- Interview by
- Meagan Day
When I met for coffee with Dean Preston, candidate for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he was accompanied by his campaign manager Jen Snyder. Snyder, who like Preston is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, was just then embroiled in a fresh internet controversy. She’d been spotted giving a hearty middle finger to a room full of Democrats, and a photo was making the rounds.
Later, when the San Francisco Examiner asked Snyder what the gesture was meant to signify, she answered, “It was definitely a ‘fuck you.’” Snyder was angry not because the San Francisco Democratic Party declined to endorse Preston — something neither she nor Preston necessarily expected — but because they endorsed his moderate opponent Vallie Brown, deepening Brown’s campaign’s pockets and setting new obstacles in Preston’s path.
Preston’s team had hoped and organized for a non-endorsement. They believed that the endorsement of Brown was a result of pressure applied by pro-business Democrat London Breed, current mayor of San Francisco and former Dean Preston opponent in the race for District 5 supervisor. In short, the Democratic Party had proven its hostility to progressives and democratic socialists yet again. Not a surprise — but a problem nonetheless for the working class of San Francisco.
Preston is a long-time tenant organizer who’s unafraid to agitate against the city’s real estate elite, saying things like, “We can’t continue taking crumbs from developers,” and “If you’re a rogue landlord, we should run you out of town.” I spoke to Preston about democratic socialism, San Francisco’s beleaguered but tenacious working class, the perils of means-testing public services, and what it means to really believe that housing is a human right.
You’re really foregrounding democratic socialism in this campaign. What does it mean to you to call yourself a democratic socialist?
At the start of the campaign, we thought foregrounding democratic socialism might be a big political risk. But my campaign team and I felt really strongly about not running an ambiguous race, where to democratic socialists we are democratic socialists, but to others we’re just Democrats.
What’s been really exciting to see is that we really have not gotten the kind of pushback that I think a lot of pundits and consultants and others would assume that you get. There are certainly people who react negatively to democratic socialism, but they’re not folks, in my opinion, that would have been our core voters anyway. And additionally, it really resonates with many people who’ve then gotten involved in the campaign.
As for what it means, the core of democratic socialism is breaking down the for-profit system on all basic human needs, from housing to education to health care, and then rebuilding something that’s actually controlled by working-class people.
I come out of housing justice work, and for the last twenty years have seen that the capitalist market fails when it comes to housing. And I’ve seen efforts to reform a broken system range from being useless to making things worse. In the housing context, democratic socialism means social housing. It means actually having co-op housing owned by residents, and the rebirth of new forms of public housing, particularly at the municipal level.
When it comes to healthcare, it’s Medicare for All and getting the insurance companies out. And on education, it’s most immediately resisting the charter school movement. Democratic socialism means stopping the outsourcing and privatization of everything from public transportation, education, across the board.
It’s helpful in communicating to people very directly and succinctly where you are in the political landscape. It means you’re not looking for small-scale fixes. You’re looking to actually break down and rebuild a broken system.
Do you see democratic socialism as pointing toward a future society where exploitation of labor is eliminated entirely?
Yes, I think that’s the long-term vision. We have to go beyond decommodifying basic needs toward worker control. Absolutely.
In the electoral arena, I think prioritizing those core basic human needs is the first step in that process. And I think an integral part of that longer-term vision is keeping working-class people who will bring about that change in our urban centers.
So for example, take rent control, which I’ve been fighting for twenty years to expand and protect. There’s a legitimate critique of rent control. It still allows housing to be treated like a commodity in the private market. But my response to that is that in order to get to community land trusts and social housing, you have to actually have a base of working-class people that aren’t being evicted from their homes and displaced.
Speaking of working-class displacement, why is San Francisco so expensive to live in?
Well, it’s a very desirable place to live for many reasons. But more than that, the housing crisis is the result of government policy that has incentivized big business interests, particularly tech, since the nineties. This government policy has focused on bringing capital and money and wealthy people into San Francisco, with no policy balancing that out by actually providing options for working-class people to live in the city. The city has relied primarily on the creation of market-rate housing as the way to house an influx of new people, and has not prioritized affordable housing, much less social housing.
You look around San Francisco, and it’s obvious that working-class people still live here. You run the risk of throwing in the towel too early if you erase the fact that the city still has a huge working-class population. But obviously displacement is a huge issue. What are the consequences of displacement?
I agree with that assessment. There’s still a huge working class in San Francisco. The displacement is widely reported on, and for good reason, but what doesn’t make headlines is the working class that’s holding on despite all odds. They’re here.
