the Religious Right, with typical evangelical Christian views on abortion, welfare, and immigration. Over time empathy and evidence have changed my mind.
In his book Generation Priced Out, Preston’s former boss Randy Shaw describes changing his mind about housing after looking at the evidence. It finally became undeniable to him that we will never solve the housing crisis without building a lot of new housing.
Everything about Preston’s record suggests he empathizes with people who need housing. And everything Preston’s said indicates he doesn’t understand the evidence on housing.
“The idea that just dumping market rate units here that are only affordable to millionaires — that that's going to solve the housing crisis — is really absurd,” Preston told Salon. “And I don't think it's very serious from a policy perspective.”
No one is proposing building only market-rate housing in San Francisco. First of all, San Francisco’s inclusionary zoning requirements make that illegal. And no one is saying building more market rate-housing will solve the crisis. The whole point of building more housing is that it lowers the market rate. Ideally, you build until you have more units than people to live in them. At that point, it’s affordable for everyone but the lowest-income residents, who can then afford housing with some government assistance.
If this sounds like a pipe dream, you’ve likely adopted the fatalist view of San Francisco politicians like former Supervisor Jane Kim, who once asserted that private housing would never again be affordable to middle-income households in the city.
And then you’re in deep trouble: if you’re resigned to never bringing the construction costs for publicly subsidized affordable housing below $800,000 per unit, even the most ambitious funding plans are doomed to fail. Are San Francisco progressives willing to find a way to divvy up the city’s scarce, expensive land more equitably, or are they just going to keep burning strawmen?
Asserting that housing is a human right must be accompanied by serious proposals for where and how to build more housing. Preston’s plans are scarce on details, financially short-sighted, and wholly uninterested in tackling the city’s deep-rooted geographic segregation.
Another drawback of fervent religious belief is that it can encourage people to make enemies out of their ideological opponents, keeping them from seeing their perceived enemies accurately.
Dean Preston seems to suffer this derangement when talking about the YIMBY movement.
“I think in San Francisco, ‘YIMBY’ is just another word for developer,” Preston told Salon. Perhaps Preston is unaware that California YIMBY, the lead sponsor of SB50, supported tenant protections, Costa Hawkins reform, Article 34 repeal, and a tenant’s right to organize. Or perhaps that information doesn’t fit within his belief system.
Preston’s problems with YIMBY and the truth extend to misattributing a quote to YIMBY leader Sonja Trauss - a quote which actually came from a columnist who is frequently critical of Trauss. When alerted to the error on Twitter Preston declined to respond or correct his article.
District 5 voters got a flyer promoting Preston saying, “Rethink what’s Possible. Dean Preston, Democratic Socialist for Supervisor.”
Rethinking what’s possible is great. Living in the realm of fantasy is not. Turns out God and Dean Preston have something in common. They both seem to hate facts.
Cathy Reisenwitz writes about software for a living, sex on the side, and policy for fun. Her column “Unintended Consequences” appears regularly in the Bay City Beacon. She’s pro-sex, pro-feminism, and pro-market. Sign up for her newsletter and follow her on Twitter.
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