One of the best things about running for office is that you meet all of those people who are not in the headlines, who haven’t been displaced. Many of them live in District 5, where I’m running. They are long-term rent control tenants, and public housing, subsidized housing, and cooperative housing residents. A few are also long-term homeowners who bought homes when working-class people could actually buy a home in San Francisco. So the battle for San Francisco is not over at all.
But we’re approaching a kind of tipping point. Like in the climate change context, we talk about how after ten more years of this, there’s no going back. Socially, in terms of having a working class here in San Francisco, we’re in a similar situation. We’re not there right now, but we’re pretty close to tipping over into a downward slide.
As for the consequences of displacement, you know, the things that make San Francisco a great city are under threat along with its working class. The artists and musicians and the diverse communities of color are disproportionately at risk. And one part of the dynamic of displacement in the Bay Area is that the entire region is suffering from a similar crisis. In other cities, maybe if you’re forced out you can find an affordable place to live nearby. But here, if you’re evicted, this same thing is happening all throughout the Bay Area. Many people are banished from the region, away from their friends and family and communities.
I commuted into San Francisco on BART for years, and I can tell you from experience that there are these concentric circles of people being pushed farther out, but retaining or finding jobs closer to San Francisco. So even if you’re not banished from the region, we’re talking about long, expensive commutes.
Yes, and not only is it a drain on resources, but it’s a climate disaster.
You’ve been fighting displacement through lots of different avenues for years. For example, can you tell me what Proposition F in 2018 was?
Prop F, which passed last year, was a ballot measure guaranteeing a right to counsel for everyone who faces eviction. I wrote Prop F, and the group I founded, Tenants Together, worked closely with the local DSA chapter and the San Francisco Tenants Union and many volunteers to get it passed. It just went into effect. So starting in July of this year, any tenant who gets an eviction notice or who ends up getting an eviction lawsuit has a right to counsel.
We’re the second city in the nation to do that. New York did it the year before us, but theirs was more limited. They means-tested it so that only folks who were earning 200 percent of the federal poverty level would get the full right to counsel. People over that threshold would get kind of an advice session.
We felt strongly that Prop F should be universal, not means-tested, and we had a lot of pushback, even from allies,around doing that. But we wanted it to apply to everyone, not just in terms of their income but also in terms of what kind of housing they had, whether that was public or subsidized or rent-controlled or new construction that’s not covered by rent control.
Why are universal programs preferable to means-tested ones?
Universal rights are essential. Over decades of Republican-led and neoliberal Democrat-assisted governance, we have seen public resources dwindle. And when you have scarcity of resources, it makes some sense to allocate those limited resources just to those most in need.
So that’s where means-testing comes in. If you continue to shrink the pot, for example, if you make public housing something where the funding gets gutted every year, then of course you’re only going to be able to provide what few units you have to the lowest-income people. The problem is that this is a disaster for any kind of movement-building work because it becomes seen as an entitlement.
It’s absolutely essential when you have social programs that they be available to everyone, that everyone’s bought into them, that we don’t look at entitlement to those things as something that you have to prove that you deserve. It’s like the idea that you have to be starving to have an entitlement to food. No. We should all have a right to not be hungry, and it’s the same with housing.
So with Prop F, we rejected the idea that there was such a limited pot of money that we should only provide for counsel for the poorest people. We said everyone deserves a right to counsel, and plus the city can afford it. This scarcity of resources doesn’t really exist in a city as well-off as San Francisco. The question is just do you have the political element that can force the resources to be spent on something we need?
This orientation to universal social program design over means-testing really sets democratic socialists apart from the Democratic Party establishment. So speaking of that, you just had a run-in with the Democratic Party here locally. What happened?
Well, this is the Democratic Party nationally that won’t impeach Donald Trump, the Democratic Party nationally that is reluctant to even have a debate about climate change. There’s a lot of talk locally as if the San Francisco Democratic Party is fundamentally different and more progressive than the national party. We put that to test in our race with an unapologetically left campaign and a strong base in the district but ran up against the brick wall of careerism and corruption within the local party.
I have mixed feelings about it. You know, you hope that with this wave of candidates that are moving forward, inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others, that in a city like San Francisco, which prides itself on being a progressive city, they’ll see the potential and importance of embracing candidates with a left agenda. But it’s a reminder that despite all the talk on being progressive on certain kinds of issues, when you’re really talking about challenging the system, a lot of folks who may call themselves progressive are not really fighting for something fundamentally different than what we have now.
We missed blocking the endorsement of my opponent by one vote of a thirty-two-vote body. So, you know, give credit where it’s due. There are some good folks in there who are willing to push the envelope. But there are certainly divisions in San Francisco among the pool of people who call themselves Democrats and even among people who call themselves progressives. I think those tend to show up most when it comes to challenging corporate interests and particularly around land use issues.
Even the big developers and landlords that are funding my opponent, they fund a lot of so-called progressive candidates, too. I think that our campaign, which is not taking any of that money and is an explicitly democratic socialist campaign and is pushing against business-as-usual in this city, it’s too much for even some progressives right now.
When I say I have mixed feelings though, what I mean is that many working-class people in this city have given up on the Democratic Party as a vehicle for change and are excited by candidates who are putting forth a bigger vision and challenging the status quo. Our message resonates with people, and you see that in the enthusiasm of a lot of our base and of our volunteers.
Many of your volunteers are members of San Francisco DSA, correct?
Yes. The DSA chapter was deeply involved in the Prop F campaign last year from the start. We had a committee made up of about a half dozen DSA members and a couple of tenants union members who went to every political club, group, nonprofit, every one across the city, to pitch the ballot measure and talk to folks. We had DSA members running the phone banks and in the field. DSA members got really activated, and for a lot of them, it was their first local political campaign. So we built a real foundation together, and I think that has rolled over into this campaign.
DSA is strongly in favor of social housing, and you’ve touched on that a bit here already. Can you talk more about it? What’s the goal and how do we get there?
I think we need to look outside the United States for models on this. In the United States, we’ve had about fifty years now of defunding public housing and vilifying it, talking about how dysfunctional it is because we haven’t funded it. I think Vienna is a good alternative example, a city where you have 62 percent of people living in social, permanently municipally owned housing.
But there are some models closer to home, too. In District 5, for example, one of the only city-owned properties that’s not traditional public housing is the Midtown Park Apartments, which I think should be a model of doing social housing. I’ve been fighting beside those tenants for years. We fought to stop the demolition of that housing and are now trying to convert it to resident-controlled social housing.
The city has to get in the business of not just building new social housing but acquiring it, and that means buying housing that’s not subsidized and protected and then converting that to social housing. You show that social housing works, and then you scale it up. But there has to be a sense of urgency around it. And we have got to be sure that we’re prioritizing housing that’s 100 percent affordable, as opposed to all these market-rate developments with a few affordable units, which has been the city’s policy.
Vienna did it with a great sense of urgency, basically overnight when a socialist government came to power in the interwar period.
Right, they acted swiftly because they truly understood housing is a human right. Here I’m always blown away when I see people giving political speeches, talking about housing as a human right, and then they’re working with developers and corporate landlords the next day.
One of the crucial things about Vienna is that people from all income strata live in public housing, because it’s attractive and desirable. It’s not just the worst housing reserved for the poorest people.
Yes, and because it’s not means-tested, you can have changes in your income during your life and not lose your qualification for housing. If you only allow public housing for those who are the poorest, then a slight change in income can mean someone is now losing their home. Instead we should view housing as a universally available right.
The amount of stress created in American society, but especially in San Francisco, around housing and around your ability to stay, even if you’re not under threat of eviction, is totally unnecessary.
As a Bay Area resident, it’s the number one thing that shapes and structures my life right now. I’m never quite certain how to plan for the future because I don’t know how long I can or should stay.
Housing insecurity has a huge psychological impact. That’s where the right to counsel idea came from because too many people are afraid of losing their place and afraid that if they ever got threatened with eviction, they wouldn’t be able to afford an attorney to help them stay.
It makes for worse communities because people aren’t as invested in their neighborhoods. People who are afraid of being pushed out of their communities are less likely to vote or be active in neighborhood associations, and then they’re blamed for that. In San Francisco you have a lot of working-class people who think they’re probably only going to be somewhere for two or three years, and it’s very hard to engage them in renter activism.
How does all this relate to San Francisco’s homeless population, and what can be done about it?
Obviously the homelessness situation is intimately tied to the housing crisis. We know that over 70 percent of homeless people have been housed in San Francisco sometime in the last three years. So to address homelessness, we need to address the housing crisis.
And additionally, we need to force the city to stop its current approach, which is just sweeps where they take people’s possessions and prosecute them for crimes related to homelessness. All of those punitive, probably illegal, and really outrageous measures need to stop. The mayor denies they’re doing them, but it’s perfectly clear and well documented that those sweeps continue to go on.
Every election cycle, getting tough on homeless people is this horrible narrative that takes over. There are politicians who have made their careers in San Francisco by beating up on homeless people electorally. Even a lot of our more progressive folks in city government talk that way.
My view is that people are homeless because of the complete and utter failure of our capitalist economy. Or maybe not failure. People are making money off of people being priced out and being denied services and eventually living on the street. Maybe it’s working exactly as it’s supposed to